“Carmageddon?” I can’t help but ask, referring to the highly publicized freeway shutdown.
“No,” he laughs “That was a complete joke. This is normal, everyday traffic.”
You may know Strong as Shawn Hunter from the popular 90’s sitcom Boy Meets World. He is now a filmmaker in his own right who, with his brother Shiloh, has produced the short films The Irish Twins, Method, and The Dungeon Master, which won Best Short Film Online at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. I recently spoke to Strong by phone about his life and career as he sat in his car, waiting for traffic to move.
Behind the Lens
You’ve been acting since you were very young. Do you think your early involvement in dramatics made you grow up a little too fast?
No, I was already pretty mature as a kid. I think I would have grown up fast no matter what. A lot of teenagers are bored anyway but I was never bored. I was always doing something. I was pretty nerdy and always pushing to do something different.
How did you and your brother begin working together behind the camera?
We were always doing something behind the camera when we were little, always filming movies like a lot of kids do. But when we started acting professionally, Shiloh wrote a play that we produced in L.A. We were always creating projects together and trying to do stuff beyond just acting. We filmed short scenes and stuff with full crews when we were teenagers, some educational videos, always sort of screwing around.
Three years ago we said, “You know what? Let’s actually commit to this,” and we made our first short (The Irish Twins)-something we wrote, directed, and starred in. I think it was at that point we realized if we wanted to be taken seriously as directors, we had to commit to doing it and submit [our films] to film festivals, and see how it went. It went really, really well for us. I think it went well enough where [we said] we can’t not do this and we have to commit.
Are the Coen Brothers an influence?
A huge influence. They’re sort of our heroes. Not just because they’re director/brothers. It’s just their ability to go from comedy to drama to western, etc. When you think of the Coen Brothers you don’t automatically think of one type of film. They’re all over the map and I think I would love to have that kind of artistic flexibility.
The Dungeon Master, the short film you and Shiloh wrote and directed, won for Best Short Film Online at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, and will be featured at this year’s Comic-Con. How did you come up with the plot?
The Dungeon Master is a completely true story. We had a party at my house and played a running charades game. We mentioned we used to play Dungeons and Dragons. Then other people started coming out of the geek closet, “Oh, yeah, we used to play too!” and “Maybe we’re cool enough now where it would be okay.”
We couldn’t remember the rules so we invited a friend of a friend who was a gamer who could teach us the rules. He was very, very committed and we weren’t, and it made us uncomfortable. We felt the need to judge him, which was totally unfair. The next morning, Shiloh and I were talking and we were like, “We are terrible people. Here we are, we love the game, we think the game is so fun but we’re so immature about it that we feel the need to lash out at people who really embrace it and love it”. We hated ourselves for that and we decided to come up with the film that sort of dramatizes that tension, and make fun of ourselves.
You use some of the same actors in both The Dungeon Master and your other short film Method. Are these actors you worked with before or did you just cast them and like them?
At this point it’s just because we have a lot of actor friends and they’re so talented, and a lot of times they don’t get opportunities to play a part that they should. It’s fun to write for our friends and write with those people in mind. We never hold auditions for any of our stuff. We’re just sort of picking from our group of friends and putting them in roles they might not necessarily get otherwise.
Where can people not attending Comic-Con see your films?
Nowhere yet. We’re still playing a bunch of festivals with both the films. I figure after we play more festivals hopefully we’ll get some sort of distribution, at the very least, we’ll end up selling them online because we do want people to see them. At this point it’s still so much about seeing them on the big screen. We kind of want to play festivals. That’s where you can really get the full experience with an audience. So we kind of want to hold off for a little while longer. Eventually I’m sure they’ll end up online.
Do you and Shiloh plan on making a full-length feature now that your short films have been so successful?
That’s the goal. We’ve just gotta get the money.
Boy Meets World
Was your character Shawn anything like you or did you find yourself becoming more like him the longer you played the role?
He was nothing like me when the show started. No, he was nothing like me. I come from a real stable family, I was never really a troublemaker. So no, he was sort of different than me. But then when Shawn started growing up they started making him more mature and wiser and having him giving better advice to Corey.
When Shawn goes on a road trip after his father dies they took that from my real life because the summer before they wrote that into the show, I went on a road trip for like six weeks around the U.S. It was a sort of self-exploratory kind of adventure and they decided it would be a great thing for Shawn to do, to incorporate it. I liked it better when Shawn was different than me.
What was your favorite episode?
[It was] the first episode where I really had a lot to do, the third or fifth episode. It was the introduction of Topanga. That was the episode where the show became what it would be for the next seven years, which was a love story between Corey and Topanga. It was also where they really established my character as Corey’s best friend but also as the one who got into all sorts of trouble. That was the episode that established all those elements. I don’t think anyone planned it to go that way.
I don’t think they knew what the show was going to be because originally the show was about a kid who lived next door to his principal. And it was supposed to be more about the adults. I think that episode changed everything. They realized that oh, no, these kids are interesting characters. Their interactions are almost more entertaining than the audience who identifies with them. It changed the whole direction of the show. That’s always been my favorite. As the years go on, I don’t really watch the show, but when I look back I really do like the more surreal episodes: the Scream episode we did, time travel stuff. They were completely ridiculous.
Will there be a reunion show?
I doubt it at this point. There was talk about it a while ago but I think everybody’s moved on to other things. I think we’re finally getting to a point where the fans are getting older. They’re also moving on to other things.
What was it like being a teen idol?
It was pretty awful. I’m not a very vain person. It just didn’t fit me and it made me very uncomfortable. I would much rather be appreciated for my writing or my thoughts or my acting. That pinup teen idol culture-it never felt like me. It always felt like they were celebrating my character or the fact that I was on a TV show. It was hard for me to be comfortable in my own skin at that age. I don’t regret it; I had a great childhood, overall. If anything it enabled me to pay for college, so I can’t complain.
Boy Meets World was always more realistic than other shows of its ilk. Do you feel that the show made an impact on the youth of America?
I hope so. The show was so good and taught good lessons. They were pretty spot on. I don’t think a show like that exists anymore. The shows The Disney Channel created, like Hannah Montana, shows that were aimed at that sort of audience, they never took themselves seriously and they never took their responsibilities seriously. They were more out there; they were sillier. They were more like our surreal episodes. I really appreciate the fact that Michael Jacobs (Boy Meets World’s creator) took a hard line and sacrificed a lot of the comedy sometimes for very special episodes. I like to think it did more good than harm.
The thing about Boy Meets World, too, is that it was a show parents could watch. Nowadays there’s no prime time shows on a major network about children that appeals to children and the whole family. There used to be Family Matters, Full House, shows that weren’t for just kids; they were for the entire family. Those don’t really exist anymore, and I think that there’s still a place for that.