Quinn Shephard on taking her debut feature to Tribeca at 20
Quinn Shephard, actor, writer, producer and director, talks to us about starring in and making her debut feature film Blame at just 20 years old, the steps she took to secure finance and distribution, and screening the film at the Tribeca Film Festival.
So, you started writing your brilliant feature Blame when you were 15-years-old and directed when you were 20. Could you tell us a bit about those few years in between and the process of getting it into production?
I would say we really started pushing for actually trying to make it and finance it when I was around 18. The script was something I was working on all through high school and, you know, wrote 20 drafts of. It was very much like art therapy. My mom (who produced the film with me) got involved at that stage, giving me a ton of notes and working with me on everything.
When I was around 18, I started sending it out to producers and anyone whose email I had ever gotten that I thought could maybe help me out. I made a short film and I tried to make a lot of connections with crew through that - I worked with my DP for the first time on that. But yeah, it was really, really hard.
Not a lot of people want to take someone that young seriously, so we were basically rejected from every grant and pretty much every opportunity that there was. I met with a number of production companies; I think I had one place that was interested in giving me an almost unworkable low amount of money to make it, but at least there was somebody showing interest in the script and the concept, so that was really promising. And then, we did find a financier who bailed on us during the shoot, which was unplanned obviously!
We also lost some producers who had come on board and they jumped off before filming began, so it was just me and my mom producing by the time we were in production. It was unplanned and would have never really made the film with that in mind, but when we were in that situation where we didn’t really have much of a choice - we were already thousands and thousands of dollars in - it felt like a no brainer to me. I had the college funds and all the money I made as a child actor my whole life - basically, I would have done anything for my movie. And I’m really glad, because it was the best investment that I’ve ever made.
I’m glad too! What sort of package did you offer those producers and investors who you contacted to make them want to come on board?
I had a good amount of stuff I would send to them: I had the script, I would usually do a cover letter, a short look book that also has any notable cast or crew attachments listed (or just list them in the email), my short film and a teaser reel that I had made for the film. I had one teaser reel from when I was really young that I made for about $50, and then I had one that I made with my DP - the weekend after we shot my short Till Dark then went and shot test footage for Blame.
I sent that out to people to be like, “okay, here’s what it’s going to look like” and it, of course, actually looked professional. It’s just getting peoples’ confidence that, even though you’re 19 or whatever, that you’re sending something out that looks like a movie that you’d go and see in theatres - just having something to vouch for the quality.
And, you know what, it’s really great if you ever have connections. I pulled every frickin’ connection I had, every person I knew who knew someone who I was trying to get involved, because you kind of have to! In order to get your foot in the door, you have to say, “oh I know of you; I talked to so and so about you and they said I should reach out” - that helps so much.
So, at 20-years-old, you’re directing a feature film with a pretty big cast, some of whom are quite established, older actors and you’re also directing yourself acting - how was that whole experience?
I think directing myself was probably the most challenging, just because I found myself really having too many hats at the same time. There’s a lot of things that you don’t realise - it’s not just the moments when you’re in front of the camera, it’s also the amount of time you spend in hair and make-up, and not being in wardrobe that’s constricting when you need to do physical things - there was a lot of unexpected hurdles to jump through when you’re trying to be in front and behind of the camera.
Honestly, I was really blessed with an incredible cast that was so easy to work with. Everyone was so talented. Chris Messina was generous enough to be a part of the film and he never complained. It was a tiny, tiny budget, but he came in and really just treated it like it was as serious a film set as any and that was incredibly validating. And obviously with the rest of the cast, I was really lucky. Nadia Alexander is terrific in the film and she put in so much work; she was literally living with me during the shoot.
So, I had a lot of people that knew they were in for something scrappy but also, I think, felt in their hearts that there was the potential to make something that was good. It can be hard to find that on smaller films.
And you had virtually no funding left by the time post-production came, so you decided to edit it yourself?
Yeah, we had to be really unconventional with post. I’m actually really happy I edited the film; I think it was actually my favourite part of the whole process, because it was just really fun! It was really calming after the madness of production.
We did all of our post in Canada (in Montreal) to save money! We found really great artists there for sound mixing and colour, who were willing to really work with our budgets. And my composer, as well, is from Montreal. We were really lucky. We had to be kind of creative and crafty with the money.
I found the way you presented the female characters in an honest, messy way very inspiring. Was that always an important consideration for you?
Yeah. I think it’s probably the most consistent thing about everything I’ve ever written and everything I’m developing now - very complex and, like you said, ‘messy’, three-dimensional women. I really hate the tropes of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, so in all of my work I really try to write about women who have the capacity to do good and bad things, as I think everyone does.
Honestly, I was just pulling a lot from what I was seeing around me and from myself. As a writer, I’m hyper self-reflective and, if you’re going to write about a character that comes from a personal place, you’re automatically going to be hyper-critical. So, I’m not exactly like ‘Abigail’ [Quinn’s character in Blame], but I think that there was a lot of me in her and I think that there’s room for both moments of gravitas there and also things that are ridiculous and funny. With all the characters, I found that there are moments that are humorous because of their intensity and there are moments that are really moving because of it - and I think that’s just life.
There is incredible acting throughout the film but, a particularly heartbreaking moment near the end boasts a stunning turn by Nadia Alexander. What was it like on set, watching that performance?
She’s an incredibly prepared and smart actor, who really knows what her triggers are and how to craft rises and falls and beats within a scene. There’s obviously a lot of text and a lot of monologues and, also, not everything is spelled out in that scene. It was really important to have a performance that translated the subtext of what she’s saying, so we didn’t actually have to get any more graphic than we did.
I was very moved when I watched her do the scene on set - I think I was crying behind the monitor. It was definitely very emotional. At that point, we were almost done with shooting and we had just built up such an immense trust from working together, that I don’t think I had any doubt that it was going to be great. But, it was definitely powerful and satisfying to watch it, for sure, because it is probably the most pivotal moment of the film.
Definitely. Another scene that springs to mind is the one outside with you and Chris Messina, where you are just completely breaking down. Watching it back, all I can think is, “she’s directing this as well!” - is it tougher to direct yourself in those more emotional scenes?
Yeah, I think I kind of worked myself to death a little on this shoot. It was really, really hard. It was fun when you were in it - Chris and I did a lot of improv, so the actual raw footage of that scene is pretty insane! It includes me hitting him a bunch of times and us yelling at each other. There was definitely some gardener at the school like, “what’s happening?!” But yeah, it was one of those things where my emotions were so on the surface, because I was incredibly stressed. I wasn’t getting much sleep; I was working constantly, so it wasn’t hard for me to cry and to get the emotions up. I think it was actually harder for me to get them to go away when I needed to direct again.
There were a lot of days on set where I had to act in scenes that were very emotional, where I was hysterically crying and stuff, and then I would immediately have to snap into running a film set. I think one time, I was starting to have a panic attack and I had to go out in the yard and just breathe, because I had been working myself up into, basically, a panic attack as the character. Then, in trying to do something as a producer and - you know, you’re doing this within 30 seconds. That’s why I’m not really writing for myself as much as an actor now. I think I realised that the days on set where I was just behind the camera - those were my favourite days of filming, because all I had to focus on was crafting the narrative.
Blame premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and made you the youngest female filmmaker ever to screen a feature there. What was that experience like for you?
Oh, it was great! Tribeca was insane. I think it was probably the most surreal point in my life, because I was like, “oh, things are really going to change”. I mean, the film changed my life. I have a completely different life now than I had a couple of years ago. When I was at that festival, it was such a whirlwind and you’re just going and going and going but, at the same time, the support that they give - being that they programme only a very select handful of movies - they really focus and give press to their filmmakers and really bolster them. I met so many people and made so many connections. I moved agencies to WME shortly after and started selling all the work I’m working on now - it’s been a crazy time!
You once said you didn’t think there was any point trying to pull off your own project at the age you were because you thought you'd have to go to film school, however you had a fair bit of experience working on sets during your early acting career. Do you think that knowledge of the industry helped give you the confidence to go for it?
Yeah! I mean, I don’t know how my life would have gone if I had never worked on film sets. I’ve been working as an actor for most of my life, so I grew up going to film sets.
When I was 12, my mom enrolled me in filmmaking classes and I started making short films. Even before that I think I used to mess around with my family's camcorder! I don’t know - I think it was one of those things where - growing up I was really interested in all art forms, and I don’t think I really knew what to do with that until I realised that film was the ultimate way to mould everything. I was very interested in visual arts, and in music, editing, writing and in performance, so film is really the only medium for me because of the composition of visuals, it really brings everything together.
I remember I used to joke when I was 12 or 13 - I think I said to my parents, “I don’t think I can be a filmmaker, because I care about it too much and it stresses me out”. When I was in eighth grade, I made my second short - these are little, tiny, student things - but I was staying up all night before school, editing it for 8 hours. To me, you know, I thought I was going to be at the Oscars! I could not rest until it was done and it was perfect. I was like, “I think this stresses me out too much; I think I care about this too much to do it with my life!” Then I realised as I grew up that, oh no, that’s just what happens when you really care about something! It’s going to be stressful, but then you can channel that into a craft.
And of course, I had my family’s support, which was everything and gave me the freedom I needed to explore doing something so unconventional. I definitely couldn’t have done this without them. They never pressured me to go down another path or go to film school—literally the opposite, they just supported and believed in me even when my dreams were pretty unbelievable. My mom gave everything to the film. My dad took on a third job to chip in some money to help us finish. I was insanely lucky to have that love and support.
What would you say is the best way for upcoming filmmakers to learn - and learn quickly?
When people ask me for advice, I’m always like, “get on a set” - whatever set, even if it’s a tiny student film - volunteer, be a PA. Thinking about film from an intellectual and metaphorical and artistic standpoint, and being on set - they’re very, very different.
I, luckily, have been on so many sets that I had a real sense of how long it took to shoot scenes, how long it took to move locations, how to set things up. You have to learn by paying attention, because film is like a ballet - it’s not just about the final product. There’s so much work that’s going into it and there’s so many moving parts that all have to work together, so, I think, unless you’re going to get on sets, it’s very hard to learn how to do anything.
That’s good advice. So, Exit 6 is a short film festival and I wanted to ask about Till Dark and making that. How does making a short compare to a feature?
I would say it’s a really good learning experience to do a short legitimately, with a union, and crews, and call sheets, and an AD - that was a really great learning experience for me. It’s also absolutely nothing like making a feature. It costs so much less and I just think you can get away with a lot more.
With short films, for example, if there’s a song you want you can email someone and ask to use it for festivals, whereas with features you need to get clearance for distribution. Every song on the soundtrack for Blame was originally produced for the movie, even the songs you hear when people are listening to headphones. Whereas, with Till Dark, I emailed so many people and just got music and I did post for that entire thing in a couple of weeks.
Making shorts is super good learning! You need to learn how to work with actors and talk to your DP and all of that. I think, if anything, when I directed that I was like, “oh! I’m 100% positive this is what I want to do with my life”.
And what’s next for you now?
So, unfortunately I can’t give too many details, but I’ve developed a show for the last few years at FX, with Noah Hawley who is my executive producer. And then I do have a feature as well as a mini series that, hopefully, there will be updates about!
You can follow Quinn Shephard on Instagram: @QuinnShephardOfficial