There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t out there making short films when I was 12, or writing screenplays at 15. Quinn Shephard, the 22-year-old writer/director/producer/editor of “Blame” (in which she also plays the lead), was. The sharply crafted, disquieting and thoughtful "Blame," which screened at the US Narrative Competition section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is Shephard’s confident feature debut; the kind that radiates with a specific artistic vision and declares the arrival of a brand-new cinematic storyteller into the scene.
“Blame” follows Abigail Grey (Shephard), an outcast teen who returns to her suburban high-school after a hiatus caused by a mysterious mental-health-related episode, the details of which aren’t quite spelled out in the film. She quickly grabs the attention of Jeremy (Chris Messina), the well-meaning substitute drama teacher who casts her as Abigail Williams in the class production of "The Crucible." Leading the judgmental murmurs and destructive jealousy of the class is Melissa (Nadia Alexander, winner of this year’s Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature winner at Tribeca), school’s tough, popular “it girl” who wants to bring Abigail down at all costs while battling her own demons. As the rivalry between the classmates thicken, an initially innocent, but increasingly consuming and potentially inappropriate relationship sparks between Abigail and Jeremy and the lines between the film’s narrative and the plot of “The Crucible” blur.
Joining me at a downtown hotel lobby during the Tribeca Film Festival with her mother, who is also her life-long creative mentor and the casting director of "Blame," the multi-talented Quinn Shephard (have I mentioned she also contributed to the music of “Blame”?) details out her journey in making her debut and how she found such a mature and complete creative voice at such a young age. It is no surprise that she is an opinionated, intelligent artist who conveys her thoughts on and enthusiasm for the art form with sophistication. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Have you been enjoying Tribeca so far?
It's been really great. We've received a lot of support from the festival. The response to the film has been really overpoweringly positive. It's a lot but in a good way. I had a lot of events to attend, but I've managed to see a few films that I really loved. “Super Dark Times” was my favorite so far, one of the midnight films. Impeccable direction, really amazing cinematography and acting.
This is your feature debut, but it has such a confident and specific cinematic language. And you accomplished that at such a young age. Some of those skills you possess take many filmmakers years to acquire and hone.
Thank you. I think the first step is finding confidence in yourself. My mom definitely played a big part in that. She raised me to be very true to myself and not compromise my vision or my creative style for anyone else. She always encouraged me to direct from the time I was very young. I started making short films when I was 12, and she was always very supportive and involved. As far as a filmmaker, I think I was also just raised with a really strong film education. We watched movies all the time at my house, and I really started to find good styles that I loved and filmmakers that I loved and kind of cult classic movies that I would watch over and over again from the time that I was probably in late middle school and early high school. I loved movies like “Heathers” and "The Virgin Suicides," “Girl, Interrupted” …
That collection of movies actually makes a lot of sense in relation to "Blame."
Yeah. I think I've always had a strong vision as a writer and as an artist. I've always really known where I was coming from, and I've always been very self aware, and a lot of my art was just explorations of myself in a lot of ways. I think for the first few years, my mom and I were working on this story together. I was the writer of the script, and my mom and I developed the story together, and I think I felt like it was a very niche and very personal story. I wasn't sure that it would have a lot of broad appeal, because it felt like something that was so close to who I was. But then seeing the reaction that people have to the film and how much they relate to it has been very validating as an artist.
Tell me a little bit more about that collaboration process between you and your mom.
Okay, so I wrote the first draft when I was 15.
You were … 15. Wow.
[Laughs]. Well, it wasn't very good. I gave it to my mom, and she gave me some very intense critiques. She used to critique me like I was a Pulitzer Prize-award winning author from the get-go, which always made me rise to the occasion. Then we spent a few years while I was in high school, and I graduated early, working together on narrowing the scope of the story down to what it really was supposed to be at its core and figuring out what the message of the film is and figuring out who all of the characters really were. As I evolved as an artist and as a writer, my narrative and my dialogue skills obviously got stronger, so we were able to focus in on the aspects of the film I felt the most important. My mom's definitely someone who I trust innately. She has a great handle on story, a great eye and ear ...
How did the idea of marrying a high school narrative with “The Crucible” come to you?
“The Crucible” is a very important play to me. I did a production when I was 15, right before I wrote "Blame." I played Abigail Williams. It was an original theater production, and I was very, very taken with Abigail. Much like the role I play in "Blame," I used to use characters from literature as a means of coping with being in a small suburban high school. I did that with Abigail very much so, and I didn't really want to let go of the play or the character afterwards.
In a lot of ways, the first draft of “Blame” was like a bit of a coping mechanism of giving myself a way to continue on this very intense feeling that I associated with playing her. It felt like a really natural progression to go to a high school setting, because I was in a high school setting. I saw Abigail as an extremely troubled young girl. Obviously, she's paralleled in both of the young female characters in the film. There was something about her that felt very important to my own coming of age that gave me a lot of empowerment as a young woman.
Are there any parallels between Abigail in “Blame” and yourself? Did you have some of those troubles in high school?
Absolutely. I feel like all artists do, especially if you're not in a city school or a performing arts school. I think there was a very small period in my life where I was like, “I'm going to have a prototypical, all-American high school experience. I'm going to a public school.” It was a very bad decision for myself, which I soon learned. I wasn't on the same page as my peers; we were in very different worlds. I was really bullied. I think a lot of people are bullied in high school. I did feel like an outcast and weird and kind of peculiar in high school. In a lot of ways, Abigail might have been the way that I saw myself, even if I wasn't quite as off as she is in the film, It was a bit of my perception of myself as this very odd, outcast girl.
I love how you wrote Melissa and Ellie [two of Abigail’s schoolmates]. The way those two observed and perceived Abigail shows two distinct sides of Abigail in a way.
I'm glad that you said that. Ellie is the other character in the film that's the closest to me as a person. Abigail was supposed to be a character that is projected on by all of the other characters in the film. Melissa fixates on Abigail as being a symbol of what she can't have. Jeremy fixates on her as being very romanticized almost like a college love. Ellie sees the relationship between Abigail and Jeremy in a much more romantic and genuine light. I was a lot like Ellie in high school. I didn't really want a part in all the crazy drama. I used to write in my journal all the time and had a softer, more romantic view of things. Ellie has a lot of empathy for Abigail, and it's why she's not so judgmental of the relationship, but it also stems from the youthful perspective. Regarding Abigail and Jeremy's relationship … there is a genuine love and connection between them, but it's also quite taboo. From a 16-year-old girl's point of view, she's seeing the positive. Melissa was very much [created with inspirations from] quite a few girls I knew growing up. She's also just a fascinating character to write, so intensely focused on destroying someone else because of her own insecurities and jealousy. I think both Tessa [Albertson] and Nadia [Alexander] do terrific jobs in the film of portraying exactly the essences of those characters.
The performance you got out of [Nadia] in that key scene near the end is incredible. She first starts with lying, and then her story slowly changes and she ends up confessing her own trauma.
Thank you. Well, thank you for her.
You directed her, so it's a compliment to you as well. Can you talk about shooting that scene? It looked really intense.
Yeah, it was obviously a very intense scene to shoot. Nadia's a terrific actress, and she actually did that scene in her first audition. When we were actually shooting it, what we did was she broke it down as an actor into doing one take for the beginning emotion and then one take for the ending emotion, and we would do each take at different levels of intensity. She said, okay, I really need to get to the breakdown in this scene. She would start off the scene and push herself through. It was this kind of building blocks technique where we would have three acts of performance that we could piece together in exactly the way we needed to complete the arc. We spent a lot of time editing that scene, because it was all about landing the reveal emotionally with the audience.
Nadia's also one of those actors who can be sobbing, and everyone behind the camera is like, "Oh my God. Is she okay?" Then she just pops up and makes a joke at the end, and everyone laughs. She just has this incredible ability to really control and push her own buttons. We worked very closely together on figuring out Melissa's buttons, the lines and thoughts that are the triggers for her.
How did you end up casting Chris Messina for the role of Jeremy?
My mom was the casting director. [Turns to her mom Laurie Shephard]: Do you want to talk a little bit about this?
Laurie Shephard: Sure. We saw him in the Sam Mendes film "Away We Go," and I brought him to Quinn's attention. This was years ago before we had any idea, and so we watched the movie together, and Quinn really liked it, so he was our first choice. He just had the quality that we needed in Jeremy. We needed someone who's likable, that the audience wasn't going to judge right away. He was masculine, but he was also very emotionally deep, so I could see that the audience wouldn't say it was only lust. There was a connection between them that you almost found yourself rooting for them and then saying, "Wait, that's wrong," and we wanted that impression. Chris had all the qualities that we needed for that, where other actors in that age range might have been, "Oh, how inappropriate," right from the start.
Quinn Shephard: We didn't really even consider anyone else. We had no backup plan.
LS: Right. We had other names like Jake Gyllenhaal as a possible second, but it was always Chris Messina. Then a few years later when we were really ready to begin, we searched for people that had his email, and we found a friend that had an email of his wife, and Quinn wrote a whole long letter. Then he ended up meeting her for coffee and saying he loved the script and let's do it! Quinn was 19 when that happened.
QS: We had no attachments to the film at that point, so Chris was the attachment that kind of put us on the map. It was definitely a shot in the dark, and the fact that he said yes was exciting.
The relationship between Jeremy and Abigail is thoughtfully and responsibly written. Well, perhaps “responsible” isn’t the right word. It’s just crafted so beautifully and wrapped very sensitively. Can you talk me through building that balance, and knowing how far you wanted to push this taboo relationship?
Their arc never changed through the drafts. As much as the script changed, there was never a draft where Jeremy and Abigail really went any further than they do in the script now. I think at one point, there was a draft where they never even kissed, where it was just the possibility of it constantly. The biggest shift, the biggest growth with the relationship for me honestly was the growth from the point when I directed the film to after we had edited it. Because when I wrote the film and when I directed it and then acted in it, we treated it very much as a love story. Like, it was forbidden and we can't be together. It's like unrequited kind of love story.
That was the only way to approach it at the time as an actor in order to really capture that yearning of the essence of that relationship. During editing, when the relationship was juxtaposed against the immaturity of youth (that you see throughout the film and reflected in the other girls when we cut from a fantasy sequence between Abigail and Jeremy to the girls studying for chemistry), there was this constant reminder of Abigail's youth. I actually found that the first time I watched the film full through after editing it, because I'd only watched it in pieces while I was editing it. We were both amazed at how almost disturbing the relationship was in a way that we hadn't seen before. As I got older too and had more perspective on how damaging the relationship could really have been if it went further, it gave me a lot of perspective on what the film is really saying about young girls and adult men and being pushed in situations that they're not ready for necessarily. So even though their relationship comes from a place of genuine empathy and love, it does not make it right, you know?
That's right. And to follow up on that, I thought this could have been a very different movie had it come from a male storyteller. I was just so glad that it was actually a young woman telling this story.
I think it would have been a really different statement. We used to make that joke a lot on set, because I was able to get so intimately involved in all the scenes that were happening, the ones that I was not acting in. The party scene is a great example where I would just be jumping in, and I would be directing it, and the actors were making out with each other for hours. It was very funny. We did a lot of improv, and we would frequently have a joke on set that so many of the situations would have been super inappropriate if I was like a 55-year-old man. When you're a young woman who’s also in the film, you're putting yourself in the same exact same situations. You're directing someone in a sex scene, and then that Friday, you also have to be in a sex scene yourself. I think that there's camaraderie in it and a sense of humor about it. Like, let's poke fun at this. Let's subvert these clichés together. I think if I was an adult man, it would be more of an instinct that I was playing into very familiar clichés of women as opposed to kind of embracing and poking fun at them.
I want to go back to something we were talking about earlier, about your confident style. It really shows in everything … from cinematography to music, to costumes … You contributed to some of the songs, correct?
I'm not going to take any credit for the cinematography. Aaron Kovalchik is my DP and he is immense talent.
With the music, I did write some of the [lyrics]. I was working with Peter Henry Phillips. He's an amazing, terrific alt-rock musician who's also a composer. So I will definitely not take credit for the music even though I did write some of the lyrics, and the melody of the last song was very much a collaboration between us.
We also have a musical collaboration, kind of like a band together a little bit where I'll write lyrics, and he writes the instrumentals. Sometimes we'll bring on other singers. We really clicked, and he really was able to capture [what I was looking for]. I was sending him so much abstract stuff. I was like, “I want it to sound like a football game but scary. I want it to be the eeriness of when people are clapping and the drums are playing at a football game, but then I also want it to have delicate piano like you hear in a 1940s waltz.” He was like, "Okay, how about this?" We worked together in Montreal for weeks in his studio just creating the music all night together.
As for costumes, Celeste Montalvo is a wonderful [costume designer]. That was so much fun, creating the looks for the girls.
Abigail has such a specific style.
Most of Abigail's wardrobe was mine. A lot of them, I had bought over the years for Abigail, because I had such a distinctive idea of what I wanted her wardrobe to be like. They are mostly vintage, mostly 1940s vintage mixed with what Celeste found. She altered them and put them together for me. It was very fun finding the girls' wardrobes. We really wanted to capture the New Jersey high school vibe, keep it very fun and punchy and a little satirical. Then Abigail would have a distinctive old-fashioned feel.
Now that you've directed the feature, what did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker, things you want to do more of or avoid in your future projects?
As a producer, we learned the most about the challenges, the things that I wouldn't necessarily want to [go through], the hats that I wouldn't want to wear next time around. There were definitely aspects of production, it being a very two woman show, that we went, “OK, next time someone could handle the music law. That doesn't necessarily have to be us next time.” I was very happy to see that our sticking to our creative vision and my sticking to a lot of my guns [paid off]. Maybe a producer brought from the outside might have eased me in a different direction. The fact that I didn't do that, we didn't listen to anyone else, really paid off. I would like to continue doing that, following my creative vision. I also learned a lot of about working relationships, the people that you want to work with again, and then the personality types you realize that maybe aren't the best fit. So I learned about the logistics of actually doing something, but I also learned to trust my gut and to follow my intuition, because it seems like it's really paid off that we did that.
Did you ever feel you were held back or hearing “no” because you are a woman throughout this experience? Gender bias is sadly an added challenge for female filmmakers and it’s frustrating.
That’s why we did it alone, because we didn't want anyone, like any men in suits, telling us what to do. So we just decided to do it on our [own terms]. I think the irony of Hollywood is, when you're a young woman trying to make a film, you meet some of that prejudice, of people going, "Oh, she's a young woman. She doesn't know what she's doing." Then when you actually do make a film, then people say, "Oh yeah, well it's because she's a pretty young woman. Of course people want to take meetings with her." It's like you get the double-edged sword. It's like they're saying you can't do it, and then if you do it, then people get jealous and bitter, and it's unbelievable. I think people should just celebrate it. We're two women who literally made an entire film together with no help.
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