A few days before she recently turned 22, Quinn Shephard received a letter from an address she knew well, but from someone who sounded only slightly familiar.
“I did one of those letters where you write a letter to your future self, and this was from five years ago,” Shephard says, a grin starting to creep across her face. “I was like, “What’s going on with ‘Blame’? Did a student director direct it? Why did I write this?'”
If Shephard could write back, her past self might be pleased to find out that indeed, “Blame,” the film she wrote when she was 15, premiered this week to raves at the Tribeca Film Festival and as had long been the plan, she got to direct it herself in spite of not being old enough to wine and dine potential financiers. (That task was primarily left up to her mom Laurie.) While the novelty value of seeing the actress-turned-auteur make good on such a promise to herself give ones kind of intrigue to “Blame,” Shephard creates plenty on her own with the story of Abigail (Shephard) and Melissa (Nadia Alexander), high school students who vie for the part of Abigail in a dramatic showcase of “The Crucible” and the attention of their teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina). While a rivalry ensues, largely driven by Melissa, who has successfully turned her clique of friends including Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte) and Ellie (Tessa Albertson) against Abigail not unlike the play they’re all working on, Arthur Miller gets an update in how Shephard illustrates how the young women have been turned against each other by the expectations of a patriarchal society and cultural conditioning.
Shephard was hardly without experience before making “Blame,” acting since the age of five in such films as “Unaccompanied Minors” and “Harrison’s Flowers” and soaking up an education that couldn’t possibly be replicated in film school before making shorts of her own. But her directorial debut not only shows a sophisticated eye behind the camera, but also an original one, generating thoughtful, nuanced performances from a young cast, evocatively setting the mood (with cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik) of any given scene with emotionally charged lighting, and somehow articulating the usually ineffable gap between what we think we know about a person and the aspects of themselves they try to hide from public view. Of the many seductions of the film, the strongest may just be how Shephard lures audiences into the precise sensation of growing into the person you were meant to become, which likely feels so vivid since that’s what the writer/editor/director/star did behind the camera.
During a busy festival for the multi-hyphenate, she spoke of her commitment to making “Blame” and its origins from when she was empowered in her own role in a production of “The Crucible,” as well as combining the raw energy of writing a script at the age of her experience while refining it with perspective.
How did this start?
Like Abigail, the role that I play in the film, I was really obsessed with books and plays and movies when I was in high school. and middle school, and I did latch on to playing Abigail Williams [in “The Crucible”] in a way that influenced my actual life. I would wear a cross necklace to school and a corset – it was pretty crazy. I was just so unwilling to let go of a play that moved me so much and a character that was so fascinating to me, and it was really cool to be able to play such a complex adult character when you’re young like that. It gives you a lot of confidence and validation in yourself.
It was the happiest memory that I have of high school, even though I wasn’t doing [the play] in my high school. I was doing it at a separate theater, which was probably part of the reason why it was such a happy memory and when I started writing “Blame,” it was becoming this life imitates art imitates life imitates art cycle because I was writing a script about a girl who became too attached to a character, and I was also too attached to a character. I was very self-aware as a writer, which may be weird for being so young, but it was just the way I always was, and I felt I’d never read a script about something like this. That’s where the first idea came from.
If you wrote a first draft at 15 and started shooting at 20, those are really formative years as a person and as an artist. Did the story you wanted to tell evolve as you grew up or was it all there from the start since you’re obviously a genius?
If you had the first draft you would not think that. [laughs] It was so “Fatal Attraction” – and I love “Fatal Attraction,” but it wasn’t like a good “Fatal Attraction.” The beautiful thing about writing when you’re a teenager is that your writing is your therapy, so if you’re angry at someone, you put them in the script. It’s like, “Oh, I had a fight with my best friend. That scene is going in the script.” It’s amazing because you get to capture stuff that you feel at that age so vividly, but it’s also not necessarily the best thing for the art.
There were a lot of years where “Blame” was more of that for me, and a lot of plot changes and scenes that would go in and out. I actually needed to be out of high school for a bit to have the perspective as an artist to go back and look at the script and get to the core of what I was trying to say and not get distracted by the things that I felt at the time were important to include. That final stage is when all of the characters really came together – over time, Melissa really became this huge character over the course of rewrites, the main Abigail Williams of the story – and the plot really clicked. It became very cause and effect – every scene is a little catalyst for the next event.
My mom and I worked on the story together. I wrote the script, and then we worked on the arcs for so long together, just sat around and talked over it. It was cool watching it all slowly fall into place. I still remember the first time I wrote the ending for Melissa, which wasn’t in the first few drafts of the script. I was in a Starbucks for 12 hours, and I’m not sure they were really happy about me being there for so many hours, but I wrote it all in one go. It was really amazing. That was when the story finally clicked and where it started to get better and go up from there.
One thing about having that perspective is this great idea in the film of knowing people, particularly at that age, but only having the most superficial understanding of them. Was that something that was always inherent to it?
I was friends with some girls when I was younger who were very angry, a little bit like Melissa, who are angry or lonely and lash out at other people. They get very jealous or vengeful, and it’s harder for them to just take a step back and realize when you’re their friend or their ally. I was really fascinated by that because I tended to forgive people like that maybe more than I should have because I felt bad for what was going on with them behind the scenes. I would always see that as “Oh, she’s so lonely” as opposed to “Oh, she’s so mean,” so that’s where a lot of my sympathy for Melissa came from.
Also, I’m just really fascinated by morally gray stories and love villains who aren’t villains and I think none of the characters in the film are completely likable or dislikable, which was definitely something I strove for – even Abigail has her share of moments where you don’t like her, and so does Jeremy. Obviously, that’s where the title [comes from too] – “Who is to blame for what goes on here?” Society.
You must have a lot of power over creating that ambiguity in the editing, which I was surprised to learn you did yourself since I know it’s hard for actors to even watch themselves on screen. Was it a challenge?
Editing myself was easy because I don’t think of myself when I’m watching myself. I just see myself as another actor. I really completely disconnect and I’m thinking about how good the scene is. I did when I was shooting too. As an actor, I’m not precious. I’m not worried about making myself look good. I really just wanted the film to be good.
Melissa was the biggest [challenge in editing], and we actually edited the entire first cut of the movie around her because her arc was the most specific. Then all of the future edits were basically us going back and tweaking. Jeremy was really unlikable in the first cut because we had been so focused on Melissa, and we were like, “Oh, no,” so we went back and recut it and it’s crazy how you can influence tone like that. But nailing the tone of the film was [another] main part of the edit.
A lot of dramatic movies are purely dramatic and I am always happy when I hear laughter in the audience because every time there’s these really tense moments in [“Blame”] where they can skew melodramatic, it’s always interrupted with a hard cut to either comedy or just high school life that feels funny in juxtaposition. One of my favorites is this [intense scene bathed in] red light where they’re lying on the [stage], and there’s this amazing string [score of] “Crucible” music playing, and boom, there’s a hard cut to a girl taking a selfie with the cover of the play [where] it’s a way of people catching their breath in between scenes. That’s very much my style, so when we were editing this, we were like, “Is this a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a satire? Is it a thriller? What is the genre?” And finding it’s this blend of everything.
Since you mention the colors, they contribute such a vibrance throughout the film. Were there any you gravitated to immediately?
Yeah, I had color boards for all of the characters walking in that I shared with everybody – my [director of photography], my lighting designer, my art director. We definitely gravitated towards certain lighting and certain feelings for characters. With Abigail, the palette was really influenced by “Stoker,” [which] was also our color reference for the entire film [in terms of] color correction. I wanted her whole world to feel like an old bookshelf, so there were a lot of rich browns and pale greens and warm lighting. With Melissa, I was really drawn to blue, pink and yellow, and I love lighting in those colors so it would feel like neon and fluorescent, very much like a computer screen [where] her world is so dominated by noise and stress and anger that the colors had to feel harsh, like they were hitting you in the face. I also had this obsession with the color red when we were shooting, only using it in certain things.
If you watch really closely – closer than I think I would even watch the film – there’s always weird little details like Melissa’s hair is red, the dress that Abigail wears in the showcase is red and basically nothing else in the film is that isn’t related to Abigail Williams, except that the longer that Jeremy’s in the classroom, the more red books are on the shelves behind them. And I have to mention this in the interview because it was so much work, and no one ever notices [laughs] and now I’m like, “Why did I care about this on set?” I’m such a detail freak to the point where I would go in and be like, “Is that a red hat I see? Get it out of here.” Such an asshole.
That isn’t what your cast said at the premiere, and spoke of your willingness to change a scene up just 10 minutes before shooting it, which seems impressive after spending so long refining it. Were there surprises that ended up in the film that you were particularly happy about?
So many, and I’m not precious about my writing because I don’t think that just because I wrote it means it’s right. A great scene is just a scene that’s the most honest version and what I would do is just run lines with the actors, and if they read naturally, then I would leave it, but most of the time when [the actors] would read, I would go, “You didn’t sound comfortable with that line. Change it.” Or “That order [of words] felt stilted or forced. Let’s move this around.”
If someone had done a scene for an audition, and it started to feel stale, I would just say, “Eh, why don’t you improv into it and then go into the dialogue,” because as an actor, I know how easy it is to get stale in a scene. We played around with it a lot, and there are strokes of genius that happened on set. One of the biggest ones was when Ellie [attempts to] sabotage the play, bringing me in as Abigail to go onstage. That was a different scene [where] there was this whole confrontation between Melissa and Abigail in the wings, and read fine on the page, but when we read it [with the actors], it was so bad and we all knew immediately. So we stopped everything for 15 minutes, and Nadia and my mom and I all went and huddled and started talking about [the scene]. We all were [asking], “Why doesn’t Ellie help?” Abigail [wondered], “How did she even get there? It doesn’t really make any sense.” I [realized] “I should’ve thought about this more.” We just came up with the idea to do it as we did. When it played out, it ended up being one of everyone’s favorite moments in the film. Ellie didn’t have a lot of closure as a character, which always bothered me, and now she does and it’s because this brilliant thing that happened 15 minutes on set.
Was directing a feature what you thought it would be?
It’s so much harder. There was a lot of stuff that I thought it couldn’t possibly be that hard, like music law. I was like, “How complicated can music be?” A year of my life was the music for this one, and looking back, now I’m like, “Oh, that was just a year,” but it was so much harder than I was expecting. Luckily, [our composer] Peter Henry Phillips is amazing, and the music for the film is ridiculously good. I was so lucky to find him, but that was a huge challenge with the movie. I was so specific. I had a very elaborate temp score of a bunch of alt rock music and it was very hard to find a composer who could nail that. A lot of composers do more traditional sounding music, and I needed someone who could blend traditional, old fashioned themes with a heavy alternative music influence.
You’ve obviously proven yourself as a director, but since this took five years to get off the ground, were there points where you considered handing off the script to someone else to get it made?
In my mind, I always knew I wanted to direct it, but I must have gone through a phase at some point where I went, “No one in Hell is ever going to trust me to direct this movie, so I’m going to try to find a director that I love.” But I never actively did that. There was also one time I was telling myself that directing was too stressful for me because I started making short films when I was 12. I used to not sleep. I would do the edit until 3 a.m. before school, and my parents were like, “You’re crazy,” but I was just so obsessive about my work, even when I was 13 or 14 years old. I convinced myself that I couldn’t direct because I would get too stressed out about it. But after I got out of high school, my passion for the film became so apparent – I knew exactly what I wanted with it, and I was like, “I can’t trust someone else that they’re going to do this exactly the way I want it.”
In the end, the film didn’t get diluted by anyone else. My mom and I had the same vision for it, so we were the only people making the decisions. There’s a lot of decisions that I probably would’ve gotten arguments with. “Oh, you can’t shoot this scene for 10 hours, [doing] improv. You can’t cast this actor who …” and I never compromised for what I felt like a producer would’ve advised, [which] I think is also the reason why the film is being celebrated.