It seems virtually impossible that any first-time director could be prepared to make “Saturday Church,” the rarest of creatures — an indie musical every bit as lavish as its studio forebears where the shooting was limited to 20 days with restricted hours due to the labor laws that applied to its young cast. However, if anyone was up to the task, it was Damon Cardasis. A former assistant to Scott Rudin and Rebecca Miller, eventually becoming the latter’s producing partner in Round Films, Cardasis had experience with every possible wrinkle in the filmmaking process, starting out to train as an actor, and eventually co-founding the Lower East Side Film Festival (with Shannon Walker), coming to understand at a molecular level how films are made and presented.
“I’ve touched every aspect [of a production] and it’s been sweat and hard work, doing everything, literally from crawling through boxes and finding footage and transcribing 1031 page document for an Arthur Miller documentary I produced or sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilets for the film festival,” said Cardasis recently. “There’s almost like there’s no job too big or small and I think you just have to be passionate about it.”
“Saturday Church,” Cardasis’ feature directorial debut, explodes with such passion, a soaring musical set in New York’s West Village in which a 14-year-old named Ulysses (Luka Kain) begins to see a life beyond his current circumstances in the Bronx, where he’s asked to be the man of the house after his father dies, but finds he’s drawn more towards dressing as a woman, putting him at odds with the religious aunt (Regina Taylor) that comes to take care of him and his brother while his mother (Margot Bingham) is away at work. Running away from home, he discovers a refuge at St. Luke’s Church, which provides warm meals and various other forms of support every Saturday night to gay, lesbian and transgendered youth that have ended up on the streets.
The film might’ve been challenging enough to tell with the appropriate sensitivity, a concern that Cardasis alleviates with both the delicate script he penned, drawing on his own experience growing up gay and consulting with a cast that included many trans women he met along the way while researching “Saturday Church,” which was initially inspired after he began volunteering at the real-life Art & Acceptance program at St. Luke’s, based on a tip from his mother, an Episcopal priest. (Her own church was used in the film for much of shooting). However, “Saturday Church” does something even more impressive in moving heaven and earth production-wise to place an oft-marginalized community in the context of one of Hollywood’s grandest traditions, allowing their voices to rise so as to finally be heard clearly and for the most fantastical song-and-dance numbers to touch on emotional truths that couldn’t be expressed otherwise.
After premiering last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Saturday Church” is hitting theaters this week and Cardasis spoke about the inspiration for this story to take the form of a musical, learning to write lyrics for the first time and embracing the limitations of a low-budget shoot.
When you were tipped off to St. Luke, did you have any idea of the type of film you’d make or did it come out of the time that you spent there?
I was interested in religion and sexuality, the history of that and also my own relationship with it, which comes from a more progressive and liberal bent that I know is not always the case for the LGBTQ community. So it started about the two sides of that religious coin – some churches being the cause of the abuse that the LGBTQ community has suffered under and others really working heal the wounds and take care of [the community] and be nurturing. I knew that I was interested in gender identity and the community, but it was only upon going to the Saturday Church program where it all started weaving together.
I’d been volunteering there, helping out with the kids and listening to their stories, many of which are horrific and tragic, and when I would tell people about the abuse that some of these kids had suffered, understandably, everyone was like, “Oh my God, that sounds horrible. Doesn’t that bother you? Doesn’t that upset you?” And it’s very upsetting, but it was equally inspiring to see the strength and the resilience of the community that had been formed and the power that these kids had. That was massively impressive – to have your family torn away from you, to have suffered physical and sometimes sexual abuse, to be struggling to find work, to have no money, and yet still have a beautiful heart and be open, loving and creative and funny. There’s people that have it so much easier and don’t have those attributes [while] some of these kids who had everything stripped away from them were more caring and more of a community. That was really inspiring. And as soon as I saw the cafeteria where a lot of the kids had social services and where the counseling would be [next to] the gymnasium, which was right next door, and seeing them go from speaking about everything that had happened to them, to then dancing – and the empowerment through performance – and being free about it – the musical aspect started making more sense.
It seems like there’s freedom as a filmmaker in writing song lyrics to say what you might not be able to convey in dialogue, but I understand it was the first time for you writing lyrics – what was that like?
At first, it was terrifying. I had never written lyrics before and I had no idea how to do it or where to even get started. But Nathan Larson, who composed the music, was amazing in not only composing the music, but leading me through that path and always encouraging me, saying, “No, you can do this.” I’d be [like], “Can’t you just do this,” and he’s like, “We’ve got to do this together.” I started very insecure about the whole process, but then as it went on, I started learning how to do it and I actually got into it.
Everything was happening so quick that there’s only so much tweaking I could do, but now having gone through it, I just wish [I could] break out the old thesaurus and get to work on some lyrics.” It’s really fun and you have to be concise with the language, just the way certain words encapsulate emotion. These are all things that I learned as I went on and I really loved it. I would love to do it again.
This is a mix of professional and nonprofessionals – did you want that mix as well to give it a certain energy?
I definitely wanted to make sure that I cast within the community and if that meant casting first-time actors, then so be it. So for a lot of the actors, it was their first time auditioning ever or they’d done some theater, but this was their first [time] starring in a feature film. It gave us a little bit more freedom with the role of the mother and the role of the aunt [that they didn’t have to be from] the LGBTQ community, but I just wanted great actresses. The mother, [played by Margot Bingham], needed to be able to sing, and of course we needed an actress that had a lot of heart and depth, but also had a beautiful voice, which Margot has all of those.
I remember somebody saying that just make sure that all of them feel like they’re in the same movie, which was really good advice because you didn’t want it to feel like there was a huge contrast from when it went to scenes with actors who had done this many times [before] to [another] scene that may feel a little more rough. So it was making sure that it was all woven together and luckily, the kids we cast, even though it was their first time acting, were so amazing that I don’t think you feel any sort of ripple or bump when it goes back and forth between the Saturday Church scenes and the scenes at home.
Since you filmed at your mother’s church – did that shape this in any way since I imagine you have pretty intimate knowledge of that location?
The amazing thing about shooting at my mother’s church is that when you don’t have a studio lot to shoot on, we had full use of the grounds and the buildings, and we shot half the movie there. Our production offices were there and we did our preproduction there, and when you have a movie you can only shoot in 20 days and you’re shooting nine-hour days, you only have so much time. Her church and community is St. Peter’s [Episcopal Church] in Westchester Square and they were wonderful and welcoming. We even shot the ball scene at one of the buildings my mother turned into a dance studio, which is called BAAD, the [Bronx] Academy of Arts and Dance, so we were very lucky.
With the kids, you could only shoot so many hours during the day because of labor laws. Did the fact you probably couldn’t be precious with scenes have any upside? Was it freeing?
Trust me, there are definitely moments where I wished we had more time. We shot the dance numbers in four hours, which we got through it and they’re great, but it was a lot of stress for everyone involved. One of the scenes, [with] Ulysses in the bathroom, we shot that in 15 minutes and those were moments where you wanted to pull your hair out. But because it is a small film and you’re lucky enough to be shooting it, you just say we’ve got to get this and do it anyway we can and at the end of the day, it’s better to have it onscreen than not onscreen, so let’s just figure out the best way to do that.
What’s it been like screening it and seeing the reaction? I understand you recently showed it at St. Luke’s.
Yeah, [we showed it at] St. Luke’s on Friday and it was awesome. It was like a flashback to sitting with the kids and hearing their stories. The kids, the social worker that ran the program and the volunteers and the church community got to see it and it was just really special. It’s been amazing [in general]. You hope that it will be embraced the community it’s portraying as well as a larger community that might open their eyes and see people for who they are and accept them. It’s been playing festivals all over the world and to get tweets or to Instagram messages from people saying how much the movie has touched them or how incredible it was to see themselves onscreen for the first time — [even in] the micro of the cast and how it’s touched them in their lives and the people around them, and then to see it so much larger in the macro [with] people that I don’t even knowing saying how the film’s touched them, it means everything. So it’s wonderful.