About Time You Met: Quinn Shephard, Writer, Director, Producer and Lead Actor of BlameBy Alicia Grimshaw
You may have heard the name Quinn Shephard. Having already graced our screens in CBS television series, Hostages and featured in numerous other prime time TV shows including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Made in Jersey and The Blacklist, Quinn has already forged herself a career as a budding actress.
Her latest venture has seen Quinn both behind and in front of the camera, having wrote, starred and directed in her first feature film, Blame. We chatted to Quinn after a special dinner, celebrating game-changing women in film held at the Bulgari Hotel London with Grey Goose, and hosted by Bridget Arsenault from Long Winded Lady Productions.
You wrote, directed, produced and starred in your new film, Blame. What’s the journey been like?
Very exciting, very challenging, very exhausting, very rewarding. I was really young (15) when I finished the first draft of the script, and I feel like because of that, I was able to capture a true teen perspective on high school. It’s my time capsule of that age. It’s pretty surreal to think of the milestones of the project; from sitting with my mom in the living room in my family home, talking about the first draft – to shooting the film five years later, having crew members sleeping on couches and blow up mattresses and probably the floor in that same living room — to screening at festivals, taking home awards, traveling to screenings.
The film truly changed my life in every way possible, and it’s a testament to my mom’s faith in me as a storyteller and in us as a creative team that she supported me and worked with me from beginning to end on this film. I’m sure she knew that what we were attempting — producing an entire feature film by ourselves — was insane, but we somehow pulled it off!
What was the inspiration behind the film?
When I was a sophomore in high school, I was cast as Abigail Williams in a regional production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. At 15, it was the most mature role I’d ever played, and the experience had a tremendous impact on me. Beyond my fascination with the play, embodying Abigail had a strong influence on my day to day life. It changed the way I perceived both myself and the world around me. The role innately tied into my own coming-of-age; I felt powerful for the first time. The script for Blame was born, not only from imagining what Abigail’s story would look like set in a modern day high school, but from observing the way she changed my own perspective, and heightening that to a fictional level.
With your age – did you have to work harder for film makers and people to take you seriously?
Not as much as I thought I’d have to! My biggest fear was always not being taken seriously. I think I was born wanting to be taken seriously. I started taking meetings about Blame when I was only 18 years old — which looking back, is pretty funny. I can understand that investing in someone so young would have been a massive risk for any production company (probably why we could never find financing and were rejected from every grant application!).I always did my best to over-prepare as much as possible, to try to compensate for my age.
There were a lot of jokes passed around about how specific I was as a result — but it was genuine! I’m very detail oriented and very opinionated, which is why I love directing – it’s literally my job to have an opinion on everything. I remember in my first day of sound mixing, when I did my spotting session with Sylvain (my mixer), I warned him that I didn’t know anything about sound and so not too expect too much to me. By the end of the day we had noted a 95-minute motive for 8 hours straight, and I had given him over 250 notes. He never let me live that down!
Chris Messina is the lead actor – how did you end up casting him?
My mom and I first noticed Chris Messina in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go (specifically the nightclub scene with Melanie Lynskey) years prior, and pretty much knew then that he was the actor we wanted for the role of ‘Jeremy’. He had the perfect blend of masculinity and emotional tenderness that we needed. After managing to get his wife’s email through a friend of a friend, I wrote him a very long letter, and sent him the script for Blame along with my short film Till Dark. Within a few days, Chris emailed me and we met up (I just happened to be in LA). I was totally floored when he said he wanted to try to make the film work with his packed schedule — it was a dream come true to get our first (and, really, only) choice for the role. In the months leading up to pre-production, Chris and I spoke on the phone almost every week for hours at a time, doing re-writes together.
He was a huge part of bringing so much honesty to that character — I didn’t exactly have much life experience as a 40-year-old man! He treated my little film like the biggest deal, right down to buying his own wardrobe. He is a true supporter of independent film and new directors.
The Crucible is a big theme that runs throughout the film – how did you bring together the idea of the high school story with the play?
It was honestly sparked by own own blurry lines of life and art as a teen. Like Abigail in my film, I really enjoyed going deep into characters and literature as a way to cope with the difficulties of high school life. It was my way of escape. When I played Abigail Williams onstage, I applied some parts of her perspective to my every day life. That was really what sparked the idea. The parallel of the student/teacher romance seemed like a easy leap to make when reinterpreting ‘The Crucible’ in modern day, and the tight-knit ecosystem of a suburban high school has plenty in common with Salem!
You filmed at your own high school – what was that like?
I felt very out of place growing up in suburbia; I didn’t feel like I had much in common with my peers, and was constantly using art and literature to escape what felt like a suffocating environment. But shooting Blame gave me a new sense of gratitude for my hometown. I don’t think I ever really appreciated growing up there until I saw how much help was offered to my film. The filming experience also allowed me to rediscover the place I had spent so many years, and see it in a new light. It was a bit bizarre to go back, but empowering. I was returning to the place where I had felt the least proud of who I was, now doing the thing I was the most proud of. I felt like I was proving to myself how far I’d come.
How was it working with your mum on the film?
We’ve always been very close, and have always had very similar taste artistically. My mom helped shape my education in film as I was growing up by exposing me to a really diverse range of art. She also coached me as an actor and read everything I wrote, always gave me notes, and never pressured me to pursue a more classic career path, for which I’m eternally grateful. When I decided not to go to college and that I wanted to make BLAME instead, she just started working with me and didn’t question it. Of course, we tried again and again to bring on more experienced producers.
We had a LOT of things go wrong! But in the end it just ended up being us, and even though we weren’t ready, and it was insanely difficult and the hardest thing we would ever go through, we did it! Ultimately, I’m glad that the vision wasn’t diluted by other creative voices coming into the mix and making demands. We believed in every creative decision ever made for film, and that is rare and very rewarding. It was so hard, but film is forever — we will never lose this incredible thing we made together. The fact that we did it together is something I always cherish.
The soundtrack to the film is epic – how did you decide on the tracks?
We spent about a year on the music, since almost all of the soundtrack for the film was original. The rappers were from the underground NJ music scene, and Uri Bar (who mixed the rap music in the film) introduced me to a number of artists who frequented his studio. I sat in on every writing and recording session with them, and obviously for the entire scoring process with Peter Henry Phillips. We recorded the score in the countryside, three hours outside of Montreal, and I lived in Peter’s studio while we worked. We also collaborated on some of the music, especially “The Lion”, which was our trailer/credits song.
How long did it take to shoot?
19 days, which felt both like the longest 19 days of my life, and also far less time than we needed to comfortably shoot the film!
This is your feature debut – do you have any other plans in the pipeline?
Yes! I currently have three projects in development, a TV show at FX and a mini-series and a feature at MakeReady. I am busy writing at the moment, and excited to see what takes off!
What advice would you give to film makers starting out?
To try your best to lose your fear — do what scares you! There is this amazing Cleo Wade quote: “I realised that to be more alive I had to be less afraid, so I did it. I lost my fear and gained my whole life.” I think fear is at the root of most unhappiness and bad decisions. When I was about 16, I realised that if I let fear stop me from exploring taboo or personal topics in my work, then my work wouldn’t mean anything. So I have always pushed myself to write and do what scares me, and to be unafraid of life. When you take away fear you have much more room for happiness. I am by no means perfect — I get nervous or scared all the time! But I try to throw those thoughts away as much as I can. Fear is for the most part unhelpful, as an artist. And the less you listen to fear, the more you can listen to your gut instinct. At least, that’s how it is for me!
What was the hardest part of the making the film?
We lost our financing mid-shoot, which was nearly paralysing — both financially and emotionally. To this day we have never heard from our financier, and have never gotten any sort of explanation. When it was happening, it was like a waking nightmare. It was literally my worst fear becoming reality. Which is probably why the sentiment I just expressed above is so important to me! Once you’ve made it through your worst case scenario, and survived, you get very bold. You start to realise that you and your work can survive if you work hard enough.
We did ANYTHING we could to make Blame happen (pouring my college funds into the film, using the money I’d earned as an actress, my dad working a third job). Miraculously, we made it to the end of principal photography, and then to the end of post. On set, only one or two members of the cast and crew even knew what had happened. I was so scared of not being taken seriously or having crew members jump ship that I insisted on keeping it a secret. The shoot was the hardest time of my life, but ultimately we finished the film! Now we get to have that forever.