Coming out of the Tribeca Film Festival, you might have heard some buzz about how Blame‘s writer/director/star/producer/editor Quinn Shephard started writing the screenplay at age 15 and directed it at age 20. It’s certainly an interesting tidbit, but just to be clear, the movie isn’t a noteworthy achievement for a 20-year old novice director; it’s a noteworthy achievement for a director. The story, about an outcast teenager with mental health issues (played by Shephard) finding an emotional connection with her substitute Drama teacher (played by The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina) and thereby provoking the ire of “bad girl” Melissa (played by Nadia Alexander, who won Tribeca’s award for Best Actress in a U.S. Feature Film for the role), certainly sounds like the plot of an afterschool special, but where most writers would keep a moralistic distance, Shephard leans into the ickiness of the scenario and makes the rest of us complicit in her characters’ foibles. The result is an uncompromisingly accurate, yet extremely compelling look at teenage life from the lens of someone not far removed from that world. We caught up with Shephard to talk about Blame’s origins, influences, and moral conundrums.
You started writing the Blame screenplay at age 15, but didn’t direct it for another 5 years. During that time, as you got older and out of high school, did your perspective on the characters and the story change?
Yeah, I definitely had to get out of high school in order to write about high school. I think when you’re young, you write as a form of therapy. That’s what I did, and it’s a good thing because you capture your life, but it’s a bad thing because you often capture it in a way that’s not accessible to anyone else, because you’re like, “Well, this thing that happened at lunch upsets me, so I’m going to put it in my film,” and it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to resonate with other people. But I’m very happy that I started writing this when I was so young because I was able to capture certain feelings and essences that were essential to me, but then as I grew as an artist, it became about throwing out all the immaturity of the script and getting to the core message and finding a way to make it accessible to adults, without losing the youthful perspective.
You were a child actress, but at what point did you decide that you wanted to get behind the camera, as well?
Well, I was always a writer, from the time that I was really, really, really young and could, like, physically write. Then, I made my first short film when I was 12, and I made one a year as a part of a pull-out program film class, and it really stressed me out. I loved being behind the camera, but it was also the most stressful thing I’d ever encountered because I’d never cared so much about anything in my life. The film that I made when I was in eighth grade, which I thought was my magnum opus, was this very dark psychological thriller that was definitely not what anyone was expecting at the Middle School of the Arts Showcase. I edited it myself in iMovie, and I was not sleeping for the whole week before the showcase because I was up all night and dealing with computer errors and, like, downloading uncopyrighted score from licensing websites and writing to composers on YouTube, being like, “Oh, can I license this?”
And your classmates were like, “I made a skating video!”
Yeah, exactly, and my parents were like, “I don’t know if you should do this.” I remember thinking for a long time that I couldn’t be a director because I cared too much about it. But then it just became clear that it was something that’s just in me. I wish I wanted to do something that was easier than directing, like, very deeply wish that, but I love being behind the camera, even when I’m directing small projects, like a web commercial or something. I’m just in my element.
How did being the writer/director change your performance?
It was really hard. I definitely had the most fun directing scenes that I was not in. Being in the scenes was extremely challenging. I had my mom on monitor, and she would watch me as an actor and give me notes, which really helped me, but there’s a lot more to directing yourself than your actual performance. It’s more about keeping tabs on everything else that’s going on, which is almost impossible when you’re in front of the camera. Normally, I’m a very hands-on director; I’m glued to monitor and I give a lot of notes. So, for the scenes I wasn’t in, I was extremely on top of it with my actors and, if a line didn’t feel right, we would improve or rewrite, and I would tweak things every take. But if I was acting in a scene and we were shooting with two cameras, I couldn’t even watch the performance of another actor, so there was a level of anxiety about not having full control. Luckily, my DP and I had worked together for about two and a half weeks before the shoot, mapping out every shot, so that when we got to set, we knew exactly where we were putting the camera, which is the only way I could do a 19-day shoot with 195 scenes, some of which we were cutting on the day. It was a huge challenge, and I don’t really want to direct myself again in a leading role any time soon. I would definitely rather do a cameo in my next film or TV show or whatever I do next.
Being a rookie director, were you nervous about directing screen veterans like Tate Donovan and Chris Messina? Did you have any fears about being able to assert your authority?
Yeah, absolutely, I would be crazy if I didn’t have fears. Okay, well, I didn’t have any fears about directing Tate because he played my dad for a year on Hostages, so we were really close. Chris is also a total sweetheart and was amazing to direct, but I was super nervous because he’s one of my favorite actors and my first choice for the role for multiple years. When he said yes, I was so in awe. His first day on set, I was so terrified to step on toes because I’m very opinionated, but I’m also not precious about my work. I always encourage people to change things as much as possible if they don’t feel natural to them. So, with the other actors, I’d been tweaking a lot of things that they were doing, but we were also doing rewrites together and improv. Chris and I had gotten into a thing for a few months where we would speak on the phone for like a couple hours a week and rewrite scenes together. He came into town for some theater and we actually improv’d a lot of the scenes and did rewrites with that, but on our first day of actually working together, I didn’t want to give him too many notes. The next day, though, when we shot all of our scenes in the auditorium, it became really apparent that had tremendous respect for me as a director, despite my age. He never questioned me. He’d argue with me if he didn’t agree, but ultimately showed so much respect for my vision, which meant a lot. He didn’t walk onto set like, “I know what I’m doing better than you.” He knew my vision, and it was very much a mutual effort to make it happen.
There’s a lot of intertextuality in Blame, with The Glass Menagerie and Sybil and The Crucible. What draws you to using that technique, and how do you make sure your homages don’t overrun your own story?
I think if I’m gonna use something as inspiration, I will just come out and say it. You know, it’s not like I made a film about high school that just happens to be The Crucible. It was clear that the film was a love letter to the play. As they say, nothing’s original anymore. I think that really terrific films and plays and classic literature are an amazing place to draw from as a writer because you’re learning from the best, but there are always new updates on the stories that can be shared. I mean, it’s a really different experience watching Blame than it is watching The Crucible, even if there are some parallel elements, and, for me, it’s definitely about showing that it’s an homage and not a copy of the project. Unless you’re doing a full-blown remake, like how my dream is to do an all-female film adaptation of Equus, which may sound crazy, but in my mind, it’s so good, and there’s, like, crazy dream sequences with horses and fog, and it’s shot like Super Dark Times. I don’t know if you saw that, but I love that movie. It was so well shot and so We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque.
One intriguing thing about the Abigail character, especially given that she’s the lead, is how little we know about her throughout. We actually wind up knowing much more about the other teenagers’ lives than about Abigail’s. Why did you give your protagonist so much mystery?
Right, it was very intentional to have a protagonist reversal in the film, kind of a switching places of the antagonist and the protagonist as the lead of the film, in order to parallel the morally gray aspects of the story. My goal with Abigail was to show her as very much a character who is projected on. For Melissa, she is a symbol of this unattainable relationship that she is craving between her and an adult man. Abigail has that and Melissa can’t have it. For Jeremy, Abigail is a symbol of what he’s been missing, almost like a college first love he wishes he could go back to. It was important as a director that I kept Abigail far away from the audience because she needed to remain a bit of a mystery and a symbol. Even in the scenes where we see Abigail alone at home, there’s even a distance there. Normally, when you’re in a girl’s bedroom, you feel very intimate with them, but Abigail’s almost always in character and so there’s constantly this question in the audience’s mind: “Is this her or is this her character?” I wanted people to be a little bit more distant from her without realizing it, so that you slowly got to know Melissa much better than you do Abigail. You got to know a lot more of Melissa’s insecurities, and you saw a lot more of her vulnerable moments, and her private moments at home are so much more telling of who she really is that, by the end, it sneaks up on you. You don’t realize that, over the course of the film, it’s been pushing you in her direction until the end when it all snaps into place and you realize why. And I always think it’s very funny when people think it’s unintentional that I did that, like, “Oh, wow, you let the scene go in that direction.” But Abigail had to be a mystery to the audience in order for the story to work or else it loses its intrigue, and Melissa had to be close to them in order for the ending to land.
You put the audience in such a morally ambiguous situation, rooting for a teacher-student relationship and rooting against those who would get in the way. Is there something in particular you wanted the audience to re-examine about their views about such a fraught topic?
Absolutely. It was really intriguing to me when we did our first talkbacks after the film. There were some men who were like, “I’m really not happy with the fact that I was not wanting Jeremy to get caught. I don’t know how to feel about myself. Why is it that I hate another character in the film who’s been doing something wrong, but not Jeremy?” When I approached the Abigail-Jeremy plotline when I was younger, I saw it as a forbidden love story, like they just crossed paths at the wrong time. But when I edited the film and I watched it back, the story had really shifted into an important message about the sexualization of young girls and the fact that they’re put into vulnerable situations when they’re so young. Chris has an incredibly emotional presence that shows the audience that it’s not a lecherous relationship, that it is rooted in something real, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And I wanted the film to be morally gray because there’s no easy way out of that situation. You can’t just go, “Okay, well, it’s wrong because the movie implies that it’s wrong,” or, “It’s okay, because the movie lets you off the hook.” It doesn’t really do either, and I wanted to leave the audience in a place where they might have a completely different reaction. We had people who would just fight with each other in test screenings because one person would be like, “Aw, Abigail and Jeremy were so cute together,” and other people would be like, “He’s a sexual predator.”
It’s a Rorschach test.
You can’t reduce a human being to good or evil, and that’s why it’s called Blame. In showing Melissa’s transformation from a character that you can so easily write off and hate into someone you really have to think twice about shows you have to think twice about everyone. I mean, I’m always really happy when people walk out and are like, “I need a minute to figure out how I feel.” I just wanted people to think. We have to think about these things. We see these stories all the time, in ways that allow us to get off the hook emotionally, and I didn’t want to do that with this one..
Are there any specific directors or films that not just influenced Blame but inspire you as an artist, in general?
Definitely Spring Breakers and American Beauty. I also really love Girlhood, the French film, and the work of Park Chan-Wook and Andrea Arnold. I think you can see little pieces of them all in Blame.
Park Chan-Wook? Where does he fit in the equation?
Well, Stoker very much visually was a big reference for us, and I loved Handmaiden so much. It’s funny because, even though his style is so different from mine, his films are so fast-paced and enjoyable to watch. They’re so full of terrific reveals and twists, which I’m always striving to do, and there’s such humor in his work, as well, that can be playfully dark. I’m always watching his movies and cringing and laughing. Even though his have more physical violence and mine have more psychological violence, I think that there’s just this desire to entertain in Oldboy, where you’re going like, “What?! Oh my god!” during the movie, and I want people to feel like that when they’re watching mine, even if it’s about a girl who’s angry that she didn’t get cast in a play.