quinn shephard began writing her subversive coming-of-age film 'blame' at fifteen
High school wasn’t easy for actress Quinn Shephard, so she made a movie about it.
photography lee o'connor
Quinn Shephard says she would like her Citizen Kane to be an all-female film adaptation of Equus, starring Glenn Close. "You know, Glenn," she jokes, "I'll just text her and ask." It's funny (Quinn's funny) but it's also wholly possible that Quinn Shephard will one day talk multi-award-winning actress Glenn Close into starring in her project. Because Quinn is 22 and she just premiered her first film, subversive coming-of-age story Blame, at the Tribeca Film Festival, becoming one of the youngest directors to ever do so.
Quinn is an actress who landed her first film role at five years old (in Harrison's Flowers, alongside Andie MacDowell) and is best known for playing Morgan on the CBS drama Hostages. At 15, she was starring as Abigail Williams in a local production of The Crucible while battling through tenth grade in her hometown of Metuchen, New Jersey (where she still lives). "I was uncomfortably self-aware," she says, "And so I would use books and plays as a way to get through the day, as a form of escapism from my very close-knit suburban high school." While playing Abigail she'd often show up to school in conspicuously gothic old-fashioned outfits. She channeled her discomfort through her writing, eventually drafting the first script for Blame.
Blame's focal point is the drama classroom of a suburban high school in which substitute teacher Jeremy Woods (played by Chris Messina) is wrangling a class of students into rehearsing scenes from The Crucible. Quinn stars as painfully reclusive teen drama fan Abigail, a seeming foil to Nadia Alexander's troubled fuchsia-haired loud-mouth Melissa, her understudy for the part of Abigail Williams. The plot unfolds when Melissa starts a rumor that Jeremy and Abigail are using their private rehearsal time to hook up. While the echoes of The Crucible are clear, Blame sticks closely to the perspectives of its female characters. The film is a universal exploration, says Quinn, of why girls do the things they do, one that references the films of Andrea Arnold as much as Arthur Miller.
How did you go from acting in a production of The Crucible to spending seven years of your life making a movie about it?
When I was playing Abigail in The Crucible, I felt confident in myself, as a young woman. I was exploring my own power and sexuality. To be doing a play with adults who respected me as an actor was really validating. And much like Abigail in my film, I used sides of the play's character — obviously not the evil, murderous sides! — to explore my own. The role was very tied to my coming-of-age, and I'd never seen a film that tells a coming-of-age story in that way. Especially through such a young point of view.
Did you study The Crucible at school? I always thought it was cool that the syllabus included a play about powerful teenage girls and their experiments with witchcraft.
Yes! Though, I don't think The Crucible is focused on the women. I think for Arthur Miller it was John Proctor's story. Because I delved so far into Abigail Williams when I was playing her, I felt I understood her. There are aspects of her character that were easier to empathize with when you're 15: the fact that she's orphaned, that she saw her parents get murdered, that she falls in love with a man who's much older than her and who then abandons her. It was a lot easier for me to say her actions were somewhat justified when I was younger. But I wanted to see more of her story, and from her point of view.
I love how method Abigail in the film gets — when she carries around crystal animals like Laura from The Glass Menagerie. Did you ever do anything like that at school?
Oh yeah. I was also very bullied at school. I definitely felt like an outcast, that I wasn't into the same things my peers were. I channeled characters from literature as a way of escaping. That effortlessly went into the script. But I had no idea if anyone else did that. To hear other people saying they relate to Abigail's character is so cool — even if they didn't wear cross necklaces and corsets to school like I did!
You filmed Blame at your actual high school. Was that always the plan?
Yes, it was a no-brainer. I wrote the script with the school in mind. It felt so quintessential and all-American to me. I spoke to my high school principal about it and he helped us champion it to the school board and go through the approval process. It was a huge thing. I was never really appreciative of where I grew up while I was growing up there, but making a film there gave me a newfound appreciation for it. So many people were so excited in Metuchen. If I go to a coffee shop now in town, people are like, "Oh, you're Quinn!"
How has your perspective on these teenage characters changed now that you're older?
When I was writing the script, I think I romanticized things more — specifically the relationship between my character and Chris Messina's character. When I was younger, I really wanted to show the genuine side of their relationship, rather than demonizing or flattening it. But the final film delivers a very important message about the damage done by being in too-adult situations when you're too young.
Girls at that age are so self-aware. Even Abigail and Melissa are both so incredibly conscious of the person they are creating to hide the pain underneath. The statement I wanted to make is that we see a lot of high school movies — and the narrative of students hooking up with each other and their teachers — but the girls are so often reduced to stereotypes: the outcast, the slut, the lolita. But they're 16-year-old girls, they have really interesting stories, and it's important to get to know them rather than constantly looking at them with a male gaze.
Did you have any role models in mind when you were making the film?
My mom helped produce the film. She's always been my biggest cheerleader. She's always said, "Don't change who you are. Don't listen to the kids in high school. Just be you." In terms of filmmakers, I really love Andrea Arnold and Park Chan-wook. And films that always feel really iconic to me: Donnie Darko, American Beauty, Spring Breakers. I think you can see small references to all of those.
I loved the cheerleader sequences. They reminded me of the Sparkle Motion performance from Donnie Darko.
Yes! That's one of my favorite scenes of all time. I talked about Sparkle Motion while we were doing that scene.
What else are you working on right now?
As an actor, I have three movies coming out: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl which will be showing at Nitehawk in Brooklyn next month, Midnight Sun, which is coming out this summer, and Desiree Akhavan's new film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, with Chloë Grace Moretz. Then there's a pilot for the show Redliners on NBC. As a filmmaker, I just finished the pilot for a miniseries that I'm shooting. It's about an all-girls dance team at a Catholic school. Like Blame, it's a big female cast and it's dark but a little tongue in cheek.
I also want to work with Nadia Alexander again. I wrote a role for her in my pilot, so she'd better do it! It's amazing to work with other young women who are sharing their voices. You so often hear, "No you can't." At first I thought, "No one's going to trust me to direct this film, I'm so young. I'm not going to be able to get the actors that I want." Then I think I just went at it so full force that people were charmed by my commitment.
What do you hope other girls take away from watching Blame?
Well, me at 15, I definitely would have been rooting for Abigail and Jeremy! I would have been into it! But no, it's always really moving to me if a girl says they related to it, that they have a friend like Melissa, or they feel like Abigail. What's important for me is telling the stories of real girls, and maybe making people a bit more empathetic. I'd like to make people think maybe the girl who's really scary has a lot going on, and maybe the outcast is secretly kind of cool, and will grow up and direct a movie...
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Lee O'Connor