Quinn Shephard is a force to be reckoned with. A wise-beyond-her-years wunderkind of sorts, Shephard was doing in her teenage youth what many don’t get around to until their mid-twenties: writing the script for a feature film (that would become her directorial debut down the line). At the tender age of 20, she brought her vision — the equal parts perspicacious and poignant Blame, an examination of high school Americana sifted through an adaptation of playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible — to life, and truly outdid herself in the process.
Shephard directed, produced, edited, and starred in Blame, leading the charge with a calculated, captivating performance as the teenage pariah Abigail Grey, whose long-standing struggles with mental illness and startling ability to put on an act see her land the starring role in a class production of The Crucible, a part substitute drama teacher Jeremy Irons (a magnificently cast Chris Messina) gives to her over her tough classmate and quasi-queen bee Melissa (the superbly adept Nadia Alexander), one of many students who brands Abigail as “Psycho Sybil.”
Harsh words turn to heated whispers when Jeremy’s interest in Abigail, and hers in him, extends from the innocent to the illicit. The pair’s rendezvous is brusque, but biting enough to set the jealous Melissa on a path of destruction, her sights set on taking Abigail down (not unlike the paranoid townspeople did in the Salem witch trials) no matter the cost. Her vendetta grows increasingly complicated, as does Jeremy and Abigail’s relationship, when Melissa’s own dark demons begin bubbling below her harsh exterior and rising to the surface, seeping into the halls of their suburban high school and blurring the boundaries between the heart of Blame and the heaviness of The Crucible.
The magnetic je ne sais quoi of Shephard’s creative vision behind the camera and sizzling performance on screen in Blame, one of the most confident first outings I’ve ever seen, seamlessly translate to a down-to-earth joie de vivre in the real world that make the now-22-year-old a unique visionary in her field and promise to establish her as a luminary in the contemporary landscape of young female filmmakers. A recent chat I had with her proves just that.
Below is an edited version of my conversation with Quinn Shephard.
You wrote the first draft for Blame when you were just 15 and got the cameras rolling at 20. When and how did you arrive at the idea to adapt The Crucible?
Quinn Shephard: I came up with the idea after I was in a production of The Crucible in New Jersey, and I played Abigail. It was a bit autobiographical in that sense, that I was also really in love with the character and really kind of used it in some ways to link into my own coming of age. I guess I used Abigail as a way to find a certain sense of confidence in myself that I certainly didn’t have already at 15, much in the way that Abigail does in the film. I think that was really where the inspiration came from, and then just drawing a natural parallel between The Crucible and modern-day high school.
Being a teenager when you began the scriptwriting process, you had a keen perspective on the high school dynamic, particularly how difficult it is to know someone beyond their external presentation and the reality that no one is ever wholly good or wholly bad. Did your own high school experience in any way influence how you crafted the film’s characters?
QS: Absolutely… I think for me, I was always an extremely empathetic person. I always tried to see everyone else’s side, especially when I was a teenager. I think when you get older, you start to [think] like, “Okay, that’s kind of exhausting.”
But I think I had the ability to kind of allow people to treat me badly because I went like, “Oh, well they have their own stuff going,” and so I think in a lot of ways… there’s a lot of people in my life that I really loved as a teenager who were also kind of externally prickly in a lot of ways, like Melissa, who were angry or lashed out or said hurtful things but were going through their struggles and deep down were good people who were very angry and very hurt. And so I just always have a soft spot for characters like that… I think that Melissa was always my favorite character in that sense.
What is the greatest misconception you see in how teenage girls are depicted in media?
QS: Oftentimes, I think teenage girls are written off as very one-dimensional… I think that sometimes, some writers have a tendency to just see teenagers as a caricature of what you would assume about someone when you see them on the subway. Like, there’s the bitchy teen who hates her mom and is always on her cell phone. And then there’s the slutty girl who hooks up with all the guys. And then there’s the shy outcast who’s like an angel and never does anything wrong.
It’s funny, with Melissa, a lot of people compare the movie to Heathers or Mean Girls because there is a “mean girl” in the film. But that’s not my intention that Melissa is the head of the school; she’s got, like, three friends. She’s just a girl who has power over her three friends, and probably most of the people at the school don’t fault her because she’s very intimidating.
But high school for me, it wasn’t like there was one girl who ruled the school, or one little clique. It’s all these different pockets of people who have their own lives and their own dramas [but who] feel as if their personal dramas are huge, like they’re all-encompassing [in] their world. And I think that’s very much at the front of [Blame]. It’s about a very small group of people who all become focused on this scandal of [the] student-teacher thing and is it happening and is it not happening, what does it mean, and how is it threatening Melissa.
The whole point of it, to me, [is that] it’s very internal. It’s not this huge deal that’s going to shake up the whole school. It’s just this very small problem between this very small group of people. To me, that was high school. It was drama that didn’t extend beyond four people that felt like it was going to destroy your life.
Was directing yourself what you imagined it would be? What was the biggest learning curve in making Blame?
QS: Yeah, it was a mixed bag. It was easy to push my own buttons as an actor because I have been working with my mom as my acting coach my whole life, so she taught me a lot about how to — I would use the term “manipulate” but it’s in the best sense of the word, like how to manipulate your own emotions and how to manipulate other people’s emotions so that they feel safe while it’s being done, that people don’t feel that they’re being violated or forced into something, but that you’re able to get a performance out of someone that they didn’t even really realize they had in them. And I think that I applied that directing myself, sort of in my own head if that makes sense.
I think that getting the emotion [from the cast] was easy because it was very high-stakes on set and I was very on-edge a lot because we were under so much pressure on such a short shoot — it was only 19 days — and we were moving so quickly that it was really easy to access their emotions in the character. These were characters that I had in mind for so many years when I was writing it.
But then on the flip side, there were technical things that are logistically challenging about directing yourself. [Sometimes you can’t] watch playbacks because you don’t have time, so [you’re faced with] not knowing how you read on camera, not knowing how other people are reading on camera, not being able to do something you need to do as the director because you’re busy doing stuff as an actor, like a costume change or a hair touch-up. It was more of those things that I think made it the most complicated.
To be honest… I prefer doing them [acting and directing] separately. I think that’s what was what I learned… but I’m still really glad that I did it.
In directing, was there any filmmaker you drew particular influence from or a main inspiration that you had growing up that you perhaps subconsciously wanted to emulate in the film? It feels a lot like those high school movies that have been popularized, but it stands out as something that’s very much your own.
QS: Thank you! Yeah, I definitely had a lot of reference films, especially ones visually that I talked over with my DP [cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik]. One of my biggest influences is Girlhood, the French film, and I’m a really big fan of Stoker. And even Spring Breakers is kind of a fun visual reference. I really love Andrea Arnold films. I love American Beauty. Donnie Darko’s a really big one for me, too.
There’s a lot of really atmospheric, simple movies about teenagers that were always so inspiring to me [like] Virgin Suicides and Heathers and films like that. They were films about high school that felt like they were really full-world. They weren’t just slice-of-life films; they were [a] really thoughtfully constructed, dramatic experience. I wanted to achieve that with a very small budget… and with limited experience. I wanted to try to have an homage in my movie to classics… that was the goal.
I think you definitely achieved that. As a rising female director, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers, especially young women?
QS: I think my biggest advice is to just be you and tell your story, because I think that there’s all this fear that women have, and that they’re raised to have, about just so many things, about the fact that their experiences are somehow not going to be relatable, they’re not going to be valid, they’re not going to be sellable. They’re worried that if they’re too outspoken, if they talk about a topic that’s controversial, if they have an opinion about things… And I’m sure that there are going to be people that are upset by it, because that’s what happens when you talk about any topic that people don’t want to talk about.
I experienced a ton of fear as a teenager with working on this, and with working on anything. I feel fear every time I write. But I think it’s really important to push through the fear and to just be true to yourself. If it scares you, it’s also probably valid and it probably means that it’s going to really do something for someone else. Because if art isn’t a little bit scary, then you have to ask yourself if you’re really pushing yourself hard enough.
I think my biggest advice would be for artists to not change who they are. I was writing a film that I thought only I would relate to. I thought it was just a passion project of mine. And then I met so many people through the film… and they really related to it. That really taught me that there’s a point to making a film that’s really personal, because it ends up having a universal appeal to young women who have gone through similar things. And I guess that’s the hope that you want.
Blame is in theaters now.