Filmmaker Quinn Shephard didn’t go to film school — instead, she made her own. The New Jersey native was just 15 when she came up with the idea for what would become her feature directorial debut “Blame,” a modern high school-set take on Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible.” Seven years later, Shephard is at the Tribeca Film Festival with the film, one that she not only stars in, but also wrote, directed, edited and produced. At 21, she’s reached a benchmark that usually filmmakers a few more years of work.
The film follows Shephard as high school outcast Abigail Grey, who returns to high school after a mysterious incident the year before, only to form a taboo bond with her new drama teacher (Chris Messina). As their relationship blossoms in very unexpected ways, Abigail’s nemesis Melissa (Nadia Alexander) observes from afar, continually threatening to bust the entire situation wide open (a witch hunt? maybe).
IndieWire sat down with Shephard after their film’s world premiere to reflect on the seven-year road to “Blame” and how Shepherd made it happen at such an unlikely young age.
1. Using Her Evolving Womanhood
Shephard was inspired to modernize Miller’s Salem Witch Trials-set drama after starring in the play when she was in high school. It was the character of Abigail Williams, who Shephard played in the production and who inspired her “Blame” character, that spoke to the budding filmmaker, who had been acting from a young age (including a lead role on the TV series “Hostages” and appearances in indie films like “Assassination of a High School President” and “Windsor”).
“Like the character that I play in ‘Blame,’ I used to actually latch on to characters from literature and be very Method about them,” Shephard said. “I did that with Abigail when I was playing her. I started to embody her. I had a lot more confidence in myself, I started exploring my own power as a woman, in a way that I never had before. It really influenced my own coming of age in a lot of ways.”
Shephard was taken with Abigail’s story as woman struggling against her own desires and the expectations placed on her, and realized it would fit very well in a high school setting. She began working on the story with her mother, Laurie Shephard (a former actress who would eventually produce and cast “Blame”), hashing out their script while Shephard was still attending high school.
The process consumed her, but Shephard found her creativity was activated in the process. “It was this really weird art-as-life parallel for awhile there,” she said with a laugh.
2. Finding Feedback
Shephard’s script landed her a spot as a finalist for Sundance’s 2014 Screenwriter’s Lab, and while she admits she didn’t expect to get in, she still recognized the opportunities that such notoriety would afford her.
“It was just really great to be noticed by them,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to get in. I was 17! I was just really glad that they noticed me. That helped me have more conversations about the film, just having that as part of my resume. People started answering my emails.”
Once the film was in production, Shephard shifted gears to more practical matters, mapping out every shot before the camera even rolled, all the better to maximize their slim 19-day shoot (which included just 7 days with Messina). She didn’t want to waste a moment — or an opportunity.
“It was a very fast-paced shoot, so we had to be really prepared,” she said. “We had to have every single decision made before. We had to walk into the set, and the set had to be perfect. We did not have time to be debating.”
3. Learning on the Fly
“I think this was like film school and graduate school and then a little bit of freelance work,” Shephard said of making her film. “It was definitely like the best bootcamp to learn everything.”
Shephard considers herself a “get in the trenches” filmmaker, and one who had her hands in every aspect of the film (from hashing out the budget with her mother to painting sets). Part of that drive was fueled by her desire to maintain control, but she also admits that a healthy dose of fear went into her self-teaching.
“I was just teaching myself as we went,” she said. “I remember before I started shooting, I was so nervous and my biggest fear was always [that] I was going to seem like I didn’t know what I was I doing. I studied the camera, I studied lenses, I wanted to know about aspect ratios, I wanted to know everything. I was really obsessive about it, because I wanted to sound like I knew what I was doing.”
4. Finding Good People
As a fledgling female filmmaker in an industry that doesn’t often embrace such creators, Shephard strove to surround herself with trusting collaborators who were not afraid of being directed by a 20-year-old woman.
“It’s people’s personal decision whether they are ready to handle an extremely opinionated 20-year-old director or not,” Shephard said. “I think that were definitely a lot of people that were that I have worked with who never even acknowledged it or questioned me. That includes Chris [Messina], he never really treated me like I wasn’t Martin Scorsese. He acted like this was a really important film, and he collaborated with me, but it never felt like, ‘I’m the adult, I’m going to teach you how it’s done.'”
She added, “People showed immense respect, because I think they really just saw that I know what I’m doing and I know a lot about being behind the scenes. I think people respected that.”
Over her years in the industry, however, Shephard has encountered a fair handful of people who were not ready to handle her. Those aren’t the kind of people she wants to collaborate with, though.
“Of course you encounter people who don’t [respect you] and are perturbed by it, but that’s not my problem. I just won’t work with them again,” she said. “If people can’t see that the words coming out of your mouth are as intelligent and well-spoken and opinionated as any other director, if they can’t just put your age and gender aside and value that, then they’re not really people I want to work with.”
“I think I waited until the right age [to make the film],” Shephard said. “I didn’t want to do it when I was so young that I couldn’t handle what I was doing, and I could barely handle what I was doing. It was a lot. I think I always have been a director in my brain and super detail-oriented, so it wasn’t difficult for me to do all the different roles, it was difficult to balance them.”
For all of her bustle and confidence, Shephard is just as nervous and worried as any filmmaker, but she buys in whole-heartedly to the possibilities of hard work and a willingness to take a risk.
“There’s never going to be a message in the sky, like ‘Start Your Film Now!’ One day, you just get up and you take out your laptop and you start,” she said. “It seems ridiculous, it seems like there should be a clap of thunder and then a dramatic beginning of, ‘now we’re in pre-production,’ but honestly, it was just, you start your first day of trying to get your film made. Fast-forward years and years of work, and then you’re here.”
While Shephard has a handful of acting gigs lined up (including the tween-leaning film “Midnight Sun” and Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”), she’s clear that the plan for the future puts her firmly behind the camera. “It’s just too many hats to wear,” she said. “I am happiest when I am directing and behind the camera.”
“Blame” premiered in the U.S. Narrative section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.