Young director makes a bit of history with film debut
NEW YORK — Overcoming the hurdle of being a woman director in Hollywood is tough enough, but trying to do it a few years removed from high school is an even more daunting task.
So it was to be expected that Quinn Shephard — just 22 years old — was filled with nervous energy as she prepared to screen her feature film debut, “Blame,” at a major film festival premiere amid cameras, lights and celebrities recently.
“It’s like when you’re going up on a roller coaster, and you chose to be on it,” Shephard said last week. “You’re excited that you’re on it, but you’re also terrified. That’s kind of how I feel.”
Shephard’s journey to the Tribeca Film Festival — where she became the youngest woman director to debut a feature film, according to organizers — was untraditional. She started writing the film when she was 15, put college on hold to work on her movie, and used money set aside for college to fund her film. Even casting one of her main stars, Chris Messina, took a circuitous route. She wanted Messina to star in “Blame” but only had his wife’s email.
“I had it from a friend of a friend of a friend. He got my letter and he called me in three days. The rest is history,” Shephard said.
Shephard stars in her own film as an outcast in high school, also named Abigail, who escapes by immersing herself in literature.
She is cast by the school’s new drama teacher, played by Messina, in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”; the two become intimate, mirroring Miller’s play on the Salem witch hunts.
“The character is very personal, because I also used to latch on to characters from literature … as a way to get through going to a small suburban school where I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I didn’t feel like I was on the same page as everyone else,” she said. “I felt like I was in a different world. I always wanted to escape that, and literature was a big way that I was able to do that. In turn, my film became my ultimate way of channeling my energy into doing something better.”
Shephard feels that now, more than ever, it’s important to tell women’s stories, and she’s grateful she gets the chance to do it right.
“As an actor, I read a lot of the scripts that are written for young women, and I can attest firsthand that we need better films being written about teenage girls. I think that young women are so incredibly complex, and important, and I think that my film pokes fun at a lot of the stereotypes, and we turn them on their head,” Shephard. “I strive to bring honesty to these characters.”
A recent report by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg found that of the 1,000 top-grossing films released in the last decade, only 4 percent were directed by women.
While “Blame” debuted to mixed reviews, Shephard had supporters, including Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal. She says the intent of the festival has always been about discovery, and younger filmmakers are a big part of the equation.
“We screened ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’ by a filmmaker named Damien Chazelle a number of years ago,” Rosenthal said, of this year’s Oscar-winning director of “La La Land.”
Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon, who most recently produced the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” also praised Shephard’s effort.
“It’s so wonderful that film festivals support female directors, because our number, actually statistically went down this year, the number of female directors. So we have to have women telling their stories, and we have to encourage them when they are young enough to write their stories and understand that this industry is open to them,” Witherspoon said.