Production Diaries: Blame’s Quinn Shephard on Directing Yourself… as a First-Time Director

Any given day on any given set can be an entirely unique chronicle worthy of its own story. Here, Quinn Shephard, writer, director, producer and co-star of the high school drama Blame, diaries the road blocks and accomplishments of her most notable days of Blame’s 19-day shoot.

Day 3

This was the day we shot the cheerleaders’ dance routine out on the field. The football game and crowded bleachers you see in Blame are B-roll we captured at a real high school game almost a year prior to filming. Now all we had to cover was the cheerleaders’ performance—easier said than done. We’d been tracking a huge incoming storm all week, and attempted to reschedule the dance a day early to avoid bad weather. We had a full squad’s worth of dancers booked for the shoot, and my AD, Andrew Sherwood, called them earlier in the week to see if anyone was available for the reschedule. No one was, so we decided to hedge our bets and keep the scene scheduled for the same day as originally planned.

I wanted to shoot at golden hour to capture the effect of Autumn afternoon light, but that was precisely when the storm was predicted to hit, so we decided to attempt the scene around noon. When I got out to the middle of the field where they were setting up our overhead shot on a ladder it was 85 degrees without a cloud in sight. The summer afternoon sun was the opposite of moody. I decided I’d rather film them dancing in the rain than in the direct, blinding sun, so my crew struck the entire setup, including the elaborate ladder rig, and moved inside to film a different scene. Unfortunately, this cost us precious time.

Behind the scenes of Blame. Photograph courtesy of Quinn Shephard

In addition to the incoming storm, the attempted reschedule had left the majority of our dancers confused–almost none of them showed up despite the fact that we double booked to cover any possible dropouts. We frantically searched for any teenage-passing young women on the set. The final “squad” includes two of our stand-ins, as well as a PA who had just started her first day on set, running back from a crafty run to fill in. These girls learned the dance in about an hour, led by my mom (who choreographed the number). When we shot the scene, they danced to “Burning For You” by Blue Oyster Cult.

Despite the drama leading up to it, the actual filming of the dance that afternoon went off without a hitch. The storm ended up missing us completely—ironically, we all got sunburnt while shooting the scene—and the footage is some of my favorite from the film. The shots were so good they rallied the crew into good spirits while they watched from camp. That evening, we ended up making our day with enough time to shoot B-roll (the only day that happened on set!) It was a very happy ending.

Day 13

This was Chris Messina’s seventh and last day on set, and we had been shooting without a break for all seven days. It was something we had to do in order to make Chris’s schedule work with the film, but the crew was definitely pushed way too hard. I was exhausted and overwhelmed from the week, and it was a heavy emotional day on top of that. We started with the big “Abigail and Jeremy goodbye” scene in the morning. I did my best to put all the production stress aside for a moment and create a space for Chris and I to get ready. We went to the bedroom set, I put on “John My Beloved” by Sufjan Stevens, and we both laid down and listened to it together.

The emotions came easily. Chris and I shot a few takes with different dialogue so we would have options in the edit, it being primarily a one-shot scene. After this, we had a company move across the street. I was really worked up from crying so much in the scene, on top of the stress of the week, so I had to step out and take a breather in the backyard. I was trying to hide from the crew how emotional I was, scared it would come off as unprofessional.

Chris Messina (left) and Quinn Shephard (right) on the set of Blame. Photograph courtesy of Quinn Shephard

The last scene of the day was a fantasy sex sequence that involved Trieste Kelly Dunn, Chris Messina and myself. The scene required very precise cuts that matched Trieste and I so we would blend visually almost into the same person. It was a highly surreal scene, and I wanted it to be perfect.

My DP, Aaron Kovalchik, and I had blocked the scene with the help of my AD in the two-week prep we did before the shoot. During this, we took iPhone videos and photos of every shot in the film so we would not have to decide framing on the day. We had crafted an elaborate, almost dance-like choreography for this scene that we immediately threw out the window for a a very different approach to the scene, deciding to forego wide shots altogether and rely on the emotion and facial expressions for sensuality instead of featuring any skin.

It was the end of the day and everyone was a little nervous (especially me, directing myself in a sex scene for the first time). We created a very closed, private set, all had a drink, then jumped in. Trieste and I basically switched in and out “tag team” style while we filmed. There was a small in-room monitor that I would watch while Trieste kissed Chris, to study her movements, then I would ask her to freeze. We would switch out, me trying to exactly match her body position, and then resume the scene while she watched me on monitor. Aaron moved around with the camera intuitively, and we never cut, trying to stay in the (bizarre) moment. As you can imagine, we captured some humor in between.

It was a stressful day because we went into OT for the scene, and there was not a lot of communication between myself and the AD team (who were not in the room). This is an example of a scene that showed me just how hard acting and directing simultaneously is—I had to tune out of communication with much of the crew to focus on my performance in the scene, but in doing so, I was neglecting my job as director and producer. I ended up having to apologize for the tough situation this put them in. Lesson learned: I was wearing too many hats.

From left to right, Nadia Alexander, Shephard, and Sara Mezzanotte on the set of Blame. Photograph by Nikolai Vanyo

Day 19

This was our final day of filming, and one of my favorites, because I was not acting! I learned on this shoot that acting and directing simultaneously is not nearly as enjoyable as doing either job separately. This is the day we shot my favorite scene from the film: the teenage-mischief riddled basement party. It was one of the only settings where I was able to indulge my stylized lighting-and-smoke fetish. We filmed this scene in a neighbor’s basement that I used to hang out in as a teen (it didn’t look quite as cool then). Somewhere, in the recesses of my mind, was a (roughly) 13-year-old girl standing on the coffee table in that basement, dancing in her halloween costume that subtly inspired the scene in Blame.

We had to film this scene starting first thing in the morning, which wasn’t ideal for the tone considering I told the actors (all legal) that they could drink “minimally” while filming if they wanted to. Some took me up on the offer. It was a pretty difficult scene for the actors, having to do a lot of provocative material, so I wanted to make them as comfortable as possible. When the lights were set, I horded the actors downstairs, blasted some hip hop and kicked everyone out for a closed set. A lot of the crew camped out in the backyard of the house and took some downtime during this—the scene was lengthly, and I didn’t want any disruption of the mood. Some of the wardrobe ladies and I wore crop tops or sports bras in solidarity with the girls, who were in their bras for most of the scene. Aaron wore an incredible Kesha concert tee cut into a tank top.

The scene on paper was pretty simplistic, designed for montage-style. We shot a lot of improv—only a line or two scripted—because I wanted it to feel totally real and candid; like teens just hanging out. We ended up spending about nine or 10 hours in that basement shooting 25 minute takes. I would call out ideas, lines or games for the actors from behind the camera. They were very cooperative, and I was extremely grateful that they embraced the loose shooting style, especially within a challenging scene. It was important to me that the girls felt totally comfortable with me during filming, like I was a close friend instead of a director. It helped that I had already shot my sex scene at this point. I would never ask an actor to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I think Blame proved that. Luckily this was a set where many of us got close and there was a lot of trust. I remember Nadia Alexander laying on the couch in her wardrobe during a break and posing dramatically for me and Aaron to take behind the scenes photos. It was awesome that everyone in the core creative team had a sense of humor as well as a very “safe” conduct—without it I don’t think the film could ever have felt as raw.

The Blame crew dives into their post-shoot celebration. Photograph by Sean Rogan

We had a company move after the basement scene. We were really behind, and went pretty badly into OT, but there was nothing we could do—it was our last day. I cut a couple of small scenes from the schedule as the day went on to buy more time for the basement, but I was adamant about not cutting the pool scene with Nadia and Sarah Mezzanotte. This was not a scene that was necessary to the plot, but I felt it was crucial for tone, and I was right. I love this scene in the final film. We put up the rain rig that my dad built by hand, and sprayed freezing cold water onto the poor girls as they ran and jumped into the water. Luckily, the pool was heated, and it was a warm night. When we called cut on the final shot, almost the entire crew ran and jumped into the pool. We have a slow-motion video of this from our B-camera. A great end to a very challenging 19-day shoot. MM

Blame opened in theaters January 5, 2018, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. Featured image photograph by Aaron Kovalchik. 

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