“I Dug In My Heels”: Damon Cardasis on Capturing LGBTQ Youth in Saturday Church and Shooting a Scene in 15 Minutes

Equipped with untested knowledge and the earnest belief that a story must be told, a first-time moviemaker venturing into a feature project is ambition personified. In the case of director Damon Cardasis, this is twice as true.

Eager to surpass the conventions of a social drama, and incorporate the artistic expression witnessed within the group he wanted to portray, Saturday Church is at once a moving quest for identity, but also a magical musical on a budget. Due to his involvement with a New York church that provides services to homeless and vulnerable LGBTQ people of color, Cardasis was curious about the way in which they used dance and song as a coping mechanism and to build community.

Good-natured and sheepish at first, Ulysses (Luka Kain), a teenage boy whose father has just passed, has been recurrently reprimanded for trying on women’s clothing and for his gentle ways. Disconnected from his mother and younger brother thanks to his bigoted aunt’s interference, Ulysses heads on an odyssey into the depths of Manhattan, where he finds a pack of similarly displaced and ostracized young people hanging out at a church. He is embraced and for the first time given the time to question his desires and experiment with a once forcefully dormant side of his personality. Accomplishedly choreographed musical numbers guide the narrative away from mere coming-of-age and coming-out territory, and carefully nestle it in a sweeter dreamland.

Pulling a stunt like this on his first try demanded a measured amount of obliviousness to everything that could stand in the way between concept and release, and Cardasis handled it with an attitude that always put the completion of the project as the primordial goal. Scheduling for nine-hour days to abide by regulations regarding young talent, weathering bad weather from heat to storms, writing lyrics for the first time, and knowing when to be unyielding, were among the mandatory skills. He recently talked to MovieMaker about the less-than-peaceful making of Saturday Church.

Luka Kain as Ulysses in Saturday Church. Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was your initial connection or entry point into this organization that helps young LGBTQ youth of color? 

Damon Cardasis (DC): I found out about the program, which is at a church in the West Village of New York called St. Luke in the Fields, from my mother who is an Episcopal priest. I started volunteering there, and hearing the kids’ stories and helping serve them food. I was so inspired by the kids, and what they’d been through, and how strong and creative and incredible they were. The area where they would get food and social services was in a cafeteria, and adjacent to the cafeteria was a gymnasium, and in the gymnasium, the kids would vogue and perform. It was seeing the juxtaposition between the hardships and the things that they were speaking about in the cafeteria, and the liveliness and power they would have when they would perform, that sort of weaved the two worlds together in my mind.

MM: A vast majority of Christian churches have very negative stances on LGBTQ people and are not accepting, but on the other hand this church is going above and beyond to help these young people. Was this contradiction what intrigued you? 

DC: For sure, that’s absolutely an element. I grew up with a mother who’s a priest and who’s very progressive and liberal, and marched in Gay Pride parades, but I know that’s not everybody’s experience with religion or Christianity. Christianity is the cause of so many people’s issues within the LGBTQ community, and the reason why so many of them are kicked out of their homes or disowned by their families. It was interesting to me that among churches, even within the same denomination, there are some that are more conservative and that are preaching hate, bigotry, and homophobia. Then there are churches that are trying to help the LGBTQ community, so those two different sides of the same religious coin was fascinating to me. One church is causing the problem, one church is trying to solve the problem; they’re both under the same denomination and religion, yet they’re interpreting it in different ways. That definitely was something that initially sparked interest, and then, when I went to the program and met the kids, I started going deeper and deeper and deeper, and sort of understanding things more and seeing more of a narrative.

MM: At what point in the writing process did you know it was going to be a musical?

DC: It always written that there would be magical realism and escapism. There are moments of escape where he fantasizes, and there was the idea that his life is very dark and depressing, but he finds these little glimpses of beauty that sort of bleed into his imagination. These are ways that he escapes the darkness. Some of those were visual, and some of those were music, but it was a blending of the two. When I started seeing the kids performing in the auditorium right after they were getting counseling, it became more apparent that this was it, this is what it had to be.

MM: Talking about casting, tell me about finding Luka Kain, who plays Ulysses. What were some of the qualities you were looking for in an actor to be your lead, your Ulysses?

DC: With Luca, we found him through our casting director Henry Russell. When he walked into the room, everyone loved him immediately, but it was a very challenging role to cast because he needed to be young -Luca was 16 years old- and then he needed to be comfortable with the material. A lot of kids weren’t comfortable with the material, or their parents didn’t want them auditioning. In addition to that, he needed to have a natural shyness and sweetness about him, which is something that I don’t think is the easiest thing to ask for. If someone’s overtly confident, they can act shy, but you can sort of see through it. He needs to be able to sing, he needs to be able to move, he needs to be able to handle the emotional themes and carry the entire movie, so it was a lot on his back, but he did an incredible job. He was a total professional through and through, and was wonderful to work with. He’s incredible.

Director Damon Cardasis with the cast of Saturday Church

MM: When designing the musical numbers, which have to work within the real world of Ulysses, what was your approach to make them work within your budget?   

DC: It was sort of a gut feeling of when those moments needed to happen. I didn’t want the musical stuff happening until a little bit further into the movie. I wanted it to be a little unexpected, a little bit of a hybrid-musical, and I only wanted it to come out when it was necessary. It was just more of like, “This moment needs to happen, and they need to sing at this point.” I worked with Nathan Larson who wrote the music, and then Nathan and I co-wrote the lyrics together. I had never written lyrics before, so that was a whole experience as well. We only had four hours to shoot a lot of these musical numbers, which is sort of insane when you think that music videos are shot over a couple days. We shot the entire movie in 20 days, the majority of which were nine-hour days, because Luca was 16 years old, so we couldn’t shoot over nine hours with him. We just had to really cram everything in, and try to execute it the best we possible could.

MM: How were the choreographies conceived? Did you work with a professional team or was it something that you tackled yourself? 

DC: I worked with Loni Landon, who’s an amazing choreographer based in New York, and her and I hit it off immediately. I wanted choreography that looked a little bit more fluid and a little bit more modern, and not necessarily traditional musical theater looking. For the voguing, we worked with a consultant Keela Beja, who’s from the vogue world, and trained in dance at the New School. Then, for the actual vogue scenes, we had some of the most iconic members of the New York City vogue community that were actually the dancers in the ball scene. It was trying to weave together these two styles of dances, the modern with voguing.

MM: This was your first feature film. What kind of challenges did you encounter, in terms of the logistics of the set pieces? Technically, what was something that you weren’t anticipating about their creation? 

DC: It was all a learning experience. Shooting a movie is hard enough, and then you add elements like dance and song. That’s two more elements on top of something that’s already complicated. People had said, “It’s going to be a lot,’ and I was like, “Nah, it’ll be fine. We’ll figure it out.” I think I was shocked at the time: the nine-hour days, only having 20 days to shoot an entire movie musical as your first time as a director, and also with first time actors. It’s almost a recipe for difficulty. Because of the hours, the crunch time, we were constantly feeling pressured, so there was no margin of error. We had to get it right. That was hard, and we shot in a heat wave that never seemed to end in the Bronx. We were getting beat down by the heat, and we didn’t have any budget. All of these factors became a daunting thing. Like I said, we had four hours to shoot a musical number, and we had no time to rehearse the musical number in the actual space. They’ve only rehearsed it twice, and then the dancers show up on set. We had to re-choreograph this entire thing, because there’s a whole set of lockers in the middle that we weren’t aware of. The ceiling was too low in another space, so we couldn’t do that lift that we were planning on doing, ”What do we do now?” Everyone was a trooper, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got into it, and you discover things and you have to improvise. We shot one of the scenes in literally 15 minutes; not one of the dance sequences, but the scene in the mirror, with Ulysses and Heaven in the bathroom, we shot that in 15 minutes. It was constantly run and gun.

A scene from Saturday Church

MM: When you have these constraints and you know time is limited, can you be prepares beforehand as a director to try to avoid as many of these setbacks as possible or is the ability to think on your feet more instrumental during production? 

DC: The script was really in my bones, and the story, so I think that was helpful in terms of being decisive. My goal was to be as decisive as possible, and for me not to be the bottleneck, so that people could do the work that they needed to do, and being flexible. When things arose all of a sudden and we couldn’t do something, instead of exploding, I can just say, “OK, what can we do?” Hopefully you can have a level of calm-headedness, decision making, and problem solving that you need to do, and some things work out exactly as you wanted to, and some things you find out you have 15 minutes to shoot a scene in. You can either explode, or you can try to shoot a scene in 15 minutes and think on your feet. Whether that was the bathroom scene, or the locker room scene, where we were loosing one of the kids because he was younger than everyone else.

We had one camera and dolly tracks, but we couldn’t go around the lockers, we could only go back and forth, so we had to just switch lenses. That was the best we could do. You only have a location for one day, like the locker room, and you can’t come back to it, so we’re either getting it or it’s not going to be in the movie. The day we shot on the Christopher Street pier, we only had the Christopher Street pier for that one day, and there were huge lighting storms that were over New Jersey, which is only two miles away across the river. You’re seeing lighting shooting down over New Jersey, and obviously you’re not going to shoot a scene when it’s dangerous or there’s a thunderstorm happening, so you’re just racing against the clock, and everyone is starting to get nervous. Literally, five seconds after we cut there was a torrential downpour, but we had to just move super fast, because that was the only day we had the pier, and if we couldn’t get the pier that day, then that whole scene wouldn’t be in the movie, and it’s a crucial part of the movie.

Since we only had the pier for one day, I had to rewrite a whole section. I remember the ball scene took longer than expected, and they were like, “There are two scenes, and we’re not going to be able to get one of these, which one is more important?” I had to rewrite the scene on the spot to incorporate the information. The scene where he’s walking with Raymond and they have their first kiss, there was a whole scene prior to that, and I was like, “What is important in the scene that’s prior, and how do I throw it into this one scene, because we can’t go to two different locations” It was weaving that information in, in the best way I possibly could. There are other times where you have to fight for stuff. There’s one scene in the movie that the producers were like, “I don’t think we’re going to get this,” and I was like, “We absolutely are going to get this.” I dug in my heels. So you have to know when to give, and when to be flexible, and when to say, “No, I don’t care what happens, we’re doing the scene; I’ll lock myself in the room with the actors if that’s what it means.” MM

Saturday Church is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. All images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

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