When the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, it’s called the summer solstice: the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Noah Schamus’s feature directorial debut, Summer Solstice, follows two friends who spend a weekend confronting the fact that since college, they have become, in some ways, like night and day.
Since graduating, Leo (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) has come out as a trans man, and Eleanor (Marianne Rendón) struggles to process this change.
Schamus, who is also trans and uses non-binary pronouns, was dedicated to fostering a values-driven style of filmmaking that prioritized an on-set culture of respect for all cast and crew members.
How Noah Schamus Fostered a Positive Environment on Set of Summer Solstice
“I want to approach the work of making a film in a way that allows space for the humanity and needs of every person on set as much as possible,” Schamus tells MovieMaker.
To achieve that, Schamus decided to use an equal pay system for everyone. They also leaned into the pre-production process to make sure everything would go as smoothly as possible during the 15-day shoot.
“There were a few things that I think helped a set environment that I largely feel proud of. First, we were a super low-budget film, and when we were in the process of budgeting, I realized that for a project of this size, it could possibly be more equitable to pay from a most-favored-nation strategy – so everyone from the producers to the PAs made the same rate. I think in some ways, this sort of evened the playing field a bit,” Schamus says.
“Second, I think planning as much as possible in pre-production is a part of my values-driven filmmaking. Having been on chaotic sets where the key decision-makers did not plan in advance, I know how much that chaos falls onto the cast and crew,” they add.
“I wanted to try, as much as possible, to have a big-game plan for every day of the shoot and every eventuality. My partner has told me I’m a pre-crastinator — someone who likes to do things too far in advance. And while this can be a somewhat annoying quality, I think it came in handy for pre-production planning and into production.
“Planning means less chaos, most of the time. And planning also means that, when things go sideways, as they often do during production, we were able to quickly pivot because so much of the groundwork was there.”
Summer Solstice — which was made with the proud support of MovieMaker Production Services — had its world premiere in June at Provincetown International Film Festival. Its festival journey continued with France’s Deauville American Film Festival in September.
Schamus was also able to complete all shoot days for the film in 12 hours or less in order to prioritize rest for everyone on set.
“In general, I work to imbue a sense of kindness, direct communication, and respect in all my direct collaborations and work to encourage everyone on set to do the same,” Schamus says.
They started penning the script for Summer Solstice in April 2020.
“After I was laid off from work, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and started taking these five-hour walks around my neighborhood, where I was desperate to distract myself. So on these walks, I started thinking about a movie idea I’d had a few years prior that had never exited the ‘half-baked’ phase, about two friends who come of age as they discover all the ways they were no longer as close as they wanted to believe,” Schamus says.
“The idea itself started off being inspired by dynamics in my own life with well-meaning straight and cis friends who were supportive but often clueless when I came out as queer and then trans, and the ways we each had to find ways to truly see each other — even through the many changes you go through from your early twenties to your late twenties-slash-early thirties,” Schamus adds.
“Once I got into actually outlining and writing it, I found that Eleanor and Leo were both strangers to me (in the best ways) and also both sort of me (in the best and worst ways).”
But in the months before production, Schamus suddenly began feeling a lot of anxiety, and “really struggled to find the moments of joy that I should have been able to see. I mean, I was making a movie!” they say.
“That should have been awesome! And I just couldn’t see that through the haze of my own fear of failure. I remember saying to a friend, ‘If making a feature is like this, then I think I have to find another career.’ But about two weeks before production started, I felt a sense of peace come over me,” they add.
“Once it felt like the movie was really happening, that the train had left the station, I started feeling the inevitability of it, and that felt weirdly great. Like, if the movie is happening, then I have to get on this train and I have to be the conductor to the best of my ability. And I started feeling confident and decisive and all the things I wanted to have been feeling the past nine months. And when I finally found the joy, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the career I want.’”
Ultimately, Schamus’ favorite part of making Summer Solstice was collaborating with other creatives. They cited, as examples, “working with our production designer, Joyce Lai, who taught me so much about color theory, and working with our DP, Jack Davis, who is just a collaborator in the truest sense, always down to think deeply about each scene and each shot.
“I wish I could just list every single crew member because I think the most rewarding part was all of the teamwork. It was just so amazing to go to the set each day and see the work everyone was doing with so much grace and energy and skill. I am a better filmmaker because of everyone who came on board this project.”
Find out more about Summer Solstice on the film’s website.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.
Main Image: (L-R): Rendón, Salvör Menuez and Schamus talk through a scene. Photo Credit: Ethan Fuirst