Written by: Calla Camero
Photography by: Brennen Cunningham
Brooklyn, New York. I’m sitting in a charming little Pop-Up Cafe, sipping on chamomile tea, waiting to meet with writer, director, and actress Quinn Shephard. Quinn chose this spot, her local favorite coffee place as of late, because we found out that we happen to be neighbors, and live just minutes apart from one another. (A remarkable discovery when you live in Brooklyn, because anytime you don’t have to get on the train is a particularly gratifying experience.) When Quinn walks in, the first thing I notice is her big smile, she’s looking right at me, cheeky ear-to-ear, even though we have never met before. The second, is a bulky walking boot on her right foot, causing her to have a slight but noticeable limp. When I look down towards her foot, she immediately rolls her eyes and sighs, “I know, it’s the worst!” Recognizing my curiosity, she proceeds to explain the mishaps of her foot injury, telling me about her recent night out at an event for her latest movie. It was recommended that Quinn wear heels to this event since, she’s a woman, and (apparently) that’s what we should wear. Quinn complied, deciding to try out something new, although against her own personal preference. The next morning, to her dismay she awoke to a painful, throbbing sensation in her foot and went to the doctors only to find out she had torn a joint capsule while wearing the heels throughout the night. “Women! Why do we do this to ourselves?” she asks, laughing in sheer disbelief. “I should’ve just wore my sneakers.”
As unfortunate of an incident as her body’s rejection to high heels may have been, it’s well-suited to the fact that Quinn does not seem to fit into the typical mold of a young actress, or any other mold for that matter. With a career in acting starting as early as age 4, a career in writing beginning at the age of 12, and a directing and producing career, at 20, it seems as though Quinn has always been a few steps ahead of her peers. Now, 23, she’s not only paving the way for young actresses, but she’s setting a precedence for the kind of work that anyone, at any age, can look up to and be inspired by.
Quinn was introduced to acting by her mother who was also an actress, allowing Quinn to literally grow up in the industry.
“I used to associate being on set with just being really happy, which is why I always wanted to continue it. Because my mom was very much of the notion that if I wanted to stop I would just stop, she was never gonna ask me to do something because of her, she wanted me to actually enjoy it. But I started associated making movies and being on sets in general, like behind or in front of the camera with being really, really happy and so I always wanted to be in film because of that.”
After years of auditioning, acting on and off, all the while going to school and living her “normal” suburban, New Jersey- girl life, Quinn began to grow weary of the hustle that acting demanded. She was just about 13, and was no longer at an age where competing for acting work came as easily- now she was up against 18 and 19 years olds. It was during this time, that she considered quitting acting altogether, because of the constant exhaustion and stress that was caused when she would get her hopes up at an audition, only to be let down in the face of more rejection.
That’s when she started working in theater, and got to play Abigail Williams from The Crucible, the role that changed her career forever.
“I wasn’t sure until I started doing theater that [acting] was something that I wanted to continue. Because doing theater reminded me, I got to play roles that frankly, I was never gonna get to book at 14, 15, 16 years old, in a mainstream Hollywood movie. You know, no one was casting me as Abigail Williams at 15, but I got to play that in theater. And that was so satisfying and validating to me as an artist. It was a happier experience and not some big scale production.”
This was a pivotal role for Quinn, not only because it allowed her to see acting through, but because it’s the role that inspired her to produce her first film, Blame, a drama that drawing parallels from The Crucible, explores the forbidden romantic relationship between a high school drama teacher and his student, a shy and notoriously unstable girl who has just returned to school from a mental breakdown.
“[Theater] was such a great experience and it really gave me the inspiration I needed to continue. But it also taught me that my interests in these projects, tended to kind of expand beyond just the performance, it’s like I almost wanted to have the world and I didn’t really get that until I started writing films and I realized that as a filmmaker, you get to create a world that exists for you.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She collected bits and pieces of experiences around her and applied them to her narrative, all down to the jewelry a character wore. This process of building a world from scratch taught Quinn a lot about herself as a filmmaker, because she realized she wasn’t just interested in the writing aspect of the story, or solely focused on the cinematography of the film, she was completely invested in every facet the film required. Whether it was the script, character development, sound design, editing, Quinn was specifying every element to the millisecond.
But all of this proved even more challenging, when one of her investors dropped out of the movie mid-shoot, causing Quinn and her parents to pay for the entire movie out of pocket. With people to pay and a movie to finish, Quinn made an abrupt executive decision and used up her college fund to back the film, which was all of the money she had saved from acting over the years. Her parents also helped to support the film financially, her dad even taking up a third job.
“We didn’t set out to be the only producers, we didn’t set out to be the financers. But it ended up happening to us anyway.”
Even with all of the odds placed against her, she was able to finish the film, wrapping in 19 days. The evolution of her project was a journey that even she couldn’t predict. Because on top of all of the technical components, the financial burdens and finalizing logistics, it was the process of creating her narrative that stuck the most. It took 7 years for the film to completely unfold from script to screen, meaning she was 15 when she wrote it, and 22 when it was completed. At its core, Blame serves as a time capsule of Quinn’s artistic, emotional, romantic, and sexual understanding of growing into oneself. And sheds an entirely new light on the coming-of-age story.
“You know when I started writing it, I was so young that just like, my perception of the subject matter that I was dealing with was different than it was by the time that I was finishing the film. You know, you’re 15 and you’re writing about a student-teacher relationship story, you’re looking at it from the perspective of someone who’s almost like, romanticising that. And going, oh that’s, kinda romantic. Or like a dream, or a fantasy sort of thing. Verses when you’re an adult, making the movie, and you’re seeing it from this lense of, it’s actually so damaging.”
She wasn’t constructing any story, she was constructing a fantasy. One of her own. But from the unique position of producer, director, actor, and fantasizer, all in one.
“It really put into perspective a lot for me is like, I could’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life, had I not had art as an outlet for my fantasy. There’s always been like a very, I don’t know... I was always intrigued by risky things. And I put some of that into my writing instead of maybe pursuing those things in real life.”
Quinn doesn’t fit into any typical mold because she sculpts one for herself. Her creative process seems to parallel the way she interprets the world around her, allowing her to grow alongside her work.
Through conflict, she creates anecdotes, and through art, she finds understanding.
“And now I think, you know, the luck of it is that because it’s such an insane story people trust me to create stuff now because they’re like well if you could do that with nothing and lose all your money and you and your mom being the only producers, frankly it doesn’t happen a lot. And we keep getting told that, people are like, this doesn’t happen. But you’re just doing it when you’re in it. You’re just doing your best. You’re not thinking, ‘oh well no one does this.’ I’m just like, I don’t know what else to do? So I’m just going to do it myself.”