While having brunch with Quinn Shephard, the 22-year-old writer, director, and star of
Tribeca Film Festival standout film Blame, I saw something I’d never seen before in over a decade of covering entertainers. I saw an actress ask for more bread.
That’s just one of the many reasons why Shephard has my attention.
Her award-winning movie, which she started writing as a 15-year-old high school student in New Jersey and directed at the age of 20, is the main one. She stars as Abigail, a theater-obsessed teenage outcast whose teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina) takes a liking to her. Too much of a liking? That’s how it looks to the popular, black-eyeliner-wearing Melissa (Nadia Alexander), who pretends not to care — but soon cares about nothing else.
The film is uncomfortable to watch, especially if you’ve ever been a teenage girl. When Melissa asks a high, horny guy in her class if he thinks she’s pretty, it’s as though her life depends on it. When Abigail gets a ride home from Jeremy, her hair soaked in rain, I could practically smell his Old Spice deodorant. And when we finally find out the source of Melissa’s anger, the trauma behind the tough exterior, we wonder how we even made it out of high school alive.
“It’s a story about girls,” Shephard tells me, before asking for that extra plate of carbohydrates. “The damage that can be done to young girls when they’re pushed into their sexuality too young, and in a way that isn’t in their control.”
Ahead, a few of the signs that this young woman is most likely the next big name in female filmmakers. Scratch that: the next big name in filmmakers.
1. The movie. Watching Blame reminded me of watching My So-Called Life when I was 10 years old. The high school hallways I saw, filled with shame, self-conscious glares (inward and out), judgmental boys you both love and hate, and friends you aren’t sure you can trust. Your entire year can be ruined in one embarrassing moment. It’s painfully real. But My So-Called Life wasn’t created by a 20-year-old girl. “There are so many films about young girls and their sexuality,” Shephard says. “But they’re being made by 40-year-old men who are making it a sexy thing.” She goes on to essentially describe what it feels like to be a girl, in a nutshell. “It’s a really sad thing, and sometimes a funny thing, and sometimes a weird uncomfortable thing,” she says, about that phase when girls realize they have sex appeal (for better or worse). “When you’re sixteen and sometimes it feels like you’re basking in music and you’re just at the center of the world and everything is so romantic and beautiful and dramatic. And sometimes you’re uncomfortable and you’re having sex with someone in a laundry room and you’re really drunk and you’re going to throw up and it’s going to get in your hair.” It’s the best and worst of worlds, in just those two feelings she describes — both of which are scenes from her movie. There’s something unnerving about watching teenage girls party, cry, strive, obsess, scream, and long for approval on screen, wanting to help them and horrified by them at the same time.
2. Her age. Have we mentioned that Shephard is 22? When Sofia Coppola made her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, she was 28. Kathryn Bigelow was 30 when she directed The Loveless. Ava DuVernay was 36 when she directed her first documentary, This Is The Life. These women are titans, and they're few and far between. That makes it all the more exciting to watch a potential future titan, like Shephard, get started so early.
3. Her co-stars are convinced. Chris Messina has worked with directors Woody Allen, Drake Doremus, Ben Affleck, and Noah Baumbach. He's more than familiar with how Oscar-winning directors operate, and what it feels like to be on the set of a Best Picture winner. Armed with all this experience, he was still beyond impressed by Shephard — before and during the filming process. He's worked with first-time directors before, though, where it didn't work out. "They'll show you a look book of beautiful pictures and they play you music that inspired them, but then often you get there and they can’t do that," Messina says. "Quinn is the opposite. She’ll talk to you about these things and then she can actually do them." One complex fantasy scene involved Messina kissing Shephard and his character's girlfriend, played by Trieste Kelly Dunn, in alternating frames. Shephard, dressed only in her underwear, would roll the camera while Dunn and Messina made out, and then jump in to replace Dunn while her assistant director took over the camera. This went on for hours. Somehow, 20-year-old Shephard had zero inhibitions; Messina, the experienced actor, was the nervous one. "What I love about Quinn is she does it her own way and I don’t think that will ever change," Messina says. He notes that Hollywood is a place "that’s only going to want her to do some female superhero movie or something. Which would be cool but I would rather her keep telling personal stories that are meaningful to her."
4. She's self-taught. Shephard has never been to film school. She went to a public high school in central New Jersey, and started scoring roles on TV shows like Hostages and The Blacklist, all the while working on her own passion projects (like Blame). And yet, over a casual brunch conversation, she'll throw around terms like "clock the shot," and "intense screen presence." She knows how to set a scene, work a camera, and choreograph a killer kissing shot.
Photo: Erik Tanner/Getty Images.
5. She hates social media. Throughout Blame, the audience can tell that Abigail is getting bullied. But we never see the obligatory (these days) shots of screens: Screens showing nasty comments on her Facebook page, or screens showing dick pics, or screens showing Snapchat videos. Shephard left those ubiquitous screens out of her movie for a reason. "Our generation is constantly getting written off as the cell phone generation, or the selfie generation," Shephard says. "But there are so many valid problems that our generation still has. We’re also a generation of entrepreneurs and that doesn’t get focused on nearly as much as the fact that we’re all putting dog filters on our faces." Alexander, who won the Tribeca Film Festival award for Best Actress In A U.S. Narrative Feature Film, thinks this is part of a trend. And the popularity of is just the beginning. 13 Reasons Why "I think there’s something very interesting happening now with things like 13 Reasons Why," Alexander says. "We’re getting the more brutal honest darkness rather than just the bitchy cat fights." Plus, their generation can see through all that perfection exhibited on Instagram and Snapchat. "It's this false advertisement of self," says Shephard. "Look how great my life is, look how pretty the sun is, look how wonderful my skin looks. And for every post like that, you probably have twenty posts of yourself crying on the floor and feeling miserable about yourself. It’s like going to your high school reunion every single day of your life by choice." A 22-year-old who can't stand social media? Instant hero (and anomaly). And with that, we're convinced: Quinn Shephard is the one to watch — and she'll probably be around far longer than Snapchat anyway.