May 17, 2011
SCA Family Stories: Quinn Saunders
Award Winning Director/Alum sits with SCA
Writer, director and SCA alumnus Quinn Saunders '05 is on a bit of a roll. His 2010 film Cherry was recently an official selection at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Charleston Film Festival and won Best Producer honors at the Beverly Hills Film Festival.
But, by his own admission, Saunders is far from an overnight success. He recently sat down with SCA Family stories to talk a little bit about making the transition from being a student to a filmmaker and being mentored by one of the most well known alums in SCA history; Robert Zemeckis.
-Congrats on your success with Cherry. For those who aren’t familiar with Cherry, can you tell us a little about the film? Cherry is an indie suspense-drama that’s been described as a hipster Sex, Lies and Videotape. It’s a darkly sexual love-triangle set in the Silver Lake-Echo Park section of LA, where a sweet, naïve guy named Brian Cherry falls for a beautiful, electric and damaged actress named Jules. As they fall in love, they find themselves debating whether one person can ever truly know another person. Sam, Cherry’s cynical best friend, runs an exclusive club service for wealthy male clients who want to party with beautiful women and, after Cherry begs him, he offers Jules a job. The two quickly start an affair, unbeknownst to Cherry.
The circle of lies grows deceptively darker and when Cherry discovers the truth, he begins a shocking course of action that basically destroys the lives of all three of them.
-How did the film come about? Did you work with the same crew from your short films? Cherry was based originally on a one-act play that my co-writer David Crane had written that he brought to me. David and I actually met in high school, where we were on the same soccer team. When I read it, I immediately thought, “I have to make this.” In many ways, Cherry represents a merging of my creative concerns with those of David’s. David is very interested in masculinity – what it takes to be a man, what that means – and I’m very interested in identity -- who we think we are versus who we actually are, and so forth -- when you watch the film, I think you can pretty clearly see how these concerns come together.
- Anyone from SCA? Yes, I did work with quite a lot of the same people from my short Fortunate Son on this and with a lot of SCA friends. Brett Henenberg, our producer, was the producer of Fortunate Son at USC. I also used Joe Dzuban as the sound designer on Cherry, who was also my dialogue editor on Fortunate Son. Both of them have really become masters of their crafts since we left school, and it was great to work with them again. Our DP, Andrew Russo, is also a USC alum, as is our production sound mixer/dialogue editor, Paul Seradarian. Our composer, Cody Westheimer, went to USC as well, although he wasn’t in SCA.
-You’ve had success with both feature films and shorts; did you find any unique challenges in transitioning from shorts to features? I don’t think I’ve had that much success. Certainly not as much success as I hope to, but in terms of your question, no, I don’t think there are very many differences. I mean, you’re telling a story in both instances. In one sense, it’s very challenging to do that well in a short film because you are trying to build a really full world in a very short time. You find yourself layering things in a very intense way. In a feature film, you have more time, but that also means that your build is longer, more intense; that, of course, has its own challenges. I think if you’re a good storyteller, then you will find a way to use every tool at your disposal to make any story as entertaining and intense as you can.
-One of the primary teaching tools in the Production Division at SCA is the short film. Do you have any advice for our students on how to navigate the production of shorts? Well, I’m also a professor of Film and TV Production at Cal State Northridge, so this is something I deal with quite a bit. There’s an old saying: “Fast, cheap, or good…Pick two,” and there you have student, or low budget, filmmaking in a nutshell. You don’t have very much money, so you need to stretch your dollars and maximize everything else. It’s very difficult to pull something low budget together quickly and do it well. You should take as much time as humanly possible to work through your pre-production and you should be very careful in casting your cast and crew. And by that I mean, yes, cast the best actors, but also—cast your department heads just as carefully. When people are not getting paid much, or at all, then you need a very specific sort of person to guarantee that they will come through for you on your show.
-If you can pinpoint one, what’s something that you use from your training at SCA the most? Wow—that’s a tough question. I learned almost everything I know about directing during my time at SCA. I learned quite a bit in Jeremy Kagan’s advanced directing course. In particular from that course, I learned a lot about casting, which I think is pretty crucial. When you’re young and starting out, I think there’s a real tendency to defer to your casting director and let them run the show, but for me, I don’t feel that I learn a lot of the things I really want to know about an actor from the standard process. Listening to directors like Darren Aronofsky in that class talk about how they cast really gave me the confidence to talk to my casting directors and run auditions the way I want them run. Basically, I do everything I can to put the actors at ease by separating the wall between them and us so that it feels more like a working session than an awkward, formal thing. I think that’s important because on set, you want a collaborator, not someone who is putting on a show for you.
-Let’s talk a little about Cherry. It deals with some controversial subject matter. Talk a little bit about approaching topics of sexuality and objectification. Did you find any particular challenges in approaching something so serious? Well, I think that is sort of a two-pronged question in terms of approaching those issues thematically, and approaching them practically on set. Before anything else though, I think a movie has to be entertaining. No one is going to listen to your ideas if they’re not involved in your story, so that definitely came first.
From a thematic standpoint, I felt very comfortable with the material. Having co-written the script, this was clearly a set of characters and ideas that I wanted to explore. From a practical standpoint, the subject matter was pretty touchy in terms of the sexuality and violence, and I think you just need to be careful with your actors. You need to make them aware of what they will be doing and why it is important. You also need to create a safe environment for them to be creative because, while we’re all just watching these scenes, they are living them.
-Cherry was awarded the Best Producer award at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. Do you
have any advice for SCA students and alumni in how to approach the festival circuit? Well, I think going out onto the festival circuit with a feature is very different than with a short. I think I could write a book of advice at this point for how to go out with a feature. For a short film, don’t get too caught up in the frenzy of whether or not you are accepted into this film festival or that --Sundance, TriBeCa, Toronto-- While it’s great to get into one of those festivals, it’s not the end-all of filmmaking. If this is your first film you’re going out with, try to have a bit of a longer-term view. You’re building a career, and one short film is not a career. Go to the festivals (as many as you can afford), meet people, share ideas. Film festivals are so much fun, and it’s one of the only places where you will find people who appreciate your show for what it is, where it’s not just a commodity. Foster those relationships because honestly, it could be, and most likely will be, years before you find yourself out at festivals again with a new film.
-What do you wish you would have known starting out in the festival world? I wish I would have known a lot more about the world of distribution. Honestly, that’s ultimately what it’s all about—where, when, and how will people see this thing you’ve made? For a studio filmmaker, that’s not really a concern but, for an independent filmmaker, it’s pretty much the wild west out there. There are so many venues, formats, options for you to get your picture in front of people. I know that some people might say, “Oh, I’m the director, I’m just creative—other people can think about that,” but that’s not really a viable attitude to have in the current environment. Beyond which, if you don’t care about people seeing this story you’ve created, then what’s the point? You’re not communicating anything. It would a lot simpler going into this with a clear idea of the distribution world, rather than having to learn on the fly.
-Finally, while at SCA, you were mentored by Robert Zemeckis, what was that experience like? Having Bob mentor me at SCA was a tremendous experience, and it’s something that still continues to this day—he has definitely kept himself and his office available to me for advice or anything else. When I was working on my thesis film, it was great getting to meet with him, hear his ideas regarding my script, and my edit. He was really instrumental in helping to shape the story ideas and to trim the final show. One of the best things he told me was, “Your first feature is its own reason.” Meaning—Don’t let anything get in the way of making your first feature film—money, script, actors, whatever. You will learn so much just by the process of doing it that it will be worthwhile simply for that. I definitely had that in mind as we started putting Cherry together. I had been attached to direct a much bigger budget project that fell through at the last second—after we had cast, locked locations, everything. So when I started Cherry I said to my producer Brett, “We’re doing this. I don’t care if I have to shoot it on my cellphone,” and once we started that ball rolling, everything else—money, talent, etc. - started falling into place like clockwork. It was pretty magical.
-What’s next for you? I’m currently attached to a couple of projects that are looking for financing—one of them is a fantastic film with a writer and producer who are also from SCA. It’s a comedy/drama about a single mom in Texas whose house is foreclosed on by her bank. Rather than surrender the house to the bank, she throws it on the back of a flatbed truck and steals it…heading off down the highway like an outlaw with the bank and cops chasing after her. It’s a very timely subject.