Mar 24, 2008

Interview - Tom Quinn, The New Year Parade

Monday night, that being, well now in a sense, but also nineteen or so hours from now (not from the time your reading but from the time I'm writing, in case this isn't self-evident), IFC Center will hold a special screening, as it is known to do, of the year's Slamdance Grand Jury Prize winner, Tom Quinn's marvelous old school working class indie The New Year Parade. I wrote in depth about this naturalistic, emotionally resonant look at the year long dissolution and repair of a South Philadelphia Irish family, a less mannered, blue collar The Squid and The Whale of sorts, over at Filmmaker and on the occasion of its special screening, I had the chance to chat with its amiable, unassuming director about his film, one which is shamefully still without domestic distribution.

CEC: Tell us a little bit your background in filmmaking?

TQ: I grew up making short films with family, friends, and action figures. After undergrad I spent seven years making a feature that I then shelved – film school after film school. I started working for area filmmakers on their films, learning a good deal from Eugene Martin (Edge City, Diary of a City Priest) and Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast, Head Trauma). I then started shooting The New Year Parade and entered grad school at Temple University, where I've been working with an awesome set of peers, shooting shorts and wrapping up the film.

CEC: You made The New Year Parade over several years. What challenges did such a protracted shoot cause?

TQ: The most difficult thing is keeping interest and momentum. I was fortunate to have a great producer, Steve Beal, to get things off the ground, but during the long production Steve had to step back to have some kids, buy a house, etc. I was fortunate to have Mark Doyle, who was the only crew most days – setting up lights, dressing the set, unpacking the car, giving ideas, running audio, acting as a background extra…. He was tireless and exceptional in a thousand areas. The cast – from the leads to the string bands – were amazing to work with and always eager to pick up production again, even after long stretches.

However, without a producer I definitely wore out a few times. After a six month hiatus, it can be tough to get my head back into the script, gather everyone's schedule, lock in the locations, go through and determine wardrobe, make sure we had the gear and extras needed, etc. It was a long haul, but every moment on set was worth it. The cast and crew were constantly giving 100 percent and the footage kept me motivated and excited. While the long production period may not be ideal in some way, it made the film stronger in the long run because we had time to let it mature.

CEC: The filmmaking has a documentary like intimacy and looseness to it that is quite striking. What were your priorities from an aesthetic point of view?

TQ: I had recently worked as a B Camera operator on Eugene Martin's The Other America, which opened Slamdance in 2003. Eugene was fond of throwing actors into real-world situations, and the results were often unexpected and exciting.

Initially, I was afraid of going in that direction and the early scenes we shot in the summer of 2004 were aiming for a certain kind of technical proficiency or slickness. We'd spend hours setting up intricate lighting plots, testing exposures, and blocking. In reviewing the footage I found that our cast was exceptional – better than I could have hoped for - and that their improv was often the strongest material. We had rehearsed for several months to get them comfortable in that mode, and now there was a tension between the locked off shots and conventional aesthetic and the raw quality of their performances.

However, I felt we had miscast Jack and we halted production while we began searching for a replacement. During that time we began shooting with the South Philadelphia String Band as they prepared for the 2005 parade. After three months of bringing actors and crew to rehearsals twice a week, I found the aesthetic was changing. We could not light the practices, and the camera work had to be loose in order to respond quickly (for instance, the drill instructor's speech at the end of act two was shot handheld because I had missed a key moment that morning, trying to get the tripod in place).

During this time, we were also fortunate enough to cast Greg Lyons as Jack and production resumed, now informed by the doc component.

CEC: Do you consider yourself a cinephile? What debt does your filmmaking style owe to other films or filmmakers who have provided some influence?

TQ: Sure, I love films and feel influenced in all sorts of ways. When I started this project, Eugene suggested that I watch Jim McKay's Our Song, and Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas. Their performances and emphasis on quiet moments blew me away. I also love Elia Kazan (East of Eden is a favorite) Cassavetes (particularly A Woman Under the Influence) and Gus Van Sant (his "death trilogy" is incredible!). As I mentioned above, there are some great filmmakers in Philly who have been kind enough to mentor me, which I think is important for young people starting out. I am also very luck to have an incredible group of peers at Temple – really amazing filmmakers that I respect the hell out of. Philly is going to pop in a few years.

CEC: How did having worked as a DP before taking the plunge as a director effect your approach to the film, much of which you shot yourself, correct?

TQ: The director/DP thing mostly grew out of necessity. Since I had a job at a high school and was free all summer it was difficult to find a DP that had as much free time as I, and would work for no immediate money. Because of this, I shot my first feature myself and then began working as a camera assistant and B camera op for local films. I learned a great deal from Eugene on The Other America, where I was pushed to improve my compositions and to search for intimate or important narrative moments the A camera may not see. I then was a camera assistant for DP Sam Levy on Head Trauma. Sam is an insanely talented DP – professional, creative, technically astute, and very willing to teach. Once at Temple, I began shooting shorts for friends. Last year, two of the films I shot were award first and third place in the Eastman Scholars Competition.

Doing both tasks can be taxing – and often one can suffer when I'm feeling tired (for instance, in the most emotional scenes for the performers, the image often took a back seat). However, Mark Doyle was a lifesaver in this area – often giving quiet notes or asking for more time to light a scene so that we could get the most out of each sequence. It's hard to find collaborators who are technically proficient, artistic, and who are willing to ride shotgun as production stretches for three years. Mark never asked for thanks or more credit – he just showed up every day and kicked ass. That sort of thing is invaluable for directors working with limited resources and I couldn't have made the film without him.

My goal was to have "beauty shots" that could convey space and subtext between scenes and to make performance paramount in the character scenes.

CEC: Do you think your films reflect your personality, preoccupations, ideas? What life experiences have informed your skills as a director most?

TQ: I think I'm still learning what my preoccupations are. It's clear that family, in a broad sense, is one that keeps popping up. Mostly, I like figuring out how people work – my friends, family, and self included – and I think that the stories I'm attracted act as a record of the people I care about – even though they are fictionalized by the end.

As weird as it is, waiting tables for several years was probably the best thing I could have done to build a skill set. I'm very shy by nature and I remember being frozen in fear the first night I trained as a waiter. I couldn't approach a table full of people I didn't know and was practically shaking. Over time, I learned how to walk up to a large group of people, get a sense of what their personalities were, and make sure they left happy. In a way, that's what I like now about directing, and working with nonactors especially. Entering the South Philly String Band club where 100 guys practice in private every week was as terrifying as that first night at the diner years ago. But over time I got a sense of who they were and what was important to them, forming close bonds and making friends. It's great to make films with no monetary resources because relationships and community become key to survival. I love that.

CEC: Your film participated in last year's IFP Rough Cut Lab. What were your biggest challenges when constructing the film in post-production, especially considering its relationship to the other pieces?

TQ: The IFP Narrative Rough Cut Lab changed the course of our film. I realize that sounds like an overstatement, but after working in obscurity outside Philadelphia for three years, I had no idea what we had. I knew the performances were strong, and I wanted to reduce the exposition to allow the more intimate moments to breathe – but was feeling very unsure of myself. Worse, I was juggling school, work, and the film – and the editing pace was slowing down. I remember watching the coverage of SXSW last year and thinking – I want to be there. I want to be part of all these exciting things going on. And I have 180 hours of footage to sort through. It just felt overwhelming.

The Lab gave me focus. I had only submitted 40 minutes and once we were accepted, I had a month to get an assembly together. Mark and my friend Scott Calvert holed up in my apartment for a month to log, capture, and assemble scenes. Once we arrived in NY we met the incredible Amy Dotson, who programs the Lab for IFP, and our mentors, Scott Macaulay and Gretchen McGowen. Since Raising Victor Vargas was one of my inspirations as we started production, it was a thrill to be paired with Scott. Over the course of five days we met with editors, composers, producers, sales agents, music supervisors, and veteran filmmakers. It was a crash course on every area of post and festival strategy. More than anything, the Lab mentors and speakers gave me the confidence to follow my gut.

Because we were being brought back for the IFP Market in September, I went home with a new deadline and worked through the summer. Although we were still missing several scenes, I had a strong enough cut to send to Slamdance, where we premiered 4 months later! While at the Market, I had a chance to speak with Matt Dentler, a first step toward last week's SXSW screening.

CEC: What's next for you?

TQ: Right now, I'm weighing our distribution options and working on our International premiere. In the meanwhile, I am readying a new script which uses the Easy Rider road trip model to look at what the boomer generation left to this one. I hope to get production moving later this year.

The New Year Parade is at 8pm, March 24th at IFC Center, 6th Avenue at 3rd Street in Greenwich Village.