Faculty Focus: Tom Quinn
March 29, 2018
Westphal College houses a very special team of faculty members who have worked at the top of their fields: winning Emmy Awards, designing for top fashion houses, creating art that's exhibited in the world's great museums, and as leaders of major cultural organizations and media companies. They bring real life know-how and industry contacts to the classroom but, most importantly, they bring a passion for teaching.
Tom Quinn, Program Director for Film & Video, is an award-winning writer/director. He is a Gotham and Independent Spirit Award nominee for his film The New Year Parade, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance and screened at over 40 festivals and venues internationally. His current project, Colewell, stars Karen Allen (of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Animal House), and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 50 Most Anticipated American Films of 2018.
We sat down with Tom to learn more about this new project and how it informs his work here at Drexel.
Getting to know you: what was your path into the entertainment industry? Who are you as a filmmaker?
My background is mostly in directing narrative work. Mostly smaller character pieces. I started off as a camera assistant for Sam Levy who is the cinematographer for Lady Bird now. I worked in visual effects for a while as a visual effects producer. But then I started making films. I made a film called The New Year Parade in 2008 that had a great festival run with strong critical support, and since then I've been trying to figure out the right follow-up.
Can you give me a brief overview of Colewell and its inspiration?
Colewell is about a woman named Nora who is a postmaster in a rural town in Pennsylvania, and for 35 years she's been running the post office out of her house, which is how it works in a lot of small towns. She's sort of the center for the community, so a lot of her identity comes from that. She receives a notice that they're closing her office in 30 days, so much of the film is her set routines breaking down, her trying to find new meaning as she faces retirement.
I was at a friend's house, and there was an agricultural map on the wall of Western Pennsylvania. The reason he had it was because the town where he grew up is no longer on the map because they lost their post office. A lot of towns, when they lose their post office, that's their only identifying marker, and they get absorbed by the neighboring town. He started talking about the woman who ran their post office out of a twin home, and when she retired, the town lost its identity. I thought those two things being intertwined is really interesting. His wife came on board as a producer initially and helped develop the project. It's changed shape since then, but it's fairly close to that initial idea.
What was the intent of casting real people in these roles? What effect did it ultimately have on the film?
When we were doing research, we went around to 25 or 30 little towns that had either lost their post office or were close, because it can be a difficult thing for me to understand, and then to be able to show an audience why that matters for us. For us, we go to the post office, we get stamps, we kinda hate being there. When you go to these communities that rely on it in a different way or who have lost it, you start to understand that they don't have a bar, or a coffee shop, or a church or a school. It's usually just this one place where people see each other. In searching for a place to film, we found Noxon, PA and we shot there and in Tunkhannock. Noxon had lost their post office in 2012. They fought for about two years. We met a woman named Kathy, who was the head of the Residents Association, who led that fight, and then cast her in the film. Then we started holding auditions for locals. Our production manager went to the town's Fall Festival, and that's how we met a lot of our cast. It was great, because whether they knew each other or not, they were all from the same area and had some common histories. We could build a community and drop our actors into that community. It feels more authentic onscreen than if we had cast a bunch of actors from out of town and brought them in.
Tell me about some of the obstacles you faced in getting this made-whether financial, logistical, creative. Any production horror stories?
These films are tough because they're small. We lost our key location--Nora's home and the post office--about two weeks out. That was a big issue because the art department had to build a post office inside of it, and they had to rebuild this location from scratch and redress it. That was a bit of a scramble, but fortunately we had a great team who just started to reach out to realtors. I talk to students about this all the time because they go through the same things. A student will say "I lost my location!" and I'll say "me too!" All those same things happen, whether it's actors or locations or crew members. It doesn't change as your films get bigger, you just learn how to deal with it better.
Conversely, what was the most amazing production moment of the process thus far? Was there an a-ha moment when everything clicked?
Sometimes just sitting with the lead actress, Karen Allen, going over the script together, talking scene by scene, there were several of those moments. You start to see her and how she's playing it. That was really exciting because so much of the film is her alone and that's the anchor. Then there was a bigger town hall that came later in the film where we set it up like a real event. We had a lot of people who had fought the post office closure there reacting as if it were real. That was one where we went in with a lot of trepidation because we weren't sure it was going to work. It was a lot to shoot in one day, and we only had about three hours to shoot it. I think our first take was maybe 35 minutes long. They just went, it just started to happen, and to be able to capture that backdrop was really exciting.
Can you talk about working with Karen Allen? How did you go about securing a recognizable name for the project, and how did that affect the film going forward?
She was wonderful. We reached out to her through agents and managers and she came on board about a year before we started shooting the film. I was excited because I really wanted somebody who could hold these quiet scenes down, and she has this real gravity about her. She's very warm and very strong and yet will show a lot of vulnerability. To have a lot of those shades in one person is really exiting. She uses all of it. I was just emailing her last night because I'm so excited about her performance and watching it come together, seeing it on set in front of me was one thing. Then watching it in the film, it blooms in a way. It's really beautiful, so I'm excited to share it.
Where are you in the production process?
We're in post production now. Our editor is a guy named Darren Navarro who's fantastic, he's been cutting since January. We have some additional shooting to do next month, so we're going up over Spring Break to start scouting those. Then we'll come back to editing. We'll start submitting for festivals somewhere around June.
What is the film shot on? What technical choices did you make to produce your desired visual experience?
We shot on the Arri Alexa XT, which is actually Drexel's camera. It's one of the flagship pieces of gear for the program. Then we pulled some additional gear from Drexel and from rental houses. One of our alumni was assistant editor on the film. That's been great for her because she just made the move to LA and she's been able to get some introductions out of that. Another alumnus was production assistant on the film. It looks beautiful. The cinematographer is a guy named Paul Yee, who shot a film called The Fits which was at Sundance in 2015. He did a lovely job using natural light and augmenting it, making it feel really grounded but still really poetic.
What are the next steps for distribution? What is your hope for the film as it makes it out into the world?
The idea is to get a strong festival premiere and start getting critical support. For a small film like this, it really comes down to finding champions. Luckily all the producers have a strong track record with festivals. We got good critical support for the last film, so we're looking to build on that. Filmmaker Magazine just listed it on their 50 Most Anticipated Films and that's great because we didn't realize we were on anybody's radar yet.
Are you thinking about your next project yet?
I started writing while I was shooting this film. It had been a long gap between my previous project and this one, where I tried to get a few scripts going that were bigger in scale. I was figuring out how I wanted to work. This project was really different, working with a different kind of actor, and so I felt like I learned a lot and wanted to apply it right away. I've been spending some time over the past week, starting to get lookbooks and mood boards together, and outlining it. I'm hoping, by summer, to be deep into a draft, because the goal with a lot of these things is to leap frog and have that next thing ready. On the last film, I was wearing so many hats, it was hard to find time to write and develop a new thing. This film, I've got a great team behind me, so even when I'm writing the next thing, the film's still moving forward.
What is it like balancing your outside projects with serving as a program director at Drexel?
I have a lot of support in the Cinema & TV department. Karin Kelly is a real champion. When we were developing this project, students would pop their head in my office and want to hear about it, want to read part of the script and talk it out. That feeds it and it puts an interesting pressure on you because you want to make students proud. You want them to get excited about the work because that's how you're going to impact them. It keeps you balanced and structured. I have a great support system here so I can be more expressive in the work and push that a little bit further. They inform each other.
What does that experience bring back to the students?
As a professor, you want to be current. I remember being in school-you can smell it when your professor's not. Things change so fast in all these industries that in two or three years, you're not current anymore. It's been great to come back from set and say to students, "here's our budget breakdown, here's how we're going out to actors, here's what our lookbook looks like, what the script looks like, what the introductory letter looks like." We talk about that and stay really transparent. And when things don't go right, we're transparent about that too. It's important for them to see you stumble as much as it is for them to see you have it all come together. Because they'll stumble a lot. A lot of the time, people put pressure on themselves that their first project is going to be perfect, and if it doesn't they're doing something wrong. But that's the process, it's messy. You have to let them see that it's messy. It's nice to have that opportunity, but still have it come together in the end, so that there's a happy ending on it."