Trans Formation: Damon Cardasis' 'Saturday Church' is a particularly heartfelt directing debut

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A kind of mash-up of Moonlight and La La Land—although it was conceived well before those films came out in 2016—Saturday Church is the debut of writer-director Damon Cardasis. The Samuel Goldywn Films release focuses on a wonderful church in Greenwich Village which laudably provides a safe and supportive haven for transgendered youth to go to on the weekends. Through his meeting with a flamboyant clique of voguing members of this program, young, sensitive Ulysses (Luka Kain) comes to accept his homosexuality, despite self-doubt and a viciously gay-hating tyrant of an aunt (Regina Taylor), and indeed comes fully out as a quite gorgeous drag performer himself. Sparked by some impressively committed performances and fanciful musical sequences, it’s a particularly affecting auteurial tyro effort. Film Journal International was glad to sit and talk to Cardasis about this very special project.

Film Journal International: Thanks so much for this film and its celebration of the very neighborhood I’ve lived in nearly all my New York life. You really captured the euphoria and sometimes despair of these disenfranchised kids, who hang out on the same lovely streets—and, especially the pier—as the investment bankers and celebrities who live there.

Damon Cardasis: I had never written a screenplay, but Rebecca Miller [playwright Arthur’s daughter, a writer-director who is now his co-producer], who I worked for, had been encouraging me to write. I found out about this Saturday church program at St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village through my mother, who is a priest and knew about the program. I went and spent months meeting the kids and started hearing their stories and became inspired by what they were going through. And they would vogue and dance in the gymnasium at the school there. I always knew I also wanted some magic realism and a bit of escapism in my film too, and when I saw the voguing, I thought, “That’s it!”

We shot it two summers ago over the course of twenty days. They were nine-hour days because our lead, Luka Cain, was fifteen years old. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won an audience award, and then won awards at other festivals.

I was completely inexperienced as a first time writer-director-producer, plus I co-wrote the lyrics, which I’d never done before. For a lot of our cast, it was their first time acting as well. Luka Cain had been in Lincoln Center’s South Pacific when he was seven and had had a line in the film Adam but hadn't been in a lot of movies. Two of our trans girls had never even auditioned before. To get them, I had e-mailed the drag House of Extravaganza and, amazingly, within five seconds they responded, “Send us an e-mail with all your info,” and the next day they blasted all their members. For me, there was no way I was gonna do with this without the community onboard. It didn’t make sense, although it was a challenge working with inexperienced people, film-wise. Plus, it was a musical, which means you are really taking on a lot for a first-time director, but my producers were cool with it, saying, “Fine, whatever.”

FJI: How did you fund this project?

DC:All that credit goes to the producers. It was individually financed through people they met. The funny thing is when you’re making a movie like this, the most natural place to go to is the particular community that’s supportive of it, start small and build up from there. A lot of our funders had nothing to do with the film’s message or community—they just wanted to support the work. They knew the story and knew about me—I had been nominated for a Writers Guild Award. You gotta build your case as much as possible to make your argument. I started this three years ago, before Moonlight or La La Land. It takes a while to get a movie going, it doesn’t happen a week later.

As a gay white man, my first interest was passing the gay marriage bill, but then I had heard about this bill called GENDA, which was non-discrimination against the transgendered. Fewer people were onboard with this one—like once we got gay marriage, let’s pull up the ladder after us. Not exactly in a malicious way, but nobody cared. I think because we’re all gay and in a minority, everything is the same. But there is a divide between gay white men and...

FJI: Everybody else.

DC: [laughs] Yes! There’s the perception that we’re all in it together, but it’s very much not the case; it’s more of a pyramid thing. Fortunately, the nice thing about making this film is that a lot of my white friends reacted with, “Wow, I’ve really not been tuned into what a a lot of people of color are going through. I really need to step it up.”

FJI: Yes, many minority kids don’t have the luxury of liberal, educated, tolerant families. I was never literally kicked out of my house, like so many, but in another sense I was kicked out by my Korean family, who just didn’t get it, or me.

DC: Yes, it scars over, but it’s a wound that never really heals. So that’s been important for me, as well as making a film that’s not exploitative or voyeuristic. I wanted people to find their way into this very human, relatable story, which I wanted to tell in a truthful way. And it’s been great, seeing the response to it from all kinds of viewers.

FJI: It was indeed an ambitious project. As a first-time director, what was your first day on the set like?

DC: It was like a whirlwind, crazy. I’ve produced films, but it’s very different being a director. One thing I was conscious of was needing to be decisive, because things need to move, and also you want to make the actors feel supported. At first, I was a little bit nervous, working with the actors: How do I do this? Bu it was amazing when I met them, and it ended up being fun.

But it was a lot. There were hiccups in the first days when everyone was getting their bearings. And I’m thinking, “I guess that looks good.” It was like learning on the job, and so challenging, shooting the musical numbers, like shooting a music-video—four hours with one camera. Some of the bigger dance scenes were rehearsed at the 14th Street YMCA, who donated their space in the nursery. So they were dancing on these little chairs, and then they’d show up on the actual set and be like, “It’s so completely different! I guess we’re not doing that lift,” or “The floor is completely different so we can’t do that with our knees.” Tons of things like that.

I found my choreographer, Loni Landon, through one of the producers, who had recommended her. Her choreography was great, and different—not jazz hands, a little bit off. I thought that would balance and work well with a kind of beautiful artfulness. It’s weird, because you want to make the movie as authentic as possible but in some ways very approachable. The music helped because its not weird, screaming or whatever, and I thought, “I think this will work. I guess we’ll find out.” And, of course, having the power of a good editor, Abbi Jutkowitz, to put it all together. Thank God for her.

FJI: As my old acting teacher, Stella Adler, used to say, “Your talent lies in your choice.”

DC: It’s true, though. At a certain point you just have to trust your cast and crew and your judgment and be decisive. I don’t know. It’s such a whirlwind, like going to war once you’re on the set.

Plus, we had no budget. We shot the majority of the film at my mother’s church, St. Peter’s Church in the Bronx, founded in 1693, the oldest church in New York State, so that was great. My mother turned one of the buildings into a dance space for BAAD [Bronx Academy of Art & Dance], so they perform there. We had our production offices there as well. It was a lifesaver and we couldn’t have made the film without this.

FJI: Your mom sounds like the coolest ever. What’s her name?

DC: Joede Dauer Cardasis. I’m Greek-Italian. She is a very cool mom. You wouldn’t think that of a mother who is a priest, but she’s the least priestly priest you’ll ever meet, very progressive and open-minded and has ridden on Pride floats. In terms of religion and sexuality, Christianity is the cause of many people’s issues, so to find out about this program which was helping LGBT youth was realizing that at least they were trying to right so many wrongs. We’re having a screening at her church, which is exciting.

FJI: You’ve had such an interesting, serendipitous life: personal assistant to industry eminences, starting the Lower East Side Film Festival with Shannon Walker, creating the hilarious web series ‘Vicky & Lysander,’ which won you that WGA nomination, forming a successful and creative producer partnership with Rebecca Miller, and culminating in this, your first feature. I really loved that NYU alumni letter you wrote about pursuing and having a career in the arts. There was so much feeling, inspiration and practical survival information in it. I sure wish I’d had that years ago when I so cluelessly went to that school.

DC: My whole life has been a lot of leaps of faith, which I guess is maybe one of the things I got from my mom and her religion. I remember when I stopped assisting people, realizing that it had run its course. I had had yet another interview with a producer, and I had only been working as an assistant for two years—some people do it for five or eight, others their whole lives, which is totally fine. But I remember my mother said, “You’re just going in circles, you’re not progressing,” and I remember this producer was like—fifteen minutes before we’re supposed to meet—changing the plan again for the second time. My mother was like, “What are you doing?” So I decided to quit this career and went back to waiting tables (at the ping pong club co-owned by Susan Sarandon at the time). All the people I had worked with—other assistants—I now had to wait on, and I remember being mortified, thinking, “Ohmigod, now I have t get this guy a Coke.” But this one guy I knew said, “I wish I had the balls you have to just give it a go,” and I’ll always remember that guy for being so cool to me.

People always want the quickest way to wealth and stability, and that makes sense in many ways. But then you start ignoring certain real impulses: Maybe you should try this, but you think, “That’s not the way my friends did it and they wound up getting wealthy.”  Operating based on fear—for whatever reason, I was able to shut that off and think, “Well, I’ve got one life and this is what I want to do with it.” You hear that a lot, but it takes a lot to follow through.

I remember during the financial crisis of 2008, somebody I knew had just been laid off from his job in his mid-40s and I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” And he was like, “No. I’m finally going to start doing what I want to do.” I thought, “Wow, you’re in your mid-40s.” And I was in my 20s. I’m now the biggest supporter of anyone doing what they want, whether it’s in arts and entertainment or opening up a bicycle-repair shop. Do what you want to fucking do, I so admire people who do that. I also remember thinking, “If I’m going to do this, it’s better to do this now before I have things holding me down—a mortgage or kids or other things that come with life.” I will give myself credit for that.

Also, there was never a job that was too big or too small—I could always figure it out. I produced a seven-million-dollar Keanu Reeves film and most of what I did I had no idea about, no idea what postproduction was, ADR [automated dialogue replacement], anything. I had to figure it out and literally called these sound places and said, “Keanu Reeves is coming in to do ADR. I don’t know what that means—I imagine he has to go into a room and look at himself, but he needs a file or something.” The guy on the phone was probably like, “Are you kidding me? You’re a fucking idiot,” but it was amazing how many people said, “I’ll send you an e-mail with everything you need to know.” I produced this documentary and I didn’t know anything there either, and was like, “Hi. I have this film that needs to be played on a screen.” So you hire an NYU grad who has access to the lab and can edit together a reel for a thousand bucks, instead of outsourcing it to some factory for $30,000. If there’s a will, there’s a way, if you have the tenacity.

At the HBO premiere of Arthur Miller: Writer [which Cardasis produced with Rebecca Miller], I’m running around, trying to find a tripod to hold up the poster, thinking, “When is this ever going to end?” I long for the day when I can just dictate to people, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get it done. For the Lower East Side Film Festival, we had this idea to do a drive-in movie, using Zipcars. What a great idea—in a parking lot on the Lower East side, the movies projected on the side of a building. Then the city buildings department told us that to project something on a screen means we have to get an architect to build something. The noise also couldn’t be after a certain hour at night. It was the summer and the sun doesn’t set until 9 p.m., so you can’t show a movie before that. Then the city sound ordinance said we couldn’t have sound after 9:30. We finally get to the day and there’s this huge thunderstorm. It thankfully clears, and we get to the parking lot and it’s covered with trash. There is literally human shit in the lot, so we were like “Get a pizza box,” and I’m literally scraping it up.

That’s what you have to do and it sucks, but that’s what you sign up for. When we started the festival, everybody wanted to help but no one did. The second and third year, when it started to get popular, everybody was like, “Hey, dude, how can we help out?” Oh, so now we want it, people want that glitz. The glamorous things I’ve done usually have me running around in the background, making sure everything’s okay, not basking in the adoration. All that glitz happens in the blink of the eye, but there’s been five years of backup.