INTERVIEW: Damon Cardasis [Saturday Church]

Saturday Church, a powerful musical-drama about a Bronx teen struggling with gender identity, recently debuted at Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews. TV and City had the chance to chat on the phone with director Damon Cardasis about the movie.

Is it more challenging to shoot a musical as opposed to a regular film?

I guess it would depend on what the regular film would be. It’s definitely an added component. Some films have to deal with action sequences or things like that, but yes, I think it’s definitely another layer to a movie. Some movies are more dialogue-based; some movies don’t have the elements of musical. Here, you have to compose the music, you have to figure out the spots where it’s in, so it’s just sort of more work all around.

The choreography in the movie was fantastic; how long did it take the cast to practice?

The choreographer was Loni Landon, and she started rehearsing with the kids early on. We also made adjustments, when I would come in and watch rehearsal, but we started doing that pretty much in pre-production, before we started shooting. And then we did make some changes when we were actually on the set the day of, because when you get into a room, you’re suddenly like ‘the ceilings aren’t that high, we can’t do that move anymore. The floor is too slippery, so how do we solve this problem.’ So it sort of goes in stages, but we definitely had a rehearsal plan built in.

How would you pitch the movie to viewers who aren’t dealing with what Ulysses goes through?

I would say first and foremost, that it’s a human story that anyone can relate to, whether you’re dealing with gender-identity or not. It’s about a journey of self-discovery, and finding your past, which I think anyone can relate to. Then I would say that it incorporates music and dance in a sort of fantastical way, that is used as his sort of escaping his harsh reality.

What was the casting process for Luka Kain like?

It was intense. We met with a lot of kids. It’s obviously a very specific role, and it’s challenging material, so first you need to find kids that are okay with the material. I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens in the movie, but some of it is more challenging. We had to find somebody that had emotional depth, and was up for the task of carrying an entire movie. Somebody that could sing, somebody that could dance, that could move. Somebody that could fall in love, and somebody that had an innocence about them that was very genuine and pure. Not something that was manufactured or acted. So it was sort of a big task, but Luka did it amazingly.

Are there any films or directors that influenced you in the making of Saturday Church?

I would say, Paris Is Burning, which I’ve seen a lot. It’s about the New York City ball scene. I loved Dancer in the Dark, I thought that was amazing. Billy Elliot, a little bit. I would say those three. I wasn’t trying to copy a certain style. I was just going to be authentic to the material, and the process.

What message do you hope viewers take away from watching Saturday Church?

That love and acceptance is the most important thing, and people come in different shapes, sizes, genders, race and at the end of the day, none of that is what’s important. What’s important is that human connection, and acceptance and love and truly being yourself. That’s when you are your strongest.

Obviously, gender issues are a complicated topic. Were you nervous taking that on?

Yes, for sure. I wanted to make sure that everything was authentic, and that nothing felt exploitative or voyeuristic, so I did a lot of research. I spoke with social workers and I spent a lot of time at the program that the movie is based on, the Saturday Church program, at the church. I volunteered there, did focus groups, read some books and I felt glad. I met with other trans activists, I spoke with the kids. I tried to do as much thorough research as I could.

Can you explain the Saturday Church program that the movie is based on?

It’s a program that was held at the St. Lucas Church in the West Village of New York City. It was a program provided social services, food and a safe space for LGBTQ kids from the surrounding area every Saturday. The kids would come in and they wanted to talk to somebody about what was going on in their lives, or for job advice, or counseling or housing advice. That was provided there. There was a gymnasium that was adjacent to the cafeteria, and the kids would vogue and dance and perform there.

What’s next for your career?

I have one script that I’ve finished writing, and another that I want to research a bit and then I’ll start writing. I’m also producing two movies. Both are directed by Rebecca Miller. One is a documentary and the other stars Amy Schumer, Nicole Kidman and Steve Carell.

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