Interview with “American Quartet” Director Jesca Prudencio, Writer Erin McGuff-Pennington, and Writer/Producer Adam Grannick

From March 4-8, The Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival held its latest festival at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY. They always put on a great show, and bring some of the best sci-fi films to their audiences. One of the films that had its premiere during the festival was “American Quartet,” a very unique film that touched on some tough issues. was lucky to get to talk about the film with director Jesca Prudencio, writer Erin McGuff-Pennington, and writer/producer Adam Grannick. Check out what they had to say about the film, the issues it touches, how they put it together, and more…

-PH: “American Quartet” just had it’s premiere at the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival. Before we talk about how the premiere went, can you tell us what the film is about?

-Erin McGuff-Pennington, writer: American Quartet is a futuristic short film about a Muslim-American woman who risks her privacy and safety when she shares her digitized memories with her bitterly divided town in the hope that empathy might triumph over hate.

-PH: There’s lots of different aspects of this film to talk about, but lets start with where did the original idea come from?

-Erin McGuff-Pennington, writer: The idea for the narrative originated in the music—in its form and components (i.e., four main characters to fit the four different tracks of the quartet), but also in its spirit and intent. The composer Antonin Dvořák, who wrote this piece during his residency in the United States in the late-nineteenth century, intended to capture the “spirit of American music.” One can clearly hear the Irish, African-American, and Native American influences in the melodies, and as we brainstormed ideas for the script, it was important to us to write a story that celebrates the diversity of the American experience, as we feel Dvořák’s music did 125 years ago—and still does today.

-PH: Was it planned from the start to make this film with no dialogue?

-Jesca Prudencio, director: Filmelodic has been doing incredible work taking classical music and putting it in conversation with stories that speak to our world today. When I was brought on to direct this film, it felt like a perfect fit for me since my mission as an artist is to humanize issues and I’m also a classical violinist. This is the first project where I have been able to bring the two together.

-Adam Grannick, writer/producer: Music, as the universal language of the film, allows viewers to experience the characters’ feelings – their isolation from home, their fears, their love. Music doesn’t care what ideologies or backgrounds people have. And the Filmelodic series, since 2011, has been about creating deeply human stories that are centered around pieces from the classical repertoire – and performed with live orchestras and chamber ensembles.

-PH: Please talk a little about how the song was picked for the film, and for those who aren’t familiar with it why you felt it was perfect for the film?

-Erin McGuff-Pennington, writer: In many ways the film was picked for the music; or, rather, we started with the piece of music and wrote the story based on that music. We chose Dvořák’s American Quartet because we affirm and admire that it pays homage to the differences among America’s people and their music, while at the same time weaving together and building on those differences to create something wholly unique, resonant, and powerful. We chose this music because it exemplifies a vision and hope that we have for our country today.

-Adam Grannick, writer/producer: Written by Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, this piece was inspired by his travels to a small town in Ohio. I thought it was especially meaningful that this piece of the American musical tradition was written by someone who was not born here, but chose to move here and work here.

-PH: The film goes where many fear to go, and touches on hate and divide. Was there any fear in touching on these subjects? Do you feel you went far enough trying to get your point across?

-Erin McGuff-Pennington, writer: Those subjects are not easy ones to address, but that’s part of what makes them so important to address. Because our story draws on the personal experiences of people who don’t necessarily look like us or share our backgrounds, we wanted to ensure that we treated our characters and the actors who would play them with utmost care and respect, which involved asking hard questions, confronting our biases, and making it our responsibility to research and talk with people who have experienced the kind of hate and division that our story illuminates. There’s a certain mix of humility and courage one must strive for when writing; we did our best to espouse this as we worked to create a story with authentic characters and relevant themes.

-Jesca Prudencio, director: Art must start a conversation. Our audiences should see the screen as a mirror that forces them to look into themselves and the world around them, and ultimately interrogate their current reality. The best work resonates and stays with you after you leave the theater, and working with my incredible team, it was our goal to do just that.

-PH: There’s a piece of technology used in the film kind of in place of the dialogue. Can you talk a little about what that is, and where that idea came from?

-Jesca Prudencio, director: Diaries, by definition, are deeply personal objects, and in “American Quartet,” we have created a world where these objects hold our truth… our experiences, memories, and feelings. They cannot be articulated into words, so you will see how the characters record and relive them in a personal and magical way. In our world, no words can articulate empathy… it can only be experienced, and the diaries [become] the portal for that.

-PH: Is there also a statement about technology that you’re trying to make in the film?

-Erin McGuff-Pennington, writer: Technology has the power to harm or help, to unite or divide, just like we as people do. We must remember this as we continue to develop and rely on our technology at an ever-increasing rate.

-Adam Grannick, writer/producer: Social media creates comfortable ideological bubbles. So we wanted to explore how people using technology invented for self-care and self-involvement – a telepathic diary, in this case – would react if that same technology were used instead to spark empathy. 

-PH: Jesca this was your debut film. How would you describe the overall experience of bringing this film to life?

-Jesca Prudencio, director: I am mainly a theatre director, so rehearsal is a big part of my process. It’s a sacred time to create the sense of family, ensemble, and unity and we accomplished that. We laid a strong foundation that made our time on set both efficient and profound, and I believe that translates on the screen.

-PH: And of course, how did the premiere go? What was the audience’s reaction and feedback about the film?

-Adam Grannick, writer/producer: The premiere was wonderful. It was sold out, the Museum of the Moving Image was a wonderful venue. We had the privilege to screen with some lovely films, and the Philip K Dick Festival director Daniel Abella conducted a great Q&A afterwards, where lead castmembers Yekta Khaghani and Brian Wolfe were able to talk about the challenges and joys of acting without dialogue. And we were able to emphasize the reality that there is, as of yet, no piece of technology that can simulate empathy. We have to do the painful work ourselves.

-PH: Here’s your chance to promote anything we haven’t talk about. Let us know something more about the film, where it can be seen in the future, upcoming projects, or anything else you would like to mention.

-Adam Grannick, writer/producer: We will be playing next at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, NJ at 3:30PM on Sunday, March 29. Other short films in the Filmelodic series can be seen on our website, and we look forward to collaborating with chamber musicians for upcoming concerts where American Quartet will be performed with live music.

We would like to thank Jesca, Erin, and Adam for taking the time to answer our questions. Hopefully this gave you a good look at their amazing new short film. Be on the look out for more viewings of it in the upcoming months. Visit Filmelodic for updates on “American Quartet,” and more of their films!

*All stills are courtesy of Adam Grannick Multimedia, by cinematographer Nona Catusanu*

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