Director and writer Damon Cardasis created an LGBTQ-centric coming-of-age musical set in a world of magical realism. As his first feature film, Cardasis, a gay white male, maintained a laser-focus on creating the most authentic story about queer people of color and not falling into the trap of telling a story that wasn’t his to tell — a trap that Hollywood often falls into.
Saturday Church (which opens today, Jan. 12 in limited theatres and on VOD) tells the story of 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain), a shy and effeminate boy, who finds himself coping with new responsibilities as “man of the house” after the death of his father. Ulysses struggles with his gender identity. He often escapes to a musical fantasy and eventually turns to the transgender ball community, who take him to “Saturday Church,” a program for LGBTQ youth. Ulysses manages to keep this from his mother, brother and super-conservative aunt — until his double life is revealed and his world is turned upside down.
Cardasis grew up with a mother who’s a liberal Episcopal priest that marched in gay pride parades and did gay marriages, so his sexuality was never an issue. He realized that this is not always the case witChristianityty and that many have suffered for being gay, trans or queer. They have been abused and kicked out of their homes. Saturday Church started with the idea of sexuality and religion but at the same time he, as a white gay man, wanted to explore the divide within the LGBTQ. “
“A white, gay male has a very different experience and most likely much easier experience than a trans person of color — there are other people in the community that have it much more difficult than I do,” Cardasis told Deadline. “Although we’re sort of one family, supposedly, as a community, we’re all sort of lumped into one — but not everyone is interacting. Not everyone has the same rights and privileges — even within the minority.”
Cardasis stresses the importance of varied stories saying, “I think people should be pushing the limits, telling stories that haven’t been told. It’s the only way that conversations are gonna get out there, or communities that have been marginalized will finally be seen.”
To tell the story, the director dove into the community and spent time with a real-life Saturday program for LGBTQ youths, mostly trans and gender non-conforming, at an Episcopal Church in NYC’s West Village. St. Luke in the Fields, is a weekly program that offers social services and food for struggling youth off the streets. He also cast members of the community as well as trans actors Indya Moore and MJ Rodriguez (who can also be seen in FX’s upcoming Pose).
Deadline sat down with Cardasis and he went into detail about making Saturday Church and how he set aside his ego to tell an authentic story.
DEADLINE: We are living, for lack of a better word, in sensitive times. Exactly how careful were you in telling a queer person of color’s story as a white gay male?
CARDASIS: I was very careful not out of, “God, I don’t want to be yelled at” but more out of trying to be true to the community. Just because I’m gay does not give me an all-access pass to the press of the LGBTQ community, and say, “Oh, well, I can just tell anyone’s story because I’m gay, so we’ve all been through it.” And approaching it as a student in the sense of “I have so much to learn “and also approaching it in the sense of a collaboration. It was not like, “Oh, my God. What a salacious story. This is gonna make a great screenplay. Let me write it up” and then poach people’s lives. It was sort of like, “How can I do right by this community?”
DEADLINE: How did you go about achieving authenticity when writing the script?
CARDASIS: I had the social worker read the script. I had consultants on the film. The executive director of Black Pride, Lee Soulja read the script. Michael Robinson, who is a consultant within the ball community read the script. I sent it to GLAD — I was actually shocked to hear that GLAAD said, “Wow. Thanks for sending us the script before you shoot it. Most times, people just create a product and then come to us and say, ‘Can you just give your stamp of approval?'”
DEADLINE: That is shocking.
CARDASIS: I was like, “That seems sort of ass-backwards.” And so they had some thoughts. I spoke with people of the community, and then also, when the script was written, I would talk to the kids that were cast, who are from the community and who had never acted before — which to me was paramount. There was no way I was white-washing it or not casting from within the community. There’s so much talent within the community to not have people from in the community portray roles. And it’s hard enough for people within the community to get work as it is, so then to like offer the role to somebody else or outside the community is insane.
DEADLINE: What kind of notes would they give on the script?
CARDASIS: When we would go over the script, I would always say, “Anything read false? And please tell me now. I have no ego in this. Someone asked me the other day at a Q & A, “Oh, did you write the script and say this is what it is. You guys have to perform.” And I was like, “What sort of asshole would do that?”
DEADLINE: Did you have any pushback from the studio in creating a film like this?
CARDASIS: For me, it was just even though I knew it was gonna be a smaller film and the producers knew it would be a smaller film because we were not casting named actors. There was no other way to make the film if we want to make it feel authentic. Everyone’s talking about equality and diversity, but it has to start from the green-lighting stage. The money talks and when you are hearing constantly, “Oh, there’s no names, it’s a smaller film,” how are you supposed to tell diverse stories when you can’t even get this thing off the ground because no one’s willing to put money into stories unless it is an A-list movie star. Luckily we had amazing producers and amazing financiers and they did all this work before.
DEADLINE: Were you pressured by anyone during production to have big marquee name in the movie?
CARDASIS: No, none of the producers, none of the financiers. It’s just something you know when you sign up, you know? There are producers that are like, “Great. This is the way it needs to be told and I fully support that.” Then there are others where the first thing out of their mouth is: “Are there any names involved? Who’s the actor? What actors? Oh, okay, yeah, sorry. It’s just gonna be really hard.”
DEADLINE: In addition to Saturday Church, Samuel Goldwyn has been acquiring films that tell diverse stories including Gook as well as God’s Own Country. They are really making woke choices when it comes to some of their films.
CARDASIS: It was first and foremost, to me, about telling a human story and it’s a different voice than many people aren’t used to hearing. But it’s a coming of age story, it’s a love story, it’s a story about family and community and all of that stuff. So that’s how I tried to lead. Yes, it’s about this community and I absolutely hope that a community that rarely gets to see itself onscreen sees itself and feels pride and says, “That’s my story.” Fortunately, some of the feedback that I’ve been getting so far, whether it’s through tweets or Instagram messages or things where people said, “Oh, my God, thank you” or “Oh, my God. Finally, I see myself on screen.” But it’s also been really great to see the reaction from people that are not from this community say, “Oh, my God, I realize I’ve had my eyes closed.”
One of my friends who’s a gay white male was crying at the end of the movie and was like, “I realize that I’ve not done enough for trans people or gender non-conforming,” and he gave the price of his ticket to a charity to help fight for rights. It’s been really nice to see people sort of walk away and feel touched and maybe a little bit more open-minded.
DEADLINE: As a white gay director, what did you learn from this story about a group of LGBTQ teens of color — or telling diverse, intersectional stories in general?
CARDASIS: People have a weird bravado — a lack of humility a lot of time [when it comes to diverse storytelling]. It’s like, “Oh, I know” or “I’m an artist.” You have to ask if you are you doing this for yourself or are you doing this to create the most accurate and truthful piece of work that you can. And if it’s about yourself, then you’re not going to be doing the best job possible because you’re putting yourself first. But if you’re actually trying to tell something in the most truthful, accurate way, then you take a back seat and your ego takes a back seat, and you sort of sit and become a student and listen.