Shot with a deliberate fondness for classic films that revolve around families and their intricacies, “After” is an ensemble piece spearheaded by Academy Award-nominee Kathleen Quinlan as Nora, the matriarch of a New York clan, the Valentino family. Through their complex interactions we learn of a secret that has kept them functional for some time in the aftermath of September 11. Driven by conservative views Mitch Valentino (John Doman), the father, dedicates his life to Nora, while his children are left adrift to deal with the family business, alcoholism, and their personal relationships. Directed by Pieter Gaspersz, and written by Sabrina Gennarino, who also stars in the film as daughter Maxine, the film helped as catharsis for both filmmakers dealing with the loss of love ones during the tragic events. Intense conflicts, sacrifice, and the journey to be healed all form part of this powerful drama.
Here is what the talented team had to say about their latest project
Carlos Aguilar: “After” deals with a lot of intense emotions and conflicts. How did each one of you become involved with a project like this?
Sabrina: This is a story that was inspired by own personal experience. I was home for 9/11, we lived downtown and I lost friends. It was a very hard time, and I was really messed up for a long time, so I decided to start writing a diary because I needed to heal myself. That’s how it started. I needed to get to rock bottom, because from there the only place to go is up. But I was in very bad shape. It is sort of my take on how my family would have reacted if I didn’t make it that day, which was a great possibility. It started like that, but of course we made it a little bigger for the purposes of the film, but we actually had no intention of making it. It took me many years to write and get my head around it. As a friend read it she said, “ I think you should really consider getting this out there. There are many people that need to be healed.” It is ultimately a film about loss, but it is set around 9/11 because that was my experience. I couldn’t write about a murder or a car accident. It’s about loss and about a family’s journey back to health and healing.
Pieter: I was, of course, married to Sabrina but I was not involved in the entertainment world at all. We went through September 11, but that day we were separated and reunited 13 hours after the first plane had crashed. Long story short, I’ve worked down in the rubble and I’ve seen many things, so I have a personal experience with the overall event. The initial decision was to take this script, in which Sabrina poured her heart in the medium she could, and make something. But after talking to many filmmakers about what the scope of this story should be, I ended up seeing clearly the way in which it needed to be communicated to the world. It was the first time for both of us, and we just got to the end of the cliff and jumped. That’s who we are as people; we figure it out as we go down. We just jumped and drove and drove until this film got all the way to where it is today.
Kathleen: The project somehow miraculously ended up in my email from my agent. It becomes very difficult to find meaningful work, so this really spoke to me. There was something for me to do with Nora. I had no idea who Pieter or Sabrina were. I’m not exactly sure how I got the part [Laughs]. How did I get it Sabrina?
Sabrina: When someone suggested you we all go goosebumps. I didn’t think in a million years we would be able to get you. I thought, “There is no way we are going to be able to get this woman.” But gratefully we heard you responded to the material and we all started jumping up and down in the freezing cold of Rochester. Carlos, Most people don’t know this but she got the script about three days prior to shooting. We had a very short pre-production week, we shot for only twenty days, and we used 35mm film. Kathleen got in three days prior, and her breakdown scene was the very first day. That’s the power of this woman. That is the level at which she functions.
Kathleen: I was so lucky. They are all such topnotch actors. If any of them are a weak link then it just doesn’t play.
Carlos: This is an ensemble piece in which all the actors are on point. What was the process of developing and making it a reality.
Pieter : When Sabrina wrote the script, we had opportunities to do other films. But it felt like we needed to get passed this and get the weight off our shoulders. It was also about how we wanted to enter into the business. We’ve been trying to do this a very long time, and we just wanted to be calculative about it. But the bottom line is Sabrina wrote a script that was much bigger than either her or I had recognized. We realized that the film was much bigger than us and we knew that in the collaboration we needed to allow it to grow. From a visual standpoint I knew I was going to go against the grain of independent film by trying to take a period piece and make it more of a classic style drama, instead of a fast-cut, quick-shot, sharp film. We got up to Rochester after talking to our key team members for months and months, and after planning this thing out. The two weeks that we had was like letting the bulls out of the cage, I did as much research as I could but we didn’t have the time for a long audition process. What really worked for me was getting to know the actors as humans first, that way I knew who they were and how they worked prior to coming. That way we could allow them the freedom to collaborate, expand on these characters, find them as we were going along, and stay grounded to the truth we were trying to tell. We all worked tirelessly for hours upon hours in the freezing cold winter of Rochester, New York. It was amazing.
Sabrina: It took so long because I’d never written a script before and we never thought we would make it. That was part of the long development that took place.
Kathleen: I was really impressed. They chose people that worked well, not big names. They were looking for really fine actors. Obviously John Doman and Pablo Schreiber are rather big names, but I think they responded to Sabrina’s writing
Carlos: With the time constraints that you mention, was it difficult to get to know the cast and develop the certain chemistry needed for the scenes?
Kathleen: We were all in this house for several days so we had time to get to know each other.
Pieter: When Kathleen landed we went out to dinner and we talked. Obviously every film is different, but this one being so dark and intense we wanted to keep the set very light. We had a tight unit and everybody was heard, from the PAs to my line producer to the cast. This allowed for those bonding moments. There were times when everyone was free juts talking, but when it got to the intense moments we were all ready for what needed to be done.
Carlos: The dinner sequences seem to be such an important part of this family's relationship.
Sabrina: Pieter was brilliant with it; they are so hard to shoot.
Pieter: [Jokingly] Not a table scene!
Kathleen: [Laughing] Anything but a table scene!
Sabrina: We got kids; we got animals, and a table scene?
Pieter: How am I going to cover all these people? [Laughs]
Sabrina: That’s one of the things we get a lot from viewers, “This happened at my dinner table." It was really all based on my family. They are wonderful people, but we had to make it a bit bigger for theatrical purposes. My family is that supportive and we would do anything for each other. For the table scenes, those were just natural, real conversations. Pieter thought I was crazy when I acted them out. As an actor I get to ask “Does the dialogue feel real to me” that’s one of the benefits of being an actor and a writer. They were hard to do, but those dinner scenes were based on real conversations. I love when people come up and say “Oh my God, this happened last Christmas.” Pieter and the crew just nailed it.
Carlos: Given the scope of the film and the personal subject matter, did you feel an added sense of responsibility or pressure while making it?
Kathleen: I felt a tremendous responsibility due to the background of the story and representing that kind of grief or universal pain. But I’m sure Pieter and Sabrina felt a lot more responsibility.
Sabrina: That’s an understatement. We had this Oscar and Golden nominee in our film, if I had stopped to think about it I probably would have curled up in a corner. The pressure was amazing, but we had an amazing cast who were just so open and lovely. They were very real. For a film a like this, that was very important. We couldn’t have actors who were on the cover of every single magazine every day, because we needed our audiences to be able to get lost in these characters. There was incredible pressure.
Pieter: As far as fear, I don't think we had time for it. But I did see Kathleen as a person who is amazing and what she does on this planet and the contribution she brings, and also how passionate John, Pablo, and Adam Scarimbolo were. All of us were so in the mood right away. It was a phenomenal thing. During post, since we didn't have the time or budget to edit while we were shooting, I knew I needed to step it up.That's why I brought in 3-time Oscar-nominee William Steinkamp whose brush in filmmaking I knew would be perfect for this. It is a dream when you work with this level of talent, you trust each other and it is just such an open collaboration. Pressure, sure, of producing it and the fact you have to make money back, we have investors that we care about, but the experience over all has been amazing.
Carlos: Watching the film I was impressed to see a film set in 2002 as a period piece. It has only been 12 years, but that period of time has its own qualities looking at it from a distance. Since the film takes place in the aftermath of 9/11, how do you think this will be perceived now more than a decade apart?
Kathleen: Obviously cinematographer Jonathan Hall and Pieter had a great vision, but it is interesting the timing of this coming out. When they first showed it to me a few years ago we probably weren't ready for it. Somehow the timing seems OK now. It doesn't seem disrespectful, it seems like people can take a little bit, we have a little distance.
Sabrina: We've been having screenings of the film, and in the most recent one we were there for 45 minutes after answering questions, and then we went out to the lobby and more people were waiting to talk to us about it and their experience. Most of them loved that we didn't make it the "9/11 film," it was about getting to know these characters. It couldn't be about the event, they have losses in other ways. People are relating on so many different levels. The response from audience members has been truly wonderful. I'm just so grateful, it is a gift that they've given us. They are giving us such a gift when they come to speak to us about it and tell us how they feel and how powerful it was. The healing they are giving us with their response is overwhelming.
Pieter: Consciously it's not a film that follows one character. It is a film in which I want you to feel uncomfortable. I want audiences to become aware as Nora becomes aware. We are not hiding that Sam, her daughter, is death, it's on the poster, because it is about Nora's journey. For the audience that connects with it, they really connect. It was a small voice that we were looking to shout out from and the response has been outstanding.
"After" Opens Friday August 15th in Los Angeles and It's Already Playing in New York and Available on VOD