More often than not, a filmmaker is only as good as their closest collaborators. So it must be comforting, then, if your closest collaborator is a person you have known for literally your entire life. Sibling filmmakers SARAH SHERMAN and ZACHARY RAY SHERMAN put their familial bonds to work co-directing the coming-of-age teen romance YOUNG HEARTS (from Sarah’s script). Their new film is about a budding high school relationship between brainy freshman Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and her older brother’s best friend Tilly (Quinn Liebling).
Young Hearts is Sarah’s debut as a screenwriter and director. Zachary has been a working actor for over a decade and transitioned to directing with the 2019 indie Barbie’s Kenny. Sarah and Zach are also co-producers on Young Hearts (originally titled Thunderbolt in Mine Eye) and shot it on location in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. After the 15-day production wrapped, the film got a boost with the support of a Seed&Spark program that brought on the Duplass Brothers as executive producers.
Young Hearts premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival and will now be in select theaters and on VOD starting on February 12, via Blue Fox Entertainment. We talked to writer/co-director Sarah Sherman and co-director Zachary Ray Sherman about their collaboration process, working with a young cast, the representation of teenagers on film, and more.
COLIN McCORMACK: When you guys were growing up, were you involved in the arts or acting from a young age?
ZACHARY RAY SHERMAN: Yeah. We just celebrated [Sarah’s] daughter’s fifth birthday yesterday and she was pulling up some old journals and writing. I remember Sarah was always writing when we were kids – little novels, little mysteries. So I would say from early on, she was definitely writing, which she has continued and gotten so good at. As far as acting, when we were early teenagers, she was asked to go to an acting class by a neighbor in downtown Portland and Sarah didn’t want to go by herself so she asked me to go. We both went down to the acting class and from there I think that kind of catapulted acting for me. From there on, we were both terribly artistic – drawing and sketching and all that stuff was always around the house, way more so than sports. But we weren’t little artist prodigies or anything, we were just normal kids.
SARAH SHERMAN: What we were doing wasn’t good, but we were into it [laughs].
CM: At what point did writing for you, Sarah, and acting for you, Zach, go from a hobby to something you wanted to pursue as a profession?
SS: I kind of fell out of acting in high school and Zach kept with it. But I had always been dancing as well – ballet, all of it. So after high school, I moved down to LA to pursue that, which I did for a little while then fell out of and was just working odd jobs. Zach had moved down to LA by that point and he was pursuing acting from the get-go. I don’t really know at what point – but I know there was a point – at which we were conspiring [to collaborate]. I was tinkering with questionable poetry at the time and we both had always been into movies and there was just an idea of, “I should write a movie and you should be in it.” That in itself has been a really long path for us, I think that was 2010 or something. But yeah, we just kept chugging away from then on.
ZRS: I remember there was a film that maybe we’d both written when we were like 13 and 14. We were going on some vacation and we were bringing Sarah’s dance friends and I convinced everybody to act in this movie that I was going to direct on our little small camera. And we got to the vacation and we worked for a day and then everybody was like, “You’re really mean and controlling and we just want to be on vacation.”
SS: The movie itself was like a bad reality TV show behind-the-scenes. I think we all took a vote and we voted like, “No, Zach, we don’t like this.” It was really devastating, at least for you, maybe not for me.
ZRS: We had these ideas that you could get groups together and do these things. But as for the strive toward [being] a professional, I went to film school when I was 18 at Chapman in Orange, and I was going to study directing. I was there for about 12 days before I dropped out – for numerous reasons; I knew it was going to be too much money, I was dealing with some family stuff at home, I just thought there were other ways to do it. I remember very clearly at that point going, I’m going to return to Portland, I’m going to really seriously get into acting, and “act” my way into the industry. And it’s crazy that that was 20 years ago or something, but that was the trajectory. I came back and started doing art student films in Portland, stuff off Craigslist, local theater, and eventually, I got set up with agents and a manager in LA while I was still in Portland. I remember I sent in a tape for There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, for the part that Paul Dano eventually played. But I was cast in a Western with this guy named Tim Hunter. He discovered Matt Dillon and Keanu Reeves. I went out to New Mexico and shot for four or five weeks and from there, I moved into Sarah’s apartment in North Hollywood, where she was studying dance. Over the next ten years, we slowly got serious about collaborating to where we’re at now.
CM: So was it from your various experiences on set and watching other directors work that you started to get a vibe of, This is how I could direct?
ZRS: Yeah, it certainly informs you and educates you. I think my studying of movies has brought me more insight than exactly the stuff on the day with different people because so many people are pretty passive directors. I think we all look up to these greats because they’re great and few and far between, but being an actor has helped in so many ways. It’s the final result when we’re watching films and it’s the main reason everybody sits down and the main reason we congregate because these are humans telling stories and we’re watching the people. So for that to be my job, I feel like [I had] a leg up once I’m behind the camera. And with Sarah, I feel it even stronger because she’s so smart and she writes so expertly and we only get better having the two of us together.
CM: Sarah, what was the first spark of an idea for what became Young Hearts?
SS: I think it came from a lot of things going on at once. My daughter was a toddler at the time and I was always taking her to the park, running into the same kids and families over and over and it got me thinking about kids growing up together and how their relationships change. I’ve always been weirdly nostalgic for my teenage years so I think plugging that into the [idea of], What is it like for teenagers who have grown up together? How does the way they see each other start to shift as they get into adolescence? There are a lot of things literally right in front of you – the teenagers on my block, the little kids at the park – sort of fusing together. I also think it’s a genre I’ve always been interested in as an adult. I would consume Young Adult movies and things like that and always felt a bit dirty afterward. I was never always satisfied with the way that they are often portrayed. I don’t mean to say always, but the obvious stuff of older actors playing teenagers and soapy dialogue and things like that. Once Zach and I started talking about, Should I write this thing?, it became really exciting and a little scary to think, Wow, I could contribute something to this genre that is sort of my secret guilty pleasure.
CM: Were there specific projects – from a story perspective or the tone or style – that were particular inspirations? There are obviously the Mount Rushmore of Teen Films, but those are usually like what you said – older actors, soapy dialogue – so were there more off-the-beaten-path films that spoke to you?
ZRS: I’d like to jump in and say there are two. A formula we were looking at was something like, “The Spectacular Now + The Puffy Chair = Thunderbolt in Mine Eye (which is now Young Hearts)”. I think the rawness of what the Duplasses were doing very young and what [James] Ponsoldt was doing with those two great actors on The Spectacular Now being the right age and stuff, I think that was something we were after. Sarah, do you have anything?
SS: No, I feel similarly. The one that I always reference is The Spectacular Now. I was like, “It would be awesome to make a movie as good as that.” Other than that, there were things that didn’t necessarily pertain to the genre but like Zach said, were the vibe of that raw authenticity, early Duplass Brothers stuff that spoke to us. I remember when Lady Bird came out I was like, “There’s a movie!” It didn’t necessarily have direct correlations, but it was just exciting to see something being really well-done in a similar genre.
ZRS: I think there’s a closer comparison to the success and wonder of Eighth Grade from a couple of years ago. That movie was so alive and fresh and unique and a seemingly hybrid-documentary, even though it wasn’t. I think we definitely dip into that territory a little bit, but we’re maybe pulled closer toward the teen film like The Spectacular Now. But I loved what happened with Eighth Grade and I do see something visually comparable between those two.
CM: I felt similar when watching Young Hearts as I did to Eighth Grade in being wowed at the beginning like, “Oh my God, these kids look so young.” When actually no, they’re really that age and I’m just used to watching 30-year-olds play those roles.
SS: Yeah, it messes with your perception of reality for sure.
ZRS: I think that was imperative. Sarah said it from the beginning and rightly so: We need to strive to have across the board as close as we can, actors who are that age. I was on 90210 for a year and I think I was 25 when I was playing high school [aged]. And it’s a shame that that’s what is standard because it’s dishonest and it’s cheap and it feels lazy, it feels stupid. So it’s nice to go outside of it and bring it back to reality.
SS: On a deeper level too, I find it honestly – to get on my soapbox – kind of harmful. I didn’t feel this way growing up so much because in high school I was busy and didn’t watch a whole lot of the teen shows that were on at the time, but it’s kind of messed up to have these super unattainable projections of reality for young people when it is 25-year-olds who are paid to work out multiple times a day. Every aspect of that, let alone this mature content, is supposedly realistic when you’re not having those experiences in high school. I feel like it does a disservice to young people, but that’s me being high and mighty right now [laughs].
ZRS: No, you’re absolutely right. I’m glad you’re saying it. I remember sitting in the chair on 90210 getting into makeup like, “What is this? What are you doing?” It was like a spray tan – they’re applying cakes of makeup with this pressurized [airbrush] thing. And I was just a 25-year-old dude and they covered us up. It’s beautification. It’s really backward. And we didn’t do any of that [on Young Hearts]. Everybody was taking care of their own self and look as they do normally and it sounds like you noticed that.
CM: When you’re writing, you’re obviously worried about the story and the structure and all of that, but you were writing this knowing you’d be using actual teenagers in the cast and you wrote it knowing you’d be directing it, correct?
CM: Were there things you took into account in terms of “makability”?
SS: For sure. The biggest thing that stands out in my mind when you say that is the love scenes. I was like, There’s no way in hell I’m going to ask a 15-year-old to do something that strikes me as exploitative. If I feel weird asking someone to do it, then it probably is weird or inappropriate on some level. So I think specifically the scene where they lose their virginity, it was adamantly important to me that we only show so much. Maybe that sounds really obvious in saying it, that it would be crazy for me to think otherwise, but I know I had that in my mind. I can’t really think of anything else when thinking about their ages, other than just trying to capture their accurate tone.
ZRS: We’d been striving to have our debut project for maybe four or five years. We developed a TV show with Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny… and we got close with that and we’ve had a couple of other near misses. We knew we wanted to do something, so we came to the drawing board with, How can we keep it simple? How can we keep it small? How can we keep it, essentially, DIY? Then she came up with this “first love” thing and we rapped back and forth and decided it was a great idea and she jumped in. But I think you’re hitting exactly on “makability.” We’re very from the Duplass book of “Write what you can access.” Sarah lives in Southeast Portland and it takes place in Southeast Portland. We built the characters’ homes around neighbors on Sarah’s street who would let us come in and shoot when they could vacate the home for free. Shooting at a former high school. There are all these resources we could attain with a very micro-budget film approach and that was essentially baked-in through Sarah’s blueprint with the screenplay.
CM: Once the script was done, what was the first step in getting it to a producer and taking it to the next level?
ZRS: We definitely knew we were going to need somebody because we were both going to be directing. I’d produced in the past and it feels like a strong suit, but we wanted more support. So we looked through who would be available, we put out a cold call and we ended up finding Elise Freeman.
SS: Yeah, she’s a Portland producer. We put out an ad on Craigslist. I think we chatted with a few potential people and she seemed like the right vibe when we met her. It was rather unconventional in terms of seeking a producer while also being like, “We’re going to shoot this in two months and we don’t have any money and we’re not sure if we have access to any money.” And she was really the one who said, “I’ll make that with you!” We had already had some people say, “There’s no way you can do that.” And our little egos said, “Yes we can.” So that was kind of it, Elise connected with the script and that was that.
ZRS: We knew we were going to be rolling a boulder up a hill but we also knew we’d baked in these resources that we can use and it can be possible, even through SAG’s ultra low budget agreement we were able to get these actors and poach these actors from TV shows that I’d acted on and I’d known were great actors. They were in love with the script and wanted to show up and be a part of it and bring it to life. Elise helped build the framework for that, but it was all hands on deck, everybody helping across the board until the Duplasses came on. We lucked out and they chose us, but everything kind of ended up working in our favor and we’re really pleased and grateful to be where we are now just days away from folks being able to see the movie. It’s pretty exciting.
CM: You mentioned the actors you’d worked with before. How early on did you get the script to Quinn and Anjini?
ZRS: We were just talking about this with somebody the other day. I think Sarah had half the script or just the first act written, and I was shooting Everything Sucks! with Quinn at the time. I saw him at a table read, he was terrific, his instincts were so good, he was so funny, he was really alive. And I said, “Sarah, you’ve got to meet this guy. He’s fantastic.” So she saw some footage or something and we talked further, and we ended up sending Quinn those first 30 pages or whatever it was. It resonated with him, he said, “This feels like real life. I love it, I want to do it. But maybe I should wait a year until I’m actually 15.” [Laughs] He was only 14. And we did end up waiting a year because we had to get all our ducks lined up. I went and made my first micro-budget in the meantime and then nine months later we were shooting Thunderbolt.
CM: Did you find the actors ended up having some say in how their characters were shaped? Obviously, Sarah did her research in how to write realistic teenagers, but I’d assume a teenager knows how they would talk more than any of us would.
SS: Right. It’s kind of funny when we talk about it because I think we had this idea where we were like, “This is going to be super collaborative. You guys can throw out the script and make it who you want.” And Zach, correct me if you remember differently, but I feel like it happened the way it did maybe [as] a matter of working on a tight schedule, but we really stuck to the script. The kids really didn’t have a lot of stuff where they were like, “This feels inauthentic.” Occasionally, there’d be a line that was kind of stumbly and we’d tweak it. Now in my mind, retrospectively, I wish we’d had a little bit more time to play because I think we could have dug into some things a little bit more. Zach, do you have anything more? We kind of planned for this whole [improvisational] thing, but in the end, it was what it was.
ZRS: You’re absolutely right. We told them, “We’d like you to bring yourself to it and tell us if it feels inauthentic and let’s change these lines if they’re not correct.” But with all that said, we ended up sticking straight to the script. I was thinking about that as you were talking, I think it’s 97% the text. I’d like to make a point that that’s a testament to Sarah’s script and that’s why Quinn and Anjini came on so quickly. They said, “This isn’t what we normally read. This isn’t the same formulaic drama bullshit that we’re used to and this is very reflective of our experience.” So when you have something that’s strong on the page, there’s really no reason to change it. It was cool that they brought themselves and they brought their own pauses and awkwardness and their own chemistry, but Tilly and Harper that you see in the movie are pretty much on the page.
[Ed. Note: At this point, our phone interview ends so they can get to their next interview. Sarah and Zach were kind enough to answer a few more follow-up questions. Their separate answers have been condensed and edited together below.]
CM: We talked about adult actors so often playing teen roles, and it’s usually due to productions wanting to avoid child labor restrictions. How big of a hurdle was it working with minors?
SS: It wasn’t as big of a hurdle as we feared it would be when we first started (which we won’t lie, it seemed a little daunting at first!). Anjini was 18, so was available to work normal hours. With Quinn being 15 and schools being in session when we filmed, we had to have both an on-set tutor and also make sure he was working reduced hours. This was challenging with him being one of the two leads but also manageable; we just had to be really diligent with our scheduling and make sure we were breaking up any scenes Quinn wasn’t in to extend our mornings or nights once we had to let him go each day. (And the supporting cast who were minors was pretty manageable as well as they were never shooting more than a scene or two at a time!)
ZRS: It’s just scheduling. It’s certainly an obstacle in that you’re restricted to X amount of hours under SAG’s rulings – and rightfully so. So it’s really an A/B schedule game. I wrote the schedule for the movie and we tweaked it as we went, but you’re just always being mindful of how little time you have with Quinn and Anjini and you just have to be as efficient in planning and execution as possible. I’ve always thought making movies – especially micro-budget movies – is really about the setup and the preparation. Like anything, if you have a good blueprint then you’re set up to succeed, but if you don’t you can’t move forward in a successful fashion. It’s really taking your time with that and building something that makes sense. And on top of that, using rehearsal time prior to shooting days to make sure you’re ready so when you get there on those days and we have that confined window of time, we get what we need in the little time that we have.
CM: The film was shot and premiered at Slamdance under the title Thunderbolt in Mine Eye. Could you take us through the process of changing a movie’s title?
ZRS: We were thrilled to debut at Slamdance. We got an email from Sundance that we were in the final negotiations and they were really complimentary of the film, but for many reasons – and as you know, Sundance is such a marketplace and juggernaut – we weren’t surprised that we weren’t accepted. We were really grateful that we heard from the festival head and she loved the film and only had sweet things to say and encouragement to pass along. But Slamdance is truly representative of the film: Truly independent, truly micro-budget, outside of the system, so to speak. I think that’s reflective of the Duplass Brothers. So Slamdance was a thrill. I was up in Seattle doing a play, Sam Shepard’s True West, and I couldn’t come [to Slamdance] because I was doing eight shows a week over a month. But Sarah, Elise, Anjini, some of our other actors, and our editor John-Michael Powell, they all went to Park City and joined in the festivities. At that screening, Blue Fox Entertainment was present for one of our two screenings. They had already expressed interest, they came to check out the film, and I think about a month later we were in negotiations with them.
SS: Yeah, we loved our old name, RIP Thunderbolt! The change came about pretty simply though; we got purchased by (the amazing!) Blue Fox Entertainment, whose first attempts at finding further distribution overseas came where they realized Thunderbolt in Mine Eye may not adequately translate. We brainstormed some easily translatable phrases and they liked [Young Hearts] so much they decided to keep it for domestic purposes as well. We’re happy for the movie to find an audience, so Young Hearts we are!
ZRS: We weren’t jumping with joy with a new title, because I thought Sarah’s pull from Shakespeare is a pretty fitting title for the movie we set out to make and made. But this is business and this is how it works and we figured if this is going to mean more eyes on the film and a wider audience, then we’d be crazy not to.
CM: The end credits include an acknowledgment of the indigenous people of the land where the project was filmed. I’ve noticed different film festivals make similar statements of gratitude, but I hadn’t seen it in a movie’s credits before. How did that idea come about?
SS: Thanks for asking about this! I think I initially came across land acknowledgments on social media and pretty much as soon as I did, felt strongly we should put one in the movie. While I think they’re a (tiny tiny) start to yeah, literally acknowledging land theft and the colonial occupation of such that we ourselves participate in, I do want to mention that I’ve since read the words of some indigenous folks who perceive land acknowledgments as being potentially empty ways for people/companies to “perform” doing some sort of “work,” but that if they’re not coupled with genuinely tangible offerings (like attempts at wealth redistribution or similar changes that can actually be felt by those we’ve marginalized) then they’re kind of meaningless. That said – we’re genuinely grateful to have filmed the movie in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and are glad if our decision to include a land acknowledgment spreads further awareness for harm done and/or inspires anyone of privilege to take tangible action.
ZRS: I think it’s important that we acknowledge our past so we can move forward in a healing front. I think we’ve realized that in the past four years of dumpster fire Trumpian bullshit and inequality that we need to admit our differences, we need to admit our flaws, we need to admit our wrongs before we can heal. Continue to acknowledge the atrocities that this country is built upon and continues to operate on – the systems that keep so many oppressed. Sarah asked to add that to the end of the film and I’m glad she did. I only became aware of these statements years ago after going to the theater and it being in a program or an announcement before the play began. For Sarah to [apply] this into our movie is the very least we could do as white Americans. The very least we could do.
CM: After knowing each other for your entire lives, was there anything new you learned about the other during your time as co-directors?
SS: I learned that there is no amount of coffee that is too much for Zach and probably other more serious things that I can’t think of right now!
ZRS: What I learned from Sarah specifically on this shoot that I think is pretty monumental is the power and value of patience and how patience is truly grace. It’s such a graceful way to be, to be patient. And I don’t think that’s necessarily my go-to. I can keep a pretty cool temperature, but it’s also easy – like for most humans – to react and for the dial to get ratcheted up in intense situations. But what I’ve seen in Sarah – maybe since becoming a mother, maybe other factors in her life I’m unaware of – is this practice that’s really beautiful and instructive to me of patience and, in turn, grace. It’s perfect. It’s the way we should engage as humans, with open ears and a little bit of pause before we speak and react. A film set is a tense situation, but the best thing you can do is surround yourself with beautiful, talented, smart people and act on your best instincts. It’s easy when you have the best people around you, smarter people than you, and more talented people than you. Also, I think having a lot of love in the group encourages this patience, ease, and acceptance for whatever’s going on, so we all don’t have to react and bite each other’s heads off and get in the way of the work and damage the environment you’re creating. I really appreciate Sarah for that and imparting it on me through who she is and how she behaved throughout the shoot.
CM: Finally, what’s next for you – either separately or as collaborators?
SS: We have a production company with our oldest brother Jacob called Kiss the Earth Films that we hope houses some future projects we’re working on right now. Zach wrote an amazing script about our Grandpa Ray (our first investor in Young Hearts!) who at the age of 58, ran 58 marathons in 58 weeks that we’re hoping to get made soon. He’s also working on the script for what he hopes will be his last micro-budget feature that he plans to direct and act in called Hail Mary. I’m working on a new script that’s a love story between two adults who are both suffering from mental illness, and I have a feature called Strong Men about a group of adult brothers and their abusive father that I’m trying find funding for (I’ll direct that one solo and Zach will play one of the brothers).
ZRS: Hail Mary for me is a micro-budget and I hope it’s my final micro-budget. Barbie’s Kenny, my first film, I made in ten days. And I wrote, directed, and produced that. It’s playing at the Portland International Film Festival in March, then I’m going to sell it and release it this year. I’m really proud of that as being my first film – we shot it for very cheap in ten days. So with Hail Mary, I’d like to give myself more time. But it’s going to be a behemoth because I’m going to be the lead in it and direct it and it’s a very intense story. I’m in the middle of writing it right now and I can’t wait to make it; I’m hoping to bring my team along that I’ve had for both projects in Martim Vian and John-Michael Powell, cinematographer and editor. They’re incredibly talented storytellers and artists in their own crafts. They make me so much better and I’d love to round out this stage of my life with a trilogy of micro-budget films that were the first three movies I ever made. I made Barbie for ten grand and we shot Thunderbolt for $32k. It ballooned up a lot higher after we got the Duplass grants, but I’m really glad that we were able to get a movie in the can for that cheap. Hail Mary I’d love to attempt for $60k to $75k and just take our time because it’s going to be such an effort. Herculean, no doubt.
Sarah’s got a bunch of other projects, including a beautiful movie Strong Men that’s a rural Washington look at toxic masculinity. It derives from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. That’s a really beautiful script; I’m going to act in that, she’ll direct it, I’ll probably help produce. She has another romantic drama she’s writing right now that I think is going to be a tremendous movie. I really think we’re beginning our career right now, even though I’ve been in it for 15 years in the LA system acting my ass off between episodic TV and independent film. This really does feel like a jumping-off point and a beginning and we feel really grateful and excited for the future.
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