In “an effort to maintain a little bit of my sanity,” Sam Max wrote six shorts during the pandemic. “I had been screenwriting, but most of my work prior to the shutdowns was in performance,” they say. “This time, I was writing by thinking of myself as a director [and] writing in service of a directorial vision.” The first five shorts will never be shot—“They were interesting exercises,” Max says—but the sixth, Chaperone, became their impressively controlled, profoundly disquieting directorial debut. The story of a teenage boy (Russell Kahn) meeting up with an older man (a black-leather-gloved Zachary Quinto) at a country home, the 16-minute short clinically moves from scenes of queasy apprehension to teenage abandon to a chilling, morally complex ending.
“I generally tend to write from a place of trying to achieve some kind of personal catharsis, and the things plaguing the central character are things that I’ve also struggled with personally, one of which is suicidal ideation,” Max says. “I felt interested in the challenge of artistically trying to render a character who is thinking about those things in a way that’s not giving the audience some kind of moral platitude. I’m also interested in the eroticism underneath death and decision-making that involves death. While I’m not interested in being prescriptive in what I write, I do think the film is asking questions about care and structures of care.”
Max grew up in western Pennsylvania and studied theater performance and social ethics at University of Evansville. A playwright (Coop, Pidor and the Wolf, Twin Size Beds) and co-founder of the performance collective I Am a Slow Tide, Max attracted industry attention early, signing with Grandview manager Tracy Kopulsky as her first client. Spec scripts and The Agenda, a TV pilot written for Quinto’s Before the Door production company, landed Max on a 2018 Hollywood Young & Hungry list of top 100 new writers. Regarding the transition to film directing, Max says, “In writing full-length [theater] work, you have an hour or two hours to show people what’s up. Here, I had to be incredibly economical and pack each shot with as much storytelling as I could, subtly speaking to the themes of the work in every frame.” One filmic inspiration was Chantal Akerman’s early feature Je Tu Il Elle (“Unbelievably controlled and perfect in every way”). Throughlines between Max’s theater and film work include interests in “melding formalism and expressionism” with the horror genre, revenge and the trauma narrative. “I like setting up situations that feel dangerous or feel uncomfortable or confrontational and to leave the audience with questions rather than trying to establish some kind of binary commentary.”
Another input in Max’s practice as a director: applying lessons learned studying social ethics, their Evansville minor. “The main thing you learn studying ethics and in philosophy is how to form an argument,” they say. “I focused on environmental ethics, reading people like Vandana Shiva who are thinking about the human relationship to the environment. I continue to draw on that work to help me form arguments for why something should happen a certain way, or why a process should happen a certain way.”
Chaperone premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is currently having a successful festival run, although the picture was rejected by one major LGBTQ fest. “There’s this expectation that people who are marginalized, or people who represent some kind of diversity, should speak about that specific experience in a specific way,” the director says. “There’s an obsession about how identity will add a certain kind of social or artistic value to [a work] and to society. Unfortunately, I think there are some programmers who are hyper-engaged with that question, to the point of not allowing certain filmmakers a platform. I don’t know, but the fact that I like getting fucked by dicks is the least interesting thing about me!”
Following the success of Chaperone, the filmmaker quickly shot another short, Ticks, a bloody three-hander in which the violence is stark and the ambiguous relationships both seductive and unnerving. One of Hulu’s 2022 Bite Size Halloween shorts, Ticks was “an opportunity to play with new collaborators and think about the camera in a different way. Chaperone is hyper-controlled, very forensic, and it feels very masculine, I think, which is right for the piece. In Ticks, the narrative and the [cast] are very different, and we shot the whole thing handheld. It moves in a different way. I guess I’m just seeing the whole thing as an opportunity to keep developing.”—SM/photo by Max Zerrahn