Tom Quinn’s 2008 film The New Year Parade follows a family of four as they struggle to stay afloat in the midst of infidelity, divorce, confusion, and coming of age. Twenty-five-year old Jack McGonagul (Greg Lyons) and his sixteen-year-old sister Kat (Jenny Welsh) wrestle with their parents’ increasing vitriol as they learn to function in their own relationships. The Philadelphia Mummers Parade bookends the film; as Jack and his father strive for excellence in the South Philadelphia String Band, their family collapses around them. The Philadelphia backdrop and the documentary-style footage of the passionate Mummers anchor the film deeply in an iconic American city with a diverse and proud cultural history.
The award-winning film, which garnered praise from Variety, Filmmaker Magazine, and many others, is a truly incisive, intelligent, and well acted tribute to American family life. With its gritty, documentary tone and independent feel, the film’s a classic American story–one to which almost everyone can relate. Mr. Quinn granted the California Literary Review an interview to delve a little deeper into the mind of a talented and tenacious jack-of-all-trades, and to discuss the rigors of making a movie.
California Literary Review: First, congratulations! The film was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative at Slamdance Festival and Best Ensemble Cast at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. After all the years of work you put into The New Year Parade, you must’ve been completely thrilled to receive that kind of recognition!
Tom Quinn: Thanks! We’re all more than thrilled. I remember Jenny Welsh asking early on if we would play film festivals and I had told her, “Probably not. They’re tough to get into.” So, this whole thing has been a very pleasant surprise for everyone involved.
CLR: Tom, you wrote, directed, edited, produced, and did the cinematography for The New Year Parade. That pretty much makes it your baby. The movie is about a Philadelphia family struggling with infidelity and divorce. Why did you want to bring this particular story to life?
TQ: As we were going through our twenties and getting closer to things like marriage, several friends of mine began dealing with issues from their parents’ divorces they thought long passed. We were talking and many of them felt like divorce is an open issue, publicly considered dealt with, but they felt there wasn’t much focus on the longer term impacts. I started interviewing them about their parents’ breakups and many of them were telling very specific memories in the same ways – small moments of realization or a change in self-image. I started using these ideas to build a storyline around divorce that would focus on some of these very common, very quiet little things a lot of young people have gone through. When Carnivalesque released the DVD, it was a cool opportunity to add the interviews as bonus material, so it’s all come full circle.
CLR: The film took a number of years to complete, and you had over 160 hours of footage to edit down to the final cut. Can you tell us about some of the setbacks and what kept you going?
TQ: We started casting the film in the spring of 2004 and went into production that summer. Many of the core cast members had never acted before and we spent weeks rehearsing and sort of training them, while some of the supporting members like Irene Longshore and Tobias Segal were professionals. Initially, we had an actor for the role of the son, Jack, as well. After two weeks of shooting, it became clear that I had miscast Jack. We decided to postpone production for a year and began work on recasting and shooting documentary footage with The South Philadelphia String Band.
We cast Greg Lyons that winter and did a few small pick-ups and the 2005 Mummers Parade before resuming in earnest the summer of 2005. We shot 70 percent of the film during those months and then I started grad school, Jenny went back to college, and Greg’s band, Eastern Conference Champions, were signed to Universal Records and moved to LA. Over the next 2 years we all chipped away on nights, weekends, and vacation time.
In many ways, these were setbacks, but they actually helped the film develop and improve. The actors, crew, and I grew more and more confident in ourselves and the story, and we had time to shape and re-shoot based on the edit.
CLR: Acting and dialogue in The New Year Parade is brutal at times. I’m thinking, specifically, of the fight between teenage daughter Kat and her mother. How much did you allow the actors to ad-lib, or how closely did you want them to stick to the script?
TQ: I had shot a feature before this one and had the actors stick to the script word for word. This was a mistake and resulted in a stilted film. I then did B camera on The Other America, by Eugene Martin, where improv was encouraged and resulted in some really dynamic moments. As we cast the film we found that all of our actors were extremely good on their feet, and thoughtful about their character choices. Also, since many of them were new to acting, they did not have the tools to draw on old emotions, but were very good at creating them and responding fresh in the moment.
For instance, when we started shooting the fight between Kat and her mom, Jenny was having a tough time and her performance was rather flat. We talked and she felt she couldn’t relate to the fight because, as scripted, she had the upper hand and never would in real life. So MaryAnn and talked about ways she could take all of the control from Kat and in the next take, Jenny started crying. It’s the kind of moment you can only get when everyone trusts and cares about each other, and when they are not thinking about their lines or next mark.
CLR: In the film, the South Philadelphia String Band’s preparation for the New Year’s Parade is a matter of pride and family. What made you focus on the South Philly String Band, and how much time did you spend filming with them to get all the wonderful documentary footage?
TQ: I was having a difficult time structuring the story around these small moments and was filming a friend’s wedding when the Mummers showed up and started playing. I realized there was a whole world of families behind the scenes of the parade I had seen on TV every January first. My friend Frank Voight introduced me to The South Philadelphia String Band and we initially planned a two-week partnership. Instead, it went on for three years: they gave us a key to their club, bags of costumes, acted in scenes, wore wireless mics at drills, and secured five press passes so we could shoot the 2005 parade.
The bulk of the doc footage was shot in the fall of 2004 as the band prepared for their Egyptian theme. Jenny and Andrew would come to practices and work on props, and Mark Doyle (the only crew on most days) would shoot their drills twice a week. We cast Greg that December, and were fortunate to get him down the club once before New Year’s. All in all, we shot 80 hours of practices, drills, parades, and concerts with the band. They were amazingly supportive and we made many good friends there.
CLR: The film’s end is ambiguous. Why did you choose to finish where you did rather than going with the original ending (which is on the DVD’s special features)?
TQ: Because my friends were still dealing with these issues many years later, we always wanted an ambiguous ending. I thought we had that in the script, but upon shooting the sequence it was very romantic and exciting and felt like a bow on the film. It was Greg’s first day of shooting and we were all psyched to be getting this great footage of him running through the crowd toward Julie in costume, but in the film, it felt wrong. We wanted to create a sense that everyone had taken small steps, but there was still a ways to go. Still, I was glad to get it on the bonus features!
CLR: You mentioned recently that you have a daily grind, 9-5 job. Was that true while you were making the movie? If so, how did you find time?
TQ: Well, the first year I was doing tech support and running the TV studio at a local high school (where my co-producer, Steve Beal, is a biology teacher). Then, I went into grad school at Temple University and did freelance work where I could. Last August, I began working as an editor and am currently cutting the first feature by another Philly filmmaker. Since everyone involved had their full time jobs, or school, or both, scheduling was always tough. But at the same time, it meant we could all work without pay and still stay afloat. During the final year I often found myself using The New Year Parade to complete school assignments, so that worked out well.
CLR: Typical, but important question: which filmmakers’ work do you most admire, and why?
TQ: I’m a huge fan of Gus Van Sant because he is constantly taking risks. His craft is perfect but not precious and his filmmaking really gets me excited about making new work. I also particularly love Elia Kazan, Spielberg, and Cassavetes. They all elicit strong performances and have distinct voices and visual styles.
CLR: The New Year Parade is an inspiring work for anyone who thinks they can’t make films. What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
TQ: It may sound trite, but I think the only advice I have is to make films. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of talking about films, daydreaming about them, watching them, making excuses about budget and resources, and never making them. The only other piece is to step back from the notion that your first film is going to be this perfect thing. We would never expect that from painting, or writing, or photography. Prepare to give it time, accept slow growth, and have a good time doing it.
Photos from movie website: thenewyearparade.com.