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Young LI producers talk about the making of their short film, 'Fragile White Boy'

Tim, played by Paul Valentino, in a scene

Tim, played by Paul Valentino, in a scene from "Fragile White Boy," available on Amazon Prime. Credit: Kevin Quinn and Paul Valentino

During a New Year’s Eve party last year, former classmates Kevin Quinn and Paul Valentino reconnected — they “chopped it up” as Valentino said — and then within a matter of weeks were bringing a film script of Valentino’s to life.

Quinn, a history lover who in the sixth grade produced a short documentary remake of JFK’s assassination, and Valentino, an aspiring actor since his late teens, attended North Shore Middle and High School together in Glen Head, then went their separate ways for college: Quinn to Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Valentino to St. John's University in Queens. (They graduated in 2018 and 2019, respectively.) 

After reconnecting at the party by chance, Quinn didn’t need much convincing to sign on as director after reading Valentino’s script. He said yes within a day or two of reading it in January 2019, and by May the 23-year-olds wrapped up coproducing “Fragile White Boy,” a 13-minute film shot in Glen Head that juxtaposes privilege and the lack thereof through the lens of a young white man named Tim and a Hispanic housekeeper named Isabel. “Fragile White Boy” is currently available on Amazon Prime. In separate interviews, Quinn and Valentino each recently spoke by phone with Newsday's Chereese Cross about the film. This is an edited version  of their conversations.

Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background in film?

Kevin Quinn: Well, I was handed a camcorder by my grandfather when I was 11 and I always wanted to tell stories. I had been in plays and I was interested in drawing and I loved the theater, but film was still sort of this foreign thing to me. It wasn’t until I got that camcorder that I was able to start telling my own stories and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

What about film continues to interest you?

KQ: I think the reason I keep doing it is because I have a real hunger to express myself through storytelling. I’m always trying to figure out what my next project is going to be because I’m interested in communicating with people through film. I find that I’m probably at my most honest with people through film and it’s something I like to do. I just love telling stories.

After high school you went to Drexel University. How did your involvement and interest in film expand there?

KQ: Well, I majored in film and video production and when I went in and I thought I was sort of like the [expletive]. I thought I was pretty great as most film students do when they enter film school. They've probably made some work in high school that they're pretty proud of, they've just graduated, some of them have probably won awards and they’ve gone to prom, they have a girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever and they're coming in and they wanna be directors and they wanna become Steven Spielberg — and you know, it's their moment to really sort of shine. And I loved it because I was smacked in the face and I was like really punched in the gut and told that no, you can't do anything, you’re nobody, I mean your film was terrible. You can't just come in and do whatever you want. You need to work. You need to work harder than anybody. And you need to really kind of suffer in order to even reach that level because that's what this whole thing is about.

What’s “Fragile White Boy” about?

KQ: So “Fragile White Boy” is about a woman named Isabel who is a cleaning woman at a pretty affluent home on the North Shore of Long Island, and her employer is a woman who has a son named Tim. And Tim is going through a really really hard time because he just graduated from school, he doesn't have a job, he wants to write but he's not good at it, and he's just broken up with his girlfriend, so his life is falling apart and sort of on the verge of combusting. And when Tim's mom has to leave the house, she asks Isabel to stay behind and stay after hours to look after him. And essentially that's the film. The mother leaves and these two people who are completely different and on opposite sides of the social spectrum have to sort of coexist in this big mansion of a home, and the themes involved are that of privilege and the lack thereof. Tim can sort of afford to go through his own misery and manufacture his own happy ending, whereas Isabel the cleaning woman can’t. And the film is about the impact that people who abuse that privilege have, and those who are less fortunate.

Why was coming back to Long Island to film this significant to you?

KQ: It was the first film I made on Long Island since I left for film school. I had graduated the previous year and coming back with a team and the area mirror to shoot this pretty out there film with people I went to high school with. It was pretty significant because everything had come full circle. It used to just be me out in the middle of the street in the neighboring town of Sea Cliff shooting under streetlights and that was the only lighting I had. And my camera was like a pretty basic HD camcorder. I was coming back with a team and my development [and] my growth was on full display and I realized that walking into this project and bringing everybody back that it was just different. It felt different and it was kinda cool.

And what's the message you're hoping the short film will convey to viewers?

KQ: It's easy to look at the title, it's easy to look at the log line [the brief description of the film] and maybe second guess what the film really is advocating for, and I think we ran into that when we started sort of submitting it to film festivals. There's a stigma today with terms like "privileged" and "fragile," you know people can react very strongly to them, but I think that's the film's power because we're not advocating for Tim's character. Tim is really sort of this lowlife dude who can't get over himself and he has every check for him, but he can't use any of that to his advantage because he has no motivation. He’s cocooned in his own world and everybody is sort of allowing him to wallow, and he's not helping himself, whereas Isabel is someone who has a job, has her own heartache and priorities being that she needs to be available for her son who is God knows where and that's her singular motive ... offering a life for him and taking care of him. And because of Tim's actions, she's not able to do that. And I often wonder why are those stories not front and center? Why do we care so much about Tim's narratives, but we don't care about Isabel's? There are some stories that people care about in the mainstream and then there are others that people don't care about.

What role do you play in the film?

Paul Valentino: I played the lead character, Tim. I'm the writer and producer as well.

Tell me how this project came about.

PV: So, I actually wrote the script in my last semester at school, which was in like October of 2018, so about a year ago I started working on it. And initially it kind of started as a bit of a dark comedy kind of about this character kind of roaming around his house unsure of the future and kind of hating himself in certain ways. And Kevin and I, we've known each other for years. We went to high school together and middle school and we wound up linking by chance. He was having a New Year's party and invited me to his home [and] we chopped it up over there and then a few weeks we went to go see later Yorgos Lanthimos talk at a Lincoln Center about his film “The Favourite,” which won a few Oscars I believe. And I had a script and he [Kevin] had recently made a film and I was like, tell me what you think about this. And he wound up reading it and then like a day later we agree to start to get to work on it.

What was the process of writing this script like?

PV: So initially I started writing it kind of coming from a dark place in my life through a variety of changes that were happening pretty quickly. I actually wrote it from place of pain initially to kind of get things on paper [because] sometimes that can be a bit therapeutic. And then after sitting back and analyzing it, it was pretty funny, but it was pretty dark, but it was kind of a film that I've seen before. And I did have intentions of eventually getting it made, but it took some work to actually ultimately get there. So yeah, I would definitely say it came from a place of pain [and] in terms of specifics I think sometimes those are better left unsaid.

How did you prepare for your role as the lead character?

PV: I did a bunch of funny things. I actually got my ears pierced for it, I grew my hair out [and] I didn't shower or leave the house for a week to really get a sense of what this character's going through because Tim is confined to the home he lives in and kind of pretending to be doing something when in actuality he’s doing nothing.

What message are you hoping viewers get from this film?

PV: I hope that they're able to connect to it and that they're able to see the nuance that we tried to put forth in terms of the "Fragile White Boy" and in terms of who can and cannot get away with doing certain things and living a certain life and what that ultimately says about us as a society as a whole and really America.

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