Pittsburgh filmmaker's debut selected for Sundance and stars Zachary Quinto

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As a film director, Sam Max of Pittsburgh has gotten off to a great start, with their short film "Chaperone" selected for screening this week at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Last year, Sundance featured 59 short films from 26 countries, out of a record 10,374 submissions, according to Deadline.com, indicating the 26-year-old Max has achieved a noteworthy feat.

"The odds were definitely stacked against me," Max, a Fox Chapel High School graduate who studied at the Donna Belejac Actors Studio in Pittsburgh, said. "So this says I am a director worth paying attention to."

Movie fans can screen the 16-minute "Chaperone" throughout the duration of the festival, Jan. 20 to 30, as part of the Explorer Pass available for $50 from the official Sundance website.

Pass-holders also can stream a pre-recorded Q&A with Max and the film's two actors, newcomer Russell Kahn and Green Tree native Zachary Quinto, an Emmy Award nominee for "American Horror Story" best-known for playing Spock in the 2009 film "Star Trek" and its 2013 and 2016 sequels.

Sam Max's debut film, "Chaperone," got selected for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Sam Max's debut film, "Chaperone," got selected for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Max was quite familiar with the work of Quinto, 44, often hearing his name cited as an inspirational success story while working with the same Pittsburgh drama coach the Hollywood actor had studied with many years earlier.

"I've always respected him as an artist and known his work from like (NBC's) 'Heroes' through starring in 'The Glass Menagerie' on Broadway, but wasn't expecting we'd be working together."

Zachary Quinto in a scene from "Chaperone," the Sundance Film Festival-selected short film from Fox Chapel filmmaker Sam Max.
Zachary Quinto in a scene from "Chaperone," the Sundance Film Festival-selected short film from Fox Chapel filmmaker Sam Max.

But after seeing a copy of Max's script, Quinto signed on for the part in "Chaperone," a short categorized as a mystery, "which I agree with to some extent," the director said. "I hope moviegoers come into it with an open mind and enjoy it as a mystery."

From the film's opening sequence, viewers realize Quinto's character is up to something illegal, as he pulls his car over on a Brooklyn street and picks up a young person, making sure the unnamed passenger has destroyed all cell phone records of their previous conversations.

Identified only in the film's credits as "Chaperone" and "Client," their journey to a rural destination makes an unplanned stop at a fast-food drive-thru where the purchased "fun meal" comes with a plastic toy ghost the passenger finds to be amusing.

"The film is so heavy and the characters' relationship is so uncanny, so that provided a little levity," Max said.

The plastic ghost also symbolizes the detached way we communicate about death.

"The whole dying process we tend to sanitize as much as possible," Max said.

Partway through the film, viewers will start to worry this might be the final journey for one of the two protagonists.

While the two "Chaperone" characters contemplate an illicit act, "I had to be compassionate and write about them in a non-judgmental way," Max said. "Ultimately I view 'Chaperone' and my work as a filmmaker as methods of engaging darkness and mystery in order to see ourselves as humans more clearly."

Russell Kahn in a scene from "Chaperone" directed by Pittsburgh native Sam Max.
Russell Kahn in a scene from "Chaperone" directed by Pittsburgh native Sam Max.

Shot in four days in Passaic and Sussex counties in northern New Jersey, "Chaperone's" short film format fits well with Max's directorial goals and the film viewers' experience.

In a world attuned to TikTok reels, Instagram stories, YouTube videos and iPhones marketed as movie cameras, the brevity of short films is well positioned

"You can make an incredible piece of film that's polished and hits all the storytelling needs," Max said.

"And this festival respects that artistry of storytelling. It's always been part of the ecosystem presenting a place for young filmmakers to demonstrate their voice. And I got to do that without having to raise well over $1 million for my first venture."

Max's bio identifies their "passion for sensitive, subversive, and elevated stories that preserve queerness as a radical act," adding that their genre-bending writing draws from horror, thriller, Noir and Westerns.

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Max fondly recalls staying up past bedtime as a youngster, "watching horror films I probably shouldn't have been watching. Horror thrillers always felt so subversive to me."

A resident playwright of New Dramatists, and a member writer of Suhrkamp Theater Verlag publishing house in Berlin, Max received the 2021 Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences and the 2019 Chesley-Bumbalo Playwriting Award. In 2018, Max was named to the Young & Hungry List, tracking “Hollywood’s Top 100 New Writers.”

Encouraged by the Sundance selection of "Chaperone," Max looks forward to directing and producing more movies.

Western Pennsylvania always will influence their work.

"Oh definitely. It's already steeped into my filmmaking," Max said. "There's just that industrial texture, a Rust Belt feeling, that the 'Chaperone' actors communicated."

Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. He's easy to reach at stady@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @scotttady.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Fox Chapel filmmaker's debut, shot in New Jersey, is chosen for Sundance