'Saturday Church' Director Damon Cardasis Talks 'Super Flattering' Comparisons To 'Moonlight' & 'La La Land'

Saturday Church
Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Still from Saturday Church.

You’re in good company when your film is being described as La La Land meets Moonlight, even if the analogy is a bit erroneous: “There's many movies that I'm glad it's not compared to, but I also don't think it's the most accurate comparison,” director and writer Damon Cardasis told Billboard Pride of his film, Saturday Church, hitting theaters tomorrow (Jan 12).

Saturday Church is a musical coming-of-age film centered around 14-year-old Ulysses, a quiet, effeminate boy struggling with questions about his gender identity under the hawk-like eye of his conservative aunt. He finds sanctuary in a fantasy land of dance and music, and eventually discovers the NYC ball scene through Saturday Church, a program for LGBTQ youth.   

Ahead of its theatrical release, Cardasis talked to Billboard Pride about casting Saturday Church with LGBTQ talent, how the film helped provide a springboard for two actresses who were cast on Ryan Murphy’s upcoming FX show, Pose, and his goals for the film: “I want the community to feel like it tells their story and that they see themselves on screen.”       

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for BFI
Damon Cardasis

Billboard: I want to talk about casting this film. You casted members of the LGBTQ community, specifically transgender actors, for the queer roles in the film. Was that important to you?

Damon Cardasis: Yeah, that was paramount. There was no way I was making this movie without it being members of the community playing roles. There's so many talented people out there within the LGBTQ community that never get an opportunity to perform. So, especially when you're doing a movie about the community, I mean, to cast it in any other way is just totally insane and asinine, in my mind.     

I wanted to be as authentic and truthful as possible. I think the conundrum people get in a lot is: how do you finance a movie with actors that aren't well known or who haven't acted before? And, that of course is a factor, but I have to give credit to the producers and the financiers. They didn't think of doing this any other way. They never tried to cast “names” or more well-known actors into roles. They were behind me 110 percent.     

And the movie has helped provide a springboard for two trans actresses, Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez, who were recently cast in Ryan Murphy’s new project, Pose. How did you react to that news?

I mean, I was thrilled. They're both talented actresses. I wish the whole cast could have been cast in the TV show. They're so talented, and I didn't want this being their first major film and their last. I was hoping that everyone would get careers out of this. They deserve to. So, the fact that they're getting a voice, and they're getting more exposure is amazing.

I had heard that the casting directors were calling in members of my cast and had run into somebody at FX in Los Angeles, who was like, “oh yeah, we're aware of your movie,” which was flattering. It's amazing. I mean, to find actors and then see them sort of launch into now being TV stars.

You know, Indya had never been to an audition in her life. To sort of launch from this movie into a TV show, it makes you feel sort of special. And they're incredible. So, I'm happy for them personally, but also just the association with the movie is sort of cool. If this movie can help people's careers, how amazing would that be?

And it seems that everything Ryan Murphy touches turns to gold, so what a great opportunity.

Well, I'm hoping that some of the gold trickles down to my movie. I would love that. If people love the show, and they're like, 'Oh my god, I'm obsessed with these actresses, and I'm obsessed with this world,' come along and check out my movie, which is a musical, too

Right! There’s a scene where Mj starts singing and I got chills. That voice! That actually brings me to my next question. I've seen Saturday Church lazily compared to a cross between La La Land and Moonlight. How do you feel about those comparisons?

I mean, it's flattering. There's many movies that I'm glad it's not compared to, but I also don't think it's the most accurate comparison. I get that it's a young person of color dealing with their sexual orientation and their gender identity. So, I can see why the comparison to Moonlight. I get that it's sort of thematically there, and La La Land is a musical, and this has musical aspects.

I didn't even know those movies existed when I did this. We'd shot the whole thing over the summer, and we were starting to edit it when I saw Moonlight at the Toronto Film Festival. And then I saw La La Land, I think late winter or something?

They're both great movies, and having them compared to these Oscar-winning films is super flattering. I should be so lucky.

What do you hope that the audience takes away from this film?

First, and foremost, I want the community to feel like it tells their story and that they see themselves on screen, and it's an accurate representation of who they are. The feedback so far has been very much in support of that, which means everything. But I also want people -- you know, if you are some white, straight guy in Ohio, who is like a Trump supporter or something -- I want you to also feel a connection, because it is first and foremost a human story. If you've ever been bullied, or you know what it's like to be alone, or you've fallen in love for the first time, I think that these are all human conditions that we can relate to.

Once you see that and you understand that, you realize that all the exterior stuff is not important. So, if it helps open up people's minds, then great. Whatever can be done to start conversations and get people being a little bit more open-minded and supportive of one another would be incredible.

"Saturday Church" arrives in select theaters Friday (Jan 12). It will also be available on-demand and on all digital platforms.