We Are Suns tells the story of Sam Spencer's journey to find his estranged father 

In Sam Spencer’s senior year as a filmmaking student at Mason Gross School of the Arts in fall 2020, he found himself stuck.

“I was kind of feeling uninspired that year,” Spencer says. “I had made so much work there that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to finish.”

Fall melted into spring and Spencer still had no idea what to do for his thesis, so he sought the advice of his professor, Danielle Lessovitz, who encouraged him to explore a “scary” topic that made him “really uncomfortable,” he says – his relationship with his biological father, a man largely a stranger during his childhood and someone he hadn’t seen in 10 years.

Lessovitz knew Spencer’s work to be “bold, inventive and sensitive,” she says, qualities that would transfer to a thesis project she describes as “a story that was both personal and haunting to him.”

The result is a short documentary, We Are Suns, which will screen at the Montclair Film Festival on October 25. The 30-minute film follows Spencer and his close friend, Chris Cuervo MGSA’20, as they drive across the country to meet up with Spencer’s father on the West Coast.

“It had crossed my mind in the past – I should go make something about this – but I never thought I’d actually do it because it made me feel sick to my stomach,” says Spencer, whose parents divorced when he was about nine weeks old. “Danielle told me if that’s how you feel about it, that’s what you have to do. That’s where great art is made.”

In a whirlwind, nearly nonstop four-day trip from New Jersey to Redwood City, California, that had been twice postponed to August 2020 due to the pandemic, Spencer and Cuervo shared the driving and cinematography, which was shot largely on the fly. Their conversations centered not only on Spencer’s damaged relationship with his father but also on the sudden death of Cuervo’s father in 2018.

Spencer says Cuervo was an ideal travel companion, which is evident in the film’s tender scenes as the friends drive, stop on the side of the highway and camp out in darkened hotel rooms.

“Chris is a fantastic filmmaker, and he was and still is a fantastic friend to me,” Spencer says. “He was somebody who I felt comfortable being open with and also felt comfortable [with him] taking charge. He was the primary cinematographer for the film, so I trusted his eye.”

Cuervo says he was excited but nervous to join Spencer on the trip since neither knew what to expect or if the meeting would even pan out.

“The idea of meeting his biological father who he didn’t connect with was somewhat intimidating to me,” says Cuervo, who was very close to his own father. “I wanted to be as much of a support system as I could to Sam. It meant a lot that he wanted me to help him on this journey and find the answers he was looking for.”

Spencer also received critical input from Thomas Lennon, director of the Rutgers Filmmaking Center’s Documentary Film Lab, whom he sought out during post-production, when Spencer had to edit down 12 hours of footage shot across three cameras.

“Thomas watched the film more than I did,” says Spencer, who admits he had started to burn out after months of watching and rewatching it, trying to shorten it to a manageable length while still telling the story he envisioned. “I didn’t even understand what I was seeing anymore. Thomas gave me editing notes and I’d send it back to him. He was so helpful with that.”

“Most of what I did was just help Sam make it shorterto squeeze every unnecessary second out,” says Lennon, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who is credited as a producer on the film. “To say less, to keep the viewers on their toes. Let them fill in the gaps – don’t state the emotion: let the viewer supply it.”

Sam Spencer
Sam Spencer is a 2021 graduate of the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Spencer finished the film’s first cut, at an hour long, in January 2021, fulfilling his thesis requirement and earning his Rutgers degree. He continued editing for another year and a half, which Spencer describes as a “nightmare of a process,” cutting the film down again to 30 minutes.

In a documentary that’s as much a buddy road-trip film as it is a journey to find an estranged father, Spencer found it excruciating to edit out so much of the experience he had with Cuervo.

“It's hard because I love my friendship with Chris ... and there are so many moments that were sweet moments, but they wouldn’t transfer to everybody,” says Spencer. “And Thomas had told me that…you have to pick the right moments to engage the audience. That was hard for me, to cut out a lot of things that I felt were important – but they weren’t important for the film.”

Lennon also suggested that Spencer score the film himself after learning that Spencer played in a band. Although Spencer has no formal music training, he had scored other students’ films at Rutgers and enjoyed the process. He and his friend Ian McLaughlin improvised most of the film’s soundtrack, keeping it spare.

“The music allows people to feel their own thing, it’s not swaying anybody to think, ‘This music is sad, so I have to feel sad,’” Spencer explains. “It’s kind of just there and escalates whatever the person is already feeling.”

We Are Suns won the best documentary award at this year’s Burlington County Short Film Festival and was an official selection at several other festivals over the summer, including the Sarasota Film Festival, but earning a spot at the Montclair Film Festival feels particularly meaningful to Spencer.

“I never got the opportunity to go see the film on the big screen myself with the people I made it with,” says Spencer, who will be joined by Lennon and Cuervo for a Q&A after the screening in Montclair. “The idea that I’d be able to go to the theater with Thomas and Chris and have our friends and family there is very exciting.”

And what transpires between Spencer and his father in the film will keep viewers guessing – although no matter what, it’s a happy ending for Spencer.

“The charm of the film is the mystery or the anticipation of not knowing what’s going to happen,” Spencer says. “Everything happens for a reason, and it was the best possible thing that could have happened.”

We Are Suns screens at 5:15 p.m. October 25 at Clairidge Cinema 1, 486 Bloomfield Ave. in Montclair, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. Get tickets.