Interview: Jesse Ray Sheps, Founder of the Fire Island Film Festival

Jesse Ray Sheps has been bursting with creativity since he was young. Now at the ripe age of 17, he has appeared in various productions, become the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, and founded the Fire Island Film Festival. He has been spending his last summer before his senior year studying at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Fire Island News (FIN): How are your classes at Yale going? What are you doing and learning on a daily basis?

Jesse Ray Sheps (JS): It’s really incredible here. The campus is amazing and people here are really amazing. I’m really excited to be studying here for the summer. I usually wake up and I go and get some amazing food. I get ready for the day and then I go to my classes. There’s a voice class, movement class, and then there’s a master class and all of it is a part of the acting program.

FIN: Is it difficult to balance all of your different crafts? Being editor of your school paper, founder of a film festival, as well as a working and learning actor.

JS: I generally like to stick to a schedule. So I’ll get all my work done for classes here at Yale and then afterwards I’ll do all the things that I need for the film festival and if there’s anything I need to do with other projects or something like that I’ll fit that in as well. I just tend to build my schedule at the beginning of the day.

FIN: You’ve been acting since you were young, do you feel this had an impact on how you grew up?

JS: I think it definitely was a major asset and it definitely helped me a lot in my life. I learned a lot about reading and breaking down texts. I really was able to learn a lot about professional settings and the industry from a really young age and I think that’s definitely going to help me in the future with whatever I work on.

FIN: Could you describe how you felt accomplishing an in-person festival last year and what you’re planning to do at this year’s festival?

JS: At first it was kind of like a crazy dream during COVID. I really wasn’t sure where this was going to go at first. But last year we had a really great turnout. We had tons of people from the community show up and support the Film Festival and St. Jude. I think that I’m just really hoping that this is going to continue to grow and we’re going to be continuing to include more and more members of the community and hopefully it just brings more people together.

FIN: What is special to you about Fire Island, as you’ve chosen it as the location for your festival?

JS: I have been coming to Fire Island all of my life. It is truly a remarkable and unique place where everyone is always happy. The pace on the Island slows down life just a bit, and everyone’s creative juices are flowing. I realized that our community was an artistic, vibrant and diverse community but did not have a vehicle for us to come together to celebrate filmmaking. For me, a lifelong fan of film festivals, it became clear that Fire Island would be the perfect home for a film festival.

FIN: What made you choose St. Jude to support?

JS: I have been a long-term supporter of St. Jude. When I was younger, I was working on the set of a film and I watched a special about the organization and all of these truly amazing kids battling terrible diseases. I instantly realized that they were true heroes and I was inspired to purchase a large amount of toys for them for the holidays from my salary. I decided to create the festival as a vehicle to hopefully increase my support and my ultimate goal is to grow the festival so we can obtain many larger corporate sponsors who can help partner with us to donate even more significantly.

FIN: Who are some of the guests expected at the 2022 festival?

JS: We have many different directors and actors from across the country who will be traveling to the festival to present their amazing films, many of which have been awarded and celebrated around the country. We anticipate a full house in terms of the crowd. We believe all of our participating artists are special and unique and we are truly blessed that they spend their time to discuss their artistic visions with us. To me, everyone who shares their art is a star and a true hero to me. Last year, we were blessed with many amazing industry veteran actors who came to the festival such as Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Robert John Burke who were in attendance to help celebrate independent film. We may have some more surprises in store for everyone this year and hope everyone comes to celebrate movies on Aug. 27, 2022.

FIN: Will you be featured in any of the films featured at the festival?

JS: I actually completed a short film this past year that I am really proud of, but I am not certain if it would be ready in time for the festival as it is in production. The festival is really meant to feature all different artists, bringing a diverse set of filmmakers and actors together in a way in which we can discuss and celebrate their films. We always try to feature some films from local artists when possible. If the festival selected something I was featured in, I would want to make certain that it was included only because it helped compliment the mosaic of films that we have being shown. During the event, I am pretty busy co-hosting the event and coordinating everything to make sure the audience is happy and comfortable but I suppose it would be fun if it ever happened.

FIN: What can someone expect from the Fire Island Film Festival?

JS: I believe we have a great format for our event that would excite everyone from a first-time film festival attendee to a veteran filmmaker. We usually select eight to 10 short films out of the many hundreds that have been submitted to our festival. We then invite the various filmmakers, producers and actors to attend. After each film, we have an audience question and answer segment where audience members can ask anything they want about the film. We did this last year and it was truly fantastic. Some questions came from one director asking a really intriguing plot question of another filmmaker. However, the really special questions to me were those that came from our local Fire Island audience. I watched community members ask some of the most insightful and fun questions of the filmmakers and everyone was really involved. I think the format of having the short films is the best for our festival right now because there are so many beautiful short films being presented, all with unique and different voices, and there is something at the festival for everyone to truly love.

FIN: Where does the Fire Island Film Festival go and grow even further from here?

JS: The Fire Island Film Festival is truly an open tent that I invite everyone to join. The goal is to expand the festival each year and collaborate with even more diverse artists and filmmakers attending our event with the goal to bring the Fire Island community together. I hope this becomes an event for everyone in Fire Island since our community is at its best when we work together. Our festival is always looking for volunteers to help support the event, to help curate amazing films, and be part of our growing team. This is a not-for-profit volunteer organization that I truly believe can be an important cultural asset for our entire Island. I recognize that we need strong community support to grow, particularly from those in Fire Island who have some entertainment industry background or experience in organizational growth planning, and I invite them to reach out to me so we can make this an amazing event for everyone to enjoy for many years to come.

The 2022 Fire Island Film Festival will take place on Saturday, Aug. 27, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at . For more information about the Fire Island Film Festival, visit