The joy of the film festival experience is really stumbling across films that genuinely surprise and impress you.
At this past edition of the Toronto International Film Festival I got the unique pleasure to sit down in a restaurant booth with writer/director Henry Dunham to talk about his absolutely stunning feature debut The Standoff At Sparrow Creek which is now playing theatrically in select theatres in the US but is available on VOD all across North America.
In this film we’re in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a police funeral, reclusive ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale) finds himself unwittingly forced out of retirement when he realizes that the killer belongs to the same militia he joined after quitting the force. Understanding that the shooting could set off a chain reaction of copycat violence across the country, Gannon quarantines his fellow militiamen in the remote lumber mill they call their headquarters. There, he sets about a series of grueling interrogations, intent on ferreting out the killer and turning him over to the authorities to prevent further bloodshed.
I got to talk with Henry about his inspirations for this very unique film, his takes on filmmaking, making something with a more minimalist style, using space and silence to his advantage to create tension, creating trust with an ensemble cast on a short shoot and so much more…
Dave Voigt: Obviously, congratulations on the film, I really enjoyed it and I’ve got to ask what your inspiration was because while it still plays on a very modern level, it also evoked some very strong memories of 70’s thrillers and conspiracy films like The Conversation & The Parallax View that have such a minimalist vibe to it.
Henry Dunham: Oh, dude, yes…thank you for saying that. 100% yes and while those films you mentioned are big influences but on this I ended up watching a ton of 60’s and 70’s French thrillers from the likes of Jean Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson. I mean I was obsessed with Army of Shadows; the Melville movie and Pickpocket was huge for me as well as well as A Man Escaped. I mean in those movies, if someone just moves their eyes; darting from the left to the right, that’s enough tension if cut well that it can really be a beautiful thing. With this movie, if we did lean into it and make it hardcore and macho, there’s just no contrast, there’s just nothing genuinely cool about that kind of environment.
Going with that sense of minimalism and just letting the audience feel the subject matter and allowing moments to be communicated through either a subtle glance or even silence was just that much more powerful than anything else we could have done. That was the kind of movie that I wanted to see, because quite frankly those are the kinds of movies that I genuinely love.
The tension that is on screen is really palpable and so many people will call it ‘minimalist’ which at least from my perspective just isn’t doing the film justice…
Hell, I’ll take ‘minimalist’ over ‘piece of shit’… (We both laugh)
I would like to talk about things like those long shots and the production and lighting design of it all that was just so focused and dialed in because realistically those aren’t the types of shots that are easy to set up.
Oh yeah, because really we just did an insane amount of preparation in this because really at least from my end this project took about three years to finally get going. Because the subject matter was sensitive and it’s the kind of material where you need to make sure that everyone involved is 100% on board with your vision, the prep just has to be there. I had like five books of every shot drawn out, and that was really helpful to me to make sure that every visual that we shot on this movie was as preplanned as we could possibly make it out to be. There was no money for pre-visualization or money for me to work with a storyboard artist, I knew I had to do this myself because if we had people come out to Texas for an 18 day shoot on a $460K budgeted film it’s important to make sure that we’re all working together you exude how much you give a shit about the material. As far as the visual style of it goes it always felt like it needed to be shot in those wide spherical lenses, in a 2:39-1 aspect ratio to give it that classic look and to feel like that 1:85-1 HD Netflix feeling kind of film.
That always just felt right because I just love stillness in direction. I want to know that my attention is being drawn to something for a reason and I have never been a fan of unmotivated movement or unjustified lighting. I’m not a big hand-held guy, we only have two handheld shots in the entire film and they were important because they create a genuine moment of uncertainty for the characters. It’s really just trying to tell the story visually as impactful as we possibly can.
Was this a hard movie to ‘Elevator Pitch’ to people? Because really if you try and sum this film up in two lines it’s “There’s a bunch of militia men, in a warehouse and they’re talking a lot”… (Laughs)
Hell, people can pitch however they want! (Laughs) It’s all cool by me, and I mean I was talking with someone earlier this morning and the guy had watched the film immediately before he came in to talk with me. I said to him, “Wow, you got up at like 7AM to watch a bunch of fucking dialogue?” To which he said “Yeah”, I felt the need to apologize but he said it was all good because he loved it. But you know if they fell asleep 12 minutes in…That would obviously suck (smiles).
This film is so tightly wound and it is so dialogue heavy how do you sort of dial in on the tone especially with these characters and what they have to get across?
Each character should really only be focused on how they are dragging the protagonist through their own emotional muck. It all starts with the protagonist (Gannon) and his story, and then every other character you layer on you need to map out how it will affect that protagonist. What will it do to him? How will it make him feel? And then when you add in the dynamic of other characters like Morris who is this physically imposing guy but Gannon is interrogating him you have all these dynamics and feeling to play with like, what if he eventually got untied which he does and ultimately all these characters that you play with are there to affect your protagonist on an emotional level.
Now with someone like James (Badge Dale) who I just think is one of the more underrated character actors working today, how much time to do you have to really get him and everyone else dialed in? Is it any kind of rehearsal time or is it something even simpler like before they come down to have them watch Army of Shadows or Pickpocket?
I did have a couple of guys watch those films but it really just came down to being absolutely certain on our approach to it all. They come in and there’s usually this weird 2-3 day period where you’re all just building trust with one another and it’s funny because Badge and I were talking about this earlier. That big group scene in the film where they all come in and we meet them for the first time; they had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. All I basically said is you walk right here to your mark and then you don’t move. They were uncertain, but then they’d come to the monitor after the shot and would see how it was working and I would always be talking about the shots of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove and just how still it all was because you forget about how much more you can actually listen to what’s going on when the action and movement in the room is just that still. You get to really feel the characters when they aren’t being over directed in any one given moment. That scene was a huge trust builder and once they saw it, they could all see how it was going to cut together. The rhythm of it all was going to be in the cut and wasn’t going to be this DePalmaesque long shot, but instead be something that is much more focused on jarring the audience, and making sure they watch objectively.
To be honest, for rehearsal time we got like a day, which to be fair for an 18 day shoot is actually pretty amazing, a lot of times you don’t even get that. Even just being able to have a table read with the guys was great and I got to talk them about their characters intentions throughout. Plus guys like Badge would be able to throw out ideas and cutting the occasional line and they were right. Being able to have that really did save us a little bit.
There are moments as a viewer where we are conditioned to lean in and to expect action or something else but this film and particularly the end almost played the opposite of that because for myself I really found myself almost trying to pull away and take in the longer shot which really caught me off guard and I really dug.
Thank you for saying that man, I really appreciate it. I think with this film and without going into a long winded diatribe about it is all about generating the contrast of what you ultimately expect. There are a couple of moments in the film where some really aggressive things happen and I mean you can shoot really close up to see someone gurgling when they get choked and all that stuff but I just don’t feel like there’s any contrast to that. I mean you’re being shown an ugly thing from an ugly point of view and to be it just didn’t feel right. It felt much more subliminal to be in this beautiful wide shot when someone is being force fed the pages from their own diary; it allows you to absorb it more.
It generates images inside the head of the audience and makes our imagination and subconscious work rather than just being force fed some ugly imagery.
Exactly, other than these silhouettes attacking each other, you never see anything but you hear everything and it just felt right. And if it doesn’t affect me, how will it affect other people?
And you know I think that’s why the film works so well because while there are some political and social undertones to it all, for you as a filmmaker and a storyteller it all really comes off as you saying “Here’s something that’s happening…and it’s kind of freaking me out?”
(Laughs) You know I think that’s a perfect statement on this, and especially to sum up my 2016-2018 so far by just saying “This is something that’s happening…and it’s kind of freaking me out!” That’s my biography title for sure! (Laughs)
The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is in select theatres in the US but available on VOD all across North America.