The name may not be familiar to some but, as soon as he was announced as one of the writers for the upcoming Halloween Kills, director and co-writer Scott Teems immediately became someone to keep an eye on in the film industry. With his work on both Narcos: Mexico and Rectify, which both deal with elements of crime and the legal system at hand, it seems all too natural that his most recent film THE QUARRY fits deep within that genre.
In THE QUARRY, the film focuses on a fugitive drifter, played by Shea Whigham, who assumes the identity of a preacher he murdered and becomes the new cleric of a small-town church. While he wins over the congregation, the police chief, played by Michael Shannon, starts to link the mysterious stranger to a criminal investigation. For the release of the film, I had the opportunity to talk to Teems where we discussed everything from the large themes at play, how the Texas location is its own character, and his experience working with Whigham and Shannon.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Scott. To start things off, can you discuss how the film came to be?
Scott Teems: About 10 years ago I made a movie called That Evening Sun, which was my first feature to direct. Afterwards, I was looking for the next project and came across this book and saw the blurb somewhere about this sort of premise and it immediately grabbed me. I’ve always liked the sort of “stranger rolls into town” kind of movies – someone claiming they’re someone they aren’t. Whether that’s a film like The Night of the Hunter, a classic example of that, or some of the Clint Eastwood The Man With No Name movies. In the genre, that hooked me but this story had a very unique take on it. THE QUARRY had a different approach and it had all these things that resonated with me – men, violence, religion, and where those things intersect and collide, that was appealing to me. The novel was set in South Africa but the setting is this sort of coastal plain of South Africa. It deals with racial injustice, which of course, unfortunately, is prevalent across the globe, not just in South Africa. That felt like it was a translatable story because of this sort of central universal nature of the premise. You can take that “stranger rolls into town” idea and place it in any location and create an interesting story. The way the place was described in the book, the barren plains, just felt like Texas to me, and of course, we have our own racial conflict in this country as well so it was sort of a natural transition.
Speaking of the location, that felt like a character in and of itself. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Scott Teems: Yeah, that’s important. It’s one thing to write a film but then you have to actually go find physical places to shoot and that can be challenging sometimes if you write too specifically. We looked at a lot of different places to shoot this film – you just drive around and see a lot of pictures and drive around some more – this has been my experience in the past with other projects as well. You can look at pictures all day long but until you’re standing in the place, it doesn’t come alive to you. We got very fortunate finding this old town and even some of the secondary locations – like the river, for example. We found this river which is off in this park and has these amazing big, tall trees, that were spread apart. It was just a lovely location and brought grandeur to the story. I’ve described this story as like trying to be a mixture of the epic and the intimate. It’s a very personal, quiet story at its core – it’s a character story but it deals with these big themes. It deals with racism and redemption and forgiveness and God and murder and life and death, these huge ideas. My wife said, “big ideas need a big canvas” and that’s what we tried to find – a location that could be grand and you could shoot it and tell this intimate character story. That’s what we strived for.
Because THE QUARRY deals with such large themes like you mentioned, was there something you were hoping people would take away upon viewing it?
Scott Teems: Well, mostly I just hope people walk away with questions to ask themselves. That’s really our goal as storytellers, or at least my goal as a storyteller, to not give you answers but just to ask a lot of questions. It’s only really when we discover truths for ourselves that they ever really mean anything to us. I could tell you my point of view on all of this until I’m blue in the face, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t go through that process of thinking for yourself. Really all I want to do is present some ideas, raise some questions – is that right or wrong, is that good or bad, etc – and let the viewer, hopefully, walk away and have something to wrestle with.
I’m a big fan of both Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham. Can you talk a little bit about them coming aboard for the project?
Scott Teems: Of course. Like I said, I wrote this 10 years ago initially. In fact, I checked some files recently and found that I completed the first draft of the script in March of 2010, so literally 10 years ago. We tried to make it back then and I had actually given the script to Mike but he was off making Man of Steel and wasn’t available. At the time, the project never got made and it died, as things do sometimes. It went away and I thought it was done. It’s very sad that that happens, ya know? Then a couple of years ago, Shea got his hand on the script through Kristin Mann, one of our producers, and he fell in love with it. That reignited the project and until then I hadn’t even thought about it in years, I thought it was done and I had moved on. When he came on board that brought it all back to life and was very exciting. Because Shea and Mike have a long-standing friendship off-screen we were able to bring Mike back into the fold. That felt very full circle because I had given it to him so many years ago and wanted him to play that role. It was just a great, fortuitous thing the way that it all came together. Sometimes you think somethings dead and then it comes back to life without you having to force it and that’s always more gratifying when it happens that way.
Lastly, one of my favorite aspects of this film was the score/music used. Was that something you worked closely on with composer Heather McIntosh?
Scott Teems: This is actually the second film that Heather has scored for me. She scored this documentary that I had made called Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey a few years ago, so I’ve known her a long time. I met her through Craig Zobel – she scores a lot of his films. Heather and I are both from Georgia so we had that connection and we were fast friends when we met. I just love her work. She’s a cellist so most of her scores are cello-based. How we work together is she presents some ideas and then I start honing in on the ones that I like, that feels right, and we start working back and forth. She’s very open to notes and she really wants to get it right. She revises and revises and revises all the time, never satisfied, she works really hard and she’s just so talented. She’s really great at writing themes, I love scores with themes and not just sort of the dissonant drony atonal stuff. The score is a part of the story, it’s a part of the storytelling, ya know? It really helps to tell the story when it’s done well. I love strong themes that return and resolve and change and evolve and she wrote this wonderful score. We would just sit at her house and bang it out ya know? She’s very hands-on, as am I, and we work well together.
THE QUARRY is now available On Demand and for more on the film, check out our review here.