It’s 11:36 am
Welcome to 8 Questions with…….
I am still stumbling and bumbling my way through Word Press’s new layout and while I don’t like it
very much,they have also let us old-timers edit our blogs with a stripped down version of the old layout.
I say this in case you notice text sizes that change through any review or interview.
I recently got a chance to view a very interesting movie called “Survival Skills” which was written and directed by our next guest,Quinn Armstrong. I can’t get into the film very much because the cheetah and I planning on doing a review of it very soon. All I can say is its a very timely movie and while it comes off as a dark comedy,there is a lot more going on then that,its a very moving and in some places a sharp rebuke on what policing in America is like.
“Survival Skills” is a very impressive feature film debut for Quinn. This young man,who also enjoys getting in front of the camera as well,is based in Los Angeles via Seattle. When he isn’t writing or directing,you can find him sampling sherbert while listening to Schubert and Mozart.
I found his answers to his 8 Questions to be insightful,honest and quite charming and I thought is take on working with Stacy Keach quite refreshing. I hope you will enjoy meeting Quinn as much as I did and look for our review of “Survival Skills” coming shortly.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your current project.
My name is Quinn Armstrong and I’m the writer/director of Survival Skills. Survival Skills is the story of a rookie cop who gets in over his head when he tries to resolve a domestic violence case outside the law. The kicker is the whole thing is presented as a mid 80s police training video, complete with an ominous Narrator played by Stacy Keach.
We debuted at Cinequest in 2020, but the festival was shut down by the pandemic after our second screening. Since then we’ve been a part of some amazing virtual festivals, including Fantasia, Rhode Island, Horrible Imaginings and Indie Street. We’ll be wrapping up our festival run in the next couple months and, while I can’t say anything definitive, there’s a strong possibility of a release before the end of the year.
How has 2020 been treating you so far? What have you been doing to stay creative and in a good frame of mind?
I’m lucky to have a fair amount of work to keep me busy, but the main thing that has been an unexpected blessing is that I’ve started playing with modular synthesizers. The world of analog modular synthesis is this sort of arcane, byzantine secret society, full of code words and technical knowledge and I LOVE that kind of thing. Usually for an hour a day I’ll put my work down and turn on the synths and just play with the sound. I’m not trying to make anything, just playing. It’s a wonderful escape.
What led you to becoming an actor? How did you get your training?
What was the first part you ever performed and what were you feeling when performing it?
When I was 15, I was having a hard time in school and I had the option of going to either an arts school or to a fancy schmancy boarding school where everyone becomes lawyers. I chose the arts school and I am grateful every day that I did, because with my family history of depression I have zero doubt that I’d be dead by now if I didn’t have the arts in my life.
The first part that I remember playing was Baloo in the Jungle Book. I would’ve been about eight years old. At one point in the play, a plastic banana was supposed to fall from a tree, but on opening night it didn’t fall. I stomped around until our director threw a banana from backstage, accidentally hitting a kid in the front row right in the face. The kid started crying and I had to deal with that before we moved on. That kind of chaos made me fall in love with theater.
Do you feel directors with an acting background have an advantage over directors who don’t? What makes a good director?
You can’t be perfect and you can’t know everything. My knowledge of casting and working with actors comes at the expense of my complete ignorance about cameras. I have friends who are really jealous of my ability with actors and I’m jealous of their facility with the camera. You gotta play the hand you’re dealt.
The director in film is an odd phenomenon, because you have this glamorous position, the “author” of the film, but the actual job is essentially the same as an office manager. You’re coordinating departments and trying to get the best out of everybody, that’s it.
I will say, the main rule I have on set is pretty simple: take the blame, never take the credit. If something doesn’t work, it’s your fault. If something does work, it’s someone else’s victory.
What led you to try your hand at directing?
For most of my life I had zero interest in film. When I was 26, my girlfriend wanted to be an editor, so I started writing and directing little things for her to edit. Then she applied to AFI down in LA and I thought well I better figure something out, so I applied to USC and got in, by some miracle.
I had thought of trying to become a film actor, but quickly discovered I actually don’t like acting on film. So I did what every unqualified dude in Los Angeles does: bought a cheap DLSR camera and called myself a director.
Where did the idea for “Survival Skills” come from? You mixed in two very difficult aspects intoyour feature film debut…mockumentary and social commentary,how long did it take you to write it?
What kind of background research of police officers did you do if any?
I like the formal challenge of combining genres that are as far apart as possible. Originally, this movie was just an earnest social drama about domestic violence. I’d worked in shelters for a while, so it was very accurate and very boring. Then I discovered these police training videos on a random internet rabbit hole and thought “You know what would be really stupid? Combining this earnest drama and a parody of these crazy videos”. And here we are.
I went on a few ride-alongs with cops and did a ton of research, as well as my own experience in LA’s DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team) program, which involves trained civilians riding along with cops to DV calls in order to provide support to the survivors.
Do you feel the police are their own worst enemy or has the system let them down by not adjusting to the modern world?
This is a huge question that I am not really qualified to answer, but I’ll do my best. I think the individual moral character of a policeman is irrelevant. In a system as big as American law enforcement the worst will be countered by the best and there will be a neutral moral balance in the officers themselves. What really makes a difference is what the system rewards and punishes, and modern police departments and unions have proven time and time again that they value tribalism, brutality and secrecy.
I think a huge part of the problem is the infiltration of the police force by former military and the mindset they bring. We can trace this back to the issue of masculine insecurity, which we call toxic masculinity (incorrectly, in my opinion). The fastest way to fix the American law enforcement system would be to mandate that 60% of senior leadership positions be held by women.
What was it like getting to direct Stacy Keach? He seemed to be having a lot of fun in his role of The Narrator. How did you find and pick your young cast?
Stacy is both a terrifying and imposing figure, and a sweet teddy bear of a man. For most of his footage, we were shooting on a soundstage in LA. He sat behind the desk, we had two cameras set up and a teleprompter, and he absolutely nailed every single take. We left three hours early on both days we had him. An absolute joy.
The rest of the cast was found through auditions in LA and Seattle. I tend to look for actors who have a background in theater. Not because they’re necessarily better, but because their craft tends to be sharper. They can repeat and adjust, and we share a common language. Often I find purely film actors can give you a great first read, but that’s all you get.
What message do you hope your audience takes with them after watching “Survival Skills”?
I’m not really a message guy. Some people do messages really well, but I don’t. I think of the movie more as a kind of gym. You try to stock it and lay it out so that if you spend a while working out there it will be fun and rewarding. My hope is that, after the movie, audiences will be able to play with Survival Skills in their minds and be rewarded for dwelling on it.
Although I will say that if a few more people understood that “why did she stay with her abusive husband” is a stupid question, I’ll be happy.
What is next for you project wise?
We’re in preproduction on my next feature. It’s a spiritual sequel to Survival Skills, set in the world of 80s/90s teen slasher movies. It’s also got my favorite title of anything I’ve ever written: Dead Teenagers.
Which three directors (alive or dead) would you want to shadow if given a chance and why them?
I’m cheating the question a little bit, but first on my list would be to shadow Euripides in the Athenian Dionysia, thousands of years ago. For the Athenians, theatre was simultaneously religious, political and aesthetic in a way that we can’t really comprehend. Every voting citizen went to the theatre, and often referenced the stories told there in their political arguments. Can you imagine that kind of artistic influence?
In more modern terms, I’d be more interested in shadowing directors based on their working methods than finished products. I adore David Lynch, but would have no interest in shadowing him, because his genius is so internal. That being said, I think high on my list would be John Cassavettes, whose films I’m lukewarm on, but whose working method is fascinating. I’d also love to see Wong Kar-Wai work with his DP.
Which 5 actors/actresses working today would you like to direct and why?
My favorite type of actors are the ones who make their costars look good. Nothing flashy, just solid craft. Armie Hammer always impresses me, especially for a dude who could just trade on his looks. Martin Freeman has a similar quality.
I would give serious thought to trading a leg to work with Sigourney Weaver. The strength in her screen presence is just stunning. She’s like a neutron star, gravity bends around her. I’m also really fascinated to see more from Indya Moore, I think she’s got a lot of untapped range.
Finally, speaking of range: Ralph Fiennes. His range is absolutely astonishing. He can go from the absolute aged ham of playing Voldemort to being the funniest part of Hail Caesar to Amon Goeth and nail every single role.
The cheetah and I are flying over to watch you shoot your latest film but we are a day early and now you are stuck playing tour guide,what are we doing?
I’m a terrible person to ask, because my interests are hopelessly obscure and nobody seems to enjoy them like I do. Lately I’ve been tracking down and walking every stairway in my neighborhood. There are around 100 (I live on a hill), and they each have interesting histories, and I’m learning how to identify when they were made, etc.
However, I acknowledge that would be supremely boring for most people, so I’d recommend taking advantage of the gorgeous water and mountains around here. Take a kayak out into the sound or go for a short drive to Tiger Mountain or the Hoh rainforest. I’ve lived a lot of places, but Seattle is the most naturally beautiful area I’ve ever seen.
I like to thank Quinn (and Christa for setting this up) for taking the time to chat with us. Its always a real treat to meet a first time director and see what kind of storyteller they are going to become. I am already looking forward to see what is coming from both Quinn’s keyboard and his camera.
You can follow Quinn and see what is coming next by going to his IMDb page.
His personal website isn’t updated but once it is,I’ll list it here as well.
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