“The Epic And The Intimate” Writer / Director Scott Teems on ‘The Quarry’
“From an early age, I knew what I wanted to do,” admitted writer/director Scott Teems. “I talked my teachers into letting me make short films in lieu of book reports, so I made VHS tapes, editing VCR to VCR. It was always something I wanted to do and I never wanted to do anything else.”
Teems, who grew up and went to Film School in Georgia, is best known for early work with Hal Holbrook on That Evening Sun (along with producing Holbrook in the Mark Twain story An American Odyssey), episodes of Rectify and Narcos: Mexico, and the new film The Quarry.
The co-writer and director of The Quarry, Teems uncovers the story of a drifter, played by Shea Whigham, who kills a traveling preacher and takes his place in a small-town church. But, upon his arrival, the police chief, played by Michael Shannon, suspects something is wrong.
Teems is also heavily influenced by Eastern European and Polish cinema (but more so towards the Coen Brothers for his latest film). And, he has a writing credit on the upcoming film, Halloween Kills, the latest installment of the Michael Myers Halloween franchise.
Writing Personal Stories
“I spent five years in New York writing bad scripts, but each script was a little less bad than one before,” joked the screenwriter. “Little by little, I figured out how to write screenplays. I knew I wanted to write my own scripts and tell personal, Southern stories. Those weren’t getting made on any sort of large scale, so I knew I would need to write or adapt my own story.”
Ironically, while Teems was working his way up the ladder, the film seen in Georgia was growing to become one of the most popular areas in the US to make movies. “When I was in school in the 90s, everyone was saying it was going to come here.”
The area didn’t actually “become a hub” until after Teems had left the area. “It ended up being one of the most important things I ever did – for me to move and get away from my comfort zone and leave the security of a family. As a young filmmaker, it was important to be in a strong film community, but also to be on my own.”
The writer/director also spent a few years in Los Angeles. As the film scene grew in his home state, he learned all he could while living in New York and Los Angeles, so when he did return (to work on Georgia projects like Rectify), he had a new view on his familiar settings.
Violence and Religion
“I’ve always been drawn to stories about violence and in religion in the South – and where those things intersect and explode, where they crash together, the good and the bad,” he said. “Those ideas are intertwined.”
“In the South, religion is sort of baked into who you are,” he added. “It’s a social obligation, where it’s not in other parts of the country, and other parts of the world. Becoming a young man in the church, while trying to understand my relationship and wrestling with beliefs, is something that interests me a great deal.”
In addition to new locations, Teems also had children and becoming a father not only changed his view on his upbringing, but also his belief system. Now, he expresses these views in his work, sometimes creating more questions than answers.
“All of those things contribute to my perspectives on filmmaking. Those ideas and those themes – God and religion – seem to pop up in my work and I like exploring that when it’s organic and authentic, but only when it’s from the character, not when it’s dropped on top. I’m quite repulsed by agenda-driven stories that feel like propaganda.”
In The Quarry, in particular, the story focuses on a handful of criminals trying to deal with their own struggles or morality. “My relationship to the church is always evolving, changing, growing and being challenged, for better and for worse.”
Creating Tension In The Quarry
His latest film is based on a novel by Damon Galgut, which found its way to the writer ten years earlier. “It hit all of those topics, even though it was a South African novel,” he said. “Violence, religion. It was a racial story about white and indigenous, but it felt like a natural inclination to make this into a story about Texas and racial conflicts. It felt like a natural translation.”
The story also has a universal premise, which dates back to one of the original stories – “stranger comes into town.” Teems said, “That story has been told before, but it’s universal and can be placed in different times and places, and feel new and fresh. That’s how the novel felt to me, even though it had this trope at the center.”
“What’s great about that premise is that you know where you’re going. It sets up an ending, meaning he’s either going to get caught or he’s not. You know there’s going to be a confrontation, so when you know you’re headed somewhere, that creates tension inside that place. As a storyteller, you don’t have to manufacture tension in each scene, because it’s already there.”
“The tension comes from outside and it pushes on the scene. Every scene has been loaded with tension, so you can let characters be and allow for silence because even the silence is loaded when the tension comes from outside. Every move they make, every line they speak, will hide something or reveal something. That’s the dance these two guys are engaged in.”
Where to Put the Mystery (Plus ‘Halloween Kills’ Preview)
In this particular story, the film starts with a man (the preacher) finding another person (the drifter) on the side of the road, unconscious. There are several ways to begin a movie like this, but Teems chose to start with action.
“A lot of these stories begin with a stranger rolling into town and then you realize he’s not who he says he is. That’s how a lot of these stories are told, so you want to know who is this guy and what is he hiding? But what I liked about the book is that you know who this guy is, so it’s not the who and the what, but the experience and what it’s going to be like as he tries to hide his truth and deal with the weight of the guilt.”
For Teems, this means the audience is siding with the anti-hero throughout the movie. It’s a different view on who he is and what’s important in the story. “It’s about guilt and conscience and sin and these big ideas. It’s also a small, personal story about a guy carrying a burden. I like the idea of the epic and the intimate.”
As for his upcoming writing credit, friend and colleague David Gordon Green called up Teems for some help with Halloween Kills. “David was editing the first one and had an idea for the second one, so he asked me to work on it. He and I and Danny [McBride] got together, wrote the story, and I’m excited.”
“I just saw a cut and I can’t tell you much but I can tell you it feels like a leaner, meaner version of the first one. I think it has some relevance to what’s going on in our world today and it was a lot of fun to do something where I can let loose a little bit, but Halloween still has some things to say about the world today.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.
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