Interview with Quinn Armstrong, writer and director of Survival Skills

We raved about Survival Skills a few weeks ago, a movie that combines a 1980’s VCR-era training guide with a dark ride into the soul of a police officer not properly armed when it comes to facing off with an uncaring society. Quinn Armstrong, the writer and director of the film was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss the inspiration behind the film, which includes the era of Satanic Panic, baffling training videos, how men can’t confront their emotions and some surprising comfort films.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: First things first, this seems like a really complicated project to undertake. How long did it take?

QUINN ARMSTRONG: The actual production wasn’t that long. It was maybe a three or four-week thing. But the post process took forever, because we did the VHS thing, which took a solid year and a half. But I wrote the script all the way back in 2016, so it’s been a while.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: And now you’re seeing the fruits of your labors…

QUINN ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it’s weird to be seeing other people see it, critics and people in general, and how they recontextualize it for you. Because you change over time. For example, a big thing for me is that I went on anti-depressants since I made this movie. And now, when I’m watching people watch this movie, I realize, “Oh, I’m really angry with this movie.” It’s a much more aggressive movie than I thought it was.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: That’s funny to hear. Because watching it, I know that you made it before this last year and it could have had the potential to be even angrier with what’s been going on.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: It’s tricky. And I was really worried about that when Fantasia Fest got in touch and programmed us right after the murder of George Floyd. Because that’s not my lane. It’s not reasonable for me to come forward as a voice for people who have been brutalized by the police. I can talk about domestic violence because I have a long background in that world. However, in a way, I’m glad we made the movie before all this happened. Because I think, I don’t know if I would have felt compelled to address it.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: It’s funny. If anything, the film really comes off as sympathetic to what a lot of officers have to deal with. Because a lot of times, especially when they come into domestic violence situations, their hands are tied. So I think that’s kind of he’s like at the end of the film, saying, “There’s nothing I can really do.”

QUINN ARMSTRONG: You know, there are very few people, I think, in this dialogue, who are general genuinely saying, “Every police officer is a bad person” I think those are sort of fringe voices. I think the more reasonable position a lot of people have taken is that because of the way the system is constructed, officers are called upon to do more than they are trained to do.  So they end up in positions where they are making bad choices systemically. I think that saying that all police officers are bad is just kind of lazy thinking. I’m not saying that there aren’t problems, but to say it’s just because they are bad people just doesn’t make sense to me.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: You could almost build a timeline of Jim, where it’s like, you can see the burnout of him and the other officers. And at the end, Stacy Keach pretty much says, “I’ve been through this and it’s going to destroy you.”

QUINN ARMSTRONG: Well, he’s the one who has the toy car at the end and it goes off the cliff.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: What influences a movie like this? Did you seen a lot of training videos and thought, I wonder what these police training videos were like to make?

QUINN ARMSTRONG: The first thing that happened was I wrote a full-length version of this story as a straight drama.You know, cop gets involved in domestic violence and things go wrong.  And it was very well researched. And it was very earnest. And it was very boring.

I put it aside and then a year or so later, a friend of mine sent me a link to Surviving Edged Weapons, which is the weirdest training video. It is so strange, it’s so much. You have no idea.

We were going to be very tame, but then I watched Surviving Edged Weapons. And as my brain is kind of wanting to do, I sort of went, “What’s the stupidest thing I could do in this situation?” And it turned out to be combining a light funny parody of police training videos and an earnest drama about domestic violence. Nobody stopped me. I kept waiting for people to stop me from doing what I was doing. But here we are. Like I said, nobody stopped me.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: That’s what drew me to the movie. I’m obsessed with training tapes. Survival Skills has elements of that and then found footage as well…

QUINN ARMSTRONG: Found footage is so interesting to me because it has a much longer history than a lot of people think it does. For example, Dracula is an epistolary novel. It’s letters  — we’re reading those letters and it’s kind of found art — and there are even bits in The Bible that are fictional narratives presented as people finding letters, scrolls and stuff. And it’s fascinating that the sheen of reality and found footage stretches that far back.

That’s why Surviving Edged Weapons is so fascinating. It’s like a police department gave some kid like fresh out of film school $30,000 and this kid was like, “I’m gonna make a masterpiece.” I swear to God, so it opens with two cavemen in an argument, and one of the cavemen takes a sharp rock and stabs the other and then the narrator comes in and says, “Since the dawn of time, men have been using edged weapons to kill each other”

It’s so weird. It’s so profoundly weird. I can’t get over it.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: That reminds me of the “Killology” videos and how police departments are using that for training now.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: What I feel is significant about presenting Survival Skills the way we did, was that we could have gotten away with doing just a parody of police training videos from the 80s. And you know, it would have gone over pretty well, and people would have liked it. It would have been funny. Cool, you know?

But for me, pointing out the sort of racism and xenophobia and paranoia of the 80s…there’s something really disingenuous about pointing that out as though it’s a thing of the past. Because the Killology Institute, which is really just Dave Grossman, keeps running around and being creepy, that comes from exactly the same place. And in some ways, it’s worse. In some ways, it’s more sort of articulate. And he has all this pseudo-science behind it explaining why you should train policemen like soldiers. I think this guy is so successful training so many precincts and I think he’s trained at the FBI as well. And we’re seeing the results of that all over the country.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: The movie also gets the Satanic Panic perfect. Because every police department had a Satanic expert. Who trained these experts in Satanism and in D&D?

QUINN ARMSTRONG: There’s another great training video where they have an expert who goes to a public park that has had known Satanic activity. And he’s pointing out all these things that are like Satanic symbols that they clearly just put there. One of my favorite moments in the whole thing is he walks up to a tree that has just a star spray-painted on it. And he looks at it, he goes right here, this is a pentagram, and you can tell that he expected it to be a pentagram, but whoever they sprayed it, they sprayed it right side up, so it’s a star. Oh, I love it.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: Moving on to Jim, the main character, he kind of starts off as this impersonal NPC, as someone you can project your feelings on, then he becomes his own person. Yet by the end, he’s retreated back into that everyman NPC role to protect himself.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: One of my causes is looking at the concept of masculinity and the messages that we sent culturally to young men, particularly about what you’re supposed to be. And I know guys, like, Jim, guys who are only slightly less robotic, who have no actual principles of their own, and who are just sort of executing different versions of what they have been led to believe a man should be.

I think that that’s because men are encouraged not to be emotionally literate. That’s all they can do. They don’t have the vocabulary, they don’t have the support to actually wrestle with their emotions and come to an honest appreciation of themselves and an appreciation of their vulnerability and weaknesses. They just lock themselves up and say, “I’m going to be Captain America or I’m going to be, you know, Bruce Willis from Die Hard. Whatever the thing is, it sucks as a way to live a life.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: It’s like people, police officers especially, who embrace The Punisher character. He’s not the hero. He’s a serial killer.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: Yeah, he’s very explicitly a psychopath. The thing is, it’s all about strength. As long as they’re strong, not like they can just kill people, but as long as they have sort of the appearance of moral strength and certainty…

Because reasonable people, we question ourselves, and we kind of go, “Oh, am I doing the right thing? Or, oh, I was wrong about that?” And I get the attraction of someone who is just like, “No, I’m right. All the time. I’m gonna shoot people. I’m gonna, like, throw my weight around. I’m gonna take whatever I want. Like the Punisher.”

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: What was it like to work with Stacy Keach?

QUINN ARMSTRONG: Stacy Keach is exactly who you want him to be. He is simultaneously an absolute teddy bear and the sweetest guy in the world and a total professional, while also being the scariest man I’ve ever met. He’s not even trying to be scary or anything. He’s Stacy Keach and has that voice.

We blocked out two days for him to do his whole thing. And I did so much prep the night before. I made notes everywhere in my script. He walked in, sat down, nailed the first day, nailed the second take, nailed the third take. And by halfway through the day, I was like, “I have to start giving this guy notes.”

I mean, I’m just sitting here and he’s so good. So I just started doing like alternate versions. Because both of the days when Stacy was on set, we left three hours early.

I tend to work with theater actors, because my background is in theater. And so I like the ability to work with someone technically. Film actors are great. But oftentimes, you have to like, imagine you’re, under enemy fire and you have to do these scenarios, and all that sort of thing. Whereas with theater actors, you can say, “Just pace it up a little bit.”

There was a real range of experience on this on this set. And it was fast, because I’m really proud of the casting and I worked with some great actors. Vayu O’Donnell, who plays Jim, gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a really difficult part. That’s a really tough role to play. And the funny thing with Stacey, it’s not a matter of bringing the thunder in the big emotional moments. It’s a matter of tiny little adjustments that he makes for the camera that makes everything so much smoother. And that’s just, you know, that’s just experience. Yeah, I can’t say enough good things about him.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: I love the scene where he’s standing outside the car and keeps snapping his fingers to change the different stages of reality. It’s the most amazing thing in the movie.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: It wasn’t supposed to be like that. What happened was, we went through our main phase of production. And then we shot Stacy and ended up not having the budget to shoot a car chase scene where Jim chases down Mark and runs him off the road.

I actually like it much better this way. Because it’s now this funny thing where as we pull back more layers of reality, as we move away from the VHS, we move out of the 4:3 into the 16:9 aspect ratio and things become simultaneously more real and more theatrical. The finger snap is a very sort of theatrical gesture and something I like setting up. There’s something pleasantly sort of…there’s a pleasant energy to setting up things that are extremely real and extremely artificial side-by-side and letting them play with each other. But I really liked the way that actually ended up turning out here.

I’m a big believer in playing to your strengths. If we had $5 million, we could do a good car chase, but we didn’t have the money and all that scene would do is just try to satisfy the genre. And that’s not a good enough reason to do something.

The sort of meta-textual stuff is all about subversion. They only work if they’re tied to a grounded character arc. Otherwise, it’s just sort of smart and clever for the sake of being smart and clever. That’s really what I wanted to try to avoid. I wanted all of the deconstructed elements to be related to Jim’s emotional collapse. Otherwise, yeah, it gets too clever and becomes sort of dismissible.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: What influences your directing wisely? Is it something or someone unexpected?

QUINN ARMSTRONG: The hardest thing about this movie is that we could never be elegant. We could never do things you usually do on set when you’re running behind, like combine shots and finish a scene to cut down on the coverage because we couldn’t do anything fancy. We were really stuck with the style of training videos. But there were a couple of influences.

Like any young white filmmaker, you know that I loved the Twin Peaks return. In the final episodes,  there’s this really amazing road trip that that Cooper takes with Diane and it’s very silent the way the sound design drops out. That final drive with Jim and the narrator was influenced by that.

The person who’s always been always going to be influencing me on the set is Billy Wilder. You’re not going to see his influence directly, but when it comes to things like narrative economy, that’s when he comes in. Instead of me saying, “We’re going to have a car chase,” the Billy Wilder influence instead answers, “No. Stacy is just going to snap his fingers.”

There’s a great bit at the end of Some Like It Hot, where we have characters who are all split apart from each other, and we have like, two minutes of screen time left to reconcile them. Generally speaking in a romantic comedy, you would have to have several scenes with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe where she slowly forgave him while he tearfully confessed and all that stuff. And Billy Wilder, all he does is he has Tony Curtis confess, Marilyn Monroe accepts it and then he says, “Why?” And she says, “I told you, I’m not that bright.” And that’s it. That’s the whole reconciliation. And it’s amazingly well crafted and tight.

In Survival Skills, there are narrative dead ends on purpose. You know, there are scenes that  feel like filler. And they have dramatic importance. They’re there to give a chunky feel to the whole thing, which should not be a smooth ride.

I get asked this question and the answer is always different, but today, let’s go with Billy Wilder. It can change every day. And it’s funny, because as I was working on this movie, my absolute cinema comfort food was Magic Mike XL. I’ve never seen the first one, but the sequel is such a sweet film and I watched it throughout. And as I was screening it for my distributor, I stepped back and was like, “That shot. I stole it from Magic Mike XL.”

There are people who can prepare and show up on set and have it all figured out, savants like Kubrick and Fincher. But for me, you know, I like there being a subconscious element to it. I’m sort of a more emotional director…influenced by Billy Wilder and Magic Mike XL.

The job of the directors is essentially management. Coordinating departments so that everyone’s on the same page making the same thing. And it’s a lot more fun for everyone else. And especially for me, if rather than going up to the DP and being like, “Okay, let’s get on the 70 millimeter lens. I want you over here, I want to feel like here, I want to bounce here…” Instead I can tell them, this is what the characters are about to say and here’s how I want this to feel. Do your job now, but this is how the movie should be emotionally instead of just technically.

Allie Schultz, who was the cinematographer on the movie, she did such great work and got so many amazing shots and I just…I drowned them in VHS in post.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: The thing that struck me is…we get so many movies to review a month. And so many are smaller budgets and they always have excuses, like…we only had so much money. Your film feels different in that there’s a point of view and art. Because a great camera angle or an actual idea in the script doesn’t cost anything.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: I consider myself incredibly lucky. Because temperamentally, I’m inclined towards high concept material in vaguely genre realms and that’s something that you can do real cheap and make your money back. And I know people who are temperamentally inclined towards like space operas. And, you know, I’m sure that you’ve seen a dozen people who watch Star Wars as a kid who wanted to make a Star Wars movie for, you know, 300 bucks in their backyard. Like, gotta, you got to scale it down and deal with the resources you have.

If you don’t have an original idea, then you have to compete on the basis of your presentation and your execution. And if you’re competing on that basis, you have to have a lot of money. Because you’re not going to beat Disney. You can’t outspend them, so you’ve got to do it on ideas.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: But if you look at the shelves at Walmart, it’s all similar movies.

QUINN ARMSTRONG: With us talking to distributors and sales agents, I talked to a number of pretty big name companies who were like, “We love the movie, but we have no idea how to sell it.” It’s not for them to figure out how to sell Survival Skills, which would take a lot of time and effort because there’s no map. They don’t want to do that and I totally get it, you know, their businesses, it doesn’t make sense for them. They could knock off a slasher movie with a farmhouse, shoot it, cut it, send it out and it sells.

I bemoan the state of the industry often, but at the end of the day, it’s, it’s what people will buy and how people value their time. We just have to give them the option of something better.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: Because people want safety and something they’ve seen before.

QUINN ARMSTONG: I get it. I’ve watched Bob’s Burgers eight or nine times the whole way through. Sometimes, I want to see something comfortable. I get it.

We want to thank Quinn for doing this interview and AJ Feuerman for setting it up. Also, we urge you to watch this movie, which is now available everywhere movies are streaming. You can learn more on the official Facebook and Instagram pages for Survival Skills.

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