Scott Teems is not a name many people may know off-hand, but he is an up-and-coming filmmaker to pay attention to. The man is the co-writer of the upcoming Halloween Kills and has also been tapped to write a new adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter. Teems’ latest movie, The Quarry, which stars Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon, is arriving on digital platforms soon and offers viewers stuck at home something new to enjoy. This is one of the many movies that had been set to screen at SXSW before the festival was canceled due to current events.
The Quarry is based on the novel of the same name by Damon Galgut. It centers on a fugitive who, after murdering a traveling preacher, travels to a small town and poses as the man he killed. The small-town congregation loves the drifter’s sermons of forgiveness, but the local police chief (Michael Shannon) is suspicious of the man. Soon a gruesome discovery at a local quarry forces the killer to fight for his freedom.
I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Scott Teems about his new movie. We discussed what it was like working with the cast, what effect SXSW getting canceled had on the release and much more. Enjoy.
I was happy we were able to make this happen. I live down here in Austin, and I was supposed to cover this for SXSW, and I was really looking forward to it. But I’m at least happy we were still able to make it happen. Just because a lot of people who haven’t been there, who haven’t gone, don’t really understand how big South By is and also how big that is for movies that aren’t huge blockbusters. So how did that affect things for you guys having SXSW not happen?
Scott Teems: It’s a big deal, it really is. And in the grand scheme of things, with all that’s going on in the world, losing your film premiere is maybe not a huge thing, but it’s still heartbreaker because you work so hard for so many years to bring a movie life, especially an independent film, and you want folks to see it, and you want them to see it the best way possible. There are few better ways than at a wonderful festival like South By at the Paramount Theater with a huge screen, and a huge crowd, and all the wonderful things that come along with that, and energy you can build off of a moment like that to launch the movie into the world. It’s huge. And to lose that is the heartbreaker. It really is. We were one of the fortunate ones in that we already had distribution going into the festival. But a lot of films that don’t have that, it’s tragic.
On top of that, you lose the festival and then you lose… who knows what’s gonna happen in the world of releases over the next several months? Everything is in upheaval, obviously. But we feel fortunate that we do have distribution. But that doesn’t make it any easier to lose your premiere. Now, the film comes out in three weeks, so almost certainly we’ve lost our theatrical release as well, at least a huge part of it. And so it’s sad. You want people to see the movie on the big screen with a group of people. That’s why you do it. At least that’s why I do. It’s one of the huge reasons. You know going into it most people are going to see it in their homes, and that’s okay. But you still make it for the board of theater. You build it for the temple. But all things being said, the fact that it is coming out and we do have distribution is a huge blessing and I’m grateful for it.
Watching it all I could think was, “Man, this would have been really great at the Paramount.” How would you, as the man who brought this movie for life, describe it to people?
Scott Teems:The Quarry is a film about a man on the run from his past who takes on a new identity and goes to this small Texas town and tries to disappear. But you can’t outrun your past, and soon it comes calling for him. And he gets in this cat and mouse game with the local police chief as the weight of guilt and conscience comes to over-burden them. It’s a Texas noir. It’s a slow burn suspense piece. It’s a character drama. But mostly it’s this opportunity to watch some of the best actors in the world, in my opinion, in this dance of drama, so to speak. Mike Shannon and Shea Whigham. Not to mention Catalina Sandino Moreno and Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir. I was very fortunate with this cast. Have some real wonderful actors to be part of this show.
I was actually going to ask you about that because man, having Shea and Michael in this together, they were just absolutely incredible in it. I do. Were they attached to it when you came on, or did you just get fortunate to get them in the process?
Scott Teems: I optioned this novel by Damon Galgut 10 years ago, right after my first film, That Evening Sun, I was trying to make The Quarry as my second film. I found this book, optioned it with Laura Smith, my producer, and I tried to get it made back then. I actually said to Mike Shannon back then in 2010, 2011 and he was unavailable. He was about to go off and make Superman [Man of Steel]. He was going to be gone for the next year when I was trying to make this movie and we never got it made back then. It actually kind of went away. It was a weird time back then. It was after the big housing bubble burst and the economy crashed, much like we’re about to experience, or are experiencing right now. So there was less money and fewer films being made. Also, fewer opportunities through platforms. None of the streaming was available yet. So there was just less movies being made. Couldn’t get it made back then. It went away, and it was Shea’s interest actually, that brought it back to life a couple years ago. Shea got his hands on it and She’s interest got the movie kick-started. I hadn’t thought about it in six years at that point. I was moving on, trying to do other things. I was sad that I lost that movie, but you had to go do something else. Shea got his hands on it. Fell in love with it, got it going again, and because Mike had already read it, and because Shea and Mike are good friends, because [producer] Kristin Mann and Mike were friends, that brought Mike back into the fold. With those two guys on board now we were able to get the money, and get the movie made at last.
That’s so incredible. I just don’t think some people realize with movie-making just how long it takes sometimes, and most of the time frankly, to get something made. So I guess, what’s it like for you now? It’s out there. It’s about to be out there man. How does that feel? After what, like 10 10 years trying to get this made?
Scott Teems: It’s a little surreal still. I can’t quite believe it actually happened, but I’m excited. Movies change and evolve, and it’s a different movie than the one I thought it was going to be ten years ago. But that’s the beauty of this process, it grows as you grow. I grew as a filmmaker, I changed as a writer, and then it’s actually interesting to go back to it after all so many years and to see how I changed as a writer, a filmmaker in those years and going back and trying to fold that ten-years-ago version of me into this current version. It’s an interesting process. But I’m just excited. I mean I really am. The silver lining I think in all this chaos with the virus and everything is that more people will probably see it, ultimately, than maybe would have, even if it had its theatrical run, because everyone’s at home and I think there will be fewer new release in the next couple of months because everyone’s pulling their movies. We have less competition and perhaps that will allow for more people to discover the movie. That’s my hope. Even though they’re not seeing it in a theater, I think probably more people will see it that way. That’s exciting for me and a small bit of consolation in this sort of chaotic time.
I don’t want to get into spoilers because the movie is, like you said, a slow burn and there’s a lot to it. I really would like people to discover that for themselves. But there is a heavy religious element to the story. I’m just curious, was religion an important part of your life at some point? What was your relationship to it? Because it felt like there was very much a position on it.
Scott Teems: I mean, I think that when I read the book the first time, even though the book is South African and set in South Africa, post-apartheid South Africa, it still spoke to me on some very universal themes that are important to me, and those were namely men, violence and Go, and how those things interject sometimes, and where those things intersect, where they explode together. Those are always resonant themes for me. I grew up in Georgia. When you grow up in the South, religion is sort of baked into who you are usually. So I’m always fascinated by how religion plays into character’s lives, and when you grow up with it versus when you approach it from a more objective place. Living in Los Angeles for the last 15 years, there’s no obligation. There’s no social obligation to go to church or to have any religion. If anything, it’s the opposite.
Having grown up in the South, especially in the seventies and eighties, and nineties, where that was that social obligation to go to church. It created in a lot of people an ambivalence towards religion. A complicated relationship. I’m always fascinated. I grew up in it. It’s been an important part of my life, but my relationship to it has evolved a lot. I’m just interested in exploring that subject from unique points of view. I have no interest in making movies that are exclusively about religion. I just like to explore it as more of an organic part of the world and a story, but it’s baked into the people and the place, it helps it feel not like it’s not some agenda-driven propaganda, which I have no interest in. It wouldn’t appeal to me. So I just like those elements and how they kind of come together in a combustible way.
The Quarry is available via on demand from Lionsgate on April 17.