By Ali Mossavi.
Scott Teems, The Quarry’s director who, together with Andrew Brotzman, adapted Damon Galgut’s novel for the screen, hammers home one of the main themes of his film with the first images that appear. A house burning to the ground, followed by the image of a cross. Sin and salvation. A driver picks up a drifter. The driver, named David Martin (Bruno Bichir) is of Mexican origin. While the drifter (Shea Whigham) is brooding and mostly silent, Martin is a non-stop talker, supplying the drifter with a lot of personal information. This is a human trait that we often tell a lot of our personal stories, that we have withheld from family and close friends, to complete strangers that we meet for the first time. As if there was an invisible curtain before that we wouldn’t want to go past it.
It turns out that Martin is a priest. He is on his way to his new parish in a small town in Texas. Martin’s blabbering and questioning go beyond the drifter’s endurance. A fight ensues. When we see the drifter digging a shallow grave, we know the fight’s outcome. The drifter sees a chance to assume Martin’s identity. As Jack Nicholson’s David Locke did with a man called Robertson in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). But there are certain key differences between the two films. Locke found Robertson dead. The drifter killed Martin. Locke knew nothing of Robertson’s past while Martin has provided the drifter with his full history. The Quarry though has more similarities in theme and structure with Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi (2019) which was nominated for the 2019 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (losing to Parasite) and reviewed before in Film International (http://filmint.nu/?p=28235). In that film, an ex-criminal’s ambition was to become a priest. However, his criminal record prevented him from doing so, but he got a chance to impersonate a priest and work in a small parish church. A theme central to both The Quarry and Corpus Christi is whether someone who has committed a crime, knows what it takes to commit a sin and values repenting and forgiveness more than someone who has studied priesthood. In both films this is demonstrated by depicting that the services and priesthood duties carried out by an ex-criminal and a criminal on the run, are more effective and popular in their parishes than the professional priests who served before.
There are other characters in The Quarry. One is the local police chief (Michael Shannon) who suspects that the new priest may not be who he claims to be. There is Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a Mexican lady who provides food and board for the new priest. She is also the police chief’s lover who frequently ignores the petty thefts of Celia’s two younger brothers. These characters provide both the suspense (greatly helped by Heather McIntosh’s atmospheric music) and the counterpoint to the film’s main theme of sinners providing salvation.
When you have actors of the ability of Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham in a film (who are both listed as executive producers), you know that you are in good hands and are unlikely to be disappointed. Writer-director Scot Teems does not provide us any details of the drifter’s past. Who he was? Why did he commit a crime? I think Teems has made the right decision as such details would have diverted us from the film’s main themes and may have ended up making The Quarry a routine crime movie. As it is, the film makes a stronger impression and leaves the viewers with a lot of thoughts and questions to wrestle with. The Quarry is only Scott Teems’s second feature film but is shows a maturity and understanding of the medium that makes him a name to watch.
I conducted a phone interview with Scott Teems to discuss the film with him.
How did this project start? The book was published 25 years ago, and both Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon are credited as Executive Producers.
I first found the book about ten years ago. I’d made my first movie which was called That Evening Sun. I was looking for my next project. I came across the synopsis of this book online and it really grabbed me. It had that sort of classic setup; mysterious stranger rolls into town. So, I decided to read the book. The book, by the South African writer Damon Galgut, is set in post-Apartheid South Africa and deals with injustice in that country. But it felt very relevant to me to what’s going on in our country, even ten years ago. And it has become even more relevant as the years have gone by, unfortunately. It was set in the coastal plains of South Africa which reminded me of the plains of Texas, so it felt like a natural translation. I optioned the book along with Laura Smith, my producer, back then.
We weren’t able to [get it made] all those years ago, but we did get close, so the project was dormant. Then a couple of years ago, through Laura Smith and Kristin Mann, the project got to Shea and Mike; once those guys came on board, we were able to get the money and the project came back to life.
With the novel being set in post-apartheid South Africa, it was interesting to see how the black congregation of the book became Mexican in the film adaptation.
Unfortunately, racial strife and conflict are a global problem, which has only gotten worse over the years. The White-Mexican conflict is more relevant in the United States today than it has ever been. So that’s a small part of our story in The Quarry, but I didn’t want to be overt and heavy-handed and throw in obviously bigoted characters.
The people I know who have those racist tendencies often don’t know they have them, which is what I tried to portray with the character of the police chief. He’s blind to his own racism as it’s so ingrained in him. To me, that’s honest to the more prevalent and problematic form of racism in our country.
I liked your use of visual motifs, such as opening the film with a fire, then cutting to a cross: from crime and sin, to salvation. How did you come up with that opening?
The story thematically deals with my main interests, which are men, violence, religion, and the American South, and where those things intersect and collide. The collision of faith, and violence and doubt, and the burden of guilt, these were all different ideas that the story encapsulated.
When I’m developing a story, I think visually. I want to do whatever I can to relate those themes in a visual way, so I don’t have to put it all in dialogue. To me, that style of visual storytelling is the best form of filmmaking. They’re moving pictures, right?
The book itself was very visual, which is partly what grabbed me. Galgut’s style was very staccato and sparse, very direct. So while some of the details in the script by Andrew Brontzman and myself may differ in the translation from page to screen and from South Africa to the American South, we still wanted to grab you with the same imagery and themes as the novel, such as violence and faith.
One thing I liked about the script (I haven’t read the novel) is that we’re not given much background on the Drifter; we don’t even know his name. We focus on his actions throughout the events of the film without any knowledge of any past deeds or motives.
Thanks, glad to hear it. I wanted the audience to be able to see the world through the Drifter’s eyes; you’re not judging him but observing him. There’s great power when you can only judge a character by their actions, taking away the trappings of judgement. It’s more pure.
I’ve always been a fan of films where someone takes over someone else’s identity, such as Antonioni’s The Passenger. Was that something else that attracted you to the novel?
For sure, and The Passenger was definitely a touchstone for us during development, along with Night of the Hunter. But more than anything it’s a classic setup to a confrontation that you know is going to happen by the end of the story, that this impostor will get found out. It’s the anticipation of this that creates natural tension throughout; you can have this slow-burn of tension without having to force it or manufacture it with a literal ticking clock in every scene. I love that, since it gives me the space to do the character development in the silence in-between, letting the audience get to know characters without getting bored.
When you have great actors like Mike Shannon and Shea Whigham, they can really hold the frame on their own; you don’t need to throw in unnecessary music and cuts. They have so much going on internally, behind the eyes, that they can express so much with just their faces, which is a great gift to a filmmaker.
I’d like to ask you about the idea in The Quarry that those who have committed sins can understand other sinners better than the likes of the pious and virtuous. In the film we see the Drifter meet with more success with the congregation than their previous preacher.
When you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t fall back on the shortcuts of someone who knows that vocation. So, the Drifter ends up getting to the core of what being a preacher is about. Having eliminated the ego, he eliminates the cult of personality from the scenario and focuses instead on the words, the Scripture. Now the Drifter can see both his congregation and himself in a new light.
I wanted to discuss the scene where the Drifter puts his hand on the Bible and proceeds to lie.
I’m always drawn to stories where men don’t give up their game, their fight. That’s human nature. So here the Drifter is trying to hold on to the bitter end as he ain’t got nothing else, but ultimately he can’t hold on forever and it costs him everything.
How closely did Shea and Mike stick to the script?
There are a few lines here and there, but I work really hard on the dialogue, and the final film is pretty close to the script, which is how I like it.
Given the current situation, what are the release plans?
Well, we were supposed to premiere at South by Southwest but that got cancelled, but Lionsgate is still releasing the film on VOD on April 17th. Hopefully, it provides people an opportunity to watch something thoughtful and suspenseful in this strange time. So even though we’re not releasing theatrically like we originally planned, we still get to tell folks a good story.
So what’s in the pipeline for you now?
I co-wrote the screenplay for Halloween Kills with Danny McBride and director David Gordon Green, the upcoming sequel to the 2018 Halloween film. Hopefully that comes out as planned in October and people can see it in theaters!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).