Interview: Scott Teems on Digging Deep in “The Quarry”

“God is funny to bring you to me,” David Martín (Bruno Bichir) tells the drifter (Shea Whigham) he’s just picked up while driving through West Texas in “The Quarry,” doing the Christian thing even when one look towards the passenger’s seat suggests it may not be the right thing. While the preacher is trying to make conversation as the two head south to a small town near the Rio Grande to take over its ministry, the man sitting next to him is not, growing uncomfortable with all the questions about his past that David asks and he’ll only have to answer more once the van reaches its destination when he’s still alive and the reverend is dead.

Although it takes a while for the drifter to adjust, assuming David’s identity in his new hometown where he’s viewed with some suspicion by Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the local assigned to take him in, and its sheriff Chief Moore (Michael Shannon), director Scott Teems eases you into the thriller as if it were a bath of honey, steadily and smoothly, growing ever stickier by the second. In adapting Damon Galgut’s 2005 novel, Teems and co-writer Andrew Brotzman don’t only shift the action from post-apartheid South Africa to America, but transport audiences in an entirely different way, settling into the bordertown where a seemingly simple way of life is revealed to mask a host of long-simmering tensions underneath, which makes Whigham’s mysterious stranger fit right in when he’s able to hide his past sins once he puts the clerical collar on.

“The Quarry” couldn’t feel any more timely, especially in introducing Valentin (Bobby Soto), a young Mexican-American who becomes the prime suspect in crimes known by the audience to have been committed by the town’s new curiously Caucasian pastor, suggesting that as far removed as the film’s setting is from the rest of the country, it can’t escape some of the larger society’s biggest shortcomings. Yet the film has been in the works for a while for Teems, who made such an accomplished directorial debut with the 2009 Hal Holbrook-led drama “That Evening Sun,” before taking his talents to television on such shows as “Recify” and “Narcos: Mexico,” and his return to features seems intent on making up for lost time, drawing on the ferocious turns of Whigham and Shannon as men who live by their own code and are suddenly faced with having to question it in changing times.

While a planned premiere at SXSW couldn’t come to fruition after the festival’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Quarry” is being released to the masses on VOD this week and Teems spoke about this satisfying slow burn and how he changed as a filmmaker between his first and second feature.

How did this come about?

Right after “That Evening Sun,” I was looking for my next project and stumbled upon this book and it was a classic premise — the stranger rolls into town, which I’ve always been interested in and it dealt with themes that I’ve always been drawn to, which are men and violence and religion and where those things intersect or collide. The book was set in South Africa, but it immediately felt like I could translate it to the States because the premise is so universal. It felt like Texas to me and that was 10 years ago, so I wrote the first draft of the script in March 2010, and it took that long to get it to the screen, but I’m glad we finally did.

Given the growing contentiousness at the border that’s happened in the intervening years, did it evolve much or were you surprised by the time you got to production how relevant it was?

Well, I didn’t look at it for six or seven years. We tried to make it back then, got close a couple of times, and never got to the finish line, [which] happens sometimes. I was always very sad about that because I always liked this project and then a couple years ago, the script found its way to Shea Whigham and his interest in it brought it back to life. My co-writer Andrew Brotzman and I went back and looked at it and the sad irony is what we thought was a relevant story in 2010 was only more relevant today and I feel like racial strife and conflict has only gotten worse over the years.

It did evolve quite a bit on this new path because we also had grown as writers and looking back at the 2010 version, I was a different writer and I had different interests. We simplified a lot of things, going back to it, and streamlined the story and just the experience, tried to focus it down a little bit more to something more manageable, more focused in terms of the Man and his guilt and the drive towards the finish. The culmination of the story became more of a focus on our passes, just trying to get the distractions out of the way and focus on our main characters a little bit more.

This was true of “That Evening Sun” as well, but it’s a relatively small story that you give a grand scope to. What was that like to figure out?

That’s exactly what we tried to do is mix the epic and the intimate. My first conversation with Michael Lloyd, the cinematographer, [was] about, how do we blend them because this is a story about big ideas, right? It’s about racism and God and murder and forgiveness – all these huge ideas and I’ve always said big ideas need a big canvas, yet at its core, it’s a very intimate, personal story about the weight of guilt upon a person. Trying to figure out how to do that is where the widescreen photography comes into play and we shot on the ALEXA 65, [which] Michael Lloyd pushed for because he really believed it could give us a huge canvas while maintaining that intimacy. I had never used that camera before, but I was surprised with how well it achieved our goal and captured these [vivid] colors as well. I wanted those bold bright reds to pop in the courthouse at the end and throughout the movie, [because] the red of violence is a theme throughout and that’s something we really strived to communicate visually.

Was it a challenge to find the right location for this?

It was, and the other thing about the old me versus the new me in terms of revisiting the script is that originally, we had written a very location-specific story. You do that when you’re young and naive and you get older and you realize that you’re never going to find that exact location that’s in your mind, so you have to create a script that’s a little more flexible. That was part of what we had to adjust as we tried to make the movie. You find the best version of a town that’s going to serve all your needs, but you’re never going to find the exact thing you’re looking for usually, so you have to set the script up in a way you can bend because if it’s too specific in terms of what you can see from this location to that location or what you can see from this building to that building or which way windows are facing, you really write yourself into a corner. We looked at a bunch of places and found this great little town and we readjusted the script based on that.

For instance, for the longest time, we could not find a location to shoot the final sequence on the river that looked good and was achievable with our resources and time, and I was really concerned. We were well into shooting the movie before we found this place and it was on a whim that we went down to this park and found this bed of reeds and it became an unexpected perfect location. The boat and the reeds almost feels like it has those biblical echoes for a story that’s been about religion and about the Bible in some ways. It feels like a story set in that time and somehow that evocation just called to mind the scenes of the movie and created a unique backdrop for this final movement. That was a real thrill.

I know Shea and Michael work together a lot, and it seems like in “That Evening Sun,” you cast a lot of actors that were familiar with one another beforehand. I realize that could be because friends want to pass around your scripts, but do you actually like having casts with that kind of familiarity already for that lived-in feel?

I hope so. Ray and Walton, of course, [were] on “That Evening Sun” and now Mike and Shea, and I love it because when the actors know each other, they trust each other more. Especially on this film, when it’s just Shea and Mike are filming so many scenes together, back-and-forth mano y mano, and their antagonistic relationship is the core of the film in a lot of ways, when you have two guys that have a great respect and appreciation and love for each other, you know they’re each going to bring their A game because they want to be there for one another because they’re friends. You can’t quantify the benefits of that and it’s invaluable in a lot of ways. I think it has a lot to do with why those scenes are powerful.

This is probably silly to ask, but is there significance to the fact there’s burning houses in both of your films to date? Is that an image that you like?

It’s a coincidence, but I think it must be something about stories I’m drawn to. It’s stories of men and violence and often that ends up in some conflagration. When I was structuring [“The Quarry”], for a long time the film didn’t start with that fire, but as it evolved, as we were leading up to the shoot, the script evolved some and we knew it was more necessary to have that, so almost for me feels like a handoff. My last film ended with a fire and this one begins with one and then you move onto the next story, so it felt like a little bit of a connection, but pure coincidence in the grand scheme.

“The Quarry” will be available on demand on April 17th.