Arriving in theaters and on VOD and digital platforms this Friday is writer/director Henry Dunham’s taut and tension-filled thriller The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. Starring James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Chris Mulkey, Gene Jones, Happy Anderson, Patrick Fischler, and Robert Aramayo, Dunham’s debut feature follows an ex-cop named Gannon (Dale), who joined a militia group after he gave up his career. Eager to put his law enforcement days behind him, Gannon is tasked with figuring out which one of his fellow militia members are behind a shooting at a police funeral once it’s discovered that one of the men might have motives bigger than minding the interests of their controversial group.
Daily Dead caught up with Dunham to discuss his approach to The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, and he discussed how his home state inspired the concept behind his first film project, the extensive preparations he did prior to starting production on the indie thriller, putting together his stellar ensemble, and how he worked with cinematographer Jackson Hunt on the film’s visual style.
Be sure to check out The Standoff at Sparrow Creek in theaters and on various digital platforms later this week, courtesy of RLJE Films.
I would love to talk about the idea behind this story, because on paper, when you're reading about who this group of people are, it’s like, "Okay, why are we with them?" Because it's not exactly a group of people most of us would want to hang out with for 85 minutes. And yet, the way that you pull apart these layers and you find this humanity in this scenario, I just think it's really, really smart and I think you guys were really able to create these amazingly compelling characters that we don't see very often in film these days.
Henry Dunham: Well, thank you very much. I try and work from a position on what scares me emotionally, and thinking about that as a character goal, the worst thing that can happen to them isn't living their life in solitude, it's realizing, like, "I need the group, even if the group is hurting me." And once I kind of cracked that that was the through line for James’ character, I started to think about, "Okay, what is the most interesting story that I haven't seen a very universal emotion and a very universal conflict dramatized in?"
I'm from Michigan originally, and we'd always heard about these guys who are out there after the Unabomber thing happened, and I was just like, "Well, that would be interesting to explore." Just going, "Okay, the cliché thing is dramatizing a stereotype as a stereotype, like, they're all just backwoods gun nuts." But it was much more interesting to go, "What if we just ignore all the ideology and all the politics and just have it be, 'This is just a group of people in a conflict that's understandable and relatable and forces the audience to identify with people they wouldn't otherwise.'"
Because that's the point of view that I'm coming at it, is just like, I don't know anything about these guys. I don't have anything in common with them, but dramatizing something so accessible was just a really interesting contrast. So that's where the genesis of everything happened, of why to have that set in that kind of group, just because doing it elsewhere just felt so familiar and not something that you'd go, "That's an interesting enough clash of worlds."
As excellent as James is in this, I love that it really is an ensemble piece as well. In many ways, it could also be a play. It's just interesting that you give all these different characters these moments, and no one really gets sidelined in the story. Can you talk about putting together this cast and then working through the approach of the interactions between them in the film?
Henry Dunham: The casting mission statement was always, "Cast this as if it's the pilot for an HBO series." It's just really, really good actors that, when you see them, you go, "Okay, I'm in good hands here." Not somebody who's so recognizable that it takes you out of the story. There were always these kinds of guys who I was really insistent upon that I'd seen them in things like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or every one of those shows that you watch and you're just like, "Wow, everyone is fu--ing great."
And the casting process was unique because again, people wanted to know that you're going to approach touchy subject matter in a delicate and purposeful way, and having conversations with the actors and just being like, "Ignore everything else. It's just a ’70s thriller stage play about the cost of connection. That's all we're doing here." Once you make sure they know that, they'll start putting their trust in you, and that's just a huge portion of it—making sure that the actors do trust you.
Then, when I was meeting with every one of these guys, it was us just talking about, "Okay, this is your character, and this is their emotional spine through this and how they're interacting with everybody else." A lot of it was worked out in the script stage. It really should be; otherwise, I personally think you're just throwing money away, if that stuff isn't worked out on the page. And also, if there's another character that doesn't need to be here, we're just wasting time and money on having an actor on set who doesn’t need to be there. It all has to be purposeful for it to be effective storytelling.
Let’s talk about the cinematography in this. When you’re utilizing one location, it can be challenging to keep things interesting, but I think the way you capture the visuals here in a one-setting scenario is really fantastic. There are some really gorgeous shots.
Henry Dunham: Well, first of all, thank you very much. Secondly, yeah, I drew the movie first, so it ended up being five books and about 1,400 shots. Having that as a base plate was incredibly helpful for composition and everything like that, so then again, when you're doing a movie in 18 days for 450 grand, you don't have time to guess and search for inspiration. And as far as the lighting schemes go, it was always the intent to have it progress with the emotional through line of everybody in the group. So, we start out with a very neutral top light, where everyone's face is pretty much in full view and as we go on and everybody sort of starts coming undone a bit, we go to these practical sources that just have the face half lit because you're losing certainty, you're losing a grasp on who this person is.
Even the point when Gannon gets to his lowest, he goes complete into darkness and it's making sure that everything is just in direct proportion with where we are emotionally. I hope people like it visually, but I almost hope that they just feel it more, where it just feels organic, it feels truthful. And then for the ending, it's the first time in the whole movie where we go to basically white, almost blue light, we intentionally wanted to make that moment a severe change, visually.
And Jackson [Hunt], my DP [director of photography], was so great. I think I interviewed 25 DPs before we started production, but he was the only one where we were just bonding over the story, and he knew all of the references, plus, we obsessed over ’70s thrillers together, and we immediately connected. I'm insane about motivated lighting and motivated camera modes. If it's not motivated, I don't want to move it. I hate handheld. It's not for me, and he was just like, "I completely agree. When I read this part of the script, it just feels measured, it feels still, it feels wide."
Thank God that he and I were both on the same page about everything, because he was able to translate everything I wanted to convey in the film visually so perfectly. And us being on that shared wavelength was so integral to making sure we were able to get this movie done. There’s no way it would have turned out as well as it did without Jackson’s involvement.