Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills has proved to be an audience favorite at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. A parody of police training videos of the 1980s, Armstrong’s film delves deeper into the outmoded teachings of these officers and presents a much more nuanced look into the police training construct as a fresh-faced and naive officer, Jim desperately tries to do the right thing.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Quinn Armstrong about his covertly complex film. We discussed everything from destroying VCRs, Stacy Keach, 80s satanic panic, and how he views his film during America’s current protests against police brutality.
Sean Coates: As a creative, how have you dealt with life under COVID-19? Are you being productive? Are you procrastinating? Has it stifled or stimulated your creativity and work ethic?
Quinn Armstrong: As far as day-to-day stuff, if you hadn’t told me, I might not have noticed for a while. I spend most of my time inside working on stuff. You can see how pale I am and you can get a sense of how little I go outside (laughs). But it’s been fine for that. I’m very lucky I have my own space, I have my cats here, I have my editing setup so I can work on stuff, so in that sense, it’s been really nice. But it’s interesting to think about what this is gonna mean in terms of people who are making stuff right now.
I feel like the influence of COVID as an idea is going to be more stifling than COVID itself is for creative people. I’ve been talking to friends who are pitching tons of plague TV shows and plague movies and all this stuff and I just… It’s just a wave of ideas that are just pointing out obvious things that are happening right now. In that sense, it has been a little stifling, but it’s been fine for me. I’ve been catching up on movie watching and all that stuff.
SC: Survival Skills began as a short film. Take us through how it developed into a feature.
QA: The feature actually predates the short as an idea. The short we made largely as a proof of concept, to attract funding and investors, but it was also largely made to get Stacy Keach onboard. Essentially what I did is that we didn’t have money to go through a whole casting process and go out to Hollywood and the agencies and do the whole thing, so I paid a casting director $300 just to get a letter to Stacy’s manager and make sure he reads it. That was it. I’d seen Stacy in a play at the Lincoln Center in New York called ‘Other Desert Cities’ that I had also worked on in Seattle when it was in development because I used to be a stage actor for a long time.
In my letter, I talked about the similarities between that character which was this sort of Reagan stand-in older actor kind of guy and the chief in this movie. I sent the letter and heard nothing, then maybe a month later his manager was like ‘send us the script’. That was the entire email, just ‘send us the script’ and ‘send’ wasn’t even capitalized. So we sent the script and then heard nothing and then three months later we just got a single sentence back again that was ‘Stacy likes it’. And we were like ‘What does that mean?’ (laugh). But he got on board and we talked and had a great time. But for people watching through Fantasia, the short is available as bonus content and you can really see that the short was a learning process for us. Particularly in regards to the VHS effect we used in the short was a digital effect and one of the things we learned is that we can’t use a digital effect.
SC: Is that because it does not look as good?
QA: So for those who don’t know, the entire movie is presented as a mid-80s police training video. So authenticity is really important because… I mean, I don’t want to give too much away, but we move past the training video thing pretty quickly. It becomes something else very quickly so we have to establish authenticity very fast. That’s one reason we wanted to use the VHS effect is just because it looks correct, it looks sort of analog and warmer. The other reason was it creates obstacles for the use of static and tape wrinkles as a storytelling device. If I’m going digital, I tell a VFX artist or do it myself exactly what static, exactly where it goes, exactly what tape wrinkle, and at what rate it goes down the screen.
But what we did instead was shot the movie digitally, we cut it digitally and then took the final movie and put it on VHS. And I bought every single VCR in the greater Los Angeles area from every Goodwill and every thrift store there was. I had about 40 or 50 of them in my apartment at one point.
QA: I put the movie on dozens of VHS tapes and what I did is that I would take the VCRs, unscrew it, pop the top off, put the tape in, and then I used magnets, knives, and fire to create the different effects. What that did is that it meant that I had limited control and things happened that I could not anticipate. I had to deal with the physical reality of the medium, which I think is really important for something like this. There’s a big sort of experimental breakdown in the trial scene. There are tons of static, Stacy is yelling and all that stuff and that ends, then there’s this shot of Jim (the protagonist of the film) up against a window that’s blown out that stutters then splits into two where his head is bisected and flipped. It’s hard to explain, but that’s one of my favorite moments in the movie and it happened totally accidentally. There’s a point where there’s a character who is an abused housewife who has this grey line across her mouth while she’s being harangued in court. Totally accidental. Don’t know how it happened.
SC: Happy Accident?
QA: Oh my god, such a happy accident! If I had done that myself on purpose, it would look very like ‘I am making a statement’. So I really like the challenge of dealing with the medium itself and you know, there’s such a long tradition of doing that in the manipulation of film with people like Stan Brakhage and Peter Tscherkassky, but less so with the intentional manipulation of VHS. That’s a very long and windy answer, I’m sorry.
SC: No, that is fine. I’m absolutely fascinated with what you have done. That is some real dedication.
QA: It is a complicated process. I could repair a VCR now. Like I could put a VCR together, I’m confident I could do that. Not a useful skill these days though.
SC: What did you end up doing with all the VCRs?
QA: Well the thing is, the reason I needed so many… so there’s a part of it called the drumhead which is what the tape passes through and that’s where the optical housing is. The drumhead gets knocked off balance by the magnets over time and it becomes unwatchable, just pure static. I could only work with a VCR for about 30 minutes before it became useless forever, so I destroyed all of them (laugh). There was this big stack of mangled metal, just like a tower in my apartment that entire time. I wish I could have recycled them and been responsible, but no, I wrecked those.
SC: It’s for the greater good of your artform, so I think you’re justified. Earlier, you were talking about how the film is presented as an 80s police training video. How many police training videos did you watch as research for the film and were they all from the 80s, or did you also watch some older and more contemporary ones?
QA: I have watched many (laughs). There’s a lot you can find online and once I went through those, I started contacting local police departments and I was already going on ride alongs with the cops anyway at that point. We didn’t really reach out to the people who made them because I’m worried they’d be insulted by what we were going to do. It’s interesting to do a parody of something so stylistically specific and that is not good or entertaining in its original form. If you are doing something like Blazing Saddles, the westerns Blazing Saddles is talking about are usually pretty entertaining in their original form. That is not the case with these training videos.
SC: I’m gonna take a guess that these videos are more horrifying and cringeworthy.
QA: Well, there are levels to it. It actually kind of mirrors what happens in the film because you start watching these training videos and the one that started all this was called ‘Surviving Edged Weapons’ from ’88. It’s just so bonkers, like famously bonkers and way weirder than Survival Skills actually is. There’s another called ‘Law Enforcement’s Guide to Satanic Cults’ and most of them are from the 80s because that period had a very specific paranoia to it in American history of that Reagan era. It mirrors this historical moment America is in right now where it’s a cluster of powerful interests trying to maintain something that is changing. There’s an enormous amount of fear in these police training videos, particularly around the satanic panic of the 80s and stuff like that.
SC: Which you parody brilliantly in your film by the way.
QA: Thank you. We had to put a little something in there. You can’t have an 80s thing without a little bit of satanic panic. But you watch them and you’re like ‘oh my god, this is so silly’ with the outmoded attitudes, then once you get numb to the joke of it all you start paying attention to what’s underneath it with all the racism and xenophobia and you can start tracking it to the present day. There’s a guy named Dave Grossman who has taught at hundreds of police academies and the FBI, he has this philosophy called ‘Killology’ which is a police officer should be trained psychologically to be able to kill someone quickly and not feel bad about it. He’s ex-military, surprise surprise, and you see videos of him online and it’s that same sort of attitude; it’s the cops versus society.
With the protests against systemic racism in the US right now, the way the cops are being so defensive and refusing to admit any fault and refusing to give an inch, it makes no sense… until you start digging into how they are trained. They are trained that it is us, the thin blue line, us brothers in arms against them, and we have to be on each other’s side or they are gonna come for us and all this alarmist stuff. Once I started learning about that, their behavior started to make a lot more sense to me.
But to get back to your original question, I would say I have seen just shy of probably a hundred training videos from different eras, different lengths and some of them are actually good, like stuff on community policing and how to de-escalate situations. But the vast majority of them are extremely violent and graphically violent. They often play more like movies from the Death Wish series and like this 70s grindhouse kind of vibe. It makes me simultaneously more and less sympathetic to cops, because on the one hand I’m like ‘oh god, you must be so scared all the time if that’s what you believe’, but on the other hand I’m thinking ‘well, no one is putting a gun to your head. You’re putting the gun to people’s heads’. So yeah, we watched a lot (laughs).
SC: You mentioned the protests happening in America. I read an interview with you where you said you got accepted into Fantasia around the time when George Floyd was killed and the protests and police brutality really began to escalate, and with your film having a cop as the protagonist, you were considering pulling the film. How do you feel about the film now it has screened during these events?
QA: Yeah, we were accepted around the time when George Floyd was murdered and my immediate feeling was that we can’t show this movie. You know, this is not what the conversation is right now. I’ve never felt that the movie is apologetic to cops, in fact, I think the movie is a lot harsher on cops than a movie that is simply like ‘here is an example of bad cops‘ because we know that story. But I felt like this is sort of a deconstruction of training and a more nuanced conversation to have, but when people are hurting, it’s not the moment to come to them and be like ‘let’s calm down and let’s have a conversation about the nuances of this’. That’s not the voice that was necessary.
However, my producers kind of talked me off the cliff with that one because I think there are some things in the movie that people may not know about and it may help people think about the police in a different way. There have been some folks who have said ‘this is not the moment for this movie’ who have felt that in presenting a “good cop” it is not in tune with what is happening right now. But the vast majority have kind of got where I feel the movie is coming from, which is that not even a perfect man, not even a morally perfect human can thrive and do the right thing in this situation. When I was freaking out, I look back on that and I cringe because that was mainly me trying to be like ‘I don’t want to be seen as a bad guy, I don’t want to be seen as a cop apologist’, but I’m glad it’s out there.
There’s a line in the film that says “The mark of a true cop is that he never makes the same mistake three times” which when we shot it, it was a gag. But now, it’s still a gag and it still works, but that line has taken a whole new meaning. I mean there are lines in it that feel so on the nose, like, I’m glad that it’s of its own time, despite being made before this all happened. There’s a critical line in the movie where a character says to another character “That uniform does not give you the right to kill whoever you want”. In the context of the murder of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, that’s a thuddingly on the nose and obvious line, but coming as it does from the sort of old world, it makes me appreciate the film more now. I’m glad it’s out and honestly, it’s been received so well and I know Fantasia audiences are different from regular audiences, I totally get that. But even the people who haven’t liked it as much are still engaging with it with an open mind, and that is the most gratifying thing in the world to me.
For more of my chat with Quinn, listen to the full interview over on the latest episode of Another Bloody Movie Podcast in the link below. Make sure you subscribe to the Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Survival Skills is screening online as part of Fantasia Film until September 2. To view the full program and buy tickets, head to fantasiafestival.com.
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