Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills celebrated it’s International Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. It’s a delightfully dark oddity of a films where the subject of an instructional video cassette becomes aware of his own existence. Survival Skills is truly one of the strangest, most impressive films we saw at Fantasia this year and remains of the most well-crafted indictments of police procedures.
We were lucky enough to sit down with writer/director Quinn Armstrong to discuss his unique post-prodution process, balancing tone in goofy but pitch-black experimental film, and pulling inspiration from instructional video tapes more bizarre than anything Halloywood has produced in the last 30 years.
“I had 40 VCRs in my tiny apartment. I would pop the top off of the VCR and use magnets, knives, and fire to create the various sort of effects that you see.“
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: Congrats on the film! It’s so great and definitely one of the stranger movies that I saw at Fantasia this year. Survival Skills was originally based on a short of yours, right?
Quinn Armstrong: It was essentially just a proof of concept short, so we had the feature scripts ready to go and the short was really just to have something to pitch. […] In the short, essentially, he’s the same character. He sort of gets created in the way that he does, then he goes straight to the domestic violence call, and it gets out of hand, and he is stabbed and killed. So it’s a truncated version of what happened, Balancing the tones across a short is just too much. I think you really, need the feature in order to kind of make that transition from the goofy training video to the super serious and very violent ending.
NOFS: Talk to me a little bit about that balancing act because you do it so well in this movie. I can’t think of another time that I’ve seen something that goes as dark as real domestic violence and then we’re back to laughing at kids that are playing Dungeons and Dragons.
QA: Well, I think it’s rare in American movies. Specifically for some reason, I don’t know why, specifically Korean movies do film juggling like nobody else. I don’t know how they do it but I’ve seen a few Korean movies- and maybe a couple Japanese movies, Greek movies as well- that make Survival Skills look like an after school special sometimes.
NOFS: I mean, Survival Skills almost kind of looks like its own after school special.
QA: It does! For a very weird school [laughs]
Hot at the Shop:
NOFS: Were you actually filming on video cassette?
QA: We thought about it, but the thing is, if you film on VHS type format, you lose a lot of dynamic range which means that if we shot at night you wouldn’t be able to see anything, and if we shot during the day it would be way too bright. We just wouldn’t have any control over the image. So what we did is, we shot it on actually a pretty nice camera- Panavision was very kind to us and gave us an Arri Alexa, a great camera, for free. So we shot it on the Alexa, we edited it entirely digitally, just the way you sort of normally would do this, and then once the movie was done, I took it and put that digital file on like 40 VHS. I bought out pretty much every goodwill in the LA area of their VCRs. I had 40 VCRs in my tiny apartment. I would pop the top off of the VCR and use magnets, knives, and fire to create the various sort of effects that you see. The different kinds of static and fake wrinkles and things like that. So that was all analog.
NOFS: It sounds like you were an analog DJ.
QA: It really was. I was just sitting there with all my tools watching the movie and bringing in static in certain bits and bringing in tape wrinkles. The short version has a digital filter and you’ll be able to see right away that it’s just no good. You know, companies use these digital filters from like Red Giant and do stuff on After Effect and that sort of thing, and it’s fine for a commercial or a brief little moment but we ask so much of the audience so quickly that you have to buy what you’re watching very quickly. Within the first five to ten minutes you have to be totally set with the VHS stuff so you’re not even thinking about that anymore because by that time, we’re already getting into some of the darker stuff.
“….just because emotions are running high right now doesn’t mean that people are not ready to have a discussion about police training that is, I think, a very thorough attack on the cops”
NOFS: You even start with a cheesy midi intro and title card for the fake company that’s made the movie we’re about to watch.
QA: Yeah, and all of that stuff is pulled from the real videos that we watched. I think one of the first cards is something that says, like “What you’re about to watch is a training video,” like a little legal disclaimer. And that’s pulled almost verbatim from some of the videos we watched. No jokes, nothing like that, just presenting it as it exists.
NOFS: If you had a time machine I think you could go back to the late 80’s and drop this movie into a bin of police training videos and they would buy it for at least 40 minutes!
QA: That’s kind of a compliment to us, but also a troubling statement on the police and their training.
NOFS: I think that’s kind of what you’re getting at in this movie though, right?
QA: Yeah, but police training has not really evolved, or at least police training videos have not evolved in their essential attitude. You know, you watch all these Reagan era 80s police training videos, and we’re all sort of laughing because they’re cheesy and they’re so blatantly, and kind of boringly, Xenophobic and racist and homophobic and all this stuff- but the thing is, that attitude is still very much present. There’s a dude named Dave Grossman, who does a lot of training for police academies around the country- he’s taught at the FBI, all this stuff- His philosophy is called Killology. And his whole thing is that police should be emotionally and psychologically prepared to kill people at a moment’s notice, and not feel bad about it. I mean, there could be nothing more relevant than that right now. We’re seeing the fruits of that kind of an attitude. So, the authenticity of the training video is important for the kind of parody that we’re doing, but also because the training video itself is a politically charged document, you know what I mean?
NOFS: Totally. It’s like propaganda for the police.
QA: And it’s incredibly alarmist propaganda, all of it is. It’s all telling police, constantly, you’re gonna die, you’re gonna get killed, this type of person is going to kill you. You can’t afford to give the benefit of the doubt. In all of these training videos, if there’s ever a scene where a cop is interacting with the criminal underworld, the criminals will be played by black or Latino actors. That’s just universal.
NOFS: It’s gotta be real strange having this movie come at now. It would have been relevant in 2018 and 2019 but in 2020 there are more eyes on the cops than ever before, and for good reason.
QA: Yeah. I mean- there was a point in the summer, we had just been accepted to Fantasia, it hadn’t been announced yet, and George Floyd was murdered- And I kind of freaked out because I was like, ‘we have to pull the movie. We can’t present this. People are gonna think this is some propaganda thing and we can’t be that voice. Thankfully, you know, my producers kind of talk to me off the cliff of pulling the movie, making the point that I think is very accurate that’s like, just because emotions are running high right now doesn’t mean that people are not ready to have a discussion about police training that is, I think, a very thorough attack on the cops, but it is not blatantly so, you know what I mean?
There are other people who can do that better than I can. Every interaction I’ve had with a cop with a couple recent exceptions, they’ve been really nice to me, they’ve been very friendly. I’m a sort of milk toast looking white dude. So, I’m not really the person to present myself as an aggrieved party or anything like that but I can talk about the way that cops are trained and I can talk about the way that they interact with domestic violence cases because I know that world really well.
“Stacey [Keach] is this weird combination of a giant teddy bear and the scariest man alive.”
NOFS: So when did you first discover the training videos that yuo’re riffing on for Survival Skills?
QA: I’ve been trying to remember because I think the first one I came across was a video that I’ve learned is actually kind of well known, called Surviving Edged Weapons. I was sort of just trolling through weird videos, like I do, and I came across this thing and Surviving Edged Weapons is an absolutely batshit insane training video from 1988. It’s like a police department found a film student and gave them like $20,000, and the film student was like, ‘Yes! This is going to be my Opus. Like, it opens with two cavemen who are by a fire or something. They get into like a weird little sort of Ugh-Ugh argumen and one caveman takes a sharp rock and stab the other, then the narrator comes in and he’s like, ‘Since the dawn of time, men have been using edged weapons’. It’s so mich weirder than Survival Skills.
NOFS: It’s crazy that your movie is just the tip of the iceberg. Like, if you want to see something really nuts you have to check out the actual training videos. What was it like directing Stacey Keach?
QA: Stacey is this weird combination of a giant teddy bear and the scariest man alive. I think he liked the script, and I think he knew very much why we had come to him, specifically, with the sort of cultural associations around him and his history. But working with him was crazy because we were on stage the days we were working with them. We had two cameras set up, one doing the close up one during the wider shot, and we had a transparent teleprompter in front of the lens. So, essentially, we got through all of his material, all of his seated desk material in about four hours because he would just nail it the first time and then I would ask for like one adjustment just so we had it, and then he would nail that and then we move on. We went home. Think three hours earlier that day.
[…] One of the things that I had done on this project, and I try to do on all projects, is that he’s a theatre actor and I try to cast theater actors. My background is in theater, I made my living as a stage actor for a long time. Vayu O’Donnell as well, is a theatre actor and he’s done stuff on Broadway and all that stuff. and I tend to try to cast people who have a theatrical background because they can work at a technical level that- you know, there are amazing film actors out there but just the way I communicate with actors I tend to work best with theater actors. And Stacy, who is one of the greatest Shakespearean actors this country has produced has such technique and has such amazing craft, that there’s no psyching himself up for it, there’s no lost takes, there’s no anything like that. He’s a professional. He just turns it on and turns it off. It’s amazing.
NOFS: I’m kicking myself that I didn’t bring this up earlier when you were when you were talking about actually making the static on the tape, but the static is used so well in this movie. It’s almost like your score because it really adds this level of doom or dread that you’d normally get from a full orchestral score. Was that always the idea or was it mostly an aesthetic choice?
QA: The VHS in general has a few really important functions. One we talked about earlier which was just the authenticity but one of the second things is that it is not something I can control fully. There’s this big experimental moment, which we call “The Trial”. It’s a lot of static, a lot of stuff, but right afterwards you have a shot of Jim, that briefly splits in two and you see half of this head here happens head there, and it’s just beautiful, weird moment. I didn’t plan that. That just happened. I did, I would say, about 15 different sort of drafts of the static on this movie in that I would go through one full play of the movie, doing the static, and then we would take the bits we liked from that one, take the bits we liked from this one and we put it all back together. So on the one hand, the VHS gave us an organic quality, something that we couldn’t control, something that we had to work with and work around, which I always really liked those kinds of limitations.
The other thing about the, VHS, the static, the tape wrinkles, all that sort of thing is that the movie is a packet of information that we are sort of transmitting to you guys and saying, ‘this is this is what we are trying to communicate’. The art object itself is the is the meaning. And what is interesting to me in that idea, in the idea that the object itself has a meaning and intention is irrelevant, is that there is no difference between form and function. All of the qualities that we talk about, like cinematography, editing, performances, all that sort of thing, really collapse into a single object once you put the movie together. And you know, critics as they should, and they do, pry it back apart and say ‘I liked this. I didn’t like this-‘ and you know, they have to do that. There’s no other way to talk about it. But for me, it’s a unified object and the idea that the VHS is the movie. I feel like I’m trying to sort of make a point in a gentle way and I’m not quite getting across, but what I what I mean is that the static, and all that stuff is its own story. You can just follow the static and that tells its own story in the same way that you could just listen to the music and that tells its own story. I really dig that idea. and we’re in pre production on my second feature now, and I’ve been talking to my producers and I got a lot of eye rolls when one day I came in, and I was like, “Could we do this on film? And if we did, could I then destroy it? Like, do the same thing that film that we did with VHS,” becuase it’s such a cool layer on top of everything, such a cool secondary layer to mess with the medium itself.
“…the VHS gave us an organic quality, something that we couldn’t control, something that we had to work with and work around, which I always really liked those kinds of limitations.”
NOFS: One last question I like to ask everyone- What’s your dream drive-in double-feature? What would you play if you could program one screen for the night?
QA: Okay, so in order to understand the choice that I’ve made this, you have to understand that in artistic terms, as you can probably guess from Survivor’s Skills, I’m kind of a sadist [laughs]. I had a few different ones that were all sort of similar themes, but what I was thinking would be a double feature of like- what’s the coziest, most comfortable horror movie? Something like the old Friday the 13th or you know, these old sort of nostalgic things. And then the second movie would be Come And See, which is a Belarusian movie from the 70, which is the most horrific, awful thing I have ever seen in my life. It’s a war movie and it is so brutal. It is. It’s not like a horror movie in the conventional sense, it’s just two hours of a child soldier essentially being subjected to the worst things you can imagine. I’ve always thought horror has two very different purposes. Some horror genuinely horrifies you, but a lot of horror is comforting. You know, stuff like Stranger Things which is pseudo horror but a lot of it is this sort of comforting childhood nostalgia thing. There’s some danger, but it’s all sort of in the past and I like the idea of doing a double feature of something that’s super comforting and something that is just awful.
Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills celebrated it’s International Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival and is currently slated for release later this year. read our full review of the film HERE and be sure to and be sure to let us know ho you would react if you discovered you were trapped inside an instructional video cassetteover on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!