by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Scott Teems gained notoriety in 2009 with his debut feature, That Evening Sun, starring Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, and Mia Wasikowska. He went on to write and direct on McKinnon’s hit show Rectify. Teems’s latest project, The Quarry, reunites Boardwalk Empire stars Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon alongside Academy Award nominated actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Teems to talk about the project’s ten-year journey to production and what he hopes audiences take away from the story.
John Bucher: How did you become familiar with the novel The Quarry?
Scott Teems: After That Evening Sun, I was looking for something to do, and I stumbled upon the synopsis or the blurb of the book, online somewhere. Ten years ago, Laura Smith – who produced That Evening Sun – and I optioned the book. I was hooked immediately by the premise. It dealt with the things that interest me, which are namely men, violence, religion, and how those things intersect or collide. It’s long been one of my passions.
The book was set in South Africa. It’s like a post-apartheid South African novel written in 1995. I read it and it had this classic wonderful premise: a stranger rolls into town claiming to be someone he’s not. And so that set up felt very universal to me and felt like it could be transposed into any location or milieu, especially when you’re involving those themes and ideas — racism and God and life and death and forgiveness.
The novel was set in the coastal plains of South Africa. It just felt big and wide and open like Texas to me. Of course, racial conflict and strife is a global problem, not only for South Africans. It was all too relevant, and it’s only become more relevant in the years since, unfortunately. So, we optioned it ten years ago, wrote the script, tried to get it made right after That Evening Sun and couldn’t get it made.
It died for years and years. I went off and did Rectify and was trying to do other things, and a couple years ago, Shea Whigham got his hands on the script through my producer, Kristin Mann, who had partnered with Laura in those intervening years. She got the script to Shea and Shea’s interest in the project just brought it back to life. Shea was a guy who I’ve been a huge fan of for years and years. We had a lot of mutual friends but we had never met.
Then we get Mike (Shannon) involved. I had actually given the script to Mike ten years ago when I was trying to make it the first time to play this same role. He was busy doing Superman, I think, back then – that’s how long ago it was. Kristin also knew Mike really well so she was able to bring him back into the fold, and then we were off.
John Bucher: One of the amazing things about your work and your career has been your ability to keep dealing with the themes that you’re passionate about and the types of stories that you’re passionate about but with every project you’ve done, it’s feels so different and varied from the last thing that you’ve done…
Scott Teems: It definitely felt like it had more narrative juice than anything I had done before in terms of just more overt suspense, tension, and more propulsive plot. Just by means of the dramatic action, there’s a murder in the first ten minutes of the movie, and that puts things into action that my other work hasn’t really had – unless you consider the things I’ve written for other people. I’ve been able to explore genre stuff for other people all these years, which is finally coming to fruition – a Halloween sequel comes out later this year that I wrote.
I’ve been doing that stuff for a while, and I think it’s just the melding of my genre work for other people which is finally starting to get made and then with my own sensibilities for drama or my own passions and finding a way to merge those so that I can make movies. I have to be able to make movies I can afford to live on, at least a little bit. You have to blend genre, bring genre into the picture, in order to give something to someone, something they can sell.
I hate to talk about it so crudely, and I honestly don’t think of it in that sort of way. I can do what I want to do and still tell the stories the way I want to tell them, which are hopefully patient and observational and letting the story drive, not having to do all the mechanical work and manipulate through technique and just let the story unfold, but maybe give people something to sell a little easier.
John Bucher: You’ve got such an interesting alchemy of casting happening in this film. How did you approach the directorial process in order to make something that felt organic? I’m from Texas, and this felt really real to me.
Scott Teems: It’s the oldest cliché in filmmaking, but directing is casting, and I think it’s so true. When you have Shea and Mike anchoring your cast, they bring a history, their own personal history which can’t be overlooked. They’re very good friends. This is, I think, their sixth or seventh project they’ve done together. They trust each other and they both respect the hell out of each other, so each one knows when the other one shows up, they’re going to bring their A game and everyone has to rise up.
Catalina (Sandino Moreno) is someone I’ve been a fan of since her first movie. Then I found this kid Bobby Soto who I think is incredible. He’s hardly been in any movies. He made a few movies as a kid actor, and then he dropped out for years and just is coming back now. I was so taken by him and his story and his personal history, and he’s just a really fascinating person.
Bruno Bichir is this lovely human being who brings this inner positive energy to everything he does, and so I just had this wonderful group of people that I wanted to show up for myself. When they’re good actors, you can just step back and let them act.
John Bucher: What do you hope audiences that see The Quarry walk away with?
Scott Teems: My hope for this film was always just to pose some questions to you. My hope is that the end of this film makes you uneasy and unsure about how you feel about it. I want you to have questions about why you feel that way or why you’re unsure or why you like it or don’t like it.
I really just want the experience to be one of provocation. People can even consider the idea that what we do matters in this world, and it matters in this life and maybe another life. If we can even consider that idea and what that means for us right now, then that is a victory for me.
The Quarry is available for streaming April 17, 2020.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.