I’ve been friends with Scott Teems for years. He’s a multitalented writer and director who’s worked in both TV (most notably as a writer on the critically acclaimed show Rectify) and film. His 2009 film That Evening Sun, starring Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, and Mia Wasikowska, won several major prizes at its South by Southwest (SXSW) premiere. In 2014, Teems reunited with Holbrook to make Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about Holbrook’s long-running one-man show in which he plays Mark Twain. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have many conversations with Teems about filmmaking, the business, and how to tell a truthful story that dives into all facets of life, from human nature to religion to violence, love, and contrition.
Now Teems has returned with The Quarry, a slow-burning tale of sin and redemption, though maybe not in a way we expect it. The film centers on a mysterious man with a dark past (Shea Whigham) who arrives in a town near the US-Mexico border. The man poses as a preacher to fit into his new community and soon discovers that the place contains some darkness of its own. Also starring Michael Shannon in a terrific role as the hard-bitten local sheriff, The Quarry is a meditation on a lot of things — forgiveness, old hurts, racial wounds, grief — and doesn’t try to provide any easy answers.
The Quarry was slated to premiere in March at SXSW, but after the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film was released digitally on April 17. I spoke to Teems, who’s currently working from his home in Los Angeles, to talk about the film, why he chose to tell this story, how he approaches the role of religion in his writing, and a lot more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did this film come about?
After I made my first film, That Evening Sun, I was looking for another project. This was 10 years ago. I came across the synopsis for [Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel The Quarry] somewhere online. I was immediately hooked by the premise. It had a classic set-up: stranger rolls into town, claiming to be someone he’s not. We’ve seen a bunch of stories like that, but this had a particular bent to it that grabbed me. It sort of tapped into themes that interest me greatly, namely men, violence, religion, and where those things intersect, collide, explode, crash together. That grabbed me instantly.
So I read the book. It’s set in post-apartheid South Africa, written in ‘95, so it was very different. But I felt like the hook was so universal that it could be translated to another setting, another milieu. Racial injustice and strife is not relegated to South Africa. It felt very relevant, and it’s only become more relevant in the 10 years it took to make this movie.
I wanted to set it in Texas because it felt like a big story with big ideas. Big ideas need a big canvas. You don’t get much bigger than Texas.
That just spoke to me, and it all kind of fell into place. I worked on the script for a while, and eventually brought my friend Andrew Brotzman to work on it with me [as co-writer], to help me get it to the finish line, and he’s become a great partner in this project over the years.
What does the research process entail for a movie like this? It seems like there’s a lot of details to get right when you’re making a movie set in a place where cultures collide.
I’ve never been one who loves a lot of research. I was never a good student in school, so I never had great study habits. I get antsy when I’m developing a story, and I just want to write. What interests me are personal interactions, getting two people in a room with opposing points of view, or opposing desires, or one with a secret, or whatever. I like getting people in situations where there’s going to be some combustion. That’s what interests me, because that’s how I expose and explore human nature. Ultimately, what interests me in all the stories I’m telling is human nature and what does it mean to be human — all of our warts and all of our beauty and all of our terror. How each of us contain multitudes.
For me, in some ways, it was quite simple. I know a lot of people who have prejudice or who are prejudiced — myself included, even when I don’t know I am. Ultimately, to me, it’s not about studying the ways of prejudice or racism or bigotry; it’s more about studying myself and the people I’ve experienced, the times I’ve experienced that in my life.
Often racism is a much more subtle thing than what we usually see on television. Of course, those things do happen, too; we all saw Charlottesville. The history of America is riddled with very overt types of racism and prejudice. But I often see it happening more subtly. It’s a cultural blindness. You don’t even know that you’re doing it.
The chief [in The Quarry] would not claim he’s a racist. The chief would say, “What are you talking about? My two deputies over here, my best buds, they’re two Mexican guys, and my girlfriend …” But his first inclination to place blame is on the person who doesn’t look like him. The first inclination. He doesn’t even consider anything else, that it might be someone else.
That’s the way it manifests, I think, in a lot of people. It’s more insidious. It’s not so overt.
I’ve seen a lot of movies that take place near the border between the US and Mexico that have come out in the past decade or so. A lot of them are extremely bleak. They’re trying to reinvent the Western, where there are good guys and bad guys. The Quarry isn’t exactly a Western, but it shares some characteristics with Western — including the stranger with a dark past who rides into town. But in contrast to some of those other movies, which lean deeply into exploring the broken, craven sides of humanity, The Quarry seems really interested in the people themselves as humans in search of redemption.
One thing that attracted me to this story was that it subverted the usual way these stories are told. Usually, these movies begin with the stranger rolling into town. The movie then becomes a question of Who is he, and what has he done?
What I liked about The Quarry was that from the beginning you know exactly what he’s done. That changes the emphasis. It changes the focus of the story, the thrust of it. It’s no longer, “Who is he and what has he done?” It’s now, “What is the cost of what he’s done, and how is that going to manifest itself upon him and everyone else throughout the story?” In The Quarry, the man at the center of the story is like an Alka-Seltzer tablet dropped into the water of the town, and it just stirs up everything. He’s a catalyst for change among everyone else. He prompts reactions from everyone else — good and bad, positive and negative, and in himself as well — and then he goes through his own transformation.
That was what interested me. It changed the focus to become much more personal. It became about the burden of guilt and conscience, the weight of conscience.
Certainly, when you’re making a Texas noir kind of story, you stand in the shadow of films like No Country for Old Men, especially in the last decade. That was certainly an influence on me and this. I think it’s a perfect film, and it’s impossible not to be influenced by it in some respects. But ultimately, I’m just trying to tell my own story.
Another movie that really influenced me is Paris, Texas. Paris, Texas and No Country for Old Men are two very different movies with very different sorts of narrative thrust. But I think there is a humanness and a warmth to Paris, Texas, and a starkness to No Country.
How my influences work on me is I try to soak in the things that are good, and hopefully some of that will organically pour out of me into my work. I’m not consciously trying to emulate or riff on anything, but I’m hoping that it just sort of spills out, and some goodness from those works of art that have so inspired me will somehow leak into this too.
The Quarry also made me think a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy, and All the Pretty Horses in particular. McCarthy seems to tell stories on the border, where the Americans want to have agency and forget about the past, whereas the Mexicans know that the past is always going to shape you and catch up with you. In his stories, history is alive in Mexico. In The Quarry, a guy trying to get away from his past is actually confronted by it because he puts himself into a position where he’s always reading the Bible out loud to people in the church, and it tears at him. I feel like the Bible can be tricky to integrate into a movie like this without people thinking you’re trying to get preachy. Did you worry about that?
Sure. Any time religion has come into play in stuff I’ve done, most prominently in Rectify — the reason [the most religious character in Rectify] worked as a character was that her faith was a part of who she was. It was organic to her, and it informed the story but wasn’t the story. It just was a part of it. It felt true to the world. There were many different voices with different beliefs that informed that character in the writers’ room. I feel like that’s the pathway toward authenticity — iron sharpens iron, and no one’s going to let your propaganda get through. Not even that it’s propaganda intentionally. Sometimes you can’t even help it when you’re just writing from who you are, and if that’s a thing you believe.
That’s a part of my life, certainly — religion and faith — but I’m hyperaware of how I integrate it into the stories I write. I have zero interest in any kind of propaganda. I just have such a distaste for it, so I trust that if it’s bad, it’s not gonna pass my sniff test. The last thing in the world I want to do is make something that feels trite. I actively push against that.
And I think that’s ultimately what The Quarry is trying to do: Push against your perceptions of what the Bible is or what faith is. Because if what the Bible is talking about is true, if God is real, then it’s going to stand up to any test I can throw at it. That’s what I’m interested in — banging on my belief system, banging on what I was raised on, how I was taught. What is the meaning of forgiveness? Who can be forgiven? How does that work?
I hope the end of The Quarry makes people uncomfortable, because I try to address that idea head-on. But I try to do it honestly and truthfully. When you’re pretending to be a preacher, the Bible is going to be a part of it. That’s unavoidable. This idea struck me early on: If you didn’t know what you were doing, you would do the bare minimum to get by. You would do everything you could to not expose yourself as a fraud. As soon as you opened your mouth with your own opinion, if you’re pretending to be something you’re not; you’re going to expose yourself. So he just does the one thing that guarantees him not to be fraudulent, which is just to read the words on the page [of the Bible].
If that is transformative or revelatory for somebody, the reader or the congregation, that’s interesting to me. Might it be also a commentary on evangelicalism in America? Perhaps. Maybe not. The cult of personality? Maybe. That’s a little bonus for me, if nothing else. But I feel like it’s authentic to the story and the world and the characters.
There’s a great moment where the “preacher” reads a totally random, apocalyptic passage at a graveside and Michael Shannon’s character says, “That’s a weird fuckin’ verse.” And I mean, yeah! How many times have you wanted to say that in church?
I know. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the Bible. The Bible is deep and beautiful and weird as hell, and it’s okay to embrace all those elements of it, because you have to wrestle with verses like the one he reads at the funeral. That’s in there. You have to deal with it. We have to deal with it if we’re going to engage the Bible at all, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.
So I’m just trying to call a spade and spade and say, “That’s weird. What does that mean?” It interests me. This book has stood the test of time. It’s certainly not going to be afraid of my inquiries or my attacks against it. They’re not even attacks; I’m just trying to punch holes in it and see if it stands up, because that’s my interest as a person who’s constantly trying to examine and reexamine my own relationship to it. How I feel about it today is different than how I felt about it yesterday. I’m just very, very fortunate that I’m able to do that on this scale.
I feel so grateful that this movie exists, because if I step back and look at those little details, it’s kind of a miracle that this got made.
Speaking of that: This movie was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest, which was canceled. How do you feel about that? How have your hopes for the film shifted or morphed from what you were thinking a few months ago?
Certainly, it’s a disappointment. I love the film festival community. I love the culture. I love the opportunity to celebrate the movie with all the people that worked on the movie. There’s such great value in the festival experience and that community. And we lost that, and we mourn for that.
But I really believe there’s an opportunity now, with this crisis that we’re in, to offer the world a strange and suspenseful and thoughtful diversion to occupy their time. The irony is that more people will probably see this movie now than would have if we had the planned, small theatrical release, going up against a lot of bigger movies. Now those things have cleared away. We have a bit more of a path, and people at home to see it. My hope is that more people will see it. I’ve made peace with that. But it’s never going to be great that we didn’t get to show the movie at South by Southwest.
I was thinking the other day about something you once said to me, when you saw [my 2014 documentary] Holbrook/Twain. You said, “This is a film that grows.” When you said that, I said, “That’s what I want my movies to do.” What I took that to mean is that the movie started out a certain way and then it evolved. It went in places you didn’t expect it to, and it got bigger on a thematic level as it went along, in a surprising way. That’s what I was trying to do with The Quarry, and all my movies — to start out toward a goal that you think we’re going toward, and then thematically it turns and becomes something hopefully deeper and richer. If I can accomplish that, then that’s real victory.