Henry Dunham on his Exhaustive Preparation for ‘The Standoff at Sparrow Creek’

We chat with the director about knowing your film in and out before ever shooting a single frame.

Standoff At Sparrow Creek
RLJE Films

If someone is going to hand you the reins to make your movie, you better be damn well prepared. Henry Dunham was not going to fail the story that had been percolating in his head for years. He finally had the green light. He had a cast of stellar actors assembled. He had 18 days to get it all done. No problem, he only needed to transfer the film from his brain to the lens of his camera.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is an intense mystery of catastrophe and paranoia. After someone in their ranks shoots up a policeman’s funeral, a tiny militia gathers in their warehouse HQ to determine the man responsible. James Badge Dale is a former police officer tasked with the interrogation by Chris Mulkey’s suspicious head honcho. What begins as a frantic locked room inquisition escalates into a violent, philosophical confrontation.

I spoke to Dunham shortly after his film premiered at last year’s Fantastic Fest. He was riding high off a successful midnight screening; having feared The Standoff at Sparrow Creek would not play well to a sleepy crowd. He need not have worried. Just a few words into pleasantries, we launched into a geeky banter surrounding Ridley Scott’s Alien. Clearly, he had spent a long time contemplating his feature debut and where it might fall in the larger cinematic conversation.

Here is our conversation in full:

There is nothing quite like watching a group of characters trapped under one roof. From Alien to Reservoir Dogs.

Love Alien.

It’s hard to remember what that experience was like the first time you saw it. Anticipating who will make it out alive.

Sure.

Then there is the aesthetic joy of the old dark house setting mixed with sci-fi trappings.

We were talking about it in the sound mix cause that’s just like an inspiration for everything for everyone, including this movie.

Really?

Oh yeah. Huge. And we were talking about it because I was doing the sound mix and talking about these built-in groans and one of them we were just like “it might be a little big for the world”. For this world if you’re invested enough in the story you will buy it. Because there is a fucking part in Alien when Harry Dean Stanton dies. You know when he walks into that chain room and it’s overcast sunlight and rainbows.

Yes, yes. You should be “What the hell is that?”

What is making that? It makes no sense but you don’t care, because you’re that invested. The best compliment I found about Standoff is that it is Alien without the alien. Well, I was just like A) it is not that good but B) I will take it and thank you.

That locked room setting seems like such an immense challenge to take on.

Yeah.

So, why start there?

I mean it all starts with the script. If the story is there and the story is important enough to even want to tell it in an important enough way where you’re just like “I have to tell this story just because it means this much to me.” Even when they’re like “Well, you have an 18-day shoot and $415,000 as a budget.” So, you’re like “I don’t care I need to get the story out.” That’s really the main driving force and everything else goes by the wayside.

That story about that antagonist struggling with going from trying to make it in a nice way to where he is? I don’t want to spoil the story, but his question of “Am I going to go back out there and probably live a really bad life alone or go back and be with people who are fucking evil?” He has to have that connection and connection is an incredibly important emotion and you just need it whether you like it or not. So once you have that, it’s just like “Okay we find a way to make it work.”

You have a script but that scripts not going to work unless you have the actors to fill that script.

That’s true.

How do you assemble this militia then?

Well, there was always the kind of casting mission statement that would be cast almost like it was an HBO miniseries. Like just great character actors that you have seen in shows that you always see do good work and you want to see more of them. No fucking names or anything like that because as soon as you see that the audience is just going to recognize them and be completely out of the story.

I mean casting this wasn’t easy by any means just because I’m first time director and people saw the material and questioned what way was I going to go with this and they had to have a conversation with me where I was just like “It’s strictly about the story and about the emotion. I don’t care about the politics; I don’t care about the ideologies.”

There’s no politics here?

No yeah, yeah its just like dramatizing a universal and relatable story in a group that I don’t have anything in common with and I have no insights on these forces. It’s more interesting seeing a very relatable story in a group that I just don’t relate to, and it almost puts me into a position of going “I’m not expecting that from them.” That to me is way more interesting than dramatizing what you know in a family or in a band in you know Silver Lake.

Back to your original thing, about meeting with all the actors – it was just like I’m going to shoot it like a 70’s stage play. Just simple. I drew the movie out in five books and it’s about 1400 drawings and just sort of showing them everything laid out.

Hard not to bring politics into a film like this, or any film right now. This has been a brutal year, and I look to art to address it now more than ever.

For sure.

So, how do you feel about people bringing in pre-conceived notions of who these dudes are?

I mean, you know I can’t control that and I think that that’s totally fair and its valid. I think it sucks when the story then suffers because of something that’s just – you know, this is a piece of fiction and you know in this world, in this scenario none of the shit that’s going on in the world right now exists in this story because it is basically just a novelization of an emotion and that’s it. So, it does kind of bum me out and I was talking to somebody about it last night. I was talking to my editor about it. I was like “Do people now watch The Deer Hunter and wonder who he voted for? That sucks. I look at that and I go “Okay as long as the audience can watch it and get the story still, the rest of the stuff that’s totally fine.” But I am here to 100% validate that this is not a support piece. I wrote this before any of this shit was going on. If I knew this was going to happen I wouldn’t be using those psychic abilities to write screenplays.

This had to have been a tight shoot.

18 days.

Yeah, okay.

That’s the benefit of being so anal about the prep and having drawn the movie out first. We were basically painting by numbers and we only had one camera too. We would have basically time for two takes max per setup. So, to have that thing almost edited in camera was really helpful. Josh, my editor, and I had a great working relationship. I have a theory about editors you know, they’re musicians, they’re always the best because they know the difference between every single different note and that’s all that music of editing is and we were talking about how things needed to play. We cut the movie in I think three weeks after we started. So after that, it was just going down to like “Okay, it’s not there its there.”

So, the first film, done in 18 days and editing in camera. Pretty damn stressful.

I was pretty good there. When it’s worked out in the script to the point where I know where it needs to go and I know what we need to showcase in the scene and what we are trying to dramatize. It simplifies things. You have to have your story locked in.

There was a day where we had a two camera set up. It was the suspects scene with them lining up. I think we had it scheduled for six hours. I think we actually shot it in like 90 minutes and we were right on schedule by 4 1/2 hours that day. It’s because when you know what emotions you need to dramatize you’d be surprised how much of the other shit just falls away and it’s not as important to get every single set up.

There were not too many days where I lost shots. We did wrap early on I think three days. It’s another testament to if they’re giving you an opportunity to do what you love and what you’ve always dreamt of then you should show up with your homework done. It saves you a lot of guessing.

So now you got the film done, it’s showing in front of audiences. Do you ever think about where your movie will reside on the video shelf or the digital download aisle?

I mean, no cause I’m such a cynical person. I will just be like “It’s going to be in the 99-cent DVD bin.”

The Walmart tub.

Yeah, yeah. It will just be at some gas station in Michigan sometime and it will have this poster of bats with fire and machine guns everywhere, the worst movie poster ever. But no, I kind of look at it where the movie is what I wanted to make and that’s a level of luck that I don’t understand. Anything beyond that is icing. Wherever that lands I will be happy. You have to be gracious for all this.

You don’t ever think about the kid that’s going to rescue Standoff at Sparrow Creek out of that Michigan gas station someday?

I haven’t yet but now I am. (Laughter)

Yeah, you should.

No, I mean I love that. It’s actually a really good question because I love 70’s French thrillers and I love that Criterion does the most beautiful artwork on some of those. If you see some of those old Melville or Costa-Gavras discs –they have a fucking beautiful poster on them. Then you look at the poster it had when it came out and its just schlock. You just go “Oh my God.” It is so interesting how the initial stuff – when they’re trying to make it marketable or whatever the fuck – they blow it. When it gets handed to the people who care it turns into this thing that I have to own. It is interesting because decades later I was discovering Army of Shadows and it is one of the fucking best noirs I have ever seen. That’s Criterion.


The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is now playing in select theaters as well as on VOD and Digital HD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.