James Badge Dale on Selecting Filmmakers Over Films

We chat with the actor about his latest movie, ‘The Standoff at Sparrow Creek’ and get into the nitty-gritty of navigating a career.

James Badge Dale
RLJE Films

Having spent decades chasing the right Hollywood projects, James Badge Dale is now more concerned with the folks behind the lens than what ultimately is captured within that camera. He’s had a blast contributing to the color of such films as World War Z, Iron Man 3, and 13 Hours, but his current hunger grumbles for unique and fresh voices. If he’s going to commit to a project, he wants that film to pop in the imagination of the audience. To achieve that, he has to reach beyond the usual scripts that land on his desk.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a locked-room interrogation that draws immediate comparisons to Reservoir Dogs, but if you ask director Henry Dunham for his influences, he would rather point you to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Our own Rob Hunter called the movie “an intense and perfectly-cast thriller” guaranteed to start a conversation on American gun culture. Where you fall on that discussion depends entirely on what you bring into the theater.

I spoke to Dale over the phone during the week of the film’s release. We talked about Dunham’s declaration that The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is not a political film, just a rousing drama. We get into Dale’s initial attraction to the screenplay and why he’s picking projects that seem to speak to American despair. During last year’s Fantastic Fest alone, Dale appeared in three films (The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Hold the Dark, and Donnybrook) that happily wallow in human tragedy, stirring a pot of discontent that a lot of folks are feeling in 2019. He wants that dialogue. For Dale, each character represents a piece of himself, and he enjoys putting that out there for an audience to experience.

Here is our conversation in full:

What is the most attractive element of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek?

The writing. The writing. You sit down and you read the script and you could just tell this one was different from the get-go. I’m an actor and am full of myself and I love a lot of dialogue so, that could have been it.

So, total trust in Henry Dunham from the jump.

This is a passion project for him. He’s been working on this for nine years, and when he showed up he had a book. He had hand drawn every frame on his own. And I mean, it was his Bible. He is calm, and this is what we followed. So Henry was extremely well prepared. He’s confident but not cocky, he loves filmmaking, and he was tireless in that. It’s an interesting thing watching first-time directors.

How so?

Directing a film is like putting yourself into a wood chipper. It grinds people down and sometimes you see the bugs in their eyes. They go in and something happens and they’re like, “Wow! Wait a minute. I didn’t know it could be like this.” And Henry was the opposite every day. He got stronger and stronger, more excited, more energy, and we just had a great time working on the one.

When I spoke to Henry, he was pretty adamant about how the film doesn’t have a political message to it. That it is a straight thriller. Do you feel the same way?

I do, too. Yeah. That’s my interpretation. But look, man, I think films are there to spark conversations also. So, if you walk out of this film and it makes you think about our society, that’s great. I think this film does deal with tribalism, I think this film does deal with what we deal with in America and, look, man, we like to shoot shit in America. I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve been to dangerous countries and dangerous areas. I went to high school in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, I don’t know what to tell you, man. I’ve seen a lot of gun violence, so those are elements in the storytelling, and if people walk away and they want to have a conversation about it. I’m all for that.

I first saw this film at Fantastic Fest, and you were all over that festival. There was Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Donnybrook, and Hold the Dark. Three damn bleak movies.

I should have gone. I really should have gone.

I wish you had gone, too. They’re kind of like this trilogy of American despair.

I never thought we’d put them all three of them together like that. But I think it’s a really fair, fair assessment. Yeah, I think there’s a throughline. But, for me, as an actor, you don’t plan on the results. You pick rooms because of material and you pick songs because of the people you wanna work with.

You’re not on a mission.

No. All three of those films had strong, strong directors with strong visions and an idea of what they wanna do and how they wanted to do it. There was no corporate influence over any of those films. Even Hold the Dark, being a Netflix film, they let Jeremy Saulnier make his movie, and that excites me. I like being in that circumstance. I like working with Tim Sutton on Donnybrook, I like working with Jeremy, I love working with Henry. So I just I didn’t ever imagine they were all three up at the same festival. (Laughter)

So, it’s all about the talent behind the camera?

Yeah, yeah, I got to be honest with you. I have been around a bit for 15 years. I like working on things that I’m excited about. I like working on things that I’m passionate about, where I think that we do have something to say. So, I try to be filmmaker-driven. You learn a lot that way, when you’re working with the directors, man. You’re watching him, you’re learning and you’re listening. Films are collaboration and it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us.

When you land on a film and a character, where do you pull them from? A guy like Gannon, where do you find him?

I’m so glad you brought that up. This movie takes place all in one night, and you really don’t know much about Gannon. You find out a lot about the other guys, but this movie has an inciting incident and then it ends that night. The audience is kind of learning what’s going on at the same time as Gannon is learning what’s going on. So Gannon in this question. Gannon is learning all this stuff from other people but you don’t really know much about Gannon. And my job is to fill in those blanks. Henry and I talked about it.

We had to do a lot of work on the outside of that, and that’s my job. You got to personalize things and sometimes in life you’re better off making choices and decisions that bring things closer to you instead of making a choice that isn’t you. Something you’ve never experienced or you’ve never been through. I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a lot of me in Gannon, and I really don’t know if that’s interesting but I didn’t really have a choice in this movie.

Gannon is a cypher on the page, so to understand him you have to pull from yourself.

You always do. Yeah, yeah you always do. This one was just a unique experience because of the speed that we were doing that and the lack of information on the other side. You know what I mean? On Hold the Dark I did find something very personal, me, which was very different. Jeremy Saulnier and I talked about finding the light, which the character had to have. He’s trying to find the light. He’s not a dark complicated guy. He’s fighting to be on the other side of this. Then in Donnybrook — I’ll be honest with you — I was working through some aggression issues. Donnybrook was a chance for me to come in and really work through another side of myself at that point and what I was going to do in my life at that point.

So, yeah, you always draw on something inside you because no one else can. That’s what makes you unique. You got to trust your instincts and if my interpretation of that character is not right, it’s fine, because you can hire another actor that will give you what you need to tell the story that you wanna tell. But once you give it to me I’m running with it man. I’ll give you stuff.

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

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