2020 has been a hot mess. There has been a series of events that make it seem like we’re living throughout the latest season of Black Mirror or a boxset of poorly written Roland Emmerich disaster films. One of those events is the steady streaming of cops doing the exact opposite of what they were hired to do. However, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making movies about the good the police force does. That’s when up and coming director Quinn Armstrong steps in with his version of law enforcement through his movie, Survival Skills.
For those not in the know, there are a series of police training videos used to train any new cadet entering the academy. It’s been said that some of these videos are borderline ridiculous because of their unintentional detachment from reality. Survival Skills takes that and turns it up to an 11.
The 2020 film circles around Jim. The latest edition to a local town’s police department. What makes this movie so different from other fish-out-of-water cop movies is the story is begin told through the lens of a police training video. This dark-comedy is indeed unique has underlying messages that dive into domestic violence, knowing when to take action, and knowing when one is doing more harm than good.
I was able to speak to Quinn Armstrong on his process and philosophy in making the movie, the unknown talent of Vayu O’Donnell, and how he was able to snag veteran actor Stacy Keach.
Spoiler Warning: We talk about the film’s ending and it’s meaning in this interview.
The movie is definitely something different. I haven’t seen anything like this before. The thing that comes closest to mind is maybe VHS. So where did you get the idea for this from?
Quinn Armstrong: So, there existed a version of the Survival Skills script way back when I worked in domestic violence prevention and worked at shelters for quite a long time. There was a version of this story that was just like the same story, but it was just very kind of straightforward and it was very earnest and informative and very boring. I had that script and I put it away for years and then a friend of mine sent me a link to one of these insane old police training videos. As I often do, I thought to myself, “What’s the stupidest thing I could do in this situation.” So I thought, “Let’s combine this very earnest drama about domestic violence with a straight-up parody of police training videos.” And nobody stopped me. I kept waiting to be stopped and it didn’t happen.
Since you said that you came across this instructional video, was that video made in the 80s?
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah. The first one I ever saw was called Surviving Edged Weapons. Which is kind of a cult. It’s the one that most people know because it’s so insane and it has kind of a cult following. It’s interesting because most of the ones you see today are from the seventies and eighties. After all, the eighties are popular right now because of the generation that grew up in the eighties now controls media and entertainment. They want to enact their nostalgia. But the thing is, these things are still being made.
We watch these eighties videos and we’re like “Ah, that’s so cheesy.” Even the sort of like casual racism and xenophobia and paranoia and all that seems sort of quaint. But the thing is these videos are still being made and the cheesy transitions and stuff like that are all gone. But the xenophobia, the panic, the race, all that stuff is still in there. There’s a dude named Dave Grossman who has trained–I think he said on his website that he’s trained police in all 50 States. He’s a guest lecture at the FBI, all this stuff. His philosophy is called killology–
I’ve heard about this guy.
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah, yeah. It’s basically that cops should be trained to be able to kill people at a moment’s notice and not feel bad about it. I mean, surprising no one, he’s ex-military. Very military attitude and you look around the States today and you can absolutely, I think, see the fruits of his efforts. They’re still around, but it wouldn’t be as funny if we presented it in the modern-day–I don’t think.
Was it always intended to give that late eighties, early nineties vibe to Survival Skills? Or did you ever think, “Well, let me see if I can set this like in the seventies?”
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah. I mean the seventies and eighties thing is so interesting. I think the reason it had to be the eighties is because I wrote this version of the script–the version that was VHS-y and all that–in 2016. I was looking at the rise of Donald Trump and the rise and the insane popularity of Stranger Things. Stranger Things is a good show and I’m not saying that it’s responsible for the rise of Trump by any means. (Chuckling) That need for nostalgia is not just a harmless, “Oh, remember the eighties.” South Park has a great thing about this. I think they had these little creatures in one of their episodes called “Member Berries”.
I don’t think I saw that episode.
Quinn Armstrong: They’re just these little things that were like, “Remember Star Wars?” or “Remember this?” And then as the episode goes on, they’re like, “Remember when there weren’t so many minorities around?”
Yeah. A lot of people seem to forget the Reagan era, the cocaine era, and the other things that happened at that time.
Quinn Armstrong: And it’s cool to be into that stuff. I’m not saying you can’t watch Stranger Things or anything like that. You just got to analyze what that decade actually was known for. God, if you were a gay man in San Francisco, the eighties were not a great time for lots of people. The eighties were not a great time, but anyway, that’s a whole rant.
Jim’s first call is a domestic violence scenario. In the original Survival Skills script, or any iteration of that, did he answer a call to something a bit more intense?
Quinn Armstrong: There was actually a sequence late in the movie that we shot that I called “The Suicide Duet”. It was a split-screen sequence in which a cop’s husband was talking to the camera like it was an interview and saying, “Yeah, it’s hard to be the husband of a cop. She’s gone a lot, da, da, da, da, da, da.” The other side of the screen was the same officer recording, a suicide note. We wanted to get into “officers’ suicide” and the pressure on officers and that sort of thing.
But the problem is it unbalanced the second act. We are covering so much territory in such a short amount of time that we really–we had all these plans to tackle, “Well, what if we talk about this? But if we talked about this.” We just didn’t have the time to do it thoughtfully and thoroughly. We knew we wanted to talk about domestic violence and in order to do that, we had to start right away. We had to get right into the thick of it immediately.
Yeah, I noticed that there’s a couple of parts where Stacy Keach’s character introduces the idea of a video on how to use a gun and stuff like that. There’s a lot of ways you can cover the police force in this movie. I was just kind of surprised you stuck with domestic violence.
Quinn Armstrong: Well, I think people watch this with a 2020 lens. This came out it functionally premiered beforehand. But most of the screenings were after the murder of George Floyd. To our minds, when we were making this, this is not really a police movie. This is a domestic violence movie through the perspective of the police. We’ve had some people who were upset that this movie wasn’t more ACAB [All Cops Are Bad] or it wasn’t really dealing with corruption in the police as much. But I find it much more damning that there are no bad cops in this movie and everything still gets destroyed. We’re going after the institution, not individual bad cops, but that’s also a whole other thing.
Okay the guy who plays Jim–
Quinn Armstrong: Vayu O’Donnell.
Where did he come from? I was so disturbed by him; 15 minutes into Survival Skills. What was the process of finding the right guy to play Jim?
Quinn Armstrong: Well, my background is in theater. I was a stage actor for years and originally, the plan was that I was going to play Jim. I said, “We should have auditions anyway.” When we did the short version of the movie, we had auditions. I would never have said this at the time, but I was sort of like silently rooting against everyone who came in. I was sort of like, “Nah, Nah.” Cause comparing them to me–I’ve got to protect my ego at all costs. Then Vayu [O’Donnell] came in and I was so mad because he was so good. He was so, arguably, so much better. I think there’s some test footage out there of me playing Jim. In my version, I was a robot was very sort of cold and direct and all that. He’s like a kid.
There’s the sense of discovery and wonder to everything he did, which actually I think makes it possible to identify with Jim–in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do normally. Vayu does such, such a great job. He’s an old school theater guy. He came up in New York, he was on Broadway and then he came out to LA. As many actors do because there’s very little money in New York–or in theater, I should say. We were just lucky to kind of snatch him up. He’s going to be huge. He’s amazing.
I saw that he was able to able to balance that kid mentality. There were certain times where his mannerism was like an instructional book on how to act human. Which, I was blown away by. It seems that Jim is the only one who recognizes that he’s in an instructional video. Other than Jim’s wife, were there any other times, that another character knew that they were in an instructional video?
Quinn Armstrong: Sort of. There were drafts where the whole world was an instructional video and the only people who were not acting like that was the abused family. Everybody else, like Jim’s partner, was, “Hey, welcome to the precinct.” We got rid of that eventually because the conceit of this movie, this sort of trading video thing, is so aggressive that you really need to introduce people to it quickly and thoroughly because we were moving on. The training video is not the point.
If someone asks me what this movie was, I wouldn’t say, “It’s a parody of police training videos.” I would say, “It’s a movie about domestic violence.” We needed to bridge the gap between the drama about domestic violence and the parody, and the only way to do that was by really having everything else except for Jim, Jenny, and kind of Stacy [Keach], be as real as possible. Cause we’re moving fast within the first 15 minutes. This movie–you have to accept the training video. You have to accept where we’re going and then we’re moving on.
Yeah, absolutely. So, what is Jenny doing when Jim’s not there? In your mind, what is his wife doing?
Quinn Armstrong: So, this is tenting a very long rant out of me because this is a whole philosophical position about whether Jenny exists if the camera is not on her. But that’s a sort of an ontological argument that we probably don’t want to get into today. So, the actress who plays Jenny and I actually had this running joke–that’s slowly becoming not a joke–about doing a sequel about Jenny’s life when she leaves to Florida. Part of that was because I mean–first of all, she did such a great job creating this world. I think what Jenny does when Jim is not there is if you imagine an intelligent child just sort of dropped into a situation.
This is a good example. I recently moved and I have two cats and they were sort of looking around the apartment and they were pawning this thing and looking at this thing and trying to figure out what everything was. I feel that’s what Jenny does. She just walks around. She looks at–it’s programmed in her brain that she knows how to make jam. The few things she knows how to do, she knows how to do. I doubt there’s any programming in her brain that tells her what a TV is. She’s got to go and figure out what that is and figure out what different channels mean.
For about 75 to 80% of Survival Skills or Jim’s story, he’s in the training video. At one point it jolts to reality where we’re no longer in that situation. Did you ever plan to keep the training video ongoing or was the “reality” portion of the movie was always in the cards?
Quinn Armstrong: We always knew that we were going to have a reality break. Part of that comes from–it’s pretty directly inspired by Mulholland Drive which has that moment where you go into the box and suddenly reality snaps. We’re not doing the sunny version of LA anymore. We’re doing the dark version. The reason for that is partially just my particular creative interests which are about what can be said to be real when you’re presenting a movie. Because nothing is real but some things are more real than others and it’s all strange and complicated. But also there is a value, I think, to bringing the odd. This movie is a series of tricks and bait and switches.
You think you’re going to watch a parody of police training videos and suddenly you’re watching a weird ‘Twilight Zone’, horror-inflected ‘Pleasantville’ thing. Then, suddenly you’re watching a drama about domestic violence. The reality break is kind of to signal to the audience, “The tricks are over. We’re not playing those games anymore about form and function and all that. What you’re seeing now is real.” We’re not going to have another layer of reality break or anything like that. This is what happens now.
How did you get Stacy Keach? I thought he had retired.
Quinn Armstrong: We did a short version of Survival Skills before we did the feature. The reason that we did a short first is really to get Stacy because it’s a lot easier to get in touch with his management and his folks and be, “Hey can Stacy come out for an afternoon for a short movie”, than being, “Can you come out for three days for a feature?” So, we brought him out for the short. I paid a casting director a couple of hundred bucks just to get a letter to Stacy, that’s it. Just to get it passed his management through to him. I wrote to Stacy about a play that I had seen him do in New York called ‘Other Desert Cities’, where he plays a Reaganesque older actor whose family is kind of falling apart. He had this sense of control over the audience that is so rare. You sat there watching him and it was like he could just snap his fingers and anything could happen. He could make you believe anything.
For a character that is basically a god in Survival Skills that’s a great quality to have. So, I sent him that letter. I sent him the script. He said “Yes” for some reason that will always confuse me and I guess he liked the short enough cause we brought him on for the feature. Every day–we worked with him for three days–we all left like three hours early. We just set everything up. He sat behind the desk and he would nail every single take. I felt like I was a bad director because, adjustments and stuff like that, but he was just perfect.
Yeah. I’ve, I’ve tinkered around with directing in film school and there are those times where you get that great shot that you were looking for in two or three takes and you think, “Whoa, wait what just happened?” It’s kind of like an anomaly in a way.
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah and when you sort of start to not trust yourself. You start to think, “There must’ve been something wrong. Something that I didn’t see. We’ll fix it in the editing room.”
I have a theory on what the end of Survival Skills was trying to say. I mean, other than messages of domestic violence. Earlier, Stacy Keach comes off as a god. I was wondering if Stacy’s character is a more grizzled version of Jim. Maybe we’re seeing Jim’s past played out in front of us because the toy car in the movie threw me off. I’m hoping you can speak anything about that.
Quinn Armstrong: The toy car, which is the final image of the movie, clearly belonged to Jim. That means that either the narrator gave it to Jim during the video. Either it passed from the narrator to Jim or it passed from Jim to the narrator. Of course, I have my theories. There’s not really an answer, per se. I think if you look closely at the movie, there are some clues to support what you were saying. I won’t say what they are, but there are some clues in there about what a Jim that survived may have become over time.
Gotcha. Did you shoot anything that you really wanted to keep in Survival Skills but had to take it out? I know you said earlier about the “Suicide Duet” scene.
Quinn Armstrong: I would say we shot maybe five or six pages that didn’t end up making it in total, which is pretty good as a ratio. The “Suicide Duet” I miss and we’ll come back again in something, just as a formal experiment. I liked how it worked out. There was this scene my editor and I fought about so much. There’s a series of scenes where Jim is going to the domestic violence shelter to try to get a place for the two girls. He goes to the church and tries to ask for money and things just get worse and worse and worse. And there was a scene we shot at the end of that sort of downward slide where Jim is sitting in a park, eating a hamburger, and he’s sort of wrecked thinking about all this stuff. He sort of silently and experimentally says to himself, “Fuck”.
Then he starts swearing more and he eventually loses it and starts screaming obscenities and throwing his burger at people. It was one of my favorite things to write because it was like an aria of vulgarities, which is always fun. Vayu did such an amazing job but the problem was it was just too far too fast there. If he breaks that point, then there’s nowhere for him to go and to have the scene go later–it was the wrong tone. It was too silly to happen later on when people are dying. So, I missed that one, and I feel bad because Vayu really exhausted himself from shooting it.
You said had an idea and that it might be explored regarding what happened to Jenny after she leaves Jim. Are you gonna possibly come back to this world and have another message through the prism of training videos?
Quinn Armstrong: Well, the thing is we’re starting production on my next feature in April and it is very connected to Survival Skills thematically. Except instead of being in training videos, it’s through teen slasher movies. There’s one more after that, that’s sort of set in the world of early 2000s era porn. Those three all fully form a complete statement. After that, I’m probably done doing the meta stuff for a while. This is a project that I’m working on that I want to talk about certain things about identity. After that, I want to move into more direct genre kind of content. But, never say never. By the way, if anybody reading, if you want to throw some money at me to make the Jenny movie; in a heartbeat.
(Laughing) I’ll definitely make sure to include that in this article.
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah. If I get a fully funded feature out of this interview, I’m going to be furious.
Survival Skills is available on VOD right now and I highly recommend you check out this film.