Fantasia Interview: Quinn Armstrong on his film ‘Survival Skills’

Survival Skills is a film I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first watched it. A biting satire of police training, it frames a cold hard look at the way police are trained to interact with the people they’re sworn to protect.

I watched and reviewed the film yesterday and today had the opportunity to sit down with writer and director Quinn Armstrong via Zoom to talk about police training videos, the timeliness of this satire, and what he hopes to expose with his film.

Ed. Note: This interview does contain mild spoilers for Survival Skills, and has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Matthew: Ok, let’s just dive right in: I really like your movie!

Quinn: Oh, thanks man!

M: I wanted to get started with the basics, so why a training cassette?

Q: So I had worked in domestic violence shelters for years and had always had this … I’d always wanted to do something about how it feels to not be able to help the way you want to, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I wrote a version of this script years ago that was very straight down the line, a very straight-up drama version of this story, and it just … it was dismissible. You know it was like, “ok, this is an earnest drama about this and da da-da-da-da”.

And then I came across, and I don’t even remember how, this video called “Surviving Edged Weapons”, which is a real training video from 1988, which is absolutely insane. Far crazier than our movie is. I was looking at it and thought there is no way that you could combine a parody of this with a drama about domestic violence, and I was thinking, “welllll… let’s find out!”

M: This video is available on youtube?

Q: Yup, you can find it in its entirety on youtube. It’s clearly like a police department gave some student filmmaker $10,000 in 1988, and that person really wanted to make an artistic statement. it opens with two cavemen, who get into a fight, and one of them picks up a rock and stabs the other, and then the narrator comes on with, “since the dawn of time, men have been using edged weapons to kill each other”. It’s very weird, and it gets weirder from there.

M: I am definitely going to look that up as soon as we’re done.

Q: You can actually check out our Fantasia Page; we have a bonus feature that is all about training videos. There’s a whole universe of these videos from the 80s, these Reagan-era paranoid, xenophobic, horrible but endlessly watchable things. It’s pretty amazing.

Surviving Edged Weapons

M: That seems like a pretty interesting YouTube hole to get lost in.

Q: Yeah, you could spend hours down there.

M: So that was your main inspiration. Did you go looking for more after you found this one?

Q: Oh yeah, the thing is that parody is actually, I think the hardest genre to pull off, and you can see that in the difference between something like Blazing Saddles, which is phenomenal and like those endless things that Scary Movie guys are churning out now. They are just reference-humour, like “in certain movies, they do this, and isn’t it funny that they do that?” but Blazing saddles not only is that a good western story on its own, it’s also this incredibly incisive movie about racism.

So we really wanted to move beyond a joke, and in order to do that, we had to be extremely authentic extremely quickly, so I watched everything you can find on youtube and then went to local police depts in LA and Seattle and pulled what they are watching now. I have this stuff deep in my brain now, and it won’t leave.

M: Have the training videos changed much since the 80s?

Q: No! And that’s the horrible thing! It’s crazy! There’s a guy named Dave Grossman who teaches at police academies across the country and the FBI, and his philosophy of teaching is called “killology”, and what it is is that he believes that police officers should be morally and psychologically prepared to kill people at a moments notice. He’s ex-military, and it’s a very military attitude. He’s still working today, and you can see the fruits of this attitude in the fact that cops keep fucking killing people.

You wonder why someone would shoot another human being seven times in the back when he was complying, and it’s because these guys are so terrified by their training and told that they should be ready to kill people and that they shouldn’t feel bad about it. The paranoia and xenophobia in these videos has not gone away at all. This is what I’m talking about when I talk about moving beyond the joke. These 80s police training videos are funny and silly, but underneath that, there is this horrible core.

M: Yeah, that’s horrible. Speaking of what’s going on in America right now, there was a short version of the movie in 2017, and it sounds like the movie was inspired by your time in these domestic violence shelters. Do you think that things would be different if you started thinking about it now?

Q: Oh yeah, absolutely. Its funny people are talking about the movie, and they’re like, “wow this is kind of intense; this is a pretty extreme position to take”, but this is the gentle version of the movie. this is the version that is relatively nice to the cops themselves and is going after the training and the way the police are organized.

This is naive of me in retrospect, but if you had told me that all of this was going to happen, that there would be a popular uprising against the police, I would have assumed that the police would do what most cultural institutions do, which is say “oh my god, this is horrible, we are so sorry, we will change” and then just not change.

That is not what they did. I live in Seattle and was in the autonomous zone when that was here, and I saw a police officer shoot a 23-year-old woman in the chest with a stun grenade. Her heart stopped several times, and she was only saved by our medics, not their medics, our guys.

I was really shocked by this, by all of this, and that s me telling on my own privilege, and that’s fine. So if I were making it today, Mark, the abusive husband, would be a cop. that is step one. But in a way, I’m glad that we came about this in a different world because it’s not my place right now in the national dialogue to be an aggrieved party because I don’t have the background. Cops are always really nice to me. I don’t have bad experiences with cops because I’m terrified of them and because I’m a white dude.

M: I can relate!

Q: Yeah! So I am not the one who can go out there and say, “this is my experience with cops!” but I can be the one to go out there and say this is what I know to be true about the way cops are trained, and that even the good cops in this system are set up for failure in trying to change things and try to do good. So I am glad it’s a more restrained look at it. When this movie releases wider, maybe it will reach some people who have their blinders and are like, “you;re all just mad at cops and freaking out over nothing”, maybe if it’s a little gentler, they’ll be able to watch and be like “oh…. the system has issues”.

That’s a grandiose vision, but who knows!

M: I mean, yeah, aim high, right?

Q: <laughs> Absolutely.

Vayu O’Donnell as Jim in Survival Skills

M: So with Jim’s character, he starts out a little robotic or, as I said in my review, painfully naive, and by the end, that has become more of a shield for him. At the end of the film, he seems to have adopted that persona as a measure of self-protection, could you speak about that for a moment?

Q: Very early on in this process, before we even did the short –I have a background in theatre and stage acting and did that professionally for quite a while– I was going to play Jim, and I am so, so glad I didn’t because a lot of what you’re talking about, that undercurrent is all from Vayu, our lead actor, who is amazing in this, I think.

M: I would agree; he’s great!

Q: He really nailed that this sense that this person is kind of child, kind of comes into being with this set of preconceptions that “everything is going to be great! I just have to follow the rules, and everything is going to be fine!” and what Vayu did so well is he showed the kind of shifting phycology underneath this character. I think when you watch this movie, you understand what is at stake for him psychologically in following or not following the rules in using the rules as a shield so that he doesn’t have to examine his own actions. As you said, it becomes a front after a while because this dude does bad things, he’s not perfect, and he’s not totally innocent, and he does some really stupid things.

I think towards the end, he never admits fault, but I think you can kind of see it as he is falling apart that he realises how badly he has fucked up and not just for himself but for the women he is trying to protect.

M: I would say that my experience of the film is that if the saying is “a few bad apples spoil the barrel”, then Jim is a painfully naive but good apple that is put into a barrel that is already rotten.

Q: Yes, it’s the barrel that is the problem. The apples are not the problem in any of this.

The real issues are far more complex. You have to talk about what sort of people are inclined to become police, you have to talk about how we police different communities and the way different communities are treated by the police, and that’s not even getting into the intentional infiltration of the police by far-right hate groups, which is a huge thing. I assume this doesn’t extend to north of the border, but in the pacific northwest in the US, there’s a really big problem with this, there are a lot of far-right, neo-nazi groups trying to infiltrate the police, to become police officers, and you run into them sometimes, and you see these tattoos, you see the deaths head tattoo on a fucking cops arm, and it’s horrifying.

M: It’s not as big of a story up here, but we are definitely not immune.

Q: We assume you are. We think the moment you cross the border that everything is fine and there’s no crime in Canada, and all this stuff which is dumb.

M: I mean, if only. Our main police force is a national force and trained as I understand it as part of our national defense strategy. We don’t have armoured vehicles rolling into protests right now, but they are trained as a paramilitary force. You guys are certainly the story right now, but it’s not a problem exclusive to you.

Q: Yeah, like in the US the problems are that we are assembling the tools for a police state, piece by piece, and there are people here in the state and across the world who say “but it’s not a police state so what are you complaining about?” but that’s the problem! Do you not see the slippery slope? That’s not even a slope, it’s just a cliff!

M: I’d like to shift gears and talk about Jims partner Allison played by Ericka Kreutz. Can you speak a little about her character? To me she felt a very cynical but also sympathetic to Jim’s transition.

Q: When all this stuff was kicking off with the murder of George Floyd and the protests afterwards there was about a week where we had just gotten into fantasia and I was like “we have to pull the movie, we have to not screen it” because I was worried that people would see it as a propaganda piece and one of the reasons why is because of Allison’s speech. She has this speech where she says that people are a nightmare and awful to cops and then they want you to come help them”. My producers very wisely said “yeah but right after that Jim says ‘ I don’t think you should be a cop‘”.

Her point of view is a really hard point of view to sympathise with right now and I think that it’s a testament to Ericka, who is phenomenal, that she feels real and she makes Jim feel more real. Vayu does a great job but having Ericka as a scene partner really contextualizes Jim. Allison is sort of the opposite of Jim and Ericka understood that and Matched Vayu. For all Vayu’s affect, the more strange and theatrical Jim got, the more grounded and cynical Ericka got, which is awesome to see on set. When you can see two actors communicating on this subterranean level. I don’t have the language to tell them to do that and if I didn’t it wouldn’t feel organic, but they figured it out because they are amazing actors.

Stacy Keach as The Narrator in ‘Survival Skills’

M: We are running out of time so I am going to jump ahead to my last question which is how did you connect with Stacy Keach?

Q: When we were doing the short I hired a casting director for $200 specifically for the purpose of sending Stacy Keach a letter. Basically I talked about a play that I had seen him in called “Other desert cities” at the Lincoln Center in new york in which he played a character very blatantly modelled on Ronald Reagan. I heard nothing for months but eventually, he asked for a script so we sent it over and in the end, the manager sent back one sentence: Stacy likes it. We were terrified but he is an amazing man to work with.

All in all, I had an excellent conversation with Quinn and, my only complaint is that we didn’t have more time. Survival Skills is streaming on-demand as part of Montreal’s Fantasia Festival through September 2nd, and I wholeheartedly recommend you make time to watch it.


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