Fantastic Fest Film Depicts Militias With a Hair Trigger
When rugged individualism goes wrong in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
For most filmmakers, completing their first film is a time for elation. But when Henry Dunham wrapped his first short, sci-fi drama "The Awareness," what hit him instead was a profound sense of isolation.
He explained, "I'd finally done what I had always wanted to do, and I was still in this bar of people just rubbernecking and sizing each other up, and acting cool. I was just like, 'Oh my God, I'm still here, in this group of people that I don't have anything in common with.' It was horrible. I had this immediate anxiety attack, and I just left. I went home and went, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want any part of this shit. I just want to be left alone.'"
That sense of alienation, of not wanting to be anywhere near anyone else, is at the heart of his debut feature, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, which receives its U.S. premiere this week at Fantastic Fest. He said, "Anything that scares me, or freaks me out, or makes me uncomfortable, those are the emotions I go after."
In the film, those feelings are expressed through an organization that is an inherent contradiction: a militia in the Midwest, a gathering of people who see themselves as rugged individualists, unified by the fact that they don't really like other people. However, they are forced to act when one of their own shoots up a police funeral. Again a contradiction – this is exactly the kind of armed insurrection that they say they have been planning for, but they fall into finger-pointing when it actually happens. To find the murderer in their own midst, they must turn to the man on the edges of this fringe group, ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale). Shot in Dallas over 18 days for a budget of $450,000, it's a sealed-bottle drama where hell is definitely other people. Dunham said, "If someone wants to be left alone, and go off the grid, the worst and most painful thing that can happen to that character isn't a life of solitude [being] lonely. The worst thing is to realize that you need the group. Friends you don't have anything in common with, and all that jazz."
In fact the questions of why anyone would join these groups has only gained more resonance since that first panic attack in the bar, a change which Dunham called "an unlucky but lucky thing." He actually wrote the first draft in 2012, "then certain things happened, and the world exploded. People would ask me, 'Did you write this last year?'"
Aptly for a film shot in Texas, one of the prime drivers for the script is a concept called the Abilene paradox. It's a thought experiment created by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in 1974. A family in Coleman decides to go on a road trip to Abilene. Someone suggests going because it's cooler there, and another says the drive is so pretty, and another says there's a great ice cream store there. Dunham said, "They get there, and the ice cream sucks, and the drive takes twice as long. Then everyone in the family admits, 'Well, I only came because I thought you wanted to go,' and, 'Well, I only came because I thought you were bored." The reality is that none of them really wants to go, but once one person suggested going, no one wants to break from the groupthink.
The idea of applying those dynamics to the contentious subject of a militia was not political; it was simply the most extreme iteration of that instinct to cut and run from civilization that Dunham could find. Plus, coming from Michigan (a state where apocalyptic and anti-government sentiments have a long history), he grew up hearing rumors and gossip about groups in the woods with some connection to Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber. Dunham started researching real-life militias, but in the writing process, he quickly realized that the details of their ideologies were less interesting than what drives people to join such groups. Over time, it became less about militias, and more about tribalism and group mentality. "I don't think this is really about the objective of the group, versus so many people, they just don't want to be alone, and it feels better to have this group mentality, even though it's something that you're not a hundred percent sold on."
The fact that the Abilene paradox is applied to a militia only made its lessons more resonant for Dunham, because these are not immediately sympathetic characters – nor do they necessarily become more so as the audience gets to know them. He said, "It's more emotionally interesting, when you're forced to identify with people that you don't have anything in common with." Moreover, it allowed him to get away from the stereotypical depictions of anyone from the rural Midwest. "They just immediately put everyone in camouflage. I'm from Michigan, and I don't own any camouflage. I don't understand why that's code for, 'Oh, now they're woodsy.' No. These people, if you make them someone you would pass on the street, who are secretly into groups like this, that's more effective. You'll go, 'Oh, fuck, I know somebody who looks like that. I know someone who's that way. He seems pretty normal,' and that's more concerning."
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek U.S. premiere: Sat., Sept. 22, 11:50pm; Mon., Sept. 24, 8pm.