Interview: Writer-Director Christopher Denham Shares the Bloody Details of ‘Preservation’

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2015-01-16 09.34.52Preston Barta // Editor

preservation-posterPRESERVATION | 90 min. | Rated R
Director: Christopher Denham
Stars: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber and Aaron Staton

Perhaps best known for being part of the ensemble cast in the Oscar-winning ARGO (2012) and playing crazy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND (2010), Christopher Denham takes his talents behind the screen for PRESERVATION, which he both wrote and directed.

PRESERVATION follows three relatives – the cellphone-addicted Mike Neary (Aaron Staton); his med-student wife, Wit (Wrenn Schmidt); and his unstable ex-military brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber) – as they go hunting for the weekend and wind up becoming hunted by three masked killers.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Denham about his suspenseful thriller. We discussed catchy tunes, how we can surprise ourselves when fighting for survival, and what Denham picked up from working with Scorsese and Ben Affleck.

Aaron Staton, Wrenn Schmidt and Pablo Schreiber  star in PRESERVATION. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Aaron Staton, Wrenn Schmidt and Pablo Schreiber star in PRESERVATION. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Hi, Chris. Is now a good time to talk?

Christopher Denham: “Yeah, absolutely!”

Great! So, how’s your day going?

Denham: “It’s rainy and sh-tty in New York, but other than that it’s good.”

[Laughs] It’s about the same here in Texas, too.

Denham: “Yeah, my brother was just down there. 30-something degrees?”

Yeah, somewhere in that area. But anyways, so, I watched your film this morning and I don’t think I will be able to get that “Bear Went Over the Mountain” song out of my head [Laughs].

Denham: “Oh, man. Now you know how I feel when we were editing it [Laughs]. Just so annoying.”

Is there a personal story or reason as to why you decided to go with that particular rhyme?

Denham: “Yeah! That was in my family. It’s kind of a continuation of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song when there is a birthday in our family. We launch into that number every time [Laughs]. When people go to our family parties they get very confused by it.”

That’s great. I was curious because I liked how it kept coming back in the movie. In the beginning, near the middle and once again at the end. As annoying as it might have been for you in the editing room, I really appreciated how that song seemed to carry some emotional weight.

Denham:Oh, good! Thank you. Some people thought we made it up. It is a real song, but I guess it’s just regional.”

I’ve heard it before, so you’re good. But where did the idea spawn from if you don’t mind my asking? When do ideas usually hit you?

Denham: “It’s kind of a combination of forces, I guess. I was out camping and I kept hearing bike spokes [Laughs], which is something strange to hear in the woods where there are no trails. That was sort of the initial thing that got my imagination going.

After my first film, HOME MOVIE (2008), which took place inside a house, I knew I was interested in exploring something that was intensely physical and exterior as a challenge for myself.”

Waking up to the all their gear being stolen is the least of Mike and Wit's troubles.

Waking up to the all their gear being stolen is the least of Mike (Aaron Staton) and Wit’s (Wrenn Schmidt) troubles. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

I really liked the film’s theme of what people will do to protect themselves. I feel as though we’ve all been pushed into a corner at one point in our life or another and were surprised by how we reacted to the situation. Do you have any moments from your upbringing where something like that happened to you, but obviously, not to the degree of the film.

Denham: “Yeah! I mean, I didn’t grow up as an outdoorsy sort of guy. You know, having done that a little more recently, you are kind of surprised by how quickly something else is triggered inside yourself, particularly when guns are involved. There’s the version of yourself that you think you know pretty well, but then there’s this other thing hidden underneath that comes out pretty quickly when something is unleashed. I’m not saying this movie is about gun rights or anything like that. I think a lot of people talk about guns in a theoretical way, and they really don’t know what they would do if they were in that situation.”

Yeah, that’s very true. I wanted to ask about your use of technology in the film and where you think it’s heading today in real life, because your hunters/killers in the film use technology throughout. They text each other instead of actually having a conversation with one another. You explored this idea in HOME MOVIE and continued it over into PRESERVATION, in that we constantly feel the need to document our lives, whether it’s posting pictures or statuses on Facebook. All of this is to just hide behind our computers and make ourselves appear cooler than we really are.

Denham: “Yeah, absolutely. Technology is essentially the weapon in the movie. It’s sort of the armor for Mike (Aaron Staton); he really can’t see what’s happening right in front of him. He can’t see what’s happening domestically- whatever this strange attraction is between his wife and brother. He’s too consumed by his gmail and what’s going on, on his phone. He can’t see that maybe they’re being followed.

In real life, you see kids on the subway who are 14 or 15 and they’re texting each other while sitting next to each other. There’s a desensitization and they can’t come up with the words.”

Definitely. It’s as if we are all loosely connected.

Denham: “Right. Right. It’s kind of amplified by a million degrees, but it’s the same kind of thing when you are driving along the road and you see a horrible accident. You’re really pissed about the people ahead of you for stopping, but once you see the accident you can’t help but rubberneck a little yourself. But now with Youtube, you can do that all f-cking day if you want [Laughs]. People being dumb or getting hurt, you know, you just can’t look away.”

And our patience is really thinning by all that kind of stuff as well.

Denham: “Oh, yeah. Yeah, your attention span is so short. I wonder about that, because we just had a baby. I wonder if he’ll have the patience to watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) one day, or if he’ll go on Youtube and watch the five minute highlights.”

Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) hides from the masked killers.

Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) hides from the masked killers. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Yeah. That makes me think of how the horror genre and what scares people are constantly changing as well. Horror is one of my favorite genres, and I have discussions with my friends about it all the time. I’m pretty sure if I brought up something like NOSFERATU (1922) to incoming college freshman students, they probably wouldn’t give it the time of day. But if you show them something like THE CONJURING (2013)-

Denham: “Right. It’s all about the slow build. Yeah, and I come from theatre, too. You know, you sort of forget in the golden age of Broadway and stuff that it would be very rare to not have a play that was at least three acts, but mostly five acts [Laughs] – Eugene O’Neill and all that. And now, most of the time you have 90 minutes and you’re out. People have more important things to do, apparently. I’m guilty of it too, though. My movie is 87 minutes.”

Yeah [Laughs]. You’ve been directing for a little bit. Shorts here and there, HOME MOVIE and now this. But you’ve worked with Scorsese and Affleck. What do you think separates all you guys as directors and how you approach actors?

Denham: “Ah, well, first of all, they’re a lot better than me. No [Laughs]. It sort of started with what I tried to learn, because I didn’t go to film school. So instead of going back to my trailer, I would stay, listen and see how they talked to their [directors of photography] and other actors. It’s still a collaboration.

Of course, Scorsese is famous for storyboards and stuff, but he was never strict about it- ‘Oh, you have to go right to this mark’ or something. It was never like that. It’s a very living document.

When shooting PRESERVATION I got this DP named Nicola Marsh and she’s awesome. She comes from documentaries, primarily. So she could adapt when trying to capture a moment as it happens in real time rather than a premeditated moment. That’s not saying you shouldn’t structure the shot; you just need to be open to what the actors are giving you. As an actor myself, I find it really frustrating when I’m being used as a puppet and the shot becomes more about getting a great key light. I don’t know if audiences remember the key light; they remember if the moment is authentic or not.”

I agree. And lastly, before I let you go- if you could teach a college course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?

Denham: “Oh, that’s an amazing question. You know what was helpful for me, and this may not help everyone, but I started as a theatre major and switched to English, which is, I guess, equally as arbitrary [Laughs]. I think there is this myopic view that you only have to read about the thing that you are doing, whether that is acting, writing or the technical side of film. And I think it is very important there are other influences in your mind and in your soul when you’re creating something. It’s important to know the Greeks, and not to be pretentious about it but open yourself up to other spheres of influence to take you down a path you hadn’t quite considered.

There’s a bit in PRESERVATION that is about Artemis. I like that moment personally, but obviously I’m biased because I wrote it. I learned about that story in college and I think that moment elevates PRESERVATION a little bit.

Oh, I would take that class for sure! I relate to that, as I was a film major who switched to English Literature.

Denham: “Oh, then you know what I am talking about! It lets you know that these stories don’t just come out of nowhere. They are all echoes of each other.”

PRESERVATION is playing in limited release today, and is also available On Demand.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.