The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a movie about an armed militia in Middle America — but don’t hold that against it

First-time filmmaker Henry Dunham on getting a dubious but ideology-free genre film made in a charged political climate.

James Badge Dale in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is Henry Dunham’s first movie, so I didn’t have much to go on, research-wise, before interviewing him at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A lot of what I came across actually concerned the film’s producer, Dallas Sonnier. Sonnier got his foot in the door making a series of B-movies starring Stone Cold Steve Austin, and he parlayed that success into funding films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 or Dragged Across Concrete: unusual genre films starring outspoken conservatives that played like gangbusters on the home video market despite being long, weird and slow genre movies. This led many to dub Sonnier and his production company Cinestate the “red state studio,” which seems ultimately reductive to me.

Then again, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a movie about an armed militia in Middle America — with the way the news is these days, that’s bound to raise an eyebrow. The subject matter apparently cost Dunham a name lead and a significant portion of the budget early in its production. The final product was made for less than half a million dollars with a cast made up primarily of character actors.

“There was stuff that some people were uncertain about, and they weren’t sure what the approach was gonna be,” says Dunham. “They needed to understand once we got to talk person-to-person with the actors or the producers that it has nothing to do with any of that. It’s just about a human conflict set inside a story area that is sort of underexplored with these militia guys. I don’t have any sort of political message or anything like that. It’s just a story about someone going from, “Can I make it out there alone?” to “Do I need to be a part of something, even if it’s hurting me?” I wrote the script probably seven years ago now, and it has unfortunately become very relevant and very timely to shit that’s going on out there. It’s just kind of one of those things where it’s unlucky because it’s become so prevalent that it makes people apprehensive about getting involved with it, but it’s lucky in that it got made so quickly.

“But in terms of people trying to hedge their bets by getting involved with it, you just have to understand that and tailor your approach to that. We’re just telling a human story about a universal conflict that just happens to be somewhere you’re not used to seeing it.”

A mass shooting erupts; as information filters in, members of an armed militia discover that the shooting was perpetrated with an AR-15, the same weapon they’ve been stockpiling in their hideout, a lumberyard somewhere in the Midwest. The members of the militia convene in the hideout, led by ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale), who has been accepted into the fold as a protective measure against police infiltration. They discover that one of the weapons is indeed missing, meaning that one of the members perpetrated the mass shooting. The gun is now in the police’s possession, which means it’s only a matter of time before they descend on the militia. Gannon leads the charge on the homegrown investigation, racing against time to find out who the culprit is.

Despite this politically charged premise, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek isn’t particularly concerned with ideology. It utilizes the militia members as another movie might use bank robbers or gangsters — and Dunham is adamant that he isn’t taking sides.

“Oh, God no!” he says. “That shit is so boring to me – listening to someone explain their stance on something. I don’t care! I want to see the story, I want to see a protagonist with a strong goal and a strong opposition and how they go after it. I have zero desire to soapbox about ideologies. Even if you’re putting ideologies in a movie and it’s perfect for your side, you’re still polarizing the audience and they’re out the door. All of a sudden, the characters become half as empathetic, and that lessens the impact of your story. I don’t wanna know anything about anybody’s stance in this movie – it’s a useless piece of information. People seeing from the outside might think it’s a political movie, but it couldn’t farther from that.”

“That’s what I told people as we were making it – that we were making a 70s French thriller set in Middle America. Those old, restrained Jean-Pierre Melville or Robert Bresson movies where they show absolute restraint and rely on the scenario of the night to carry the audience through the narrative. It’s also about being breakneck-paced; I see so many movies now where… it’s not really that I check my watch a lot, but there’s a reason why when you watch an episode of a great TV show you kind of don’t want it to end, but when you’re watching a movie, you start wondering how long you have left.”

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek weaves darkness and shadows as a weapon – it’s the rare modern film that seems determined to fill the frame with as much darkness as possible, splashing its characters’ faces with inky darkness and keeping large portions of its set in total darkness.

“There’s this great cinematographer named John Alton who has this saying: “It’s not what you light, it’s what you don’t light,”” he says. “I’ve always found that I’m attracted to that kind of image more, and making sure that those approaches are justified within the story is the most important thing. You can turn the lights off at any point during the story and it’s, in my opinion, better visually, but if it’s not justified by the story, it feels wrong. We start out with a pretty standard top light in this movie where you see everyone, you see everything they’re saying and how they move. It’s very bright. As the story goes on, you start to lose certainty on some of the characters – you only see half of some people’s face. You lose ground. You can’t gauge everything on a person’s face and you lose grasp on who they are. By the end, it’s very dark.”

Also extremely important to the success of the film is the cast, which is peopled with character actors like Patrick Fischler or Happy Anderson – guys you’ve seen a million times before, but whose best known characters might not even have names,

“That is 100% the maxim of the casting: an oh-it’s-that-guy cast,” he says. “There needed to be a kind of familiarity with the actors so that when the audience started watching they would know that even though this was a barebones, 18-day, $475,000 movie, they’d still recognize that these are pros. That it was a movie populated by real actors, but not so familiar that it takes them out of it. If Jim Carrey was in there, all you could do was notice that he was Jim Carrey. It was really about looking at these guys and making sure that their eyes were different enough from one another so we could see that balance in point of view. And, of course, getting the best actor for the role.” ■

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek hits VOD Friday, January 18. Watch the trailer here: