Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills parodies ’80s VHS police training videos to explore the police’s relationship to domestic violence. Somehow, it completely works.
As funny as the opening of Survival Skills is, I started the film skeptical that the central conceit had legs. The film is a parody of crudely made ‘80s VHS police training videos, and it brilliantly mimics their ramshackle aesthetic and bizarre corniness. We’re introduced to the story by Stacy Keach as The Narrator, a man at a desk who speaks to camera and addresses us as if we are new recruits to the Middletown Police Department. He points to a boxy TV next to his desk, and it switches on to reveal Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), the new recruit we’ll be following for the rest of the film.
Director Quinn Armstrong mines this conceit for a remarkable amount of pathos and social commentary, overcoming both my and his own fear that Survival Skills would “feel like a 10-minute short getting stretched out to feature length.” It’s not just a series of skits of the comically naive and strangely robotic Jim getting into various wacky situations, although there are several funny gags of that nature. Instead, Armstrong places Jim into what is essentially the real world, just shot with a VHS aesthetic. “Every [character other than Jim] is real because we need counterbalance,” Armstrong told me. “We need to see this creature out in the world. Otherwise, there are no stakes or consequences.”
By grounding Survival Skills in reality, Armstrong gets away with a genuinely insightful and moving depiction of a domestic abuse case that’s assigned to Jim. Jim is a well meaning and idealistic character with no backstory and therefore no baggage — he pretty much starts out as a caricature with no inner life who was completely fabricated for this police training video. So when he sees a woman and her daughter in peril at the hands of their family patriarch, his innocent good nature implores him to help out, even if it means getting involved beyond the limits of his job. His experience is frustrating: if he doesn’t help out, the two women will remain in danger, but when he tries to extricate them from that situation, they become homeless because they don’t have a financial safety net.
Telling this story in the framework of a police training video isn’t just a gimmick, but a clever way to draw attention to the problem: the policing system as a whole and how police are trained. In Armstrong’s words, “I think there is a certain proportion of bad people in any given population or profession. What matters is not the density of assholes, it’s the way that the system they exist in either punishes or rewards that behaviour.” Jim becomes more recognisably human, as he realises that his good nature and empathy are at odds with what the policing system wants him to do. The training video provides no meaningful advice on helping victims of domestic abuse. In fact, The Narrator gets annoyed whenever Jim tries to help, sometimes even interrupting the footage to reverse it or cut away to something else, because Jim is diverting from the police force’s restrictive and unempathetic script.
I spoke to Armstrong over Zoom about his anxieties and priorities when telling a story about the police, the long process of creating Survival Skills‘ VHS aesthetic, and why he prefers to work with theatre actors (but doesn’t want to direct theatre himself).
Seventh Row (7R): What came first when writing Survival Skills: telling a story about domestic violence and the police, or making a spoof of police training videos?
Quinn Armstrong: I have worked and volunteered in domestic violence in various capacities for years, primarily in education. I had written basically this story years ago, and it was very well researched, very earnest, and very boring. It was dismissable. So I put it away.
A couple years later, a friend of mine sent me a link to this police training video, Surviving Edged Weapons. It’s the weirdest one. People say my movie is weird, but the real stuff is so much weirder. I got that link, and I was watching it, and I thought, “You know what’s the stupidest thing I could do right now?” So I combined this very earnest drama and this parody of police training videos, and nobody stopped me!
7R: I heard you say in an interview that you were interested in deconstructing systems rather than people in Survival Skills. Could you elaborate on that?
Quinn Armstrong: The one caveat is that cops are always nice to me. I am not the aggrieved party here. So if I say something about what police violence is, it comes from observed rather than lived experience.
I think there is a certain proportion of bad people in any given population or profession. What matters is not the density of assholes, it’s the way that the system they exist in either punishes or rewards that behaviour. It’s not that the Catholic Church naturally attracts sex criminals. It’s that it allows them to get away with it and borderline encourages that behaviour.
We thought for a while about making the abusive husband in the film a cop and going really into how cops protect their own. But I’ve seen that story quite a few times. What I’m more interested in is how the policing system in the United States lets down people who really do want to do a good job and be good cops — the way they are hammered down.
None of that is to say that the people who cannot resist gunning down unarmed people of colour should not be prosecuted; they absolutely should. But when we talk about reform, I’m not interested in punishment. I’m not interested in punishing the system as a whole. I’m interested in going in and working out what the problem is and how we can fix it.
7R: Was your research mostly just watching these videos, or did you do other research into the police force?
Quinn Armstrong: We did a fair amount of research, both myself and Vayu O’Donnell, who plays Jim. We went on a few ride-alongs with the cops, and had a few very strange experiences. There was one dude, and I know this is a cliche, but he really could not stop talking about crossfit the whole time. He did not want to talk about being a cop; he just wanted to talk about crossfit. It was weird.
This movie is about how the police interact with domestic violence, not how police brutality functions, and that’s a tricky thing right now. Any movie about cops in the United States right now, that’s the first thing everybody’s going to think about.
But that really isn’t what we set out to do, and I’m glad, because the last thing the world needs is a movie about police brutality and race by a conscientious, ignorant white dude. I’m not the person to deliver that message. I don’t understand it. I do understand the domestic violence world, so there’s an interesting resonance because our relationship with brutality is glancing and accidental. We’re not making a movie about that.
7R: Was it difficult to get access to police resources for research and shooting when you’re making an anti-police movie?
Quinn Armstrong: Well, I lied to them. (laughs) This was when I still lived in LA, and LA cops are more used to this because they get it all the time. Any time an actor books a commercial where they’re in the background as a cop, they want to [spend time with the police]. So they’re used to these kinds of requests. They have a media office, and the dude was like, “We just want to make sure that this doesn’t paint cops in a negative light.” I was like, “(Suspicious tone) Oh yeah, yeah, it’s great, we… love you guys?” And I don’t feel bad about that.
It would be really difficult to get in there and do a documentary. There’s a really great documentary that Frontline did called The Death in St. Augustine that was about cops protecting their own. They famously had such a hard time getting past that blue wall of silence.
There’s all these little tricks you learn along the way. For filmmakers [reading] this, buy a couple extra memory cards and have them in a little ziploc bag with you, because if a cop rolls up, or anyone tries to stop you, they may ask for the cards. If you give them the blank cards, by the time they figure it out, you’re in the clear.
7R: I assume then that you didn’t get to shoot in any real police locations?
Quinn Armstrong: No, but we shot, for the police scenes, in a place called Mira Loma, which is a detention centre up in Lancaster, California. It’s a detention centre they were in the process of remodelling to turn into an ICE facility.
We were shooting in these offices, and you could go down the hall and see these little mini courtrooms that they were setting up for trials. You’d go round the corner from that and see these detention cells where everything was rubber.
It was a horrible place. It was really awful. I stole a rivet off the wall, and I have it on my keychain. I stole it so it would slow them down. (laughs) That was my very, very useless act of rebellion.
7R: The tone of Survival Skills is very unique, balancing parody with really serious subject matter. How did you approach that?
Quinn Armstrong: I just ran around doing all the hobgoblin nonsense that I do. We didn’t think about tone during the shoot really at all.
It has different mileage with different people. Some people are fine ricocheting from tone to tone to tone. And some people find it really challenging and found it challenging with this. The masters of this are Korean filmmakers. I don’t know how they do it, but they just zing back and forth and back and forth. Bong Joon-ho is the one everyone knows, and he’s a great example of that, but he’s much slicker than a lot of these guys who just go voom, voom, voom. I love that, because audiences are increasingly media savvy, flexible, and interested in genre-bending stuff. I get if it’s a problem for some folks, but it doesn’t bother me.
The person who saved that and balances out my anarchism is my editor, Keara Burton, who is a really stunning artist. I was like, “OK, we’re going to do this and this and this,” and she was like, “OK… calm down. Let’s actually talk through what the audience’s journey is.” That’s one of the reasons I’m very happy I don’t edit my own work. It’s not that she’s just sitting there typing and executing what I say. She’s really shaping the movie.
7R: At what point in the process does she get involved?
Quinn Armstrong: I would have loved her to come on later, but we are poor, so she was with us as a script supervisor. I’ve known Keara for a million years and have so much blackmail material on her that she has to come on board. (laughs) Ideally, I would prefer to have her separate from the process.
7R: How much did the shape of the film change in the edit?
Quinn Armstrong: Not as much as I think is generally the case. We didn’t do much major reordering. We removed a couple of things.
Speaking of tone, we had a scene, at one point, that was a split screen of two talking heads. One of them is the husband of a police officer giving an interview about what it’s like to be the spouse of a police officer and the stress, and the other was that guy’s wife recording a suicide note, speaking directly to camera. I fucking loved that scene. I’m really happy with the device, and the way it turned out, I think it hits really hard.
But we put it in there, and it just destroys the second act. It unbalances Jim’s decline. You have the decline of this character who’s getting worse and worse and worse, and the tone of the movie is getting darker and darker and darker. And then [when the split screen scene comes in], you go way down, and then you go way back up. So we cut little things like that. I think we cut about five scenes out. Otherwise, it was more about shaping within the scenes.
7R: How did you navigate the idea of the characters being a character in this training video that someone’s made versus being a real person with an inner life?
Quinn Armstrong: For Vayu, we had a sort of shorthand where at any given scene, I would give him a number from one to ten. Ten is totally robotic; one is broken down and more emotionally present.
The big danger of this project was always that [the audience] would just go, “Oh my God, enough of this training video thing. It feels like a 10-minute short getting stretched out to feature length.”
That’s why every [character other than Jim] is real, because we need counterbalance. We need to see this creature out in the world. Otherwise, there are no stakes or consequences.
7R: Did that pose any challenges in scenes where you have two actors working in completely different acting styles?
Quinn Armstrong: Something that I tried to do, and that I try to do with everything, is I try to cast theatre actors. I come from the theatre. It’s not that theatre actors are necessarily better, but there’s a level of craft in terms of being able to repeat and adjust. I’ve found a lot of film actors who will come in, do a great performance, and that’s what you get. I also think for this [Survival Skills], there’s a high level of theatricality and artifice, and being able to modulate [a performance] was really important.
In many ways, it was just like playing a comedy scene without the gags. In a comedy scene, you’ll often have a character who’s very extreme, and then you’ll have the straight man. That was the case with this. It was just in every scene.
7R: How did you pinpoint what aesthetic elements you’d need to copy from the VHS training videos? Was it a case of sourcing old technology or manipulating new technology to make it look old?
Quinn Armstrong: We used modern stuff. We used an Arri Alexa, which is a really high-end digital camera. It’s what most indies are shot on. In this case, it’s like building a sandcastle with a bulldozer. I feel so bad for my DP [Allie Schultz]. She creates such beautiful, amazing shots, and I just destroyed them all. (laughs)
The biggest challenge with this movie was you couldn’t do anything clever or beautiful. That becomes a big problem when you have two hours left to do a scene, you’re behind, but you can’t do what most people do which is say, “OK, we’re going to combine the shot, and do this fancy thing, or turn it into a oner.” You have to be like, “Alright, this person walks in and sits down, this person walks in and sits down, then we do over [the shoulder], over, and master, and then we’re done.”
There’s always this tightrope walk between fidelity to the style and watchability, because it’s tough to watch some of those old training videos. We were limiting camera moves, being judicious about going handheld, and certain techniques like that.
The VHS effect we applied covers a multitude of sins. There are moments where I’m like, “That’s not period appropriate,” or “That camera movie doesn’t feel right.” But the first 10 minutes are really all that matters for that. It’s like going to see Shakespeare. In the first 10 minutes, you’re like, “What is happening?!”, and then you make the switch in your brain, and you’re able to follow it. It’s the same thing here.
7R: Were you working on that first 10 minutes a lot in the edit?
Quinn Armstrong: The first 10 minutes were some of the most set because they’re just executions of some of the things I’ve seen [in training videos]. It’s just about introducing, introducing, introducing, planting, all that stuff. The first 20 seconds, where different logos come up, and there’s static, and Stacey Keech does this little speech, that was very important: you have to give people a perfect replica so they stop looking for faults. You [the audience] can play that game the whole movie, and we’re sunk if you do that.
7R: How long was the editing process?
Quinn Armstrong: The post process was a year and a half. That’s because of the VHS stuff. The VHS effect is entirely organic. There are no digital effects whatsoever in the VHS. That was a process of trial and error.
We cut the whole movie on [the editing program] Avid with the digital files without the effects, as you normally would. And then, we took that and put that on VHS tapes. Then, I went out and bought every VCR in every Goodwill in Southern California. You pop the top off the VCR, you use magnets to create static, you use knives to create tape wrinkles, and you can (and I really don’t recommend this one) use fire to create warping if you get it at just the right distance. Otherwise it catches on fire, and you burn your apartment down, which almost happened several times.
That process took forever. We couldn’t do sound or colour correction until that process was done. The editing took four of five months with Keara and I seeing each other very infrequently. And then the VHS took probably a year.
7R: Did you always know you were going to do it that way rather than in an easier digital way?
Quinn Armstrong: Essentially, yes, because we did a short version of Survival Skills partially to test this, and it’s just not right. Once you see how not right it is, it’s really garish and glaring. It’s also different than a lot of things people are used to seeing. The Harmony Korine stuff that was shot on Mini-DV and looks VHS-y is actually a very different kind of tape than what we were using, and it creates a very different aesthetic. There are some filters that are OK. Red Giant does an OK filter, and there are plugins and stuff like that.
I’m now such a snob about this. I watched VHYes, which is a great movie and does a really good job at [creating a VHS effect]. I think they shot on VHS for chunks of it. But there were bits where I was watching and going like, “Oh the colour lapsing is not correct. The displacement is not correct.” And nobody in the world gives a shit about it except me. I’m the expert in the deadest of dead technologies.
7R: Does that mean you had to have Survival Skills completely picture locked before you could apply the effect? And you couldn’t adjust it.
Quinn Armstrong: Yep, which is terrifying, but also good, because you can tinker forever. Especially with your first movie, you want everything to be perfect, but you can really sap the energy out if you do it that way. I see so many debut features, especially from genre filmmakers, that are just airless and totally lifeless at a tight 90 [minutes]. They’re basically just auditions to go direct a Marvel movie. It’s so frustrating. There are no risks.
We ended up capturing off of Super VHS, but before we figured out we were going to use Super VHS, we thought we would have to use regular VHS, which is like half the quality. In the movie, it’s low quality. If we had to do it on VHS, we wouldn’t be able to release the movie anywhere because it would be so garbled. There was a week where I was like, “Oh no, I have shot myself in the face with this.” But thankfully, with a lot of very painful and slow experimentation, we got it to a point I’m happy with.
7R: What was the sound design process like?
Quinn Armstrong: We worked with a company called This is Sound Design in LA, which is an amazing group of folks, really up and coming. They do a lot of Blumhouse stuff. What was great about working with such a high level professional company is most of the stuff is done when I get in to do the final mix and ADR. A lot of the sweetening I didn’t have to worry about.
So we got in and got really into the creative process of the VHS. What does the static sound like? Is it that chunky static that you’d get on a dead station, or the finer static you’d get on a more updated model? We ended up being able to use the sound on the VHS as a storytelling tool.
There’s a sequence where a cop is listing a number of ways he’s seen people die, and it transitions into this abstract tableau of the violent couple, and then it transitions out with this thunder of static that has all this reverb on it, which moves us into the next scene.
Sound design really is like making music, because the sense is all there. You’re not trying to make sense of it [the story] because that’s already been done. Now, it’s about guiding people through it.
7R: At what point did the score come in for Survival Skills?
Quinn Armstrong: The score came in fairly late. Mark Hadley did our score, who’s now blowing up. He is all over the place and well deserved.
7R: It’s a great score.
Quinn Armstrong: It is, and I gave him so little to work with. He had to do an upbeat training video thing, and he did such an amazing job of making that interesting and putting all these subtle things in there. He had to deliver a very constrained product.
Music makes me nervous. I don’t like relying on it. In the future, I’m probably going to pull back from using music as much as possible. You see stuff like in Brief Encounter, which is one of my favourite movies: they hold back the music, and hold it back, and then they bring in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 [near the end], and it just shatters you.
I think people use music to tell the audience how to feel because they don’t know if they’ve done it. If you watch a Marvel or Star Wars movie and close your eyes, you could take just the audio and know exactly what’s going on.
7R: With the costume design and production design in Survival Skills, to what extent were you going for realism versus creating the stylised police video version of those clothes and spaces?
Quinn Armstrong: We sort of divided everything into zones. There are real zones and fake zones. For the most part, the fake places are Jim’s house and the narrator’s office. Those are the places that don’t feel real. Aside from that, we wanted to put Jim into the real world as much as possible.
Our costume designer, Rachel Kinnard, did such an amazing job on the ‘80s costumes. This is kind of betraying our poverty, but she had like $800, and there are a lot of characters in this movie. Plus, we had to have police uniforms. I was blown away every day when I walked on set and saw someone she’d costumed.
Leigh Goldsmith did our production design and also did just a really terrific job, and had a really great understanding of the basic storytelling principle of escalation. We visit a location in one scene, and then the next scene, it’s a little different, and then a little different. In the narrator’s office, it’s very obvious. It starts off very clean, then stuff gets added to the desk, and the Reagan picture behind him gets tilted a little, until the very end, when everything gets swept away again. That’s a rhythmic thing. That’s not necessarily a narrative choice so much as it is about giving the audience subconscious things to hang on to.
There’s this concept called News of a Difference. I worked briefly with Anne Bogart, who’s a theatre director of moderate fame in the experimental world, and this was her concept. It’s that you [the audience] don’t necessarily notice what’s changed and understand what it implies. It’s more about just signalling what has changed. You don’t know what, but something has changed, and that helps you through.
7R: Have you ever directed theatre?
Quinn Armstrong: I love acting in theatre, and I love directing on film, and never the twain shall meet. Directing on film is like being in a laboratory with a bunch of other scientists working on one thing. Directing in theatre is like being a captain of a ship. It’s much more about managing a room and relationships, and I’m just not good about that stuff. On film, the AD does that. They run the set; that’s not my job. I just don’t really have that touch with theatre.
When I was working with Anne Bogart in the SITI Company, there was a big group of young artists working with them, and we all got assigned to these little groups to make these little plays. Each group got assigned a director, and I was like, “Ooh I want to be a director!” But within two days, I got voted out by my team, which is the only time that’s ever happened in the history of them doing this.
I got voted down, and it was one of the best experiences I ever had, because I realised, you have to deliver. You can’t explore forever and sit in your fear and tweak things. You have to strike out early and make a strong choice early on, get your days, and have some successes so everyone relaxes and trusts you. That was a lesson worth its weight in gold.
7R: So you don’t want to direct in both mediums, but are you comfortable acting in both mediums?
Quinn Armstrong: Film acting is so frustrating: it’s like eating the most delicious cake in the world with a tiny fork. You can’t do the thing.
In theatre, it’s athletic, in a way, because you have a period of time, and a series of things to do, and you do those things, and you try to find depth and nuance within those things, but you’re going end to end. You get to build a whole arc, and feel a whole arc.
In film, you sit there in a chair or a trailer, then you come out and do your little thing, and then you go back. It’s torturous for me, personally. I know some people love it, but I cannot fucking stand it.
7R: What are you working on next?
Quinn Armstrong: I’m working on something that is sort of a spiritual sequel to Survival Skills, with similar preoccupations and rhythms. It’s set in the world of teen slasher movies, and it has my favourite title of anything I’ve written. It’s called Dead Teenagers. I’m shooting that in April.
I’m producing some things that I can’t say anything about now. I’m up in Seattle now, consolidating equipment and resources, and I’m basically trying to build a mini studio up here to support Indigenous voices, POC, and female voices in a city that doesn’t have enough production. Everyone goes down to Portland or up to Vancouver, but there needs to be more here.
7R: Why Seattle, in particular?
Quinn Armstrong: I went to my undergrad here. I think it’s an underexplored place in film, with the Olympic Peninsula and all the rainforests. There’s a lot of potential here. It’s also dying in an interesting way.
We have Amazon now, as well as a ton of big corporations here, but Amazon is different, not just by virtue of its size, but by virtue of its philosophy, which is alarmingly Ayn Rayndian. They have private security on the streets, and they have restaurants where you can only pay with your Amazon card thing — which is illegal by the way. It is illegal to refuse legal tender at any business. They’re building this little city within the city, and it’s really scary, but it’s really interesting.
7R: I had no idea they had restaurants!
Quinn Armstrong: Yeah, downtown. There have been some challenges so I don’t know if they still function that way, but they did for a long time.
7R: That’s scary, but exciting about your studio.
Quinn Armstrong: Well, we’ll do what we can to sabotage Amazon, but it will have roughly the same effect of taking that rivet off the wall.