Actor and director Christopher Denham is aware that he has already been a part of some amazing, award winning films. The Blue Island, Illinois native had a hot streak in films such as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, the hit Independent film Sound of My Voice, and then had his dream come true with a part in the Best Picture winner Argo. A product of the Steppenwolf theater, Denham hopes he can steal a bit of what he learned working in front of the camera with guys like Leo and Affleck, and use his skills in his directing. His newest film Preservation, is a shoe string budget, horror/thriller, which resembles films like Halloween or The Purge. He sat down with AMovieGuy.com to talk about the importance of preparing his actors and putting his lead through the mud.
AMG.com: You are from Illinois and a product of the Steppenwolf Theater company, can you talk a bit about the experience you had being at Steppenwolf and what it means to you?
Christopher Denham: Steppenwolf is known for a certain style of performance, a certain kind of actor, a truthful kind of performer. It is always the high watermark for me to look back at the actors that came from that theater like Jim True-Frost and other impeccable actors. It's been important to me. I did not work there that much, I did an Adam Rrap play called “Red Light Winter”, but the whole experience helped me launch my career in many ways.
AMG.com: Before I go into Preservation and your directing side, I wanted to ask you about the film “Sound of my Voice”, I am a big fan of Brit Marling’s and that film. As an actor and director what would you say you learned working on that film?
Christopher Denham: Well, Brit (Marling) and Zal (Batmanglij) who wrote and directed it, they were able to create such a great atmosphere of tension, would be the best way to describe it. Every scene fueled the next and to end on a mini cliff hanger... But what what I learned from them was this idea of not sacrificing character for the genre. It seems like in many genre movies the plot consumes cardboard characters that we do not root for. So it is important to me, especially as an actor myself, creating dimensional, real people. I think that was important to all three of us.
AMG.com: You have had a pretty great career in terms of films to be a part of, you do Sound of My Voice, Shutter Island for Martin Scorsese, and you had the chance to win a SAG with a key part in Argo, did you ever expect your career to be a part of such diverse and successful films?
Christopher Denham: It's pretty amazing. I did not expect it, I was sort of blind sided by it. I feel fortunate that the people I am working with are people where I feel I am getting an education for free. You know I didn't do the whole film school thing, so I just try to pick things up through osmosis. Those directors were a million times better than me, but I had a chance to maybe steal a little of their skills and see what the common denominators are. Mike Nichol (“Charlie Wilson's War”) did this better than anybody, and Scorsese does this too, which is you can spend months and months, even years to plan these movies, and the acting is still something you can't hurry to get done. Because you do have other shots to get to. In independent film that is usually the case, and it is important to carve out time to say it doesn’t really matter how good this movie looks unless the acting is authentic, let's not rush this. Of course you do end up being rushed anyway.
AMG.com: Did you think you would ever be working with the great Martin Scorsese at some point in your life?
Christopher Denham: I certainly fantasied about it! I was very fortunate to see how that guy operates and DiCaprio and Ruffalo, two of the best guys on the market these days. They were all wonderful to me.
AMG.com: Now you have "Preservation", how long did it take to get this film done, from beginning writing process to final wrap?
Christopher Denham: It took over a year and a half to two years, these things take a while to get going sometimes. We were initially going to do it in New York, but because of actors schedules we ended up doing it in California. Trying to find some woods out there was tricky, we needed to combine it from 3 different locations to look like one landscape. We shot it in 23 days so it was intense, but these actors have theater backgrounds as well so they came prepared. With some actors you come across they just show up to set that day and they may think well I am just going to wing it or re-write the line anyway, but they all came with the lines memorized and they came prepared and we did not waste our time on that so we didn't have to wait around.
AMG.com: Where did the idea of this film come from? It is a pretty dark and gritty film to watch.
Christopher Denham: Its sometimes hard to say where an idea specifically comes from, but I had been reading some Jack London short stories and things I keep circling around is this version of ourselves, the modern, urban version of ourselves or the rural version of ourselves. Today it's the fight between technology and nature. I thought that was more relevant than ever. I go hiking with my wife and I can't put the phone down and there is this version of ourselves that is underneath us all that can be triggered quickly.
AMG.com: This is your second film directing, how do you feel you grew as a director from your first film to this? Describe your experience working on “Preservation” specifically?
Christopher Denham: I am discovering more and more, how valuable the actors are, you can have any preconception about what your story is going to be, but it doesn’t come alive unless you have the right actors. Wrenn, Pablo, and Aaron, really made it a real moment in time on screen, you know? Its something I cannot take credit for, its just something I watched happen. As an actor myself, I appreciate that trust that I can let them find whats right. I can give them parameters, but they need to play inside the sand box.
AMG.com: What was it like working with your actors? Pablo Schreiber, Aaron Staton, and Wrenn Schmidt?
Christopher Denham: They were great, I have known Pablo for a long time. We had been trying to find something so I could work with him. We did a bit of rehearsal to get everyone on the same page and not have questions when we got to the set. It was just about finding actors who were really committed and not people who were premadonna's, waiting in their trailers expecting some five course meal. That was not the kind of thing we were working on here. An example is, we had Jamie Kelman as our makeup effects artist on the film. He is someone who has done major Hollywood films, he is someone I have known for a long time, so I called in a favor. I asked him if he'd be willing to make a small horror movie with me over the course of a couple weeks. He did this probably at a loss financially. Which is an example that shows how committed we all were. I mean Wrenn is rolling around in real mud, getting down and dirty, its freezing cold and there is no complaining. A real team effort.
AMG.com: Working outside in the woods, were there any issues you had to deal with on set to make sure you got shots right or any on set stories?
Christopher Denham: Yeah it was very tricky because you have two compounding factors because the makeup is very technical and you are crunched for time. That is where our DP was a life saver, Nicola Marsh, she was flexible and knew how to get these real moments. We were never waiting which was great.
AMG.com: Do you have an inspirations or directors that you try to emulate your style from?
Christopher Denham: I have learned a lot from the people I worked with, but stylistically here we really watched a lot of John Carpenter's “Halloween” on a loop. Carpenter has restraint and that film is ultimately not very violent, its a slow burn. He has such patience as a filmmaker, I just can't get enough of him.
AMG.com: What do you prefer to do more the acting or the directing side of films and television?
Christopher Denham: Both. They are two sides of the same coin, it is all just storytelling. I feel more comfortable as an actor, I am finding my bearings as a director, still learning at it. Getting better at it. Acting is definitely my day job.
AMG.com: So what is next for you in your career?
Christopher Denham: As an actor, I am doing the second season of “Manhattan” on WGN which is about the building of the ATOM Bomb. So doing that in April and hopefully after that wraps I can begin working on a second feature film as a director, but we will see what comes of that.
AMG.com: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today! I see great promise in your career as a director, actor and we will be sure to tell fans to look out for your work!
Christopher Denham: I appreciate it man. Thanks! Take care.