The whole point of indie movies like “Quicksand” is to celebrate the creativity and plucky resourcefulness required to make a movie outside of the Hollywood studio system. The indie film market has changed a lot as it has become both easier to make films independently and harder to market it, especially for a film like this that was made in Michigan almost entirely by Michiganders.
Quicksand’s success will continue at 7 p.m. on November 17, when it will be shown at the State Theatre. While the film has been playing independently across the state, this will be the first time it is played in the Ann Arbor area.
The following interview with the film’s director, JohnPaul Morris, was done over the phone. The conversation has been edited for time and length to make his interview as clear as possible.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Morris: I basically slipped on a banana peel. I was just trying to pay my way through college. I was working with a wedding photographer who was like ‘you can make a lot more money doing video stuff. I can see you know how to do that’ so I bought some video gear trying to make some money off of weddings to get a degree in graphic design.
I ended up getting no work whatsoever and just panicking. By the end of the year, I was just doing commercial work, making web content for businesses and TV commercials to justify the fact that I bought gear, quit my job and realized that I was just much better at it then what I was actually going to school for.
So after about a year or two I just quit college and went full tilt into video stuff, and slowly started working my way up from 30 second spots to short films, and then “Quicksand” was the first leap of faith, trying to see if we could do a feature; which is definitely terrifying when you’re trying to get to that hour and a half mark, when you’re used to making shorter stuff.
Spoilers aside, what is the story of “Quicksand”?
Morris: “Quicksand” is the story of Ray and Paul. They are best friends, straight out of college, about to tackle life with everything they’ve learned from school, and quickly realize that life is not what they expected. It is everything that goes wrong in your 20s packed into 90 minutes. It’s very much a story about friendship and trying to figure out life, love and finding the answers to questions that you thought that you had, when you’re coming to face the fact that you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did.
Can you go into detail about how you made it and why you chose to make it in Michigan? Because my understanding from the Michigan Theater website is that you made it mostly in the Traverse City area.
Morris: We wanted it to be a road trip film that would cover the whole state. A big way to lose a lot of time and money on a film production is to travel, so we shot as much as we could in the Traverse City area, because it allowed us to use the more rural and urban landscapes in the Traverse City area. Honestly, five or 10 minutes away from each other it goes from being very urban to very rural very quickly.
So that was great for us to be able to spend five to 10 minutes between locations instead of spending hours to cross the entire state. We did some shooting in the UP to make sure we got our landmarks, and that was pretty cool to get our actors into a road trip mode, to get them to go over the bridge and go to the falls, and actually stay in creepy motels, like we’re featuring in the movies. That did allow the production to feel weirdly similar to the story, having the same experiences.
The reason we made this movie was that it was just the right film for the time. Me and my team have been wanting to make a movie in Michigan for years and years. But it is nearly an impossible task, especially for a first film, when you don’t have any proof under your belt. It’s hard to get help, money or resources.
We were playing with the idea: how do you pack as much entertainment value into a film, minute to minute to minute, while spending the least amount of money possible? Part of the entertainment value comes from surprise. Part of the entertainment value is that some of the film feels very small. There’s entire scenes that happen just inside a dinner. It is very clear that we’re trying to just be efficient and not spend a lot of money, which then makes it fun for us to come up with ways to completely contradict that.
[We] throw in some very surprising action sequences, and keep escalating the pace of the film outside of the box of expectations that we established early on. In a lot of ways, we wrote the film to be the perfect first feature for us and our team.
We didn’t feel super comfortable doing comedy. Early on we tended to work that is more sentimental, dramatic. But the idea of doing a comedy just made so much more sense because we knew we could give more to an audience that way, with the resources that we had and without skill sets. We went for that genre because it made the most sense for where we were at and where our resources were.
What does it mean for a contemporary filmmaker to get their film shown at a brick and mortar theater like the Michigan in our era of streaming?
Morris: It means everything. In the indie film world it’s so hard to get a feature off the ground, let alone finished. And when you do finish it, there’s not really a spot in the world for you. Theaters are really relegated to blockbusters and the art house theaters are still pretty much relegated to the cult classics and the films coming out of the film festival circuit, or films that are performing well, and proving that they are something that people want to sit through and talk about.
Just getting a film finished doesn’t mean that you’ll find a place to play it. And the fact that everything’s moving towards streaming…the fact that going to theaters is not the main way to watch movies anymore, it’s only making it harder for us. Having a space in a theater where people actually go to theaters is becoming more and more precious. And being able to have to have a theater watch a film that we made, here, in Michigan, is honestly so fun. It’s a blast!
And we didn’t realize how fun it would be. We kept the film under wraps for about two and a half years before we ever put it in front of an audience, and we had no idea how it was going to play. I’ll never forget the feeling of sitting in that theater for the first time. We had every seat filled and we were watching the film that I had probably seen 800 times, picking it apart in silence with my team, trying to make it technically perfect, and getting the timing, color and visual effects all right. And suddenly we were in a theater full of people who were tied to the characters and story; laughing, gasping, screaming, muttering; and it was more fun than I ever thought that it could have been.
I thought: ‘Well, the premiere is going to be fun. But surely after that, it’ll calm down.’ But no: every time we’ve screened this movie to a packed audience, it has just been a riot.
How do you compare “Quicksand”? Can you think of some movies that, if you like movie X or cult classic X, you will like “Quicksand”?
Morris: That’s a surprisingly difficult question. We weren’t attracted initially to the idea that we were making a film that was similar to something else.
But now that it has been out in the world, we are hearing it being compared to “Dumb & Dumber” in the respect to the comedy of a road trip film where things go wrong. We’ve heard it compared to “The Hangover” quite a few times too.
We’re still figuring out who the audience for the film is. We really thought we were making it for our generation, and yet we’ve been really confused and happily surprised by the response we’ve been getting from older generations. The comedy is playing really well with older people. We weren’t necessarily expecting them to get half the jokes and they’re just in on it the whole way. When it comes to who likes the movie, we’re still trying to figure that out!
I always like to end my interviews with the exact same question: are there any questions that I should have asked, but didn’t think of?
JohnPaul Morris: I’ll give the necessary plugs. We’re a Michigan made movie, with an entirely Michigan crew, and almost entirely Michigan cast. A movie coming out of the Midwest is definitely a rare thing, and we’re definitely trying to figure out what that springboard is; especially in a state like Michigan where there is no film incentive.
We’re in this really interesting spot where we’re in this gray area. This film has had enough success to get on a trajectory to get in front of a broader audience, but we haven’t had it moving long enough to really know how far it’s going to go.
We did 100 screenings in Michigan last month, which is unheard of for a film so small as ours. But also 100 screenings is nothing compared to “Oppenheimer” or “James Bond.”