Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here popping in with a pretty fun Q&A I had the pleasure of doing with Christopher Denham. While I've been working around the clock on quite a few non-AICN projects, it's opportunities like this - to pick the brain of a rising star - that I love! You might know Denham from his work on SHUTTER ISLAND, ARGO, SOUND OF MY VOICE, or as "Oliver Drake" on BILLIONS - well, he's got a fresh new flick out in select theaters and on VOD, a horror film called CAMERA OBSCURA that came out on the 9th. He plays "Jack," a veteran war photographer with PTSD who sees freaky things in his pics! While the initial premise feels like a Goosebumps novella, the movie has been getting some good reviews implying the creepy factor is not only there, along with some great perfromances, but the film is a quality flick worth checking out. Selfishly, knowing Denham's written and directed his own features on top of acting... that's something that I find pretty damn cool - even digging into a little bit in the Q&A below. As mentioned above, CAMERA OBSCURA hit select theaters on June 9th and is now available on VOD, so if something you see here today grabs your attention, then think about seeking the movie out! (Or if you've had a chance to see the flick, shoot off your opinions in the talkbacks!). Okay, let's jump on into the mind of Christopher Denham!
How did you first become involved with CAMERA OBSCURA? If there was an audition, can you give me an idea of how that went down?
There wasn’t an audition. I am really good friends with Andrew van den Houten, the producer. We’ve known each other a long, long time and he told me they were making this movie in Louisiana and I talked to Aaron the director and I liked his script a lot and I loved his take on what he was trying to do that he was trying to bring some kind of psychological elements into the genre that he was gonna treat these characters as dimensional people and really explore the mental aspect of it and not just get lost in the gore and the guts and all that. That was sort of secondary for me and I think that’s secondary to the film. I think first and foremost it’s a movie about character and it’s a movie about PTSD in many ways. That was what drew me to it is that it was trying to do something a little bit different then a possessed camera sort of troupe.
What drew you to want to play “Jack Zeller” in the first place? What characteristics does Jack have that you felt would be fertile ground to explore?
You know I think the interesting thing about Jack is that in many ways he’s an everyman character but he is someone that the audience isn’t completely sure that they can throw their allegiance behind. But he is questioning his sanity in front of the audience. He’s kind of on the same journey that the audience is on, which is trying to navigate his own nightmares and trying to decipher what is real and what is fantasy.
A movie that we referenced a lot during the making of this is Jacob’s Ladder and how you can illicit believable authentic and compelling performances. Which I’m by no mean saying that I achieved anywhere near what Tim Robbins did in that movie because he’s brilliant but just still trying to approach it from a standpoint where you hopefully discard some of the clichés of the horror genre and try to dig it deeper and find the authenticity behind this guy’s mental landscape.
In terms of Chris Denham encompassing the persona of “Jack Zeller,” what were a few things you’d had in common with Jack? Flipside, what are things Jack might do that you never would? Essentially, how similar are you to your character in the film?
Well I think Jack is a workaholic, even though at the beginning of the film he tried to put his camera down because photography is no longer a part of his life. I think I can certainly hook into that. I consider myself a workaholic I am probably a bit too unhealthily obsessed with my work and I think I am aware of the pitfalls of that just as Jack is, but it’s sort of an addiction sometimes.
But hopefully Jack is different from me in many respects. I am fortunate enough to not have deal with any PTSD myself, I never served overseas and I am not one of those actors who claims that they understand what it’s like to be embedded in combat. So, there’s a clear distinction between Jack and myself where he is dealing with other elements, picking around at his psyches, that are not exactly healthy, let’s say.
Of the shoot, was there any specific scene or day where you “really nailed it?” Clearly you’re a successful professional, but I’m just curious about the moment where you might have thought,“This feels right.”
It’s kind of impossible to objectively say that about my own performance. Cause you don’t want to be too aware of what you’re doing yourself.
But I think in terms of the execution of the film as a whole I think there are a few sequences that we are proud of.
In the middle of the movie there’s a fight scene that’s probably 7 or 8 minutes of screen time that we shot over 2 or 2 and a half days but I think there’s a real feat of technical filmmaking to pull off 40 or 50 set ups in two days.
It was just a real bear to get through and everyone was exhausted and bruised up by the end of it. But when you see the final cut, I think we pulled off something that doesn’t feel like a standard beat in a genre movie, I think it feels like a real fight because its clumsy and its awkward and funny and brutal, so I think collectively we’d all be proud of that.
How was your relationship with Director Aaron Koontz? Did he do anything with you during prep to get you into your character’s headspace? Did he allow you to go off the page (if that’s something you did)? Ultimately, I’m curious about the collaboration between you two, from your perspective. You’ve worked with so many directors, was there anything Aaron did that felt unique?
Aaron is one of the best first-time directors I’ve ever worked with and could have ever hoped to work with. I think the first 2 days we all went home early we didn’t do a 12-hour day because he knew the shots he was getting and he got them and we went home. It was very civilized. He brought a level of preparation that I seldom encounter on studio movies. Aaron is a cinephile he knows the movies that he was referencing, he knows the tone he is going for and so you just feel like you’re in really steady hands when you’re working with Aaron. His knowledge of film is just so enormous and you’re working within his canvas for sure and his frame which is very specific, but within that frame, the actors are allowed to play, he really lets you explore and try new things and feel like you have all the time in the world even though obviously in a film you don’t. I hope to work with Aaron many times in the future he’s just so prepared, its unbelievable.
What were a few questions you needed answered before stepping on to set, in terms of your character’s background? How much of that background did you create vs. what was already established before you’d gotten the role?
I never really bother directors or writers with background questions. I think it’s a waste of their time. They hire me to do my job. And I just show up and try to do it the best I can. I try to do all that homework by myself and not waste their time like I said.
I mean Aaron and I had general conversations going in about the tone we were going for. It was a concern of mine that we didn’t slide into slasher terrain and just be kind of a B-movie, blood and guts stuff. Cause that kind of stuff can be unappealing to me. It was more interesting to Aaron thankfully to just explore the psychology of this guy. And keep a thread of through line of truth even as we’re approaching some of the more genre aspects of the film, to just keep the psychology real and never lose sight of that even if there are special effects going on.
Provided you’ve written a few films yourself, how does that experience typically translate to “Actor Chris?” You’ve been there/done that in a role that’s not acting, which I think is an interesting line to walk on projects that you did not write.
Yeah, I think they inform each other. The writing and acting. I learn more about the respected fields the more I do the other one.
For this project, Aaron and Cameron had a great structure for what they were trying to pull off. In fact, talk about preparation, that Aaron and Cameron had already done a version of a test augment but just with the script.
They did data mining and they sent scripts out to random people and tested endings. They were approaching it in a different way that I completely trusted. I like to improvise so if he would let me improvise some things I’d be fine but I knew the bones were there and the muscles were there for the script. We didn’t have to worry about trying to solve the movie as we were shooting it, we could just allow for happy accidents to occur because we had a great structure.
SHUTTER ISLAND, ARGO, MANHATTAN… you’ve had the opportunity to explore a number of various roles. What are some roles that you’d love to tackle, beyond what you’ve done? Meaning, are there any genres or creative out there that you’d like to explore? Rom-Coms? Bigfoot flicks? Anything that your gut says “I’ve got to do one of these projects…?”
I started as a Shakespearean actor, believe it or not, back in the day. I did more classical work, probably much to my agents chagrin. I’m looking forward doing some Shakespeare here in New York in the distant future.
But I would also be open to Romantic comedies too. For some reason, I’m always the brainy intellectual or a dark serial killer. Sometimes it’s harder to play a version of yourself, which hopefully I’m just a normal, nice person, but maybe other people don’t believe that about me. But that would be a challenge to make a movie about baseball or something.
Back to CAMERA OBSCURA – how long of a shoot was it and what were your days like? Was it a “boom, one take wonder – move on” or a Fincheresque “multiple takes and long days.”
No, going back to Aaron’s preparation and his work with the Chris Heinrich, the cinematographer, who I think does excellent work in this film. I recently hired him for a film that I produced he had recently shot and was the Co-VP for a film I produced called Half Empty, Half full. They’re schematic, their game plan going in was so specific that many of the days we finished early which anyone who’s made an independent film knows that is beyond an aberration, that never happens. The fact to say that we didn’t have to have some long days but a lot of those were because we were shooting nights and they had to be at night. But Aaron was meticulous about what he wanted but he didn’t have to try to find it on the day he would be more Hitchcock than Fincher. You just do it until you have it and then you pack up and go home. So that was a great pleasure for the crew and the cast to know that Aaron had these shots he needed and he certainly knew how to get them.
Did you need a detox after production wrapped? It seems like a rather intense show, so I’m curious if when you wrapped – you immediately took some time off to get back to normal?
Yeah, it took a while to shed the skin for this particular character, cause he’s in a dark terrain. Right after this I went into the second season of “Billions” which the characters are diametrically posed. They look different, they walk different so sometimes that’s helpful too, to just take on another personality right away so you can’t dwell on whatever did didn’t do on your last job.
What have you done since completing the film? What are you looking to do next?
We did the second season of “Billions” in New York, which was great cause I get to work at home.
I just finished two independent films back to back. Julia Hart’s next film is called ‘Fast Color’ which is a Sci-Fi/Thriller with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Strathairn, who is perhaps my favorite living actor.
It’s been a busy time and then we start the third season of “Billions” in a couple months and that will be my docket for a while.
Do you have any more PRESERVATION/HOME MOVIEs in your future? Anything you’re currently writing with the intention of directing?
Yeah, I have a couple coals in the fire and a couple things that are over at Blumhouse that I’m not intending to direct but I’ve just written. So, there’s always something in the fire. If whenever I get a sizeable gap in acting then it’s always fun to switch over. And like I said get a crew of my actors together and try to make another movie.
BAM! There we have it, ladies and gentlemen - a little insight from the star of CAMERA OBSCURA, Mr. Chris Denham! Hopefully you enjoyed the Q&A and got a little bit more info than you might've thought. Personally, Q&A style interactions are only as good as the subject's sincerity and the man gave some pretty straightforward answers to a few "out there" questions. I have to admire that and wish Denham nothing but continued success on and off the screen. CAMERA OBSCURA is in select theaters and more importantly these days (it seems) on VOD. If you've seen the film, please shoot your thoughts off about the movie in the Talkbacks below. This is AICN afterall, so be honest and leave the snide pompous comments to the "professional blogger critics." Just be real - tell me what you thought of the flick!
- Mike McCutchen