'Sparrow Creek' filmmaker goes from Birmingham to Hollywood

Henry Dunham makes his writing and directing debut with 'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Henry Dunham was a third-grader in Birmingham when he says he "accidentally" saw "Harold and Maude" and "Full Metal Jacket." 

He was especially enthralled by the end of "Full Metal Jacket," after his mother, a painter, explained to him the way half of Matthew Modine's face was lit was an expression of the duality of his character. 

Henry Dunham, center, on the set of "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek."

From there, his path was set. 

"I knew right then and there that I wanted to write and direct movies," says Dunham. "I knew I couldn't do anything else, and there was nothing else I was going to do that was going to have a positive impact on society." 

Dunham got his wish. His first film, an intense drama titled "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek," opened in theaters and on Video On Demand last week. And producers have just agreed to finance his next project, which he hopes to begin shooting later this year or in early 2020. 

The journey from Pierce Elementary School to "Sparrow Creek" was not a straight line, but Dunham, 32, was determined to see his vision through. He begged his parents for a camcorder and finally received one when he was in 5th grade, but he hated it. 

"I must have been a real joy," says Dunham, fighting off a "post-release cold" on the phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. "But it didn't have depth of field and there was no lens choice. Here I am, a 5th grader, and I'm looking at the picture and going, 'it's wrong!' I was laying the groundwork for becoming a really fun dude." 

Dunham, who grew up between Beverly Hills and Bloomfield Township, studied photography in middle school and continued to passionately follow film, diving deeper into the world of Stanley Kubrick, while at Seaholm High School.

After a year at Oakland University — "I don't even know what I was studying," he says — he dropped out and moved to Los Angeles. "I figured it was better to try and fail than wonder 'what if?' for the rest of my life," he says.

In L.A., Dunham rode the bus, knew nobody and kept knocking on doors, some of which eventually opened. He interned at various production companies, studied screenplay writing and learned the value of writing cheap, "in a way that is produce-able," he says. He didn't attend film school, but learned from friends and colleagues who had. "They ingrained in me, first and foremost, there's no reason to pick up a camera unless your story is rock solid," he says.  

Dunham made his first short film, "The Awareness," in 2014, and continued to chip away at his screenplay for "Sparrow Creek," about a northern Michigan militia that turns on itself when one of their own is involved in a shooting at a police funeral. The tense story unfolds over the course of one night at a spacious industrial warehouse. 

In 2015, "Sparrow Creek" — then titled "Militia" — made the Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives' favorite unproduced screenplays. Producers eventually signed on and Dunham shot the film in Dallas over 18 days in March on a budget of $450,000.

Henry Dunham, right, and James Badge Dale on the set of "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek."

In September, "Sparrow Creek" premiered as part of the Midnight Madness series at the Toronto International Film Festival, "a light speed turnaround" from shooting, Dunham says. In Toronto, the film was picked up by RLJE Films, which last week gave it a limited release in 18 U.S. theaters. It earned positive reviews and a 78 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

For Dunham, success was getting final cut approval and having the film in theaters, and anything after that is a bonus. In the film, he even got to throw in a nod to his youth: one of the movie's scenes was filmed on the same model camcorder as the one he had in 5th grade, the one that caused him so much grief as filmmaker-in-training. 

A scene from "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek."

"Sparrow Creek" has a dark look, the result of "motivated lighting and justified sources, the birthplace of a beautiful image," Dunham says. "It's not what you light, it's what you don't light." (It's clear that final scene of "Full Metal Jacket" still sticks with him.)

Dunham won't say much about his next film, but he says it's a "larger, chase-style thriller" and he's working with producers of "Sicario," "The Town" and "Wind River." 

Will it have more lights? Dunham laughs. "Not if I can help it," he says. 




'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek'

Starring James Badge Dale, Chris Mulkey and Patrick Fischler

Not rated: Language, violence

Running time: 88 minutes

Available on VOD