Talking unreliable narrators and channeling a killer with Camera Obscura's Christopher Denham

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Jun 10, 2017, 3:23 PM EDT (Updated)

Christopher Denham isn’t a killer — he just plays one in the movies. And a reluctant one, at that.

Denham stars in the new horror flick Camera Obscura, playing former war photographer Jack Zeller, a man who slowly begins to lose touch with reality after acquiring a vintage camera that may or may not be cursed. The actor is best known for supporting roles in Argo and Showtime’s Billions, but went a whole lot darker for the starring role in Camera Obscura.

We chatted with Denham about what it was like to channel a killer, finding the humor in all that darkness, and his take on some of the film’s best kills and the ending (though he mostly pleads the fifth on that one).

Camera Obscura comes from Chiller Films and is directed by Aaron B. Koontz. It’s out now in theaters and on VOD and digital HD June 13.

What would be your elevator pitch for Camera Obscura to potential horror fans as to why they should check it out?

If you like a good, old-fashioned mind f**k, it might be up your alley [laughs]. I can only speak to what appealed to me about the script. In a sense it’s about a supernatural camera, but there’s something far more interesting there right away. For me, it all kind of hinged upon this question mark: Is it this camera, or is this man entering some kind of psychosis?

One thing this film does really well is keep the story almost exclusively from Jack’s perspective, and the viewer comes to realize he is clearly an unreliable narrator. Can you talk about that approach, and how it sets this film apart from your typical horror movie format?

I think there’s this trope in Hollywood of having a protagonist who is likable, whatever that means. You know, someone the audience is rooting for. Were trying to do something really in the middle of that, where we’re not sure if we can trust this man telling us this story, because he doesn’t quite know if he trusts himself. He’s sort of aware of these delusions, and aware of this fragile state of mind he's in. I think that sets it apart. Despite whatever gore and suspense there is, and I think they pulled that off really well, but from a character standpoint I think they’re a little more fleshed out than what you might see in a typical middle-of-the-road horror movie. In my mind, that’s what i gravitated towards.


'A good, old fashioned mind f**k'

Can you talk about what it took for you as an actor to get into the head of this character?

I’m fortunate enough to have a good friend who was a journalist embedded overseas, and I’ve been able to pick his brain and talk to him a good bit about this. It’s certainly a heightened awareness of your surroundings. People throw around the word PTSD a lot, and there’s a gamut of things that can mean, and I don’t claim to understand it or have experienced it, or the things that people really go through. … I’m just trying to get to a thread of that truth. He’s not sure where the nightmares end and his life begins.

This film really straddles the line between horror and psychological thriller. Can you talk about that approach and finding that balance?

I  think it was important to Aaron [B. Koontz] coming up with the script to hit all the genre beats you need to hit, but also to make sure the film adapts well with those character moments. You’re not just setting up people to be slaughtered. I hope if the audience cares one iota about Jack, it’s because we did allow another side of him to come through in those scenes. We didn’t try to rush to those genre beats. You see him as a human being. Otherwise, it becomes about the common denominator, and we’ve seen films about supernatural cameras, and people coming back form horrible things. But a film like this is a hybrid of both of those things.


There’s also a good bit of dark humor in this script. Can you talk about bringing that out in a way that still feels natural to the tone?

I guess in making a genre movie like this, sometimes everyone gets excited to set up the gags, from a technical standpoint, because you have the blood and the makeup, which looks great. But it’s the actor's job to not get swept up in the pyrotechnics or the effects, and ask yourself "How would this be if it really happened?" I was fortunate enough to work with Mike Nichols, and one thing he always said was the overarching message to any actor is to just remember what something like this should be like if it actually happens. Like in the fight scenes, we tried to keep it as realistic as possible. It’s sloppy and kinetic, and I had to think about if it happened to me, to keep that shred of authenticity, and let the effects do their work.

From here on out, the questions get a bit spoiler-y, so only proceed if you’ve seen Camera Obscura or don’t mind getting spoiled.

This movie takes a very dark turn about midway through, when Jack starts killing people because of what he sees in the photos in an effort to protect his fiancee. What was it like to play that transition?

I think the important part of this is that even as the body count rises, it’s still not any easier for Jack. He’s still very much a guy who doesn’t want to be doing this. It’s not American Psycho. He’s not a psychopath. He’s just a guy who wants to get his life back to normal, and unfortunately the only way to do that is by killing these people. Something interesting we discovered is that there might even be a part of Jack’s brain where he’s not even sure if he’s really killing people. That allows him the permission to do it, because he’s thinking "If i can get through this nightmare, and control it, and get rid of these monsters it’ll be over and I can wake up."


'It's hard to look at that scene without cracking up'

You got to pull off a lot of fairly inventive kills in this movie. So, channeling your inner serial killer, which was your favorite?

Doing the huge fight scene with Tad Buckley [Jeremiah King]. I think that was probably the best part of the movie. I think that guy will go on to do some great things. It’s hard to look at that scene without cracking up. I tried to be as authentic as possible. You can try to have a movie kind of fight, but no, we wanted something that would be like if it really happened. This guy is a lot bigger than me, so I’d have to fight really dirty to take this guy down [laughs]. We shot that over two full days, but we had a great time.

Can you talk a about how Jack’s story is framed to leave things so unanswered, and open-ended?

I personally respond to that and like a dose of ambiguity in my storytelling, but I know it’s not for everyone. I know I can speak for Aaron that it was not an arbitrary choice, one of these where you say, "The ending looks like crap," and leave it open-ended. I know in structuring the story for Aaron, it was definitely very important to him. Not to mention the way we execute the whole movie that precedes it. We wanted to straddle the line of what’s happening and what’s not, and I understand if it pisses some people off, or they don’t respond to it. It’s like the end of Inception. I remember some people walking out upset, but I loved it.

It’s obviously left open-ended, but what’s your personal interpretation of the film’s ending?

Hmm. I don’t want to cop out, but I think it’s better not to weigh in. I don’t want to inform anyone’s opinion. I like to think of it as a Rorschach test. I’m going to have to plead the fifth on that one.

I noticed the cameo from former LSU college football coach Les Miles popping up as a police officer, I’m assuming because production was in Baton Rogue. What was it like to play opposite the coach for a scene there? Are you a football fan?

I’m a huge sports guy, and I was more nervous meeting him than Al Pacino [laughs]. It was great. He hit his mark the first time, and we got to chat a bit setting up. He’s just a great guy and really liked seeing a film being shot. I probably kind of annoyed him asking him questions about LSU, but it was really cool to have him in the movie.