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There’s Something in the Air: With The Vast of Night, Director Andrew Patterson Reinvents the UFO Movie

Sierra McCormick in The Vast of Night (courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Director Andrew Patterson’s film The Vast of Night, which premiered to great acclaim at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival, is informed by many genres and influences but beholden to none of them. Part Twilight Zone–esque sci-fi tale, part young adult romance, part David Fincher–inspired suspense movie with a dash of The Last Picture Show’s small town poetry, it is most of all a haunting and startling debut feature that teaches the audience how to watch it as it progresses—which means it not only rewards but demands repeat viewings.

Set over the course of one night in 1950s New Mexico, The Vast of Night tells the story of young disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), who discover a strange audio frequency and set out in search of its origin and meaning. Following the clues leads them to a series of eerie and intriguing encounters, most notably with a caller to Everett’s radio show and an elderly woman whose tragic past may hold the key to what is about to happen to Everett, Fay and their families and neighbors. Patterson draws the viewer in with a series of unique visual and aural techniques, alternating long, hypnotic blocks of dialogue with technically dazzling set pieces, like a camera move that covers the geography of the entire town in one unbroken shot. Because a great deal of The Vast of Night’s power lies in its secrets, I’ll stop there; however, even without spoilers, I found plenty of fertile ground to discuss with Patterson when I spoke with him by phone. The movie’s in theatrical release from Amazon Studios this summer.

Filmmaker: The credits refer to James Montague and Craig Sanger as writers of the teleplay. How did the script come to you, and what was your involvement at the writing stage?

Patterson: Pretty intimately involved: It was my concept, which came to me about 2011 or 2012. It was this list of ideas that says, “1950s, New Mexico, black and white, alien landing film”—and that was it. That isn’t enough to take off and create the characters and dialogue and all that. But I had never seen that simple logline taken seriously, where it felt more like the movies I connected with, which are about real human emotions. I’ve never seen a genre movie about science-fiction ’50s Roswell stuff, where it was like, “Oh, that’s actually how people talk, and this will be exciting for a while. And then, it would be absolutely fucking terrifying.” I wanted to see what we could do with that.

Filmmaker: Obviously, you’re referencing The Twilight Zone right from the start with the show within the show. What were some of your other reference points or influences, both in terms of the script and the style of the movie?

Patterson: By far, the number one visual key to this movie, in terms of lighting and color palette, was this movie from 2014 called ’71 [directed by] Yann Demange. You can see that we totally ripped that off. I thought that was probably the best movie of that year—it just grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, and that was part of the structural identity of Vast of Night: How can we make something that feels really neat like that? I hadn’t seen a movie where it just looked like they shot in available light, which they didn’t. It looked like they turned around and just found all these locations, which they didn’t. They had to do a lot to make it look like that. So, that was a huge one. 

The movie was actually more inspired by place than it was by movies. [As with] something like 12 Angry Men, or something that has a very staged kind of quality to it, I wanted the movie to feel like you could jump from screen to stage to podcast to book back to screen, if you wanted. A movie like Zodiac was a big influence because there’s a scene where there’s a phone call in the middle of the television; you can see how we got that in Vast of Night. Or, I could say that the long phone calls look like All the President’s Men, which they do. But I actually think that the influences were more, how do we build something that could pop up in another format like stage or like radio, and not look like it was recreated or restaged for that? 

Filmmaker: You bring up radio and podcasts, and you do a lot of really interesting things with sound in the movie, including a section where it’s all sound and the screen is more or less black for minutes at a time. What were your guiding principles in terms of sound in general, and what was your thinking in that scene in particular?

Patterson: The number one thing that had to work before we even got to sound was that the stories being told had to be interesting. If the stories that are being told aren’t compelling and they’re not well-told stories, it doesn’t matter what the sound is. If you listen to it, it does just sound like it’s humans talking, but the stories that they’re telling are a little bit more detailed than we get to tell when we’re telling stories in real life. They’re just shy of saying something like, “When I walked into this room, the paint on the walls was blue,” which we don’t do. But in a movie, you can push it far enough along that you don’t have to have a flashback or some kind of accompanying image with it. When we got to the point that I thought the script was there, with our sound design team—two wonderful guys, Johnny Marshall and David Rosenblad—the main sound, the one that goes to the radio waves, I didn’t want it to sound scary or threatening at all. I wanted to make a sound new in cinema, so that it didn’t just sound like, “Oh, you mixed a chainsaw with a howling coyote with a whatever.” I wanted it to have a mesmerizing quality, not a kind of scary quality, because I don’t get scared in movies by things that are traditionally scary. I get scared by something that I don’t know exists in the universe.

We went wider from there into the auditory experience of the film. By and large, I wanted the sound design of the movie to augment what it felt like for our main characters. Billy, we made sure that he was a very mono, muffled phone call sound. We played with that when we go to scenes that are completely black—we have to heighten that so that people understand you’re just going to be listening for a little while, and it’s OK and you can sit still with this. Hopefully, people dig it. I think a lot of people do. Probably one in 20 [who] hate it, and that’s OK. I would hate to make a movie where, you know, someone doesn’t hate it because we don’t do anything provocative at that point.

Filmmaker: When you let the screen go black and let the audience sit with the sound, did you experiment in the editing room with making it longer or shorter?

Patterson: Oh my gosh. We spent a year going back and forth on that, everything from 12 minutes of black to no black. Let me be really clear, it was always supposed to be a 10-minute black sequence. I have witnesses to this from three and a half years ago that when I told them that, their eyebrows just [rose]. If this is my second or third film, I could probably get away with 10 minutes of black. First-time filmmaker, everyone’s trying to go, “Who are you? Do we trust you? I don’t go into a movie expecting there to be a black screen; therefore, this is a bad experience or you’re wrong.” We sent it out to festivals like that. All of a sudden at minute 32 or whatever it goes black and then comes back at 42. We got rejected by like 18 festivals. Then we sent it to Slamdance, and we got in. But there was a year in there where we tried everything, [like] doing weirdo Twilight Zone–esque flashbacks with hand-built miniatures. All that stuff exists, and it looks really cool. We tried different music. We have a take where we just stayed on Everett’s face for seven or eight minutes solid. But in the end, it just felt like I was trying to appease people rather than go with my initial vision, which was, “You’re just going to sit still and listen.” And that was always what I wanted. I always wanted a movie where a third of the way in, you had to sit and listen. It finally ended up being where it is now, where we have about five minutes of black in that scene.

Filmmaker: With a movie like this that has such unusual rhythms, how do you figure out in the editing room whether it’s working or not? Do you have trusted friends or collaborators you show it to?

Patterson: I was very much a one-man band on this movie. Had a great DP, a great production designer, but all of those people leave whenever you stop shooting. So no, I did not have anybody that I was really running it through for advice. I had people that I showed it to more for like, “Hey, I just need you to be supportive of what I’m doing here.” Then, I would go think about it for two or three months, then come back and change something up pretty much because I wasn’t getting into the festivals I wanted to—which, by the way, is a very binary thing. You’re either getting a one or a zero, and it was always a zero. 

The rhythms were built into the script. You can look at the script—I think it’s 106 pages—and it’s exactly what’s on the page. There’s a few details in the phone call story pulled out and a very few in the older lady’s abduction story. Those two I only squeezed out a page or two from the original script. So, the rhythm was always there. If we get all into the rhythms of editing a scene, a lot of that is, we don’t have a whole lot of coverage, so what you see is what we have.

Filmmaker: When you’re doing those long takes, the casting of the two leads is so key. Tell me a little bit about the casting process, what you were looking for in those two leads and how you found them.

Patterson: I was not looking for locals. We shot this in Texas—everyone in the script except for those two leads is from Texas. And I was sent a lot of auditions; in fact, it felt like the casting director was trying to get me to cast her little local pets to be the leads in my movie. Unfortunately—I didn’t know this at the time—but that is a real problem in the casting world, especially out of the big markets. They kind of have their people. And I was just like, these people can’t carry a movie. I watched probably 300, 400 girls from Texas, and then 200 guys from Texas, and all over the southwest—Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana. It was just instantaneous, that these people are good, they’re cute, but they’re trained for auditions and TV. That is not cinema. I mean, it’s not even in the same fucking ballpark.

Don’t get me wrong, these people are good actors, but they feel like they have to do something every eight seconds—like, “Oh, I gotta do something cute here and something special here and raise my eyebrow here.” I needed somebody that could just hold the screen. If you look at the way Jake performs, he just sits on screen sometimes, and all you see him do is mull over this call, right? Jake was the first audition that came out of New York, after I pushed my casting director: “Hey, I’m not seeing anybody out of your group.” “OK, where do you want to go?” “New York.” He was the first one. I watched 200 after that, and he was it. 

Sierra, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but she was on a short list of all these really impressive big-name actresses that were too big for what I wanted in my movie, like a Shailene Woodley or a Chloë Grace Moretz. I didn’t want Chloë Moretz dressed up as Fay, I wanted Fay to feel like we found her. And Sierra was this wonderful TV actress who’d been working 12 years. At the age of 18, she already put 12 years in, and I thought, “Okay, give me your audition.” We connected. She told me she worked very hard. And I said, “All right, cool. I’m going to beat the acting out of you, though. I’m going to take away all of your tools, and I’m going to make you just behave.” And she loved that. We brought them in 10 or 12 days before shooting started and ironed out their chemistry in that time. We hung out, rehearsed it several times a day for a week or two.

Filmmaker: Aside from the casting, how much prep time did you have on the movie and what did that prep consist of?

Patterson: A year. A year looked like me and two other guys also doing commercial work at the same time full-time, so all of it was on the side. And the prep work looked like, “Hey, I found a telephone museum that keeps all this old antique telephone memorabilia at the bottom of the AT&T building in Oklahoma City. Can we go see what they have?” “I know this guy [who] does radio. He’s a radio archivist and willing to talk to us.” We go sit down and do research with him for two or three months. “I found six or eight old gyms that haven’t been touched in 50 years.” This went on for a year or so before we actually started shooting. I owned all the camera gear, so we were doing all of the tests: “What happens if we buy this $100 LED off of Amazon, attach it to our water tower, hook up a light, hook up the cord to it and light the whole town that way?” Well, that’s not going to light the whole town. We need 15 of these. Okay, let’s go buy 15. The prep looked like a bunch of guys who never made a movie before figuring out how to make a movie.

Filmmaker: How did you structure the shoot in terms of the time that you allotted for each of the major sequences?

Patterson: I did it the exact opposite way that you would probably ever think to do it: Any time that something took up dozens of pages, we shot it all in one night. So, if you would see a scene like Mabel’s scene, I think it’s 24 pages, she got one night and that was it. The scene with Fay and the switchboard, you can see how we only did that in one night because she does it on screen in one take. But, 50 pages into our script, we have this crazy shot, where it says, “We leave Fay’s switchboard, crawl through town, go through the gym, come out on the other side and land at the radio station.” That shot alone, that’s only a page or half a page the way it’s written. Well, that took four nights on a 17-day shoot. So, a quarter of our schedule was that shot. Then, you would have other things like Fay goes into the switchboard and answers 15 calls—that’s 12, 15 minutes of the movie, probably 20 pages of the script. We would shoot all that in one night. So, the structuring of it was actually, “Hey, what’s going to take the most time? Let’s prep the shit out of that, so that there’s no question that when we run this go-kart down this street and have this light setup here we don’t go into darkness.”

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about how you did execute that long shot that basically covers the geography of the whole town. I mean, that’s really amazing.

Patterson: My private group is four or five guys [who] worked hard on the movie separate from the crew. The go-kart needed to move the camera down the street. They were the ones [who] put the lights above the middle of the street. They’re not grip and electric guys, they’re just students—farm boys in Texas—but had done some video work and gotten some very pedestrian college degrees in broadcast journalism or something. An 18-year-old farm kid in Whitney, Texas, was our driver. He would work the whole night on our movie, go out the next day and pull watermelons out of the earth, then come out and run our go-kart again at night, and got sleep somewhere in there. They were our actual problem solvers because what we were doing was so different from the norm. I love them, but the grip and electric guys didn’t believe for a second in what we were doing. They were just very much like, “Whatever. This is bullshit. These guys have no clue.” And it’s like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what we look like, but that’s the reason why things can be changed and done differently.”

Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you shoot the movie on and how did you choose it?

Patterson: We shot on 6K RED Dragons. We shot at 2000 ISO pretty much the whole movie because I always knew we were going to throw a film grain on top of it, which would let us hide a little bit of the noise you get at 2000. My cameras, I own them for doing commercials, so that was really nice. We didn’t have to go rent stuff, we could literally just pull them out of my car. And we used the first gimbal ever put out by Freefly Systems, the MōVI M15. I was one of the guys [who] spent $15,000 on a gimbal when I was 25 years old, and then they dropped in price and everyone has them now, but we used that. We used Super Speed Mark III lenses, Zeiss Super Speed Mark III, and shot those at 1.3 the whole movie. I never irised down from that. I think the ratio was five to one. We shot for the highest quality we could get on the RED Dragon.

Filmmaker: In some ways, this movie seems like it would’ve been natural for black and white. 

Pattesron: Yeah, I would’ve loved to have done black and white, and I think I’m going to do my next movie in black and white. It was envisioned as being black and white. I don’t even remember why I bailed on that, to be honest. We kept it just a little bit by having the sequences where we come in and out of that Twilight Zone paradox theater thing. I think where it disappeared was, we wanted to show a differentiation between the campy quality of what it felt like to watch something in the ’50s and ’60s, and show that if we frame it like that and then let that all fade away, wouldn’t that feel like something new in cinema? And I’m not talking about going from black and white to color. I’m talking about showing how if you watch something that was made in 1958, the quality of performance, the way people talked on camera was different somehow.

Filmmaker: Even though they’re completely different movies, it reminded me a lot of Collateral, the Michael Mann movie. It really gives the nocturnal energy of what it really feels like to be up at night and everything. I was curious if you actually did shoot the whole movie at night?

Patterson: Yeah, we did.

Filmmaker: And how, if at all, do you think that informed the mood of the movie?

Patterson: Oh, it sure did. Let me back up. Collateral came out in 2004, and so did Before Sunset. That summer of 2004, [it] blew my mind that you could tell these great stories in these short periods, and I think I watched Dazed and Confused for the first time that summer [as well]. I kind of got obsessed with this: How can stories be told in one night or in these tight timelines? So, Collateral was this giant influence on Vast of Night directly, along with Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused. If you know that, you can kind of go, “Oh, I see how he got there, especially when you mix Dazed and Confused in—it’s just the cool kids hanging out at night.” I have another script that takes place in one night. I shot a movie that took place in one night in 2007 in a movie theater. It’s garbage, and I shelved it and never showed anybody. I’m writing a script right now, and it all takes place in one night. So, I love it too much apparently. I was talking with the guys at A24, and I was like, “I feel like I have a problem with this.” They go, “No one cares as long as the movies are different enough.” I guess I didn’t even think about that, but it’s true. 

So, when we got to shooting, just to answer your question, we always started at 6 p.m. We would have our breakfast at that point, our lunch was at midnight. And there was this really special quality to that. This group of 30 or 40 people [who] got to inhabit this dreamscape of an empty town at night that looked like the ’50s. It’s been a few years, but I think back about it and everybody has extremely fond memories of it, even though it was a lot of hard work and we probably needed twice the number of crew that we did. We really leaned into that. Even on weekends, when we had one night off, we would get together as crew and still play cards and stay up late because we didn’t want to get on the wrong schedule. That absolutely informed the movie, but I think it made it magic and special on its own terms, even though it was just a really rough little indie movie at the same time.

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