One of this writer’s favorite films out of Fantastic Fest 2019 was the Twilight Zone-esque The Vast of Night from first-time director Andrew Patterson and the writing team of James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. The film is centered around a small town in New Mexico during the 1950s, where a radio host (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick, who also appears in Joe Begos’ VFW) team up to get to the bottom of a strange signal that has appeared over the local airwaves, and appears to be not of this world.
While in Austin, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Patterson about The Vast of Night, which has been enjoying a long-running festival tour that began with Slamdance in January, and he talked about how he got started in the realm of filmmaking and prepared himself to take on a feature film, creating a retro-feeling story with Vast, and much more. Truly, if you’re an aspiring director, Patterson’s journey to the big screen is very much worth reading about, as he’s had a very unconventional career thus far.
Amazon recently acquired The Vast of Night, so look for more news on its release soon!
When you watch this movie, it doesn't look like a dude with one credit on his IMDb page. So, where did you get your start, and how did you get involved with this project?
Andrew Patterson: I had spent most of my 20s doing everything from local video to commercials out of Oklahoma City. I was doing anything that the local companies would offer me, and then slowly, I worked my way into trying to figure out how to do a feature. I took a couple of stabs at some things when I was 21, 24, just sort of like most people, they kind of de-materialized or fell apart, or you got halfway through shooting and then it was like, "Oh crap. I'm only so young and I don’t know what I’m doing, and this is garbage." And then, I got into better and bigger commercial opportunities and in the meantime on the side, I was always voraciously learning everything I possibly could about directing and filmmaking. It wasn't like I was 10 years into commercials and then I thought, "I'll take a stab at making a movie."
So, the commercial stuff was always the means to an end, and over time, we amassed all the gear that you would need to make a movie, all the stuff that's not sitting around very easily accessible in Oklahoma. I think there's one grip truck in the whole state [laughs]. I guess in a way, I was trying to extrapolate as much as I could by watching Fincher movies and looking at every single behind-the-scenes feature that they would put out. And I had written a script that I really loved, but I was like, "I don't know if I want to go in and make that," so then Vast of Night came along.
So, you have no formal film school background or anything like that?
Andrew Patterson: Nothing, no, no, no. I went to a private, 2000-person Christian university. My dad's a professor there, so I got free tuition, and I just went through video classes, but nothing for real. I remember being on set for Vast of Night, and when they said the term G&E, I was like, “What is that?”, and they were like, “Oh, that's grip and electric.” I figured that was good for me to know since I'm going to be directing this thing after all [laughs].
So, I was self-taught, and I learned by doing a ton of fishing out answers. I would look at a movie like The Social Network, and I would go, “Okay, why does that look different? Why is that so well-shot?” I would go play the behind the scenes, and I would see all these black things all around the room, and I would try and figure out what are they doing. I would get on Google and that's when I discovered they were black flags, and Fincher flagging the light so it didn't spill everywhere. I would then go on B&H, I would buy a bunch of flags, and because I had no idea how to use them, I’d spend a bunch of time figuring out how to use them. And I did that for a few years.
If I ran into a question that I had, I would just try to find the answer. Most of the time, I didn't have anyone I could call, so I did a lot of digging around and extrapolating and there was a lot of trial and error. But when I was doing commercials, I would try all kinds of things with lighting and lenses so I could iron things out in my head about the process. So, by the time Vast of Night came along, I felt like we had a pretty good feel for how to make something look good even if we were still learning how to do 90 minutes worth of it.
How did you know you were ready?
Andrew Patterson: I don't know that I did, but I was ready to fail if I wasn't, okay? I think all the people that I've admired, typically most of them come out of the gate swinging, and they hit a home run, like Quentin Tarantino. But I felt ready whenever I was watching movies and a big thing for me is the structure of the script. I feel like if you get that right, you will be fine. You can lock 12 men in a room and make them figure out if somebody's innocent or guilty. The script works if the bones of it are there, and so I wanted to be willing to take a shot whether I was ready or not.
I was ready to totally go down swinging and fail, and for a while I thought we had, with The Vast of Night. We didn't get into the festivals as early as I wanted to, and so there was a window where I was like, "Oh no, we didn't do this right." So, I wasn't necessarily sure if I was ready so much as I was going to learn no matter what, even if we fu--ed it up.
It seems like a lot of retro genre projects these days head back to the '80s and '90s, but I love the fact that you take this even further back to the 1950s. Was there something about that time in particular that made it perfect for this story? Also, I loved the framing device of Paradox Theater on the TV set. It really felt like you were watching this classic television series.
Andrew Patterson: I had thought that making a black-and-white, 1950s, New Mexico UFO movie would be really cool. When I started thinking about the possibilities, it charged my mind up with all these possibilities, especially if you have this blow-by-blow experience of somebody having an encounter of the third kind. I had this one image of a girl having to move through a town that ended up being Fay in the movie, and she was having to piece things together herself. I didn't know what it was, I had no clue it would include switchboards and radios and all this other stuff, it was just the shot of her in this empty town. So then, we started to fill that up with all these other reasons. Why is the town empty? Well, what if we put everybody over here at this high school game? What if we give her an occupation where it's really proactive to where it's not just that she's babysitting one night, but she actually is connecting everybody. So, we kept developing it like that, and so it was always the '50s, it was never the '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s, because to me the '50s is when the UFO thing was the most fascinating. That was when it was most potent.
Somehow, it felt a little bit scarier and a little bit foreign to crawl back 60 years and to do somewhat of a science fiction mystery, where you think it could be anything from noises to whatever, and we pay it off, hopefully. Plus, the '50s were when everything happened with UFOs, and in New Mexico. I hadn't seen the movie about that, and I wanted to see it because I hadn't seen it. And I thought I would give this a shot. So, that's why it was the 1950s, that's why it was New Mexico.
And the Paradox Theater framing device?
Andrew Patterson: I'll give you the real answer. The real answer is that our logic was, "Okay, nothing we're doing here is breaking any new ground." End of story. This is the abduction story, this is the same thing you can watch on cable TV any given night. There are a thousand episodes of X-Files, Night Gallery, and other shows that we have seen this same scenario again and again. Our logic was, how do we take that and then crack open a new experience from the exact same experiences? We had to figure out what was the thing that would set the stage for this story in the clearest way? Well, a very dated, antiquated show that felt familiar would hit all of these story beats, and all of the drama, so we created something that felt like you were watching an old episode of Twilight Zone or Night Gallery.
And then returning to it was our way of reorienting you to the fact that we know that this story is sort of going down a familiar path, but you’re along for the ride because it does feel so familiar. We eventually abandon it at around 45 minutes into the film, and we don't even revisit it until the end credits. But that was the logic behind it, and I hope it was successful.
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