Set during one night in a small town in New Mexico, young DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) set out to discover the origins of a mysterious frequency they hear over the radio.
Effusing the nostalgia of 1950s small town America, director Andrew Patterson’s debut feature The Vast of Night (2019) is a near-perfect film, and a quintessential addition to genre and sci-fi cinema. Less about placing the audience on the edge of their seats, the centrepiece monologues position this as storytelling that seeks to draw us in – holding ones breath and pricking ones ears to catch each word spoken. The stillness of these moments is effectively offset with the urgency of the pair to unravel the mystery before it’s too late, and features an ending that effectively compromises between revealing and preserving a sense of the mystery. Felt throughout is that visceral juxtaposition of being fully immersed in the drama, yet simultaneously conscious of our admiration for the craftsmanship.
Incorporating the oral storytelling and the literary traditions, the filmmaker dares us to imagine for ourselves what is really happening. This approach makes The Vast of Night striking for its anti-cinematic shades.
In January of 2019 at the Slamdance Film Festival, Patterson, Horowitz and McCormick spoke with PopMatters about the necessity of studying cinema, and the nuanced influences of the film that they hope will create a transformative and emotional experience for its audience.
Why film or performance as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
Andrew Patterson: I was 16 and I was a film projectionist working with 35mm film print in the late ’90s, and I couldn’t get enough. All of the movies that were around me all of the time were sort of like a drug, and the dream from that point on was to become a film director. That’s what set it off for me.
Jake Horowitz: The dream is to always transport people, and for a couple of hours to give them a different world to immerse themselves in. At the same time they should be able to both think about and forget about life. The film really lends itself to being able to do that.
Sierra McCormick: Initially, performance was important to me from a very young age, so I started performing first and then I got to a certain age when I became a voracious student of film — watching as many movies that I could possibly get my hands on.
The whole concept of a narrative or a story has always been very special, important and fascinating to me, and film is a visual, emotional and visceral way of telling a story. So at a certain point I decided that it wasn’t just about performance, it was about relaying a story and illustrating a person. Or, portraying something realistic or true, or completely unrealistic and exaggerated, whatever it is. It just became very important to me to do that beyond performance, and to lend myself to that artistic goal.
How did your experiences of film viewing inform your expectations of the filmmaking process? And as you’ve gone onto write and direct or to act, how has it changed your perspective of the films and the filmmakers you have admired?
Patterson: You can maybe get cocky while you are watching movies before you’ve actually ever pulled the trigger. And by pulled the trigger, I mean pulled out a camera and fucking made one. I was that cocky guy; I was the one that thought, ‘Oh, everything I’ve seen I can do. Oh, I see what [Stanley] Kubrick or David Fincher is doing here, I’ve got this.’ At all of 21-years-old I took a shot at it and totally nosedived. Then I did it again when I was 24 and once again completely failed.
That taught me to respect cinema. That taught me to respect the energy put forth in the making of a film, to respect that every day of production needs to be managed and thought about, and carefully crafted so that all the people on the set are utilised to their strengths, that their energies are utilised and not wasted. It taught me how to try to craft things that were different than the surrounding cinema landscape, because maybe the scariest thing is to make something that falls into the ocean of everything else.
What you’re talking about with studying films and how that changes the way you grow and learn a new practice, the biggest takeaway for me is probably being aware of what that cinematic landscape or cinematic ocean is, and trying to make and craft something that doesn’t just blend into the rest of it. For me the only way to do that is to be immersed in and watching it carefully, learning from it and also being open to the fact that something may not work for you at one window of your life, or you may not understand it, but it may work for you later.
Trying to watch a movie like [Federico] Fellini’s 8½ when I was 18, I didn’t know what I was watching. But about ten years later it was on TV, and my gosh, having tried to make two movies and failed, that movie was all of a sudden unbelievably brilliant. So watching and being open to evolving in yourself, and along with cinema, is a massively important part of the creative process.
McCormick: Up until now I’ve never made a film before, so I can’t speak to Andrew’s experience in that respect. However, as someone who has been adamant about constantly studying film for a very long time, I can speak to Andrew’s assertion about your perspective changing over time, and at different points in your life having different aspects of film meaning different things to you. Or definitely having more meaning or less meaning, or just changing.
If I think about when I was younger, I just tried to watch everything that was the most controversial [laughs], and kind of fucked up, or wild, shocking, vulgar and disgusting movie I could get my hands on. I watched a lot of horror, I watched a lot of Lars Von Trier and I watched a lot of Gaspar Noé. I watched a lot of stuff, and at the time I was like, ‘Wow, this is cinema.’ It took some time for me to get older and go back and realise why I think Barry Lyndon, for example is one of Kubrick’s tamer movies, and it’s why it’s my favourite and means the most to me.
…Once I started trying to study film, the different aspects and why something is special, they make it look easy and effortless, but I realised the effort and the work that actually went into it…
Horowitz: I have a slightly different take on this question. When I was 15 or 16-years-old I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York. I grew up in New York and there are a lot of homeless people there, and they often come into coffee shops and ask for money. I was sitting and reading a play, and [this guy] comes up to me and he says: “Hey buddy, what are you reading?” I was, “Oh, a play.” “Oh, you want to be an actor?” “Yeah, I want to be an actor… I am an actor.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do. You got to look at the classics, you got to look at James Dean, you got to look at [Marlon] Brando and then what you’ve got to do, do you know..? You gotta copy ’em.”
He felt like he had cracked the code and he was really imparting this wisdom on me, and there’s a lot of wisdom in that. You really do have to soak up what the greats have done and study how they do it. But my first thought after he said that was, ‘Oh, okay, but where am I?’ You then have to find yourself, and the journey of doing it is trying to find your own voice in that way.
It’s a commitment to make a film, requiring you to give up a period of your life, that requires everyone to believe in it if the audience are to do so. What compelled you to believe in this film and decide tell this story at this particular point in time?
Patterson: … From the time that we started developing the script, it has almost been four years, and it takes insane stamina to continue to believe in something. People can tell you that it works and that they like it, but your passion for it has to go on for years, and you have to have practices to [help you] try to stay in love with the film. That’s not to say that it wasn’t something I always loved, but it was a monstrous undertaking.
I joked about it last night at our premiere that it’s not your typical falling in and out of love. The Vast of Night is actually quite a big cinematic and hopefully a classic film that required a lot of passion to do it.
A lot of getting through something like this has to do with your film family, your little tribe of people that are willing to go down the path with you and stay excited, and continue to believe in you when it has been a year and a half, or three years since you’ve written the script. So that’s a testament to everybody believing in this, staying tuned in and continuing to love the project, and love each other, to make it special and to keep it alive.
Jake Horowitz as DJ Everett and Sierra McCormick as Fay in The Vast of Night, © House of Montague / (IMDB)
Horowitz: There are so few movie scripts I read that I can make it through in one sitting, and you don’t have to imagine here’s when they’ll cut it up and do a whole bunch of crazy music, and make it work somehow. It’s so rare that you can just sit down and read a script and be moved by it.
So much of what’s on the screen here [in The Vast of Night] was in the physical script. The dialogue in the script was just on fire [laughs], and how clear the characters were topping off the page was so rare to read. You usually have to imagine that they’ll find an actor who’ll bring a lot of individuality to this and will make it their own. … Honestly, the characters are what made me want to be a part of it. Everything else about it is incredible, but it started there for me — the characters’ interactions and their dialogue.
McCormick: What compelled me initially was I read a lot of scripts, and typically when I am reading through something I can see what part I will be playing. I’ll have all of these drawbacks about it like, ‘Oh, it’s very flat‘ or, ‘Oh, it’s very misogynistic or male gazey‘ or, ‘The script itself has some flaws.’ I have to push those aside in my mind and focus on the positives that I can extract from whatever I’m reading, and the stuff that can compel me to put all my time into it and work on it for however long.
When I read The Vast of Night, I wasn’t even considering it. There was no flaw and I was so excited reading it because the character was very important to me right off the bat. She’s multi-faceted, a little bit unconventional for her time. She has a job, she’s into science, and I could relate to that.
She has this wonderful arc that she gets to experience in the short time that this movie runs. In the beginning she is very shy and unsure of herself, kind of insecure, and by the end she’s very self-assured and assertive. She’s much more willing to just put herself out there and go on an adventure, and have wonderful, interesting and scary things happen to her, which I thought was something I don’t get to see very often. Also reading the script, I could break out little bits of inspiration that I could see were references to other films I really liked.
Seeing the film for the first time, I got to see those aspects on camera. I always thought that a lot of the cinematography and the colour schemes — the scenes inside the switchboard and the radio station — reminded me of one of my favourite film, The Lives of Others. It thrilled me to be able to participate in art that I personally would endorse, and would watch and think is amazing – I don’t always get to do that.
Often times, and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just how it is, but you find you’re doing something and it’s, ‘Okay, I hate this and this about it, but I get to do this, and this aspect is really cool. But I wouldn’t watch this’ or ‘I wouldn’t enjoy this personally.’ And The Vast of Night gave me the opportunity for one of the first times to participate in something that was artistically fulfilling for me as a viewer and as an actor. It also had amazing people behind it who were really passionate about what they were doing, and took the time to care about their film.
Cinema is often referred to as a visual medium, yet this description only serves to undermine the art form. What makes The Vast of Night stand out is how anti-cinematic it is – the stillness of the camera that frames Everett in the radio booth as he speaks with caller Billy (Bruce Davis), who you never cut to. We only hear his voice as he tells his story, and his and later Mabel’s (Gail Cronauer) monologue layers the film with the literary and oral storytelling.
Patterson: I feel that it’s stagnant right now; I feel like it’s constipated and it’s hung up. I haven’t seen something that sparked me and blew me away in 18 or 19 years, and that could have been my age, but everything’s on the table with this movie. I wanted it to be something where you could spend eight or ten minutes in a black scene and it works.
You mention literature. I gather more inspiration right now from 19th century novels than I do anything in film. In fact, in a lot of cases I look at film and I think we’ve only had a War and Peace or a Moby Dick three or four times in cinema. Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s only five or six, and I look at this medium and I think, ‘Man, we have so much potential, we could do so many amazing things with cinema.’ And even though we had a small budget, I wanted to swing for the fences. I wanted a grand slam and I wanted to do the things that you are talking about that constantly jars us into a new relationship with the film.
We set up dialogue that makes you feel this is what the movie is about, and then we lock in on Fay for ten minutes and we say this is what it looks like, this girl learns these things, and this is what it would be like to be locked in this room with her. Then the movie becomes a play hiding in a movie if you look at it very closely.
I’ve pulled a lot of inspiration from plays and I would love to see this turned into one. It’s three rooms — a switchboard room, a radio room, and an old lady’s living room, and then the rest is inter-spatial walking around. I drew a lot of inspiration from radio plays from the ’40s, and eventually radio plays in the ’40s turned into television in the ’50s, and the heightened experience and the crazy silly music in the film is supposed to make you feel more than you feel in a moment, that you haven’t heard yet. You watch a Twilight Zone episode and they slam horns at you to try and scare you, and make you feel something exceptional.
Those are all fun things to play with and we wanted to play with all of them. We wanted to turn this movie into an extremely cinematic experience, but also bring other mediums into it where you were forced to listen to a radio conversation, forced to sit and watch a play, and it’s exciting to hear that it worked for you.
Horowitz: One of the reasons that [The Vast of Night] feels — for me and for you, and other people — like such a rich cinematic experience is because of all the different influences that it draws from. And one of the reasons that reading it and then watching … why it feels so potent, is that it really understands and trusts the power of language to captivate people and to propel a story, and also the power of sound and music. It trusts in a basic way the potential of these — and one of the things I love when reading, and often it’s play scripts, but great plays and great scripts — everything is in service of an idea. .It has something at its core
Watching [the film] last night I realised that for me the movie is about the unknown, and the phone call is just as much an unknown as the spaceship. This long monologue of Billy’s voice — we never see who’s on the other end of the phone — is just as mysterious as what could be in the sky. It reminded me why I fell in love with the script — how everything is part of a core idea or set of ideas.
McCormick: You’re correct. Everything in the movie is a question and a mystery, an unknown. … I was just thinking about Fay being at the switchboard where she’s getting all the very long calls, and all of these questions I remember having. The excitement that I tried to play with was related to the fact that probably in that town, in that time, you kind of had your life figured out. Perhaps things were a little more simple, and so having something of this magnitude happen, it just changes things.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process for you personally?
Patterson: …Spending a couple of years on a creative endeavour is going to change you, if you have allowed yourself to experience something new and grow. And that was definitely true for me. Getting to this point where people are enjoying the film, it helps you to feel reassured and confident in what you have to create and offer the world.
Whereas with your first film you were confident enough to do it, it’s not the same kind of confidence as what you are willing to continue to offer the world. The questions in your head disappear more and more as people continue to say the kind of things you are saying to us, and the experience we heard people have last night. You obviously transform and go through something that tells you, ‘Okay, I have something to offer that’s hopefully at least special to someone, or to some people if you’ve done it right…‘
Great films and great cinema absolutely should transform people inside of its run time… I like to break films into different categories, and I have films that I think are great. A great movie is something objective, a Citizen Kane or a Vertigo. Then I have movies that are my favourites. They may not be great, but they’re fun and they mean something to me. Then I have movies that feed me, and a movie that feeds me may not be great and I may not even like it.
I categorise films in these three categories and when those three things happen in one movie, they’re absolutely transformative, but those don’t happen very often for me. I only see one of those every couple of years and I’m usually happy if one of those things happens. I’m usually happy if I just like the movie, if I think it’s great, but maybe it didn’t have a hold on me. I’m usually happy if something feeds me, and so I sit here and I hope we created something that even if somebody walks out of the theatre, or if somebody finishes their viewing of it, that it holds on to them and it effects them, and it doesn’t leave them. Hopefully after days or weeks, or even years, that it’s still with them.
Horowitz: …You always want an audience to leave holding onto something, and maybe just thinking about something in a bit of a new way. I don’t think there are many people who are going to walk into a movie theatre having never thought about extraterrestrial life. But I do hope that at the end of this movie, they’re maybe just thinking about the unknowns in their life in a little bit of a different way, and it just opens them up to thinking about that.
McCormick: …Good films transform audiences and that can mean many different things in my opinion, and different films serve different purposes. There are films that might make you question love, and there are films that might make you believe in love. There are films that might make you change your mind about something, or make up your mind.
A lot of what I feel our film might be about, even in a broader and simpler state is that because we have two leads, one of who is almost very X-Files (Carter, 1993-2018) like, very sceptical, and one is blindly optimistic about the unknown questions, that it might speak to a lot of different things. Each audience is different and they might take away something different, but you can make a lot of grand leaps that might make someone feel differently about their faith, or a question they are trying to answer themselves.
…Film is a challenging medium, it challenges something. Certain films have made me challenge ideas about myself, like Ghost World (Zwigoff, 2001) made me realise I was being a little bit immature, and kept self-sabotaging myself because I identified with the lead quite a bit. I have talked to people who have changed their mind about huge political issues based on certain films because you learn something. I knew what Watergate was before I watched All The Presidents Men (Pakula, 1976), but I found out after watching it that I didn’t have quite the grasp on it that I thought I did. Cinema can change how you feel about what you know, and so I think our film might challenge what someone feels about their faith in something.
Horowitz: Piggy backing on that, you made me think of something earlier that I want to add. Another thing that drew me to the movie is the arc of the characters. Everett’s arc is from cynicism to wonderment, and I hope that that touches people and they feel some wonder at the end when we see what we see.
McCormick: Absolutely, and what I love most about our film is that neither of our two leads are flat throughout; they both have this huge change over the course of one night. Everett goes from cynicism to wonderment, and Fay goes from insecurity to self-assurance and assertiveness.