Fantastic Fest Interview: Gazing Into The Vast of Night
Director Andrew Patterson's cosmic debut is turning the right heads
By Richard Whittaker,
12:00PM, Tue. Sep. 24, 2019
Sometimes the strangest things come from the most unexpected places. Aliens from outer space. A radical new voice in cinema from the TV commercials scene in Oklahoma City. In the case of The Vast of Night, it's both.
As a budding filmmaker in Oklahoma City, mostly what Andrew Patterson did was spend his time shooting commercials. He'd take any job - everything except car dealerships. "There's an outtake of Robert DeNiro and he's told, 'be louder, be more expressive,' and he says, 'I don't do car ads.' That was such an indicative thing, and I always like, 'I hope I can pull that off.'"
For Patterson, every commercial gig was a learning opportunity. With no film school, he learned by doing; then he'd go home, read every book, watch every DVD extra. "There was no one to pick the brain of at all, so I'd extrapolate by watching David Fincher movies, looking at blocking, watching every single behind-the-scenes featurette." He made half of a couple of films when he was in his early 20s (as with most such youthful projects, he said, "They dematerialized or fell apart. You get halfway through shooting and go, 'Oh, crap, I'm only 22 and this is garbage.'") If there was a piece of kit he couldn't rent easily, he'd buy it, experiment with it, find out what he didn't know.
And when he was finally ready, he shot a debut that's already attracted the attention of luminaries like Steven Soderbergh and Jeff Nichols. The Vast of Night is an alien mystery drama set in a small New Mexico town in 1958 - "when the UFO thing was at its most potent, and it felt a little bit scarier." However, it's not about whether there are UFOs over this little town: it's the interplay between radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his tagalong friend Fay (Sierra McCormick) as they try to fit the pieces of a mystery together over one night. Patterson described it as "Richard Linklater got sideswiped by a mystery that turned into something extraordinary. That to me was fascinating. I love when relationships get cracked open, whether it's Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace sitting in a booth in Pulp Fiction, or if it's two people walking down a road in Vienna, to me that is riveting."
Austin Chronicle: How did you know that you were finally ready to make your first full feature?
Andrew Patterson: I don't know that I did, but I was ready to fail. All the people that I admire, some of them come out of the gate swinging and they hit a home run. Like Quentin Tarantino, they're fully-formed 24-year-old filmmakers.
AC: My Best Friend's Birthday (Tarantino's lost first film) may say otherwise. he just kind of buried it.
AP: Yes! And I kind of did the same. I had some half-finished ... things that were longer. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they were features. But I felt ready when I was watching movies and I could see ways that I could tune it up a little bit, or worked to make the structure a little bit better. That's a big thing for me is the structure of the script. If you get that right, you can lock 12 men in a room and make them figure out if someone is innocent or guilty. The script works, the bones of it were there, and so I wanted to be willing to make 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. We didn't get into the festivals as early as I wanted to, and so that was a window where I was like, "Oh, no, we didn't do this right." Even when I was talking to Jeff (Nichols), he went through the same thing, and went through it with more than one film. So I wasn't sure that I was ready, but I was going to learn, no matter what.
AC: The swing for the fences here is your use of superlong takes, crammed with dialogue, creating this tension between the rat-a-tat script and five minute shots. You set up all these mines and dance through the minefield.
AP: For me, language is super-exciting. And I'm kind of shocked that nobody talks about this, but a lot of time when movies are written they don't sound anything like human dialog. Have you seen Uncut Gems yet? If you think people are talking on each other in Vast of Night, boy, those guys though - and it's great.
I think, Vast of Night, there is a lot of interacting, a lot of dialog, and we wanted it to feel super special, and we wanted to give you the feeling of being in a little town at a certain time. There isn't any plot happening in those first 20 minutes. We just dive in with, "Oh, I know this family, and I know this part of town," and then it tapers off into - hopefully - a very strong narrative that drags you in.
It's like an 84 minute version of The Twilight Zone, and if you pay very close attention to the structure [in that show] there's three sets, maybe two, and a lot of the action takes place in an apartment or a diner, and then they go to commercial and they come back to the diner, and they go to commercial and come back. We wanted it to feel like this could transcend into multiple things, and a big one was that I wanted it to feel like could be play. "Let's make it feel like it could be done on a stage. You put a switchboard up and you spotlight it, and then you turn that off and you spotlight the radio, and then you turn that off and you spotlight the old lady's living room." I felt that would be really lean. And then we also wanted it to be something that could be a radio drama or a podcast - just bounce it around in different media.
The Vast of Night
Tue., Sept 24, 5:15pm