Super Dark Times

Fantastic Fest 2017 preview

Ignore the retro-teen look: Super Dark Times is less Stranger Things, more Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Director Kevin Phillips said, "Cinema for me is entirely rhythm and tone, and that's my basis for understanding it."

The bleak high school tale (which arrives on VOD next month) is a brooding examination of a brutal accident that tailspins into tragedy. Its central drama is between blood-bonded New York teens Josh (Charlie Tahan, best known as Gotham's Jonathan Crane) and Zach (Owen Campbell), and casting the duo was the film's greatest demand. As the jittery Josh, Tahan was Phillips' choice from the end of his audition. The director said, "He confided in me later that he thought he totally failed because I didn't say anything. But right when he left, I turned to my producers and my casting directors and said, 'We have got to build a movie around this kid.'" By contrast, it took until a second reading that Phillips knew that Campbell was right for introvert Zach. There was an awkwardly positioned pillar, right in the middle of the audition room. As he read his lines, "Owen became overwhelmed with emotion and just laid into this pillar, and he was bleeding, but he just continued to do this scene in character without ever a flinch."

It was a moment that typified the film's balance between chilling silences and visceral drama. Phillips said, "I always wanted to make a quiet movie, one confined in spaces between extremely loud moments, both visually and sonically, as well as narratively and emotionally."

Austin Chronicle: The film's sense of portent and foreboding begins with one of those emotionally loud moments, with a deer randomly crashing through the high school.

Kevin Phillips: It wasn't originally there. It was something I brought to Ben [Collins] and Luke [Piotrowski], our writers on the film, and the impetus was a deer crashing through my school. It wasn't anything I'd seen, but it was always something that was talked about among students, and it was something that had planted itself in my brain.

The film takes place in the Nineties, and these were very formative years for us growing up. Finding ourselves back in that world while crafting this story, it came to mind. We wanted to bring the audience into the visual grammar of the movie, into the tone of the film, as well as act almost as an omen, as well as a metaphor for what follows.

AC: How did the script come to you?

KP: Ben and I have been friends for about 12 years. We both live in Los Angeles, Ben works as a writer with Luke, and about six years ago he had this dream. He woke up, he texted me about it, and at that point the images that came to him were focused around the middle of the film. From there, he drew out the narrative a bit while talking to me, and he went, "Hey, I think we could be on to something here. I think this could be a film. I want to write this thing, and you should direct." I was a little bit reserved, but excited. Ben went off and wrote it for about six days, and came back with a first draft. I started reading it, and was pulled into it immediately.

AC: There must be something slightly ominous about a friend coming to you and saying, "Hey, I've got this script about people who have been friends for years trying to kill each other."

KP: Right! We brought so much of our personal lives, and our own personal experiences, and our own reckonings with life into the mix, and into the characters, and into this narrative. So the film took on an organic quality that, at the end of the day, it became more than we expected it to be, and meant more to us than we expected going into it.

AC: You're an experienced cinematographer yourself, and this film does have a particular visual tone that is so vital to the mood. Did you ever think of shooting it yourself, rather than bringing Eli Born in?

KP: There was a question at a couple of different points of whether this was a film that I shoot myself, and at the end of the day I'm nothing but smitten that we did not decide on that. I look at movies like Blue Ruin, which Jeremy Saulnier directed and shot. I have nothing but admiration for his films, and part of me is putting myself to the task, and going, "Can I do this?" I realized earlier that I would not be able to make my days taking on that role, but furthermore, and more to the point, I think the relationship between the cinematographer and the director means so much. I love that communication, that bond, that camaraderie. With Eli, he's been an extremely close friend for over 10 years now, and he'd always wanted to shoot my first film, and I'd always wanted him to do it. Our rapport is tight, we have a shorthand, and we understand each other's vocabulary.

We went in there having a very specific aesthetic I wanted to see translated. I really wanted to make a quiet, formal, and reserved film, but one that was very expressive. I was pulling a lot from Lynne Ramsay to Steven Spielberg to David Fincher. I wanted to see it in a way as I recalled seeing films as a kid, where composition can open the doors to a feeling, where audiences can relate to the scene, where light is a further tool to create an expression of emotion. That was the juice for us.

Super Dark Times

Sat., Sept. 23, 5pm
Mon., Sept. 25, 11:30pm

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