If you’re like me, attempting to stay optimistic and counting your blessings – any bit of positive news helps. Lo and behold I sat down to watch “The Vast of Night” this Saturday night – purely for distraction – and I got this rush of excitement – goosebumps! Director Andrew Patterson’s film is one of the best debuts in a long while – and his storytelling and muscular vision, done on a miniscule budget, is a cause for celebration. I ended up watching it a few times this weekend deconstructing it – but primarily just enjoying it. The second viewing was even better. The innovative ways in which he engages us are exhilarating. He’s literally playing with the medium – and the fun he’s having is contagious.
It takes place in the late 1950s in the small fictional town of Cayuma, New Mexico, and it’s basketball night. That means that the entire town is congregated in the High School auditorium but for the radio DJ Everett and the 17 year old switchboard operator Fay. They uncover a strange radio frequency – and callers start warning them that “there’s something in the sky.” The best way to describe this gem would be a cross between a Twilight Zone episode and Orson Welles’ orginal radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” mixed in with a bit of “Close Encounters,” David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and “All the President’s Men.”
The film starts with the camera panning into an old TV set that starts playing an episode of a TV show called Paradox Theatre. “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadow,” the Rod Serling like narrator says. And then we are immersed into our story. What first struck me what the dialogue. It comes at you rhythmically and it’s got this lyricism. Patterson wrote the screenplay as well under the pseudonym of James Montague, along with Craig W. Sanger. We follow Everett and Fay as he walks her to her job and she tests out her brand-new tape recorder. Newcomers Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz are likeable, intrepid and wonderful actors.
They’re tasked with long takes where the camera stays on them. For ten minutes, you will fixate on Fay as she works the switchboard and hears sounds and gets callers. You cannot take your eyes off her – and Patterson expands and contracts time with sounds. He makes you pay attention. He creates an eerie atmosphere – where your imagination is fully engaged.
Then he abruptly switches the pace of the film with a gasp inducing – tracking shot – which will take you all over downtown – racing through the streets – into the high school auditorium and back out. And supposedly he shot it with a go cart. Wowza – this is chutzpah! And it works! He brings you back to Everett who takes in a caller. We listen to him — the camera staying on Everett the whole time. There will be a black out – and we will listen in the dark. The thrills of seeing, feeling and hearing and being engaged like you hadn’t before.
The film is quite charming and like good Twilight Zone episodes it gets under your skin. There are also topical issues being dealt. One of the callers is black – and he admits he was chosen on the special mission for nobody would want to hear his story. An old lady will also narrate her story – and will bring in the nature of being a woman in today’s society. Paranoia is everywhere in this movie – and quite a reflection of our current state. Yet it urges you to keep looking up at the wonder of the world. Keep looking up.
Fay Crocker: “A sound came through the board and interrupted your radio show. I don’t know. It’s just never come through over here before.”
Everett Sloan: “You said it interrupted my show?”
Fay Crocker: “Yeah, through the radio.”
Everett Sloan: “What did it sound like?”
Fay Crocker: “I don’t know. I can connect you through if you want.”
Everett Sloan: “Did it sound Mexican?”
Fay Crocker: “No, it didn’t sound Mexican.”
Everett Sloan: “Because we cross signals with this station in Mexico…”
Fay Crocker: “It sounded like something that could be unsafe.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Screenplay by Andrew Patterson (as James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger
Directed by Andrew Patterson
Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz and Gail Cronauer
Writing “The Vast of Night”
“From the beginning, I’ve studied cinema, but there were a lot more influences from radio and literature in this movie,” Patterson says. “I had been devouring “War and Peace” [while writing the screenplay], and there are a lot of interesting rhythmic choices in that book — you jump into someone’s head for 10 or 15 pages. And stage plays in general are a huge influence because “The Vast of Night” is a play — three locations and three really long scenes — hiding within a movie.” (Those three really long scenes — 60 pages of the script — were done in just three of the shoot’s 17 days, leaving the rest of the schedule free “for us to fiddle around and do the hard stuff.”) (filmmakermagazine.com)
“Inspired by the worlds of such ’50s sci-fi indies as “Them!,” “The Blob,” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Patterson wrote the script with his researcher, Craig W. Sanger, who “found out all the things about how switchboards and radios work [from the period],” Patterson said in a phone interview from his home in Oklahoma City. “I breathe down the researcher’s neck and figure out ways to craft a drama. I found bold ways to do something new.” Patterson registered the script with the WGA under the pseudonym James Montague (who’s also listed as a producer). Nor does he give himself a directing credit. (IMDb does.) “I prefer the privacy of just being able to live and create without having to explain myself,” he said. “This thing happened. The screenplay I put together went further than I thought it would. I was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay under this fake name. I’m going to continue to write under that name, he’s not going away. Some of my favorite people like Soderbergh do this. He uses the name Peter Andrews as his DP, the Coens do it [they credit their editor as Roderick Jaynes]. It’s nothing I’m hiding behind, until it pins me down.” Patterson was also fed by more straightforward dramas like “All the President’s Men,” “to get to see characters making phone calls, connecting the dots, and unravelling a mystery,” he said. “Then 30 years later, ‘Zodiac’ figures out how to do something similar to that.” Unusually, “The Vast of Night” devotes the first 20 minutes to the two leads getting to know each other, walking and talking at Hawksian high speed. And in a lift from Brian Cox’s one-sided telephone conversation in “Zodiac,” Patterson interrupts the mid-movie action with a long phone call. “When I was working on the scripts,” he said, “I was staging and blocking everything. It all has to check out in my head before I let it become words in a script. I have to know: if I forgot it on an airplane and some random human picked it up and read it, they would keep reading it.” (IndieWire)
The Making of “The Vast of Night”
“Patterson is the film’s sole financier. He shuffled earnings from producing commercials and shorts for such customers as the Oklahoma City Thunder into “The Vast of Night.” “I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder.” said Patterson. “Nobody invests in movies in Oklahoma. I was not listening to anybody.”Lights and cameras from Patterson’s production office made their way onto “The Vast of Night.” “I don’t expect anyone to solve my problems for me,” he said. “If it was going to cost a crew member $100 a night to stay in a hotel, let me figure out something less for $35 a night? I found creative ways to save money. Nobody okayed or cleared anything.”
But Patterson figured out that he needed help with the logistics of a feature production. “It was as DIY as you could possibly imagine until the do-it-yourselfness needed some structure,” he said. “[Producer] Melissa Kirkendall took care of all the normal things, like eating and bathrooms and where wardrobe should go. Melissa took that off my plate and let me be creative. She was a savior.” The week before the start of shooting was rough, Patterson said. “That’s when the rubber meets the road about the reality. Like, you found this great location but it’s September, when it’s 95 degrees and it’s not so fun a place when it’s dangerous to put 400 people in there. We have the crew lined up and the actors in town. It’s at a point where this isn’t just me and a group of my friends. We had to shoot a movie for three to four weeks for $700,000, plus post, and some marketing to get to a Slamdance-level film festival.” (IndieWire)
“The control Patterson and his team exhibit over their rural location would lead one to guess that he’s pulling in home-town favors, but the movie was actually shot largely in Whitney, Texas. “The town was excited to have us,” he says. “They shut down streets, closed down roads. We kind of had run of the place.” With a small team, Patterson prepped full-time for six months, doing things like timing camera moves precisely so that the actors could adjust the speed of their dialogue to sync to the shot. After production, while waiting on VFX work, Patterson went and shot a whole other movie, “a revenge thriller set in the honeybee industry.” And with a deal for The Vast of Night in the works but not announced at press time, he’s back home finishing the new picture. “I’m just a guy living in Oklahoma, and I want to keep it that way.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
About Director Andrew Patterson
“Patterson’s path to feature filmmaking began after he graduated high school, when he formed his Oklahoma City-based production company GED Media. “It was a different era; you couldn’t shoot everything on your phone,” he says. “It turned into a decent commercial operation, and I parlayed that into “The Vast of Night.” It’s entirely self-funded — I own the film.” (filmmakermagazine.com) “Since Patterson’s audacious debut won the audience award at Slamdance 2019 — after being rejected by 18 film festivals — “The Vast of Night” has built up a cult following on the festival circuit, from Toronto to the Hamptons, en route to Amazon Studios’ release in national drive-ins on May 15, followed by streaming on Amazon Prime on May 29.” (IndieWire) …”Patterson, who will be 38 in June, is for now staying put during the COVID-19 crisis in Oklahoma City, where he has a commercial production business. He has already shot another film, a revenge thriller about beekeepers, but now isn’t sure if he wants that to come out before the other projects he is currently developing.” (The Los Angeles Times)