There’s no way The Vast of Night is made by a first-time filmmaker. There’s just no way. It’s so beautifully constructed. So expertly shot. So tactfully acted. It’s the work of a talent with years and years of experience under their belt, right? Wrong. And io9 had a chance to speak with the person behind it all.
The Vast of Night—which comes to Amazon on Friday—was directed by Andrew Patterson and this is his only credit (for now) on IMDB. He never went to film school. He’s never released a movie. And yet he’s crafted a stunning, sweeping, vintage sci-fi film told basically in real-time as a mysterious noise is detected in a small 1950s New Mexico town.
(Note: This article contains no spoilers for The Vast of Night.)
We interviewed Patterson last year in Austin, Texas when the film debuted at Fantastic Fest and asked about his experience.
“Like nothing. For real. I mean, zero,” he said. “I remember being on set for Vast of Night and when they said the term ‘G&E,’ I was like, ‘What is that?’ ‘Oh, that’s grip and electric.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that’s good for me to know since I’m going to be directing this thing. Most film school students would know more than I would have at 22.”
As you’d imagine, Patterson is exaggerating a little. While others were at film school, the Oklahoma City native was working his way up from the bottom. He spent most of his 20s doing commercial work (“Commercial sounds very flattering,” he joked; “It’s not like I was making Nike ads”) and accumulating filmmaking gear. “In Oklahoma, you can’t get your hands on what you need to light a scene well,” Patterson said. “I think there’s a one grip truck in the whole state.”
He’d also spent a lot of time doing research and experimentation. “There was no one to pick the brain of at all,” Patterson said. “So I tried to extrapolate as much as I could by watching [David] Fincher movies and looking at every single behind the scenes feature that they would put out, and then just sort of took a stab.”
For example, Patterson remembers watching The Social Network, wondering why a certain scene looked a certain way, and then just digging. “I would go play the behind the scenes and I would say, ‘Okay, well, there’s all these black things all around the room, what are they doing?” he explained. “I would look up black flags and [the DP] was flagging the light. He was making sure it didn’t spill everywhere...And I would go on [the retailer] B&H and I would buy a bunch of flags. I would have no idea how to use them...Then I would go into a space and I would spend a week setting them all up until maybe finally by the end, I would be getting close to something that looked acceptable.”
Patterson would also implement what he learned into his local commercials, testing out new lenses and camera techniques, always with an eye on making feature films. “And then that led to Vast of Night where I think we have a pretty good feel for how to make something look good, even if even if we were still learning how to do 90 minutes worth,” he said.
Just as Patterson was constantly researching filmmaking, he was also researching screenwriting. Why does one script work and another doesn’t? How do you create tension and craft believable dialogue? He began to apply that to ideas he had for movies.
“I’ve got this long list of movie ideas. Some of them I’ll never make. Some of them I have yet to make and some of them we have made. This one was just ‘black and white 1950s New Mexico UFO film.’ That was it,” he said. “And what [got me excited] was how fun, how cool, how crazy, how special would it be if you took that super seriously and got down into a small town in New Mexico in 1950 and had a blow by blow experience of somebody having an encounter of the third kind?”
Which is exactly what The Vast of Night is. Patterson and co-writer Craig W. Sanger penned the script over the summer of 2015 and shot it in 2016. Before that though, the director drew inspiration from a single image in his head.
“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 piecing things together. 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 this shot of her in this empty town,” he said.
And though he could have set a UFO movie at any time, there was never a time The Vast of Night wasn’t in the ‘50s.
“If all I said was ‘1950s New Mexico’ people would go: ‘Roswell. Tinfoil hats. spaceships,’” Patterson said. “So to me it was such a charged thing and I hadn’t seen the movie about that, that I wanted to see, yet. I hadn’t seen it. And I thought, ‘Man, I’ll give this a shot. I’ll take a swing.’ I’d like it to feel like Richard Linklater crashed into or got sideswiped by a mystery that turned into something extraordinary. That to me was super exciting.”
We’ll have more from Patterson, digging into some of the film’s filmmaking mysteries, next week. The Vast of Night hits Amazon on Friday, May 29.
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