The Vast of Night is an alien encounter film like no other

The official trailer for Amazon’s The Vast of Night.

AUSTIN, Texas—Everyone kinda, sorta knows the story of The Vast of Night before they even hear of this movie. Filmmaker Andrew Patterson readily admits he partially based his debut feature on a real-life event—the 1965 Kecksburg incident—and even the initial idea that led him to researching Kecksburg struck Patterson as familiar. “I have a document in my phone of three or four dozen single line movie ideas,” he told Ars. “This one said, ‘1950s, black and white, New Mexico, UFO film.’”

But The Vast of Night ultimately doesn’t hinge on how its plot plays out. This small budget, tightly scoped sci-fi film has wowed festival audiences enough to attract Amazon money largely on its spectacle—individual images you’d gladly frame for the office wall, dialogue that draws you in no matter the subject, sonic flourishes that stick with you long after the credits roll. Talking to the filmmaker after a recent Fantastic Fest screening, it becomes hard to shake the feeling he’ll be managing a much larger studio budget of his choosing in the very near future.

“We knew we were working in a genre that was shop-worn, nothing new,” Patterson says. “We wanted to let people know, ‘OK this is an abduction in New Mexico—we know this story, you know this story. How can we find a way in and do something special, to make something new?’ I wanted to make it like the films I enjoy, which are usually about people learning about each other, their dynamics and relationships. So, OK, I want to start this like it’s a Richard Linklater movie… then we get side-swiped into something extraordinary.”

Midwestern maker mojo

Patterson has worked as a videographer and amateur filmmaker around Oklahoma City for years, partially financing The Vast of Night from funds gained through shooting Oklahoma City Thunder promotional videos. All those reps have evidently built an incredible technical base for this first-time filmmaker. It may have taken four years to go from script to screen, but the craftsmanship behind this film only grows more impressive (and becomes more glaringly obvious) as the story unfolds.

To start, The Vast of Night’s period touches appear seamless but took a lot of care. Basketball in the 1950s, for instance, has no three-point line or modern backboards, and the game didn’t feature endless pick-and-roll. So for the big rivalry game that would occupy most of the town in this story, Patterson and co. scoured Oklahoma and Texas until they found a gym in Whitney, Texas that could look the part. “We went and counted gyms, looked at 400 or so,” he says. “We sanded the floor, got rid of the three-point line—and that’s a $ 20,000 cost, but I’m glad we did it. I’m enough of a sports guy that if I saw that and glass backboards, c’mon.”

The Vast of Night team took the same obsessive approach toward more central aspects of the film like the radio station and switchboard, too. (Patterson initially toyed with the idea of a stage play, and those locales would’ve been two of three main sets.) To help these young actors better sink into the world and roles, Patterson wanted to make sure the switchboards used for the film could be actually used. They called up the Oklahoma City Museum of Telephone History and connected with passionate switchboard collectors in the area, eventually finding four functional switchboards and an enthusiast willing to modify them for 2019. “He got under the hood and got them functioning again, then he built a system where you can make calls,” Patterson says. “You could pick up your cell phone, call the box, and then [Sierra McCormick, who plays Fay] could hear you in her headphones.”

The old-school looking radio station required even more small film ingenuity. The team made a set for the interior of the station and hosted it next to the basketball court at the Whitney gym… because they didn’t actually have permission to go into a radio station to film. “We knew they were going to bulldoze [the building for the town radio station] a month later, and the company had said, ‘Yeah you’re good to use it,’” Patterson recalls. “So we put that tower on top, those call letters in front, and then they said, ‘We’re not comfortable with this, we’re not going to sign off.’ And then we went and shot it—it’s in the movie. The production design team did a lot of work. Luckily it’s night, so we got away with murder. ‘There’s a neon sign in the distance—someone throw some duvetyne over it. Do we have permission? No. OK, no one’s awake, go do it.’ That way we could keep our dirty little secret—there’s a Subway five feet away.”

Listing image by Amazon / YouTube

The Vast of Night offers many other examples of clever creative decisions: with radio being such a prominent part of the main character, sometimes the screen simply goes black to mimic the listener’s experience. The same philosophy gets applied later to a crucial car ride. And the film has the audacity to pivot twice on what feels like a rarity, a big ol’ monologue (~10 minutes) where the visuals simply get more and more claustrophobic and linger only on the speaker or listener. It totally works in that Mindhunter-sort of way, ultimately two people talking becoming the most riveting thing in a story where way more frenetic things happen.

“It’s funny you mention Mindhunter—this wasn’t Mindhunter, because we started before that. But it was Zodiac,” Patterson says when discussing his inspiration for these scenes. “There’s a phone call where the guys get a call at the TV station, and they think it’s the killer, so they take it. I remember thinking, ‘This is cool. I’d love to hang a movie on something similar to that.’.. So you would never go to a movie to intentionally sit with Mabel [a seemingly minor female character in her 70s or 80s] for 12 minutes in this old lady’s living room. How is that going to happen? But if you do it right, you get there because the audience is brought along through a film’s values system that creates it.”

Patterson’s filmmaking abilities will most floor audiences not during the film’s perhaps guessable (though still visually gripping) conclusion, but during one mid-film sequence where it starts to feel like something unusual may be happening this night.

That way we could keep our dirty little secret—there’s a Subway five feet away.

As radio DJ Everett prepares to clear the lane and allow a caller to discuss his past experience with unusual military assignments uninterrupted on-air, the camera stops following our two main characters for the first time. Instead, this town suddenly appears from a low, almost menacing angle, and full orchestration kicks in. It feels like viewers have been put in a small vehicle that starts quickly casing the entire place, traveling the distance between radio station, switchboard house, and basketball gym at superhuman speed just to get the lay of the land. Patterson says he’s been asked about this sequence so much during The Vast of Night’s festival run that he’ll be putting out a small behind-the-scenes featurette on its making.

“I knew what it’d take to make the idea work,” Patterson admits. ”The main technology we used was new at the time, but we’d been using it for three years—it was old to us: a Gimbal, early Movi tech that can offset the bouncing of your camera. But that doesn’t explain how you can get a camera going 35mph down a street through a field over gravel and then to this guy’s backyard.

“It takes multiple departments—grip and electric, camera and the VFX team. And the actual tracking isn’t moving geographically; if you Google Maps the shot you’d be, ‘Huh, that’s 20 miles from here.’ But the shooting of it is 100% practical. There is not one moment where some world is invented in a computer, and we flew the camera through it. It’s a mixture of go karts, handoffs, bungee cords, and cranes, and it was mapped out months in advance.”

In this alternate trailer for the festival circuit, you get a sense of Patterson’s tracking shot described above.

Familiar but fun

Visually interesting and stunning films can be worthwhile even if the story becomes secondary at some point (cough, cough The Lighthouse or Roma), but Patterson backs up his technical abilities with a story that keeps propelling you forward even if it feels familiar. McCormick and Jake Horowitz (Everett) both deliver solid performances, swapping roles toward the end even in a Ripley-sort of way. And the film openly winks toward Twilight Zone-ish inspirations while delivering on the kind of promise such a move presents; this becomes a piece of sci-fi that allows an audience to find deeper societal meanings about today through the lens of sci-fi-tinged yesteryear.

As a journalist, for instance, I saw the idea of pursuing the truth at all costs bubbling up again and again—Everett and Fay first interact as the former trains the latter on basic interviewing skills, and throughout the film they’re drawn deeper and deeper into the incident out of a desire to find out what’s real and inform others. Without spoiling anything, one of the film’s high points seems to lean into why that would be important in modern times through a monologue:

I think they like people alone; they talk to people with some kind of advanced radio in their sleep… I think at the lowest level, they send people on errands, play with people’s minds. They sway people to do things, think certain ways, so we stay in conflict and focused on ourselves, so we’re always cleaning house, losing weight, or dressing up for other people. I think they get inside our heads and make us do destructive things like drink or overeat. I’ve seen smart people go mad and good people go bad. At the highest level, I think they make nations going to war, things that make no sense. And I think no one knows they’re being affected. We all work out other reasons to justify our actions, but free will is impossible with them up there.

But Patterson says that didn’t explicitly come across his mind while honing the script—the real Kecksburg incident involved a local radio broadcaster, so The Vast of Night did, too. Instead, he sees this observation as an indication that his debut film has hit its mark. “Good films will be about something else depending on the era they’re watched in. They can kind of meander through time,” he says, citing a recent Lawrence of Arabia rewatch that brought the film’s LGBTQ undertones to his attention. So I hope we made a movie that in 40 years is about the definition of a family or in 30 years is about something else.”

As of May 29, 2020 The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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