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Making “The Vast of Night,” a Micro-Budget Sci-Fi Miracle

“I wanted to signal that we are telling a familiar story. One you’ve probably seen before. But we’re going to be as inventive and fresh and clever as the story will permit and hopefully tell the story in a different way.”

“1950s black and white. New Mexico, UFO landing.”

Andrew Patterson found those words on a list of ideas he’d been keeping over the last 10 years, and after being rejected by 18 film festivals, The Vast of Night finally finds a home on Amazon Prime Video.

Steven Soderbergh championed the movie after seeing it at Slamdance festival, telling The LA Times: “In my mind there are three components to directing that a filmmaker should have some grasp of: the first being narrative, the second being performance, and the third being the camera. There have been very good people who’ve had very good careers knowing one of those things or two of those things. But it’s rare to see somebody that I felt had a grasp of all three, and a pretty significant, sophisticated grasp, not only in one movie but in a first film.”

Loosely based on the Kecksburg UFO incident of 1965, the low-budget sci-fi sees a switchboard operator and radio DJ (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz) investigating a strange sound coming through the airwaves. Taking place over one night, the restricted setting is inspired by films like To Kill a Mockingbird, as Patterson tells MovieMaker Magazine: “You can see how they have to use the same five or six locations they’re using in every movie within that window of time. The town square that they use in Inherit the Wind, Bye Bye Birdie, to Back to the Future. We mimicked that in our movie so that it would look like we had this Twilight Zone-esque TV show feel, like it was being shot on the backlot of Hollywood 50 years ago.”

“In my mind there are three components to directing that a filmmaker should have some grasp of: the first being narrative, the second being performance, and the third being the camera. There have been very good people who’ve had very good careers knowing one of those things or two of those things. But it’s rare to see somebody that I felt had a grasp of all three, and a pretty significant, sophisticated grasp, not only in one movie but in a first film.” — Steven Soderbergh

This Twilight Zone influence is found in the film’s framing as an episode of “Paradox Theatre,” a throwback device enhanced by the feature’s initial release at drive-in theaters due to the closure of cinemas during the coronavirus pandemic. In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers says this “tale of Cold War paranoia speaks to deep fears we’re all experiencing in these uncertain times.”

The Twilight Zone callbacks were a way to tell the audience that we know what we’re doing here,” Patterson says. “I wanted to signal that we are telling a familiar story. One you’ve probably seen before. But we’re going to be as inventive and fresh and clever as the story will permit and hopefully tell the story in a different way.

 

“The density of the story and the number of plot twists was very intentional,” he continues. “The idea was to make you care more about something than you normally would have. Trying to build characters that invited involvement and desire for their goal to succeed. And when you do that, you don’t have to be real twisty. You don’t have to jerk the rug out from underneath the viewer to get them to feel something. I’m not a fan of just overstuffing the narrative sausage. I don’t like jamming too much into a story. The game plan was to make you care more about something very specific and two people at the center of it.”

A sense of unease was crucial for Patterson, who describes his aversion to histrionics in an interview with The Moveable Fest: “You could make it about a town squabbling and different people in power getting mad, but I’ve seen that movie before where the mayor doesn’t believe it or people think different things or people all get freaked out and don’t trust each other.”

“That isn’t the movie we wanted to make. We didn’t want it to be about jump scares. We didn’t want it to be about a lot of things, so what that left us with is what could be done with the limitations we’d have, and it wasn’t so much the budget that was the limitation. The limitations were put in place because those are creatively interesting.”

“I love cinema but I get a lot of inspiration from things outside of cinema. Whether it’s 19th century literature or podcasts or old radio shows. And here I thought about how if you turned off the picture, you actually had a radio drama that was really compelling. I wanted the finished film to be one where you’d still have a pretty special experience just listening to the sound only.” — Andrew Patterson

These limitations included a strict nighttime shooting schedule, from 6pm to 6am. “It was a very lovely side product that when you’re not even starting to shoot until 8 o’clock, everyone’s disappearing and going to sleep, so a lot of your problems go away,” he notes. “You don’t have modern cars driving around, so you don’t have to blockade streets, and you don’t have to really do a lot of knocking on doors and asking can we film across the street for the next hour because everyone’s asleep.”

From “The Vast of Night,” courtesy of Amazon Studios

IndieWire praises Paterson’s use of long takes. “We cut fewer times, about 700 shots, when the average is 1600 to 1800,” explains Patterson. “We have a lot of dialogue, but we try to tell the story as visually as possible.” One notable shot crosses an entire town in a single take, inspired by a famous sequence from Argentine thriller The Secret in their Eyes.

“We had to literally drive down on a Go Kart with a 3-1/2-foot-wide piece of gear,” recalls Patterson. “I walked out of the switchboard running down the road with the camera at a 7-or-8 mph fast sprint for 40 to 50 feet. I’m in good shape. I was okay.

“The camera is mounted on a gimbal with a motion-isolating piece of gear that makes it not look shaky and unwatchable,” he continues. “It hooks up with another pair of individuals who dovetail into the shot and cut away using bungee cords. The driver is an 18-year-old with a Go Kart deputized as a dolly grip. He then takes that short first eighth of a mile, and crashes into a green screen. We then blend two more shots from the Go Kart.”

“I love technique, and I need it,” cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littín-Menz tells Carlos Aguilar, “but my main motor is always the narrative, because from the emotions and the sensations of the story you make sense of the technical aspects, not the other way around.

“What’s most important about each shot is for the audience not to think about the technical elements used in their creation, but for them to be touched by the poetry of the journey.” To read the full interview, click here.

“If I boil it down to one objective, we wanted something that could exist across multiple mediums. So in twenty years, it would be cool to see this as a play,” Patterson tells Moviemaker. “We wanted to be able to do something that in five years could be turned into a graphic novel or a radio play.”

From “The Vast of Night,” courtesy of Amazon Studios

“That’s something that was done a lot in the ’40s. You have a movie that was popular like The Third Man, and then the same actors who play their part come in, and they make a 60-minute radio play of it. We wanted something that can move around, to feel like it was multiple things. Sometimes when people come at The Vast of Night and critique it, they’ll say this film would have made a better podcast, or a better radio play, than a movie. That’s more of a compliment to me than a critique.”

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