The Vast of Night director was 'the last person to know' about his DIY sci-fi film's success
With movie theaters across the country closed indefinitely and the year's release calendar decimated, The Vast of Night might be the closest thing 2020 has (or will have) to a sleeper hit. The micro-budget sci-fi film has racked up rave reviews and a slew of positive reactions on social media following its streaming debut on Amazon Prime last month. While first-time director Andrew Patterson is grateful for the attention, he hasn't exactly been keeping a watchful eye on the film's reception — in fact, he's not even on social media. The Oklahoma-based filmmaker and resolute industry outsider, who fully financed The Vast of Night himself, says he's been "the last person to know" about the buzz it's generated.
"The people that I do hear from, and that have responded to it, usually what they're telling me is that this was something new to them, and it awakened, maybe, a dormant part of their inner movie lover," the 38-year-old Patterson, who comes from a background in commercial production and never attended film school, tells EW. "If people are loving it, and it's getting buzz and it's making the rounds, I would hope that it's because people are experiencing something new, but that felt familiar to them."
Indeed, much of the praise has gone toward Patterson's atmospheric, resourceful filmmaking and cinematic storytelling in service of, by the director's own admission, a well-worn story. In a small town in 1950s New Mexico, while almost everyone is attending a high school basketball game, two tech-savvy teenagers (Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick) hear a strange sound coming through the telephone wires and decide to investigate. Just the setting and veneer of the film — it's framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series — should be enough for you to guess more or less where it's headed.
"We knew that the story we were telling had been done a thousand times over," Patterson says. "We wanted to immediately make it clear [in the film] that the things you're about to see in this story are very much the same things you've seen before in this story, but we're going to do this in a new way. We're going to let people talk the way that dialogue sounds in small towns, amongst real people, where you don't have a 'my turn, your turn' type of sound to it. We're going to let characters have a shading and a nuance that never showed up in a Twilight Zone episode."
The Vast of Night also distinguishes itself with a surfeit of cinematic style. The film is filled with entrancing long takes; one nearly 10-minute shot holds on McCormick's character at the telephone switchboard as she first hears the mysterious sound. That's followed immediately by a showstopping tracking shot (also known as a "oner"), which careens through the empty town streets, through the high school gym where the basketball game is underway, and back out into the night. It's a device, as Patterson puts it, "to wake the viewer up, by basically having people go, 'Now wait a minute, how did they do that?'"
"We're willing to take risks and challenge the norms of what movies are supposed to be," he adds. "I hope that that's how people read it, because I'm a huge fan of those kinds of things in movies."
The oner was accomplished by digitally stitching together four separate shots, filmed largely with the camera mounted on a go-kart owned and driven by a resident of the small Texas town where the movie was shot. The elaborate stunt spanned four nights of the 17-night shoot, a gamble that paid off handsomely: When he received the finished oner from the visual effects team he'd hired, Patterson says, "I was knocked over, to the point where I felt like I didn't have a movie worthy of their VFX."
Other long takes were more practical, as eliminating additional camera angles helped cut down on the time and money needed, both of which were in short supply. "We used every penny," Patterson says, laughing, of the movie's tiny-by-Hollywood-standards budget. (He won't give an exact number — "Mostly because it was something that I wasn't keeping terribly close tabs on," he says — but confirms the film cost less than $1 million.) He credits the cast and crew's enthusiasm for the project, and eager participation from many of the town's residents, with helping ease the pressures of the film's financial constraints.
"The locals became everything to us, from our extras, to helping us locate antiques that we needed, to helping us find locations, to having a barbecue and feeding the entire crew," Patterson says. "You would find the little old church lady who would be glad to somehow wrangle 50 extras for you. You would find people that would somehow get you five or six old cars, because they just knew people. That became a real valuable part of our production."
The road to release was longer than any ambitious oner: Shot in late 2016, The Vast of Night spent a year in post-production, and was rejected by 18 film festivals before premiering at Slamdance in 2019. Thereafter, however, the buzz began to build quickly. The movie also screened at Toronto and Fantastic Fest, and earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is just one of the boldfaced names who have reached out to express their admiration for the film. But don't expect Patterson to go Hollywood anytime soon.
"It's been very rewarding to feel that many people out there value my attempt to make a challenging and methodical film," he says. "I want to keep working from my own original scripts and pushing the creative bounds of cinema and storytelling. I want to find new ways to engage viewers and challenge them with my films and stories. And I look forward to new collaborators joining me in that fight."