I saw a lot of great films in Park City this year at Sundance, but once again, one of the ones that stuck with me the most, that had its own singular style and voice screened at Renegade rival Slamdance, THE VAST OF NIGHT, from first time director Andrew Patterson. Set in the late 1950’s, a time when science and reporting had not caught up to mystery, the film follows the events of small New Mexico town and two bight kids who stumble upon an unexplained frequency. Spanning a single evening, the subtle yet engrossing thriller feels like a lost Twilight Zone episode, a comparison the production design and every element of the film do not shy away from. Featuring standout performances Jake Horowitz as radio DJ Everett and Sierra McCormick as switchboard operator Fay, The Vast of Night puts on a clinic on creating a perfect film on a small budget.
The simple story that depends more on the audience embracing the sense of wonder of the time period than any effects, the coolly executed long walk and talks that place us smack in the middle of a long-lost America, and smart touches like the grain overlay on the film and the titles, makes this the most confident debut of the year. After winning the Audience Award at Slamdance, the film screened in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, and then Fantastic Fest. Amazon picked up the film the night before its premiere in Toronto, so you should be able to catch this festival gem soon. Until then, you will have to rely on the clues in the covrage, much like Everett and Fay scour the airwaves to figure out what is out there. I had a chance to sit down with actors Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick, as well as producer and production designer Adam Dietrich back in January, and I’ve been desperately awaiting an excuse to release this transmission.
Bears Rebecca: So let’s talk a little bit about the setting for this film because to me one of the things that I love the most about this film is right from the opening credits, you’re thrown into the Twilight Zone.
Adam Dietrich: Early on, Andrew Patterson, the director of the movie, had a clear vision. I mean he had worked with the writers and weaved in some of his vision into the script. So when we all read it, we saw some of these cinematic moments. In the downtown area that you’re in that space a lot, there’s these lights that go down on the center of the street and Andrew had already from day one has said, “Adam, I want these lights.” One thing from a design standpoint that we were both on board with is light and shadow. That lots of the stuff that you see in the 1950s, or people trying to replicate that now, they try to make it bright and big. And we didn’t want that. We wanted that light and shadow to be prevalent throughout. And for the world to be there but also fall away.
Bears Rebecca: What was the city that you filmed it in?
Adam Dietrich: The city of Whitney in the Hillsborough, Texas. They were great to us. This pavement was in downtown and they had painted striped for parking spots and I didn’t like those. And Andrew was kind of like, “It’ll be fine Adam, there’ll be light and shadow.” And I was like, “no. The way they paint those, those are going to be bright at night.” And so I went out and got gravel, so like fine sand, gravel and laid it over all the pavement so that we wouldn’t to experience that. And the only way that was possible, on our budget, was that the city worked with me and the police chief said, “you know what, we’ll pick all that up after you’re done because we’re going to leave it down for a pioneer festival that we have and then we’ll pick it up after the fest.”
Bears Rebecca: Can you guys talk about what it was like to play in that space? Playing in this time period?
Jake Horowitz: Oh, it was amazing. Everything that Adam and (art director Jonathan) Rudack did just looked like you’d walk into these different places and you know, we shot at night for three weeks, so we were all kind of a little bit groggy the whole time, but you would just like walk in at seven o’clock at night and these guys had already been just working and it looked like-
Sierra M. You couldn’t believe they just built this.
Jake Horowitz: You were transported. You were totally transported. Yeah.
Sierra M: You’d walk into these sets and they look incredible. And just the atmosphere definitely did help with my job. Just because when your surroundings are so richly like textured with this is where the character spends their time and it’s true to the time period and it looks so authentic. It’s a great help because I feel like it had been hard try and pretend I was in the fifties operating the switchboard and like look out my window and there’s like, I don’t know a Tesla driving by, I don’t know.
Bears Rebecca: There’s some really long scenes in this film where you guys are like just in a room like by yourself. You know?
Sierra M:That’s by design. Andrew really wanted it that way.
Bears Rebecca: Tell me a little bit about having to play that and keep your focus and stuff like that?
Jake Horowitz: Again. So fun.
Sierra M: So fun. It was incredible.
Jake Horowitz: Such a treat to be able to like… I mean those, to me, are the moments when you feel most like the character. You feel most kind of alive is when – All of a sudden just like 10 minutes have gone by and you’re still like pretending to be somebody else and just the thing, Andrew, what he let me do that I was going to say earlier, is he let me invent my own cigarette company that I wanted Everett’s cigarettes to be. Like nothing that the audience would ever see. Nothing that like anyone would ever know. But he was like make this and then you guys made this little Yorktown Golds, little cigarette case that I kept in my pocket all the time.
Sierra M: Just a lot of details. And Andrew really just fostered an environment where both Jake and I could really dig in and do some deep character work. You don’t always get the opportunity to do that. And sometimes directors don’t really care one way or another.
Adam Dietrich: And you know, a lot of people don’t do this anymore. It’s weird. But Andrew, we budgeted and Andrew insisted on two weeks of rehearsal with them and so they had time to work.
Sierra M: It was the most amazing thing you could’ve done.
Adam Dietrich: And then I’ve got to say, Andrew worked tirelessly. I mean, tirelessly, the entire time. This guy doesn’t run out of energy.
Sierra M:He doesn’t drink coffee either. He’s a freak of nature.
Adam Dietrich: He’s a soda guy though. He is a soda guy. But he doesn’t drink coffee and he just constantly… He wanted his hand in all the cookie jars in a great way. And anytime that somebody was, you know, suffering exhaustion, which every movie you do, you know, Andrew was there peppy as all get out,
Sierra M: Yeah. Ready to make a movie.
Adam Dietrich: It’s really cool. I mean, at least as a collaborator, He’s very like in it with you.
Sierra M: He would give all these funny directions that were very, very like abstract but also very understandable. He’s like, “the universe just got much smaller.”
Bears Rebecca: Tell me a little bit about what you knew about radios and recording at the time? I mean because most people now don’t really even know how to operate a tape recorder.
Sierra M: I didn’t know shit before this.
Jake Horowitz: I grew up, my dad had records and a record player, which part of my job as a DJ was flipping records, but no, there’s so much cool footage of these like early days, rock and roll DJ is on YouTube and they all had their own personalities and ways of working. But there’s some cool stuff out there.
Adam Dietrich: My favorite aspect of the story of this movie is we’re looking back.
Bears Rebecca: Right?
Adam Dietrich: We’re in a genre, but also we’re in a format like the Twilight zone that we’re familiar with in some way, even in a distant way, but we’re looking back so that we can see ourselves and the whole movie’s about communication, you know? And that is never been more prevalent than it is right this moment. How important communication is, how the future’s coming and change is coming. And we don’t know what that change is. But what’s most important is the communication is between us as individuals, as a community, as a world, as a universe.
Bears Rebecca: Well, especially the element of like getting the truth out there.
Adam Dietrich: Yeah.
Jake Horowitz: Yeah.
Sierra M: Absolutely.
Bears Rebecca: And making sure that the news that you’re putting out there is not going to scare people, but it’s also going to be honest.
Adam Dietrich:The two main characters in this movie, Everett and Fay, are so passionate about communication, about the technology that allows you to communicate in faster, more dynamic ways. But ultimately the communication between them is, I mean, without that, I would argue the movie could not work. Right?<
Bears Rebecca: So the relationship between the two characters is very interesting because obviously there’s this big age gap, right? But I think our natural thing when we see a man and a woman, like not battling but like going after something, we want them to get together and you know?
Adam Dietrich: Which would have literally been illegal by the way, you know?
Bears Rebecca: But it’s not that that didn’t happen. I mean Jerry Lewis did it, right?
Jake Horowitz: Very, very different. Very serious movie.
Sierra M.: I actually loved that when I read the script, they didn’t like hookup or get together. I just think that it wouldn’t have made sense for the way in which the movie takes place, it takes place in one night. I mean, I did play it with this thing in the back of my mind that Fay kind of has a crush on Everett just a little bit, but it’s more almost, she looks up to him and she wants to impress him and less a romantic thing almost. And I also kind of had floating around in my psyche that she kind of knows he would never be interested in her because she’s, you know, much younger and this and that, but I don’t know, I really liked the kind of defied expectation. I think sometimes forced romantic, subplots forced roommates like subplots between boys and girls is just really tiring.
Jake Horowitz: Yeah. IT ruins.
Sierra M: I think it ruins a lot of movies. This like so boring forced heteronormative thing is just like really, really stale, in my opinion.
Jake Horowitz: I think a tool. I think that Andrew uses to hold tension, actually is that he is constantly like subverting what you’re expecting and he’s totally conscious of that writing it. These people that when you’re watching it, you’re going to be…
Sierra M: You’re going to expect certain things.And then when that doesn’t happen, it’s more engaging. More interesting, I think.
Adam Dietrich: It’s gratifying, sometimes, not to get the rewards you’re expecting.
Bears Rebecca: So how did Everett view Fay? How did you play that?
Jake Horowitz: I think that he is like, you know…
Sierra M.: A little annoyed.
Jake Horowitz: Well, he like uses, you know, he’s like this guy who thinks he’s really cool. And of course the middle school girls think he’s cool, so he’s going to play it up to them, you know? And yeah. Okay. I don’t think he thinks of her romantically so much as like, “ah, these girls love me.” You know? Like-
Bears Rebecca: But he does incorporate her into a journey that he takes He could’ve just been like, “I got this sweetie.”
Jake Horowitz: Yeah, well he’s definitely got a soft spot for this girl who loves radio and who I imagine that she, appreciates him in a different way. Like she’s walking around with this recorder, asking me things about radio, not just like –
Sierra M: “Oh, he’s so cute.”
Jake Horowitz: I think that he’s smitten a little bit with that and thinks she’s cool, plus she’s got great ideas.
Bears Rebecca: Did you ever think about how important that person is in that town, as being the connection to the outside world?
Jake Horowitz: Yeah. The radio person.
Bears Rebecca: Because we don’t have that anymore
Sierra M: You would’ve been like small town celebrity.
Jake Horowitz: These people know him and that feeds his personality.
Sierra M: His ego, you mean.
Jake Horowitz: Ego is probably right.