Fifties sci-fi thriller “The Vast of Night” is the perfect drive-in feature to watch under the stars. Produced for under $1 million, it’s the kind of “It Came From the Outer Space” B-movie you’d find on Chiller Theatre. But it’s directed with a sure hand by Oklahoma City commercial director Andrew Patterson, who masterminded — and paid for — this cinematic tour de force. (He turns 38 this month.)
Set in New Mexico, this atmospheric UFO movie unfolds over one night and conjures up such small-town pictures as “American Graffiti” and “Super 8.” While town folks are rooting for the home team at a high school basketball game, our two brainy leads, radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), band together to track down some strange, unidentifiable noises, arguing about whether they’re terrestrial or alien.
Since Patterson’s audacious debut won the audience award at Slamdance 2019 — after being rejected by 18 film festivals — “The Vast of Night” has built up a cult following on the festival circuit, from Toronto to the Hamptons, en route to Amazon Studios’ release in national drive-ins on May 15, followed by streaming on Amazon Prime on May 29.
When Steven Soderbergh came upon the movie at Slamdance (where he premiered his own “High-Flying Bird”), he was impressed. “In my mind there are three components to directing that a filmmaker should have some grasp of,” Soderbergh told The Los Angeles Times. “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.”
When Soderbergh sat down with Patterson in Park City, it was the commercial maker’s first industry meeting. At the time he had no publicist, manager, or agent. Now he has three agents at WME setting up his next scripts and Amazon Studios sending out virtual premieres for his movie (complete with red wine, steak and potatoes, truffle popcorn, lollipops, face masks, and hand sanitizer).
Here’s how Patterson pulled off this masterful debut. While the movie’s direction exudes confidence, it was not easy to execute.
He developed the script.
Inspired by the worlds of such ’50s sci-fi indies as “Them!,” “The Blob,” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Patterson wrote the script with his researcher, Craig W. Sanger, who “found out all the things about how switchboards and radios work [from the period],” Patterson said in a phone interview from his home in Oklahoma City. “I breathe down the researcher’s neck and figure out ways to craft a drama. I found bold ways to do something new.”
Patterson registered the script with the WGA under the pseudonym James Montague (who’s also listed as a producer). Nor does he give himself a directing credit. (IMDb does.) “I prefer the privacy of just being able to live and create without having to explain myself,” he said. “This thing happened. The screenplay I put together went further than I thought it would. I was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay under this fake name. I’m going to continue to write under that name, he’s not going away. Some of my favorite people like Soderbergh do this. He uses the name Peter Andrews as his DP, the Coens do it [they credit their editor as Roderick Jaynes]. It’s nothing I’m hiding behind, until it pins me down.”
Patterson was also fed by more straightforward dramas like “All the President’s Men,” “to get to see characters making phone calls, connecting the dots, and unravelling a mystery,” he said. “Then 30 years later, ‘Zodiac’ figures out how to do something similar to that.”
Unusually, “The Vast of Night” devotes the first 20 minutes to the two leads getting to know each other, walking and talking at Hawksian high speed. And in a lift from Brian Cox’s one-sided telephone conversation in “Zodiac,” Patterson interrupts the mid-movie action with a long phone call. “When I was working on the scripts,” he said, “I was staging and blocking everything. It all has to check out in my head before I let it become words in a script. I have to know: if I forgot it on an airplane and some random human picked it up and read it, they would keep reading it.”
Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock
He financed and produced the DIY film.
Patterson is the film’s sole financier. He shuffled earnings from producing commercials and shorts for such customers as the Oklahoma City Thunder into “The Vast of Night.” “I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder.” said Patterson. “Nobody invests in movies in Oklahoma. I was not listening to anybody.”
Lights and cameras from Patterson’s production office made their way onto “The Vast of Night.” “I don’t expect anyone to solve my problems for me,” he said. “If it was going to cost a crew member $100 a night to stay in a hotel, let me figure out something less for $35 a night? I found creative ways to save money. Nobody okayed or cleared anything.”
But Patterson figured out that he needed help with the logistics of a feature production. “It was as DIY as you could possibly imagine until the do-it-yourselfness needed some structure,” he said. “[Producer] Melissa Kirkendall took care of all the normal things, like eating and bathrooms and where wardrobe should go. Melissa took that off my plate and let me be creative. She was a savior.”
The week before the start of shooting was rough, Patterson said. “That’s when the rubber meets the road about the reality. Like, you found this great location but it’s September, when it’s 95 degrees and it’s not so fun a place when it’s dangerous to put 400 people in there. We have the crew lined up and the actors in town. It’s at a point where this isn’t just me and a group of my friends. We had to shoot a movie for three to four weeks for $700,000, plus post, and some marketing to get to a Slamdance-level film festival.”
Amazon Studios came through and made Patterson whole before the movie went to Toronto. “Everybody’s happy,” he said.
He hired an ace cinematographer.
Not since Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” or the Coens’ “Blood Simple” has a rookie director devised such clever shots. It helps that Patterson lured Chilean cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz. “Miguel is bigger than I should have been able to get,” he said. “He got down in the mud with us. He had a sensibility about how to light things. I said, ‘Listen, I want large sources of soft light away from the characters, light cut so it’s all on walls or on furniture. I don’t want hard lights, or anyone sitting in a pool of light, no reflectors.’ It was a specific visual palette.”
And the film relies on long takes. “We cut fewer times, about 700 shots, when the average is 1600 to 1800,” said Patterson. “We have a lot of dialogue, but we try to tell the story as visually as possible.”
For the night lighting and color palette, Patterson borrowed from Yann Demange’s 2014 movie “’71,” he said, “which takes place quickly over one night. It’s [99 minutes]. I tried to get in that ballpark [‘Vast’ is 89 minutes]. I stole what it felt like to be on the ground with a character going through something extraordinary.”
He grabs audience attention with a bravura tracking shot.
In this sequence, the camera crosses the geography of the town at high speed in one uninterrupted take. “We scale the entire distance of the town and connect three locations,” said Patterson. “It was written into the script. Fay is at the switchboard, then we’re sucked into the basketball game, and then the DJ at the radio station.”
The extended shot is used to shock the viewer into attention. “It doesn’t matter what movie it is,” he said. “If a left-field curveball thing is thrown at me 20 minutes or an hour into the movie, I’m at the mercy of the filmmaker. I’m trying rhythmic ways to change the pacing when people are not expecting it.”
Patterson’s production team built three locations for the camera to traverse. “It’s a long shot, a practical run-the-camera-down-a-fucking-street, around the back of houses, through backyards,” he said. “We had to literally drive down on a Go Kart with a 3-1/2-foot-wide piece of gear. I walked out of the switchboard running down the road with the camera for 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. 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.”
Patterson was inspired by a nifty shot from 2009 Argentinian movie “The Secret in Their Eyes,” he said, “which starts as a helicopter approaches a stadium, and then the shot drops into the stadium where we find the lead character in a melee of fans and follow him as he’s looking for the killer.”
Patterson created four practical shots for a visual effects house to blend and stitch together, much like “1917.” “You can’t see a cut,” he said. “The effects change the geography, tighten up how our four shots played out in the real world when we filmed them. It was lot of work.”
He cast two leads with experience.
The movie relies on two fast-talking charmers played by Jake Horowitz (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Sierra McCormick (“Ramona and Beezus”). Patterson and Texas casting director Sally Allen looked at hundreds of young actors from the Southwest. “I couldn’t see them holding down a movie,” he said, “which needed a set of chops.” Theater-trained Horowitz impressed at a New York casting call. And 12-year TV veteran McCormick delivered two taped auditions — and promised to work harder than anyone else.
He edited the movie for a year.
Patterson doesn’t give himself an editing credit. He went through a tough year in post-production. “I edited 15 years in commercial work, motion graphics, compositing, and effects,” he said. “I definitely was too close to the film. I thought I hadn’t gotten what I needed, I didn’t have enough coverage because of the budget. I got so close I could no longer see the magic in it.”
But the filmmaker muscled through and rediscovered the movie during scoring sessions with composers Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer. “I thought, ‘this is going to be special again.'”
While Patterson is tickled that audiences and media seem to grok his movie, he regrets one show-off shot that didn’t make the cut. “It’s a scene where Fay runs to the back of the library and jumps into a car with Everett who drives her over to the radio station,” he said. “I wanted to do a single take. In reality the locations were not that far apart. It would take 60 seconds to drive in a standard modern car. We started doing runs with a hand camera with somebody hiding in the back of the car as we drive over to the radio station. Whenever we tested it with a modern car, it was fine, but when we shot it with a 1950-something Hudson Hornet that barely drove — lights up, we can’t pull it off. That would have been fun.”
At the end of the day, Patterson said, “We got over that real quick. Having a finished movie is the most important thing. Nobody is asking where that aborted attempt is.”