Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night was the sleeper hit of the 2019 Overlook Film Festival. While the film celebrated its world premiere at Slamdance earlier this year with rave reviews, it flew under almost everyone’s radar and took home the festival Jury Prize for Best Feature. Nightmare on Film Street Kimberley Elizabeth praised The Vast of Night as “a feat of storytelling […] engrossing, charming, and a delightful small-town mystery. The film is able to perfectly capture and encapsulate a nostalgia for radio with an entirely different format of media.” Read her full review HERE.
The Vast of Night follows a 1950’s radio DJ and a young switchboard operator as they set out to investigate a mysterious radio transmission that may or may not be coming from extraterrestrial visitors. We sat down to talk with producer Adam Dietrich to discuss the (almost) lost art of storytelling, how the crew build their own equipment for specific shots in the movie, and finding the perfect collaborators for a such a unique vision.
We wanted to honor the audience and the way that storytelling has done for thousands of years, and allow them to use their own imagination […] and let the art of storytelling do its work.
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: First off, congratulations on the win. Very well deserved.
Adam Dietrich: Thank you. Yeah, we’re grateful and excited. It’s just nice that people are loving the movie that we really loved making.
NOFS: The description alone hooked and we were lucky enough to get a screener before the festival and immediately regretted not seeing the movie in a theatre.
AD: It’s funny, all artists want you to see their movies in a movie theater but I usually tell people that up front and try to explain, it’s not my ego, I think this movie just is really enjoyable to watch in the theater. You know, I’ve watched it so many times at my home and in my office but there is something special. We were so happy about this festival because it’s the first time that our core team got to see it in a movie theater.
We premiered at Slamdance, and those guys Peter, Paul and Dan are so awesome, they’re like family. The room is a ballroom now and the sound, is a very basic sound system so Slamdance is like gathering with your closest homies at a house to jam some music so this weekend was the first time that we get to be in a proper concert hall and listen to the band play, you know? It was pretty special, it was pretty cool, especially at Le Petite [theatre], it was really a great venue. One of my partners, Melissa Kirkendall, leaned over to me and said, “Wow, it’s really good in a theater”. I had since it in a theatre, and I was like, ‘yeah’ but she goes, “I want to see it in a bigger one”. And I was like, ‘and thus it begins,’ right?
Hot at the Shop:
NOFS: So when Andrew was [on stage] after you guys received the Best Feature award, he said that this movie was four years in the making, right?
AD: Since the beginning. Since he started writing the script, yeah. He started writing the script four years ago yesterday, or two days ago. And then we went into pre-production I’m gonna say nine months later, and we had shot it by the end of August 2016. And then, of course, we had some days if pickups and things like that a few months later. But yeah, a lot of the time involved in the film was just that we don’t like to rush things. As far as modern filmmakers go, we’re very patient.
I design for other people and I know that Cinestate for example, or Fangoria- I just designed Joe Begos’s film [V.F.W.] and that film is gonna be done like two months after it wraps. I’d designed [Standoff at] Sparrow Creek for them as well and they had like four months or something. So you know, as far as we go, we’re a little more patient than that and we fell like, especially with Andrew’s, it needs some breath for him to be able to see what he values and what he doesn’t.
And then it was just a matter of getting into the right festival. That took some time and Slamdance was a definite choice, it wasn’t an accident. Fortunately for us, it did play out as we had hoped it would but you never know. Right? It’s like going to the high school dance. You imagine you’re going to end up with that perfect person you’ve been dreaming about for the last six months but most people walk away from the dance saying, ‘Well, made a new friend,’ or ‘At least we had a good time’ [but] we ended up leaving with the pretty person that we wanted.
“[…] we don’t like to rush things. As far as modern filmmakers go, we’re very patient.”
NOFS: So why was Slamdance such the calculated decision?
AD: Melissa and I had gone to several festivals with the intention of exploratory research and when we went to Sundance we kind of stumbled upon- we knew about Slamdance but we kind of stumbled upon it in the sense of being participants. Obviously, the proximity to man is so crazy. I mean, you almost don’t understand it. So you go [to Sundance], and you see a movie at the Egyptian. Then you walk to Treasure Mountain and you go ‘God, this is nothing. This is like going to your best friend’s house as a kid’. Two different vibes, but only a stone’s throw away.
The moment that we walked into Slamdance we met Paul. It was brief, obviously, we were just movie watchers at that point but he’s very kind. We talked to him briefly and he was just talking about movies in a way that a fan talks about movies. You know, he wasn’t doing business, and at Sundance, we had a lot of conversations that were business. And so then we went and saw some of the movies and Slamdance and there’s definitely a mixed bag but it was all work that you could consider challenging. Somebody watches that movie and says ‘there’s something new here,’ or ‘there’s something special going on’ and there’s no names involved. And there’s no value to the film other than that, right? They’re really just basing it on the value within the work itself not who made the work or what relationships might exist, and so on and so forth. The thing about The Vast of Night is that production quality wise, it is pretty far up the food chain, I would say. Would you agree with that?
NOFS: Absolutely! The movie looks fantastic and it feels like a much bigger movie than it is.
AD: So when I came home, I told Andrew [that] I think Slamdance will be a great premiere, because of the proximity to Sundance, because of the spirit of Peter, Paul and Dan and the festival they’ve created, and because this movie is bigger from a production standpoint than their screens. And so, I think one of the things that’s going to happen is, as soon as the projector starts and the sound comes up, everybody that’s there in the initial screening is going to say, ‘What’s going on?’ and they’re going to start looking at their program trying to figure out if this is the guest filmmaker or something.
And when they discover that it’s somebody that they don’t know, that nobody knows in the world, they’re going to start to scream that from the mountaintops literally and if you get one person to hear it, that already has value in the world, that the world of cinema says is important, then it’s done. Then you’re off to the races. For us, that happened through a writer for Variety, and his own outlet, named Nick Clement. Early on, before we ever screened actually, he shared it with a filmmaker of name and that filmmaker said “I love this, and I have to have a meeting with them,” and from there on it just escalated,
“I’ve been in this for 20 years, and I really believe in this, I think this is going to change cinema in some way”.
NOFS: I was hoping I could talk to you about your cinematographer as well because the camera work in this movie is absolutely insane. Especially a moment where you’re going up and down bleachers during a basketball game, and it’s so fluid. How did you do that?
AD: Well, I will say our cinematographer is incredible and you can look up his body of work, but I will say this cinematography, and the visual of The Vast of Night really starts with Andrew. The shot that you’re talking about that we travel from the switchboard all the way through town and through the basketball game, into the radio station, the “Spielberg” shot that establishes your geography of a movie. That was Andrew. That was actually written in the script. And when we go to execute it, I remember- I didn’t know Andrew before this movie, his was the thing that we met on- and I remember sitting down with him, and I said, “this script is one of the best I’ve read. I’ve been in this for 20 years, and I really believe in this, I think this is going to change cinema in some way”.
This was before he told me his vision. Then he starts describing his vision and he said, “I don’t want to use the tools that everybody else are using in the business because we know what those tools are. We know what it looks like”. And very specifically, when we got to this shot, he was like, “A lot of people would do this with a drone, and have a great drone pilot that flys you from kind of horizontal place into the basketball court that can get to those double doors, which nowadays kind of common.
You can find a drone pilot that can fly through spaces fairly easily and then fly up those bleachers and out a window. He said, “I don’t want that. I want to have the initial shot lower to the ground. I want to have the basketball game shot more parallel to the characters and to have a feeling of a character. I know my audience will see the shot and know it’s a drone if it’s a drone”. So he kind of fought the whole time to hand make these tools to accomplish this shot.
And it took a little bit of battling but you know, rightfully so. Because, you know, there’s not, it’s not a huge difference, right? Again, I’m a designer so, you know- some people don’t know the difference between shiplap and fake shiplap. And new homes, they’ll put fake ship left and right because Chip and Joanna made it famous, but when you’re in those homes you can feel the difference. That was the kind of subtly that we were talking about but ultimately, Andrew, Marcus Ross, Caleb Henry, Nathan price, and two other locals spent nights, spent off hours, creating these tools. Everything from a go-kart type dolly, although it wasn’t a go-kart, to a steady camera that had a slide release so he could slide it evenly on to a crane, and then fly back off and get to a go-kart type dolly again and then at the very end, get it back off of there and fairly seamlessly get it back onto the steady camera rig. So kind of a mix of tools mostly handcrafted in some way.
“…it’s become so standard to just show everything […] The audience gets taken so far down a path in modern movies, that it’s really hard to keep a sense of reality.”
NOFS: I also have to assume that you guys are big fans of theater of the mind, like old radio programs, just based on how many scenes in the movie play out like short stories that people are telling.
AD: We’re big fans of different mediums of storytelling. That’s the key there. As far as radio theater, we all have different influences. I ran a radio Theatre Company for about eight years in Texas so Andrew and I, and Melissa, we all come from backgrounds and telling stories of different mediums, and we just feel like- In some way, especially modern cinema or especially in big box theaters it’s become so standard to just show everything. It’s like- okay, we mentioned [that] the planet explodes so now we have to see the planet explode. Like, was the planet really going to explode? What happens to everybody when it does? You know what I mean? The audience gets taken so far down a path in modern movies, that it’s really hard to keep a sense of reality. We wanted to honor the audience and the way that storytelling has done for thousands of years, and allow them to use their own imagination, allow them to piece together the things that aren’t being shown or, aren’t being shown at the level that other films do show them, and let the art of storytelling do its work.
NOFS: The whole approach just completely took me off guard and blew me away. I also thought it was really bold to have sequences with characters talking on a completely black screen. I have to assume that that was entirely meant for the theater experience and I can only imagine what it’s like to be in an absolute pitch black room with this big voice surrounding you.
AD: I don’t know if you remember this but there are these little white lights that move with the voices. We added that to help the audience understand that the projector hadn’t turned off because we didn’t want people to stumble during their watch thinking, ‘What’s wrong with the film?’ so we added a little visual to help the transition. And yeah, sitting in a dark theater with other people experiencing storytelling in a way that you forgot you can. Then hopefully, if we did the job, you don’t get to that point going ‘what is this?’ you get to that point going, ‘wow’ and completely engaged. Andrew was all about this from the beginning and he kind of told me in secret, we didn’t tell everybody this is going to go to black because we thought there’s going to be so many people that say ‘don’t do this,’ and even though we held off, eventually there were several people that said ‘don’t do this’. But I told him from the beginning, I said, ‘man, I love this’. I think anybody that’s a cinephile is going to love this. I don’t think it’s the kind of bold choice that keeps you from people. I think it’s the kind of bold choice that brings people to you.
NOFS: Oh, absolutely! I leaned closer into the screen. I was completely taken by it.
AD: I’m so glad to hear that. That’s exactly what I felt and obviously what Andrew felt because it was his vision, but it is nice to walk away from a screening and experience people having done that and feeling the same way. You know, I love Marvel, I love Star Wars, I love all of those franchises, genuinely. I go every time they premiere, I’m a huge fan but there’s also something to be said about providing something other than that and they’re doing it so well, there’s not a way to compete with showing the planet blow up. Why not take it back and let the audience experience something that most likely Marvel can’t take that chance to do, so this is a good opportunity. When you’re nobody. It’s easy to take a risk.
NOFS: Switching gears just a little bit- Sierra McCormick, who played Fay, was amazing. Where did you guys find her?
AD: We did a casting in Texas and found a lot of great people and Andrew was really, really happy but as far as Fay and Everett, he didn’t find anybody that he was excited about. So we expanded it to LA and New York and Sierra specifically had come across the desk very early on as a potential name talent, if you will. She was on a shortlist of about 20 actresses that were thrown out there as possible Fays and then we went through this Texas of casting and afterward when Andrew hadn’t found it, he said, “Why don’t we go back and talk with Sierra, and let me see if I connect with her and, and see if she’d be interested”. So they went back and she read and they really connected because Sierra is a cinephile. The girl knows movies in an almost spooky way for how old she is.
[…]And it proved even more true in her work ethic once she got to set. I mean, the girl came to set, she worked, and when she went home, she went directly to the hotel to keep working on the switchboard that we had installed in her hotel room. I just finished V.F.W. with her as well and she’s all about the work. She just loves being on a movie set, loves being a part of the team- like, the true team- loves the process of filmmaking, was never disengaged from our crew. Just a great collaborator, and the perfect Fay. She had over 400 hours of television which for us meant that she could handle being on screen without a cut. And obviously, you see the final product and if you didn’t have a Sierra, somebody that was totally confident and comfortable being on camera with a camera up in your grill for 10 minutes that could be devastating to a film like The Vast of Night.
“…every dollar has to go into telling the story”
NOFS: and also somebody who can be who can really look up to somebody [Everett] but then half the through the movie, really take the reins of the situation.
AD: Yeah, you totally believe that she is a young girl with this role model and almost, in her mind, a romance and then as the movie continues, you see her taking on that single mom power that she’s obviously witnessed through her family. Which is atypical for a girl in 1958, right? She has this power and this modernism to her that says, ‘I can do any of this’. She hesitates at first and then it’s like, ‘I can do any of this,’ and frankly, with a baby in her arms at the end. Like, women everywhere, this is like the Wonder Woman I was waiting for, you know?
And then of course, Jake Horowitz, In the same way, we found him in New York. He was a theater actor and Jake, being a theater actor, this was normal to him. That opening sequence where he walks to the basketball gym, it was predominantly shot as a piece of theatre. Essentially, Jake came in and just had the movie memorized as if it was a play. So you could stop and start anywhere you want with Jake, and he was ready to go. He didn’t memorize scene by scene, he just memorized the entire piece and much like a great theater actor, he knew what page 60 had and what page one had to take a lot of recall. They were the perfect collaborators.
When I met with Andrew, one of the things I first fell in love with him for, I said “How much of this budget is going to name actors?” and he was like, “Nothing, none of this is going to name actors […] we can’t afford it. And every dollar has to go into telling the story”. And, you know, I think there’s a great value in name actors, obviously, but also I think any named actor that I want to work with would value that.
NOFS: It’s surprising that that’s not something you would hear all the time.
AD: Oh, I’ve never heard in twenty years. I’ve never heard a single person say that out loud. I’ve heard people say it that are going to make a movie for $20,000, and you go “well, yeah. first of all, you don’t know any name actors and most of all, they’re going to ignore you”. But in our circumstance, there was definitely the potential and it was just refreshing to hear him say that we’re not even going down that path. We’re going to make a great movie and tell the story we want to tell, and then hopefully that’ll be enough.
NOFS: well, I want to thank you very much for bringing the movie to Overlook. I’m really glad that we got a chance to see it. It absolutely blew me away. Is there anywhere else that people can expect to see it on the festival circuit?
AD: Well, first of all, thank you and everybody that’s watching the movie. The movie is for you and it’s about you, and hopefully you feel like it’s yours because it is. The next festival that it is going to play; We are so excited that we’re going to make our international premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival at the end of June. Those guys saw it at Slamdance and they are this incredible duo of film programmers that did not stop chasing us. They were just so enthusiastic about the movie, which we thought, if that’s any example of the kind of festival that they run, we definitely want to be there. And we’re fortunate that we are going to be there. After that, no news yet but we’re very excited to, sometime soon, talk about the future.