The story is about Everett (Jake Horowitz), DJ at WOTW in Cayuga, New Mexico, and his 16-year-old friend Fay (a fantastic Sierra McCormick), an operator, encountering a strange sound at night almost everyone in town attends at a basketball game. When Everett turns on the radio, Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis) calls to tell a story that leads the intrepid Everett and Fay to investigate further. He would spoil the delights of “The Vast of Night” to reveal more, but the movie, available May 29 on Amazon, will appeal to fans of the genre as well as those who are wary of science fiction.
Patterson shows a real trade in its handling of materials. He uses long tracking shots, but also sets his camera to Fay at standard for an extended scene that is quite captivating. The film has excellent sound design, and the language of the time is great – as is the connection between hyperver Everett and Fay.
The filmmaker discussed with Salon his fantastic first feature film.
Did you make tape recordings when you were a kid and do you still have those tapes?
If anyone has these tapes, it would be my mom. And she would have kept every bit of homework and creative effort that I would have made if she could. I had a young fascination with tape recording, and I remember having one in the 80s. I stole songs from the radio, like all children. When you realize you can do it, it’s a pretty neat power. I don’t know if I did anything creative on these tapes, but it was part of my life when I was 5, 6, 7 years old.
This film is both nostalgic and original. What can you say about the influences of radio and television from the 1950s?
The biggest by far were the films and media that played on people’s fears and curiosities. “The Twilight Zone” did this better than anything. This is 20th century television equivalent to a 19th century novel like “Moby Dick”. He has so much power and strength. Whenever something is out of date, you tend to devalue it because we expect something new and brilliant every week, but “The Twilight Zone” is an incredible step because it is strange and there is had this strange TV limitation. They made miniatures and shot a backlot and had those scripts that weren’t afraid of ending in ambiguity or tragedy. They had these constraints, and that’s what we got into with “The Vast of Night” with radio dramas from the 1930s and 1940s. There is a “Third Man” radio show with Orson Welles [reprising] Harry Lime. Many films from the 1940s turned into radio dramas. “Key Largo” had an excellent hour-long radio version with the main actors in the film. It was a big influence – those movies from the 1940s that were turned into radio shows. We wanted our film to look like a radio drama from the late 1940s.
The film is all about storytelling – recording his own voice, the story of Billy, who Everett says is “good news” for radio, gossip about a family, or the story of ‘a squirrel eating thread at the gymnasium, and in particular that of Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) reciting her life. What makes a good story and how do you tell it well?
I think with a good story you have a question in mind and the storyteller knows how to create an irresolution or imbalance that you expect. It can be verbal, visual or physical – something is on the edge of a table that could fall. Until you figure it out, people usually bend over and get pierced. The stories in “The Vast of Night” are things you know or refer to, but the longer stories in the film have an imbalance or irresolution that you expect, as a listener or viewer, to reach a resolution in a satisfactory manner. In a movie, you can chain these stories for 90 minutes in a way that continues to be engaging. he [depends on] how much you care about the characters who tell them. I like to hear stories told, so I wanted our characters to explain their side of things and do it without anyone pressing them.
Can you talk about the sound design and how you used the voices?
I learned this from two pretty pivotal movies, and one steals a lot from the old one. “All of the president’s men” – if you watch this movie, there are wonderful mysteries on the other side of the phone calls. There is a first scene where Robert Redford begins to reveal really important information and at the same time, an office activity is happening over his shoulder. We are locked in on him in search and curiosity to take notes during this chase [of information]. It’s effective. “Zodiac”, 30 years later, is a tribute to this. In the middle of this film, a caller holds the film hostage by calling a television program. We borrowed this model, and that’s where this inspiration comes from.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the power of a disembodied voice.
I don’t know if I have an answer to that.
And your visual approach to the film? The palette is almost black and white; there are static scenes, moments when the screen fades to black, and the camera work includes wonderful long tracking shots as well as still images. How did you visually design the film?
The color palette had to show what small towns look like at night. Brown and green with a single occurrence of red at the radio station. Everett is all blue and silver so he’s cold, and Faye is green and gold, so she’s hot. We didn’t want characters under perfect pools of light. We wanted soft and on the wire characters. With visual language, I tried to get away from anything that would date the film in 10-20 years. Offenders are the way you enlighten, edit and the way interpreters behave and act. They have different styles and approaches, so we tried to take them off in time for the film to be beautiful and present and new in 2025 and 2045. We also tried to do something that didn’t require a lot of editing and of punch to work. But we had to go back to the script to confirm that we could take 5 minutes rather than 30 shots back and forth. We had a handful of separate scenes that took 3, 4 or 10 minutes to complete in one case. We tried to make it look a bit more like a play. We tried to create drama in scenes where you watch Everett thread a reel on the tape again or Fay working on a switchboard.
Can you discuss the integration of the themes of the film on race, soviets, government, surveillance and compliance, and free will?
We rely heavily on the idea of paranoia at the time, and the Red Scare and the Communists take control of the country and take power. We wanted to play the possibility of this as an alternative narrative to what was happening on the air. It’s a ripe time for the characters to ask and ask things that we could play with without him taking control of the movie. The game plan was to ask a lot of questions. With something like race – and I never wrote or worked on something that had a minority character – I wanted a black character to stop the film for 15 minutes. The two characters, Fay and Everett, are at the forefront of civil rights, so they would listen to someone like Billy, unlike their parents.
You capture the rhythm of the characters’ rapid dialogue, the language of the time and even the state of mind of a small town. Can you describe how you found the tone of the film? It’s affectionate, and it goes all the way without ever being a wink.
We wanted it to feel exciting because everything new in the life of someone who is not violent or threatening is filled with wonder, mystery and possibility. We wanted it to be the tone of the film until it was no longer the case. Driving 90 miles per hour on the highway is exciting until it goes wrong. We wanted to seize the future possibility. This is how we marked the film. The first two thirds do not have this wonder. Ideally, the tone changes. One tone begins the film and a different tone ends the film. I check films with a single tone, especially if it is dreaded all along.
You limit special effects and have an incredible period design for a low budget. Can you talk about that?
The low budget was true for us. We knew where to put our money. We painted satellite dishes on the buildings and painted panels on the buildings, and there are the visual effects of the third act. The team I hired was from Argentina – Rodrigo Tomasso and Marcelo García – who worked on “The Secret in Their Eyes” by Juan José Campanella. Our colourists and effects guys were all there in Buenos Aires. I saved 80% of the budget by using them. I had them stolen, and they spotted and delivered my vision. They were my first collaborators. Our production design was led by Adam Dietrich. Much of the look was that I was the beneficiary of their work.
There’s a fun part where Fay tells stories from magazines about the future involving electric cars, vacuum tube transport and even custom phones. Your film takes place in the past, but what do you think of the technology and the period?
It’s hilarious, because it’s like that today. If you subscribe to “Popular Science” and “Modern Mechanics”, you see things that seem impossible to exist. It was like that in 1955, 1956 and 1957. Our film takes place in 1958, and everything is hyperbolic. No one predicted the Internet. It was all about household appliances, transportation and communication. Each of these items is 100% real. We stole them and found an organic way to get them into the movie and give Fay a feeling.
I like the way the film almost puts the characters in a corner but offers an elegant output. How did you seduce science fiction fans and non-fans?
I don’t run to watch a science fiction movie. I run to watch the human drama. I am fascinated by the people who speak and the dramas where each person is connected to someone else by a desire for that person or what they expect from that person. It’s a way to play on stage to write. I wanted to do it here and bring it into a world we all know. Richard Linklater [mashed up] with a science fiction thriller / “All the men of the president”. I hadn’t seen that done. I wanted a human drama blinded by a sci-fi plot. The characters in monster and alien movies are often reduced to one or two feelings. I wanted witty, humiliated, scared and excited characters. And that’s what wonderful novels and stories do. I was trying to bridge a world you can’t see.
“The Vast of Night” is currently available for streaming on Amazon.