The Vast of Night | Interview with Director Andrew Patterson

The Vast of Night had its World Premiere at Slamdance Film Festival in 2019. At the fest, it won raucous acclaim from critics while also winning the Slamdance Audience Award. The film eventually signed a distribution deal with Amazon Studios and is now available to watch on Amazon Prime. Prior to its release, we invited director Andrew Patterson back to Slamdance in January 2020 to join Slamdance co-conspirator Paul Rachman in a discussion of his journey in making the film and getting it out to the world.

Listen to their full talk:


Excerpts

On returning to Slamdance one year after the world premiere of The Vast of Night:

This is weird, this is where we played a year ago. Same room.

We didn't know if we were gonna be able to fill this room up 12 months ago. We were literally trying to figure out by counting the number of people on the line outside of the room, if that would be enough to fill the seats. We played on the Friday night, I think 7 o'clock slot, and then here we are a year later. Yeah, and then the next screening was... We did the big room next and that one was the Monday night show, and that was when we thought we might have something special.

On getting his start in Oklahoma City:

I never moved more than two miles from where I was born. I've stayed there. In fact, I was basically, for real, born on Route 66 in a hospital there.

And from that point, if you jump forward 20 years, I was one of the guys that, you know, before YouTube and everything else, got some standard definition cameras and made a whole bunch of commercials. Which is a very flattering way of saying local video. And the whole time, I wanted to be here and to be making movies. Wanted to be doing features. I had a stint for about four years as a teenager, as a projectionist when it was still 35mm. So I kind of fell in love with movies, watching them through port holes in a megaplex in Oklahoma City, and I did that until I was 20. Got my camera, started doing local video, and figured out I was pretty bad at all the things it was gonna take to be a filmmaker.

On a decade of developing skills before The Vast of Night:

The last time I took a shot at making a movie before The Vast of Night, it was nine years before. And what I figured out in the window in there was actually, I got pretty good at the technical stuff. I got pretty good at the lenses and any time I would make something and see where I had an inefficiency I would become kind of obsessive about that inefficiency. Why doesn't my lighting look like a Fincher movie? Why doesn't my editing look like a Ridley Scott movie? And I would just hone in and then eventually, the one thing that I think was glaring was I didn't know how to tell a story. I got to be late 20s, early 30s, and I realized I actually probably needed to just focus on writing. Just focus on screenwriting. And that was seven, eight years ago, and I just wrote and wrote, and wrote. And failed at that for a while, too, and wrote some screenplays that will never see the light of day. And then kinda got to this one.

I looked at one point, a year or 2 back, and I had invoiced over 1000 projects in 15 years. Which means between 2003 and 2018, I had made 1000 discrete pieces of media. And that would have meant I was the whole thing. That would’ve meant I was the director, I was the director of photography, I was the editor, I was the guy interfacing with the clients, and so on. And I made a little team of people while doing that, that ended up becoming my camera operators, ended up becoming my confidants, and in one case, becoming my co-screenwriter on this movie. So there were some good clients that eventually became, essentially whether they wanted to or not, the benefactors and the people that helped pay for the movie. But yeah, it was 10-12 years before we were even talking about that.

On writing inspirations:

I love film, don't get me wrong. But oddly enough, the thing I was most inspired by when I was writing this at the time, was 19th century novels. Was War and Peace. Was Moby Dick. And the thing I noticed about all this, the characters in those books are incredibly three-dimensional, like they go through everything. They have insecurities, they're happy. One moment they're depressed, the next moment...  I wanted that in our characters. And so, what we chose to do is kind of create two characters that you would probably know and hopefully give them nuance that was special. And one of the ways we did that was we we crammed a lot of dialogue into the movie. We let them talk two, three times faster than your average film. And we looked for what I call texture, which is the additional elements that, by their very nature, they ring true. They feel honest.

On casting:

So it's four years ago, I remember it was this week, four years ago when I was trying to get this off the ground and I had emailed some casting directors in Oklahoma and whatnot. And they would get real excited and then I would tell them the scale of the movie, and then they wouldn't call me back. I didn't know anything about SAG screen actors guild. I didn't know about unions. I didn't know. I knew I wanted access to that talent and nobody would take a call to help me get this going. And so I ended up taking it to Texas and finding a casting director and on this early list, she had listed Sierra McCormick who's the lead in our film and it was with a whole bunch of other scary names to me. Big, big actresses. Chloe Moritz, Shailene Woodley, and so on. And I hadn't heard of Sierra and I went and looked up her work and I'd noticed that she'd done 12 years of film and television by this year that we were shooting the film.  And I thought that if she is willing to be directed, she could be really special. And then on the other side, we needed an actor, we needed a male who could memorize our entire script and I thought, “Well they do that in theater. They had to come out and be on stage every single night and know the entire thing." ’Cause with a little movie, when you get an inch of space you have to take advantage of that. When you get an extra hour that you can shoot you have to take advantage of that. The last thing you want is to have somebody that doesn't want to do another scene that night, because they don’t know their other lines. Jake came out of the first casting call we did in New York. He was the first person that came up, and then there were 200 auditions after him, and everybody had to live up to his standard after that.

 

On the importance of having passionate collaborators:

A lot of the things that make this movie work, were not me coming and saying, in a Wes Anderson or a Tim Burton type of way “I want this color and I went this old phone and I want this old type cord." It was [my team] going out and getting me multiple options on their own time, out of their own passion working 15, 16, 17 hours a day. We’re the beneficiaries of a really hungry group of filmmakers. And if there's any advice I would say: that’s who you want. You don't want people that you feel like you're... You're doing them a favor. You don't want it to feel like they're doing you a favor, you want them to be super passionate about what they are bringing to the table and a good collaborator.

On how to get very specific period props for your film when you have no money but you do have time:

We would find that if we needed something really specific— someone was obsessed with that one thing that you needed out there. If you needed turntables of a certain era, someone had that turntable. And not only did they have that, they have 600 others. An what we found is, every time you do that, that was a great thing. Whether it was cars, or telephones, the thing that you had to give them when you had no money, was time. You had to connect with them, you had to listen to what their passion was, and in the end, build a relationship to where you said, “Look, your turntables are gonna be featured in this movie in a beautiful way. We can't pay for it, but hey, your passion will be preserved in our movie in a way." And so that was something that we benefited majorly from on this film.

On working with locals with a passion for film:

If you think that grip and electric guys are actually... You think that those people are smart and clever. Well wait till you get with people that have worked on oil rigs and with cows and with fences and farms and had to create ways for all of this to work. And so we were using an 18 and a 22-year-old to do a lot of our heavy lifting.  Say, "Hey, we need this part of the street more smooth when we fly over this." Well, they would go find dirt for us and fill it in when we were doing the shot... So we just found people that had it, and we found these guys that were willing. And the nice thing about that is, when we weren't working with people that were in the film industry, they were sort of like, "Oh, well, this is how you would do this."  When we moved it over to the people in the film industry they'd say, "Oh well, that's never gonna work."

On convincing people to work with you:

I told a lot of half-truths to people. Like our costume supervisor, I kinda told her, “Look, this is a really small movie. It's just two characters, so you just need to find their costumes and then there's this other scene and... we'll worry about that later.”  And then it ended up being having to dress 450 people. And she did it.

But yeah, a lot of times we had to let people know what they needed to know in order to commit and then eventually they found out it was a little bit more work than they thought.

On the first round of submitting to festivals:

So it was late 2017 and then early 2018, and it was not really going our way. We had a movie we were very proud of, but we had to be… We didn't have any gateway at all, we didn’t. And I could sort of see that it wasn't actually getting watched, and there was no care to it.

And so, in early 2018, I just decided, "You know what? I don't think I made a good movie. I think this is probably a disaster. I think it's got too many things that are too extreme in each direction."

And so I put it on hold, basically, for a later time when I could be more objective with it.

On submitting to Slamdance:

So I get to October, September of 2018, and I polish it up, and I squeeze some minutes out of it, and then we send it to Slamdance. That's it. We don't send it to anyone else at that point. I've had my heart broken, blah blah blah, whatever. And then I go to these guys without knowing anybody, without having any connection to the industry, or knowing any programmers or anybody.

And I noticed on the first day that we have it out there for Slamdance, someone pretty much watched the whole thing. And I was like, "Okay well, couldn't have been that bad, right?

And then about two weeks later, it's early November. I start seeing view, after view after view. From all over, all over the country. Denver and Palm Springs and New York and so on. And I start to ask people, “is that normal for a festival submission?” 'Cause I don't know. I have no clue. And everyone's like... "Yeah, I think that's probably really good news." And then, I think it was November 18th. We got a call from California and they're like, “Hey, we want your movie at Slamdance. We're excited!” And of course, I'm just going, "Holy cow. Maybe I didn't make a horrible movie 'cause I know Slamdance. I know the alumni of Slamdance."

On what happens after getting into Slamdance:

So, when Slamdance announced our line-up that on, I think it was a Monday, probably in the trade magazines they announced. "Here's the Slamdance Lineup." We started getting hit real quick. All the sales agents,  “can we get a screener?” …some production companies, “Hey, we're looking to develop movies from indie to larger things” and we just kinda got bombarded in early December, late November that year, a year and a half ago. And now some of them were, they couldn't see what... Sales agents are very much about how can they turn this thing into an immediate profit and if they don't see a way to do it then they're not gonna screw around with it. And so, some we were really excited about passed on us and some that we weren't excited about wanted our movie. We made a call to come here without any of that. We had a publicist, a great publicist, Mitch Swan with Millennial, who got a few things going, and that was about it.

One of the things that happened here was we... Because these guys [at Slamdance] are connected, and they'd tell people "Hey, you gotta check this out." One of the people that checked it out was Steven Soderbergh. I thought it was bullshit, I thought, "There's no way he's gonna set up a meet with me. He's not gonna show. He's gonna get busy." No, he met me right here in the lobby[of the Treasure Mountain Inn], and then we walk next door but we both got sandwiches and he picked my brain and said "Dude, how did you do this? I'm really excited about... " And then for the last year, we've corresponded and he did a lot to get our movie out.

On signing with WME at a Waffle House:

By the end of the week [of Slamdance] after I'd pretty much avoided every offer and call and manager and everything you can imagine because I just thought "I'm not gonna do anything until I know somebody's really committed." William Morris came after me and said, "Hey, what can we do to sign you?" And I said, "Well, I'm not coming out to LA, first of all. I'll be in Oklahoma City on Monday and you can meet me there and I go to breakfast in Waffle House. You could show up and hang out, and we'll talk."

And they came. And Mike Simpson— he’s the agent of Quentin [Tarantino] and Bong Joon Ho— sat down in a Waffle House with me with two other wonderful agents and they said, "We think that you're special, and we want…" And I said, “Cool can you make this movie? Can you get this movie? Can you show me that you care about this one? Not the next one, not the third one.”

And they said “Yeah, hold on.” And then they started the process. 

Paul Rachman on connecting Andrew with Amazon:

But I remember after his second screening [of The Vast of Night], a few hours later, you and I were standing here right in front of the Happy Hour and and I get an email from Ted Hope and he goes, “Can I get a link to The Vast of Night?” I show it to Andrew, “Do you wanna send a link to Ted Hope to The Vast of Night and I'll introduce you at the same time?” and he's like “Hell yeah…” So I sent that link. That’s how it happened. These guys had so much faith in their movie and we loved their movie so much that it was just this kind of automatic passionate vibe.

Andrew Patterson on the long journey of getting the film out there:

It wasn't an overnight thing, either. A big thing that a lot of people think is you're gonna end up being the one that gets an offer at 1 AM, and then another one at 1:15 and then another one… And everyone had said, I remember hearing this about Reservoir Dogs and so on, it takes a little while.

And we kinda knew Amazon was gonna be our distributor by April, and that was after some other [offers] came in that would have been very good distributors too. We spent the summer going back and forth on the deal, and we announced it on our TIFF Midnight Madness showing on September 13th. So it doesn't all fall in into some perfect thing, ever. And we certainly…we didn't know where we were gonna premiere. We just knew that we needed to premier with somebody that cared about the movie and would be zealots about the movie, and we found it here.

 

The Vast of Night is now available on Amazon Prime.

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