AUSTIN, Texas—Everyone kinda, sorta knows the story of The Vast of Night before they even hear of this movie. Filmmaker Andrew Patterson readily admits he partially based his debut feature on a real-life event—the 1965 Kecksburg incident—and even the initial idea that led him to researching Kecksburg struck Patterson as familiar. “I have a document in my phone of three or four dozen single line movie ideas,” he told Ars. “This one said, ‘1950s, black and white, New Mexico, UFO film.’”
But The Vast of Night ultimately doesn’t hinge on how its plot plays out. This small budget, tightly scoped sci-fi film has wowed festival audiences enough to attract Amazon money largely on its spectacle—individual images you’d gladly frame for the office wall, dialogue that draws you in no matter the subject, sonic flourishes that stick with you long after the credits roll. Talking to the filmmaker after a recent Fantastic Fest screening, it becomes hard to shake the feeling he’ll be managing a much larger studio budget of his choosing in the very near future.
“We knew we were working in a genre that was shop-worn, nothing new,” Patterson says. “We wanted to let people know, ‘OK this is an abduction in New Mexico—we know this story, you know this story. How can we find a way in and do something special, to make something new?’ I wanted to make it like the films I enjoy, which are usually about people learning about each other, their dynamics and relationships. So, OK, I want to start this like it’s a Richard Linklater movie… then we get side-swiped into something extraordinary.”
Midwestern maker mojo
Patterson has worked as a videographer and amateur filmmaker around Oklahoma City for years, partially financing The Vast of Night from funds gained through shooting Oklahoma City Thunder promotional videos. All those reps have evidently built an incredible technical base for this first-time filmmaker. It may have taken four years to go from script to screen, but the craftsmanship behind this film only grows more impressive (and becomes more glaringly obvious) as the story unfolds.
To start, The Vast of Night’s period touches appear seamless but took a lot of care. Basketball in the 1950s, for instance, has no three-point line or modern backboards, and the game didn’t feature endless pick-and-roll. So for the big rivalry game that would occupy most of the town in this story, Patterson and co. scoured Oklahoma and Texas until they found a gym in Whitney, Texas that could look the part. “We went and counted gyms, looked at 400 or so,” he says. “We sanded the floor, got rid of the three-point line—and that’s a $20,000 cost, but I’m glad we did it. I’m enough of a sports guy that if I saw that and glass backboards, c’mon.”
The Vast of Night team took the same obsessive approach toward more central aspects of the film like the radio station and switchboard, too. (Patterson initially toyed with the idea of a stage play, and those locales would’ve been two of three main sets.) To help these young actors better sink into the world and roles, Patterson wanted to make sure the switchboards used for the film could be actually used. They called up the Oklahoma City Museum of Telephone History and connected with passionate switchboard collectors in the area, eventually finding four functional switchboards and an enthusiast willing to modify them for 2019. “He got under the hood and got them functioning again, then he built a system where you can make calls,” Patterson says. “You could pick up your cell phone, call the box, and then [Sierra McCormick, who plays Fay] could hear you in her headphones.”
The old-school looking radio station required even more small film ingenuity. The team made a set for the interior of the station and hosted it next to the basketball court at the Whitney gym… because they didn’t actually have permission to go into a radio station to film. “We knew they were going to bulldoze [the building for the town radio station] a month later, and the company had said, ‘Yeah you’re good to use it,’” Patterson recalls. “So we put that tower on top, those call letters in front, and then they said, ‘We’re not comfortable with this, we’re not going to sign off.’ And then we went and shot it—it’s in the movie. The production design team did a lot of work. Luckily it’s night, so we got away with murder. ‘There’s a neon sign in the distance—someone throw some duvetyne over it. Do we have permission? No. OK, no one’s awake, go do it.’ That way we could keep our dirty little secret—there’s a Subway five feet away.”
Listing image by Amazon / YouTube