If a poetry of suburbia exists, it's Tim Sutton's Dark Night, where underneath the mundanity lurks the rabid, ever-present threat of violence. A young woman assuages her fragile ego with workout selfies; an elderly veteran attends a support group; two teenagers skateboard aimlessly around town. Selfsame malls, streets, houses, and cement expanses are the architecture of ennui for these middle-class suburbanites. But every moment is laden with a darkness that only we, the audience, are privy to: this is the last day of their lives.

From sunrise to midnight, the lyrical and immersive Dark Night follows a group of people who will later die together in a movie theater. As the sun moves across the sky, Sutton trains an eye on the quotidian, creating deep suspense in the most innocuous of scenes. Drifting through each character is a narrative of isolation, though no one is more affected than the teenage boy with piercing blue eyes (Robert Jumper), whose actions will later spell everyone's demise. 

Is the banality of modern evil born of loneliness? Sutton ventures the question. No Film School spoke with the director about his anti-sensationalist approach to depicting gun violence, casting non-actors from suburbia, and more.

"I didn't want a shoot-out. I want you to have to leave the movie theater with no catharsis—with that feeling still inside you that violence could be happening as we speak."

No Film School: Dark Night plays with this interesting tension: for filmmakers and cinephiles, I think that shooting in Aurora was almost a disillusionment. We usually think of movie theaters as safe spaces where we can leave our bodies and go into our imaginations. At the same time, when there's violence in a movie, the screen acts as a barrier between us and reality. What your film did was show how that façade crumbles in modern society. 

Tim Sutton: This is something that I really wanted to do for the audience, and I couldn't necessarily put it into words until I saw in the theater myself.

In the last 10 minutes of the film, when everyone goes to the movie theater—that's our last location—you, as the viewer, are in a movie watching these other viewers watching a movie. It's like the screen disappears, and we're all in the same movie theater together. You could look to your left and see the characters in the movie. Or you could look up on screen and it would be yourself in the movie. It becomes this pure metaphysical experience.

That's what I wanted to do. I wanted it to go further than being a movie—I wanted it to be an immersive experience. I didn't achieve it for everybody, but I felt scared to death watching the movie myself at Sundance. And I had seen it a million times while making it. But it felt very, very new to me. 

NFS: I think that immersive quality is inherent in your style. Everything is so naturalistic and untheatrical, with non-actors playing versions of themselves in the kind of quiet, normal moments that don't always get attention in cinema. You worked with a casting director to find actors, right?

Sutton: Yes, Eleonore [Hendricks], who also cast my movie Memphis. She was the street casting person on American Honey most recently. 

What I wanted to do for characters is I wanted to find archetypes of who I thought would [represent] suburbia—not stereotypes, necessarily, but really recognizable people. I knew I wanted a U.S. veteran who had just recently come home. I wanted a young Latina in between two different sets of friends. I wanted a "troubled" teenager who had lots of dark, delusional thoughts. I wanted someone who's obsessed with selfies and obsessed with her self-image.

We knew we were going to be shooting in Sarasota. Eleonore goes down there, and she knows she has about three weeks. She has a car and an assistant, and she just kind of roams around. She becomes a character in the movie, in a way. She's going from a bar to a school to the beach to a laundromat—wherever. And she found people that way.

If she comes across interesting people that aren't in the script, I gave her the license to [bring them in], and we would see if those characters have a place in the movie. For example, she was following a vintage white Mercedes that she thought was cool. And she pulled up next to it at a stoplight and Jumper [the troubled teenage shooter] looked out the window and smiled at her, and his eyes were something she'd never seen before. She asked him to pull over.

"Some of it seems like luck, but I think it's the process—it's the constant exploring process that doesn't stop with the writing."

Some of it seems like luck, but I think it's the process—it's the constant exploring process that doesn't stop with the writing. It continues with the casting. It continues with the shooting. It's all part of this organic process of finding things. It doesn't always work, but when it does work, you find these people who can live and be themselves on the screen, and they become different versions of themselves because you're pairing them in a fiction. So, Aaron [Pervis, a character] is just a troubled teenager, but in the movie, he's a troubled teenager who might have something very, very serious to do with a horrible tragedy. But in the movie, that's his real life [that I show]—that's his real mother, that's their real story unfolding. Next to the fiction, it's unfolding in a different context. 

Screen_shot_2017-02-07_at_3'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

NFS: Once you find the characters, how do you help them find the versions of themselves to play within your fiction?

Sutton: I, as the director, approach each character and each actor in a way that fits them, that's going to make them most comfortable. For example, I thought Aaron had tremendous ideas and confused ideas at the same time. To get to the bottom of him and to start explaining him to the audience, I really wanted to interview him. And I really wanted him to be able to talk freely. 

Eddy, the vet, was totally different. I had written some lines in the script for him, but he was not an actor. He was comfortable just being himself as long as he didn't talk—cleaning the guns, hanging out in that group of veterans, walking the streets, doing his basic living. So I didn't give him directions.

"I wanted to make it about these people's daily lives, no matter how boring or how strange or how disturbing, because the shooter is one of them."

For Jumper, it was totally different. Jumper, as a character and as a person, really wants to be a star and considered himself a performer. So I had him brought to set by two assistants every time we had to shoot. He would go through hair. He would be shown his marks. We would talk about motivation and things like that. He really put out movie star-style performance. 

Each approach fits the character and the person in that character. [I do this] so they feel totally comfortable, but they're also feeding the story. If I shot Jumper vérité, it wouldn't have worked as well. If I had forced Eddy to hit marks, it would have felt very unauthentic.

Dark-night-image-3'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

NFS: At what point do you engage in the writing process? When do you decide which scenes are going to be written, or how the narrative arc will unfold?

Sutton: From the very beginning, when I made the decision to make the film about the nucleus of the Aurora tragedy, I knew I wanted two very specific things. One, I knew that I was going end the film before violence. I didn't want the faux catharsis of a big shoot-out the way Gus Van Sant's Elephant does, or the way that most entertainment does. I want you to have to leave the movie theater with no catharsis—with that feeling still inside you that violence could be happening as we speak. And I knew I wanted to make it about life, not about death. I wanted to make it about these people's daily lives, no matter how boring or how strange or how disturbing, because the shooter is one of them. 

Once I set out to do that, I built outlines for each character. I call them outlines because the characters don't really have an arc. I just knew that I would take them each from morning to night, and I wrote the thing in probably three weeks. Then you have to find the people; casting took a few months. The actual writing process was governed by those few rules: one day, no violence, each character goes from pretty much sunrise to midnight alone.

NFS: Did you perfect this process on Dark Night, or was that something you had developed or experimented with on your previous films, Memphis and Pavilion?

Sutton: I experimented with it in different ways. Memphis was about finding the movie as we went. I wrote the story very specifically, but we never referred to it while we were shooting. Every day, we would plot a new course. Every night, I would review that course with my collaborators. And every morning, we would wake up and go anew.

V16dark02'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

Sutton: Dark Night was very much about execution. I wrote this thing. We did not stray very much from the script. We executed the script in a way that was very specific and detailed. I was working with a different cinematographer and different production apparatus, where you couldn't just shoot birds flying overhead if you wanted to, because we were less flexible. But at the same time, we could create a feeling of much more precision rather than searching. I think the script and the film are very, very similar, but I couldn't have made this film in this style without having explored it in the different forms in Pavilion and Memphis.

NFS: I see. Because that lent you the foresight to be precise. 

Sutton: Yes, and the maturity of the filmmaker to be more precise. With Willis Earl Beal, it was just a constant generation of new ideas, and I felt exhilarated by that. The film needed to get lost to find itself. Whereas in Dark Night, it really had to tell a specific story and have a specific timeline for the sake of these people—these characters—and what they were up against by the end of the film. 

"A lot of cinematographers care solely about the image or solely about light, but Hélène cares so much about story."

NFS: What kind of conversations do you have with your cinematographer initially when thinking about the visual scope of the film?

Sutton: I'm kind of a makeshift photographer. I'm not a trained photographer, but I do a lot of stuff with Instagram, and I take a lot of photographs. My photographs are much more about very small characters and very big landscapes. So I wanted to use the idea of this manmade structure all around us—the strip mall and the streetlights as the new field and tree. I wanted to [show] that manmade surroundings had taken over for nature. Nature was going to be a nice breath of fresh air for one moment in the film. 

Dn_01_0'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

Sutton: So I showed Hélène [Louvart, the cinematograspher] my photographs, some photographs of Sally Mann, and some photographs of Stephen Shore. For the interiors, we discussed photography of Cogito, which we both like a lot. And she would send me some ideas as well as far as references go. Hélène is a very well-respected cinematographer in Europe. And she took the time to watch both my films. When it came to Dark Night, she said, "Your film has to start wide and end at a point." And I had already discussed the film as having to feel like a funnel—to go from slow and ethereal, to go from [wide] into something completely narrow and hard and cold and tight.

We both knew the same bones of the story. Hélène is really invested in the storytelling. A lot of cinematographers care solely about the image or solely about light, but Hélène cares so much about story that it forced us to make each detail come alive. It was invaluable—her investment in the characters, in the story.

NFS: In terms of the story.... I read this book last year called One of Us: The Story of Andres Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. Did you read it?

Sutton: No, should I?

NFS: You should. It's about the shooting on that small island in Norway. A lot of it deals with the fact that it's impossible to make sense out of senseless murder. Many stories try to do that, but yours doesn't. Instead, it turns the lens on people's lives: the only thing that matters is who these people were. 

Sutton: I definitely want to read that book. The only book that I read as research was Dave Cullen from the New York Times, his book on Columbine. I kept telling myself, "I am not an expert on gun control or gun violence. I'm not an expert on mental health. I'm not an expert on any of this. All I know is that I feel comfortable forming a lens on a specific place and observing that place." What came out of that was very isolated people, a very sterile, man-made environment, and an obsession with technology, whether it's the tools of communication or the tools of violence.

"A lot of these shooters are trying to make their mark. They're trying to be special, and this is their way to do it."

I want people to think when they see the film: "We don't know anything about killers, but we know something about ourselves. We are the killer as well. We're all suffering or can suffer from the same malaise and the same isolation and the same feelings." 

1200_3'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

NFS: Instead of getting inside the killer's mind, you wanted to show his humanity. 

Sutton: Yeah, I just wanted to watch him. You know the car ride when he's naming all those names? He's driving. He starts naming names. I got that idea because when my mom can't sleep at night, to put herself to sleep and test her memory, she starts naming all the people she went to Kindergarten with. I always found that so weird and fascinating, so I had him do that. I got it from something completely benign and innocent. But when you give that same kind of idea to him and couple that with him counting his steps, it's like he's training himself [for the shooting].

"I look at Instagram as the most beautiful mirror of my life—not the true mirror of my life, but the beautiful mirror of my life."

It's all creative fiction. None of that is taken from James Holmes' journal or anybody else's journal. I felt like putting some of my imagination into this character, who is just going about his own day in his own way. His day just [happens to] consist of preparing to orchestrate a massacre. This is just his day. I was not trying to make him an evil guy or some kind of caricature. 

NFS: Or some sort of mastermind. Because the media seems to have an obsession with pegging mass shooters as masterminds. 

Sutton: Exactly. We don't know his plan. He might have shot anyone. Maybe he would have then gone to every house. You know, he's acting out of his own volition and out of his own logic. But that logic isn't evil genius. I think the act is evil— what he does—but I don't know anything about evil. I think a lot of these shooters are trying to make their mark. They're trying to be special, and this is their way to do it. 

Dark-night_2'Dark Night'Credit: Cinelicious Pics

NFS: Do think that's exacerbated by an emphasis on specialness in our culture? Everyone is supposed to be the most special version of themselves.

Sutton: I can't say for sure, but I do think we live in a culture where we're all superstars in our own Instagram feed. I'm absolutely part of that. The Instagram selfie girl in the movie is based on me. There was a point in time where I was doing a lot of exercise videos. I look at Instagram as the most beautiful mirror of my life—not the true mirror of my life, but the beautiful mirror of my life. And if you look at my Instagram feed, I have the most beautiful kids, I have the most wonderful life, and I'm super creative. But I don't take the picture of the shitty meals that I make. I don't take the pictures of when my son's a jerk to me, or I'm a jerk to my son. 

So I do think there's this constant beautification that we're doing with our tools. We are becoming the star of our own pictures. I do think shooters—at least some of them—see people like Dillon Klebold as a martyr. In their own way, they're getting in line because they know at the end of that line there is stardom. There's notoriety.

That's why, in the movie, we show the person behind the camera asking Jumper [the shooter] if that's his movie star face. And he says, "I sure hope so." He wants to be a star.