When you learn to expect failure, and forget about promoting your film, you leave more room for the possibilities of cinema. That’s the guiding principle behind Patterson’s debut feature The Vast of Night, which is ripe full of intricate long takes, exceptional 1950s sets, and surprisingly long moments where the screen goes black. (Completely black!) He left everything on the table stylistically when making this film, which premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival to programmer Blake Robbins calling him a talent discovery akin to Christopher Nolan or Lynn Shelton.
Patterson started his career by founding a production company in Oklahoma, where the team paid their dues shooting all kinds of commercial work, and landed them as one of the first groups to buy a Movi gimbal. With their skill sets, Patterson knew he was ready to get into features, and went through a bunch of different ideas. One of them said: 1950s UFO film.
“I had this image, what if somebody took that seriously?” he explained to No Film School. “Instead of turning it into a cable drama, what if you just went through what it would feel like to systematically learn that something special was happening and take it seriously?”
Patterson sat down with No Film School before the 2019 Slamdance premiere of the film to talk about shooting the film in RED DRAGONS at 2000 ISO, the skid in the tate of cinema, and why you should worry less about promoting your film than just putting the work out there and waiting for the world to give you a verdict.
NFS: I'd love to ask you about the filmmaking strategies with this film, because there's a lot of interesting stuff going on. I want to say visual strategies but then at some point, the screen does go blank! Can you give us some insight behind the filmmaking concepts for this film?
Patterson: A lot of my inspiration at the window of time where this was being crafted, wasn't film anymore. It was novels and podcasts and other forms of media. I obsessively looked for ways to introduce opportunities that maybe aren't being possibly explored in cinema. I hate to say it, but I feel like cinema, right now, has hit some kind of plateau or skid or a dead end. I would love to see it get more interesting, get it cracked open.
So everything was on the table with The Vast Night. I mean, there was a window in time where I wanted to turn off the screen for 10 minutes and make you listen to that radio conversation. Eventually different ideas came out. We found a really good creative compromise. We wanted long conversations that were radio. We wanted it to feel like any turn could happen. You could run into 10-minute takes. You could run into really fast editing. You could run into really emotionally poignant moments. You could run into slapstick. There were no boundaries for this film, I guess.
NFS: You mention in there these long takes. There's all kinds of long take tracking shots and still shots all which I enjoyed very much. At one point there’s a scene with the main young actress at the switchboard taking calls, and I want it’s a 20-minute take! What was the philosophy of those long unbroken takes and how did you pull them off?
Patterson: I am going to answer those in reverse order. I had done a lot of commercial work and a lot of motion work. We were one of the first people in the world to own gimbals. We were shooting professional sports things that you could only get one take with cameras moving. So we were never scared of any of that logistically. When we armed up our production, everyone was doing what we asked them to do, you know, grip and electric and camera. But there was always a little bit of, “Oh my gosh, who is this guy? And how is this going to work?” I found some very good collaborators that believed, and they made up for people who hadn't been a part of it yet. A lot of people once they've been a part of something, they will believe. But if they haven't, it just doesn't enter their spectrum of possibility.
Logistically, for example, the shot with our lead actress who does the whole cordboard scene is about 10 minutes. I'm glad you thought it was 20, but it's about 10. We put a switchboard in her hotel room. We showed her how to work it, and we made sure she knew exactly what she was doing. So when she came in on that night, she nailed it. The long crazy shot that goes through town was a lot of ballet. We used a lot of locals with very rural resources, like go-karts, trucks, gators, and things that let us hand the camera off and push it through windows and run it down streets. The kid that ran the go-kart is an 18 year old at the local town we shot in. We put that camera three or four inches off the ground and we would drive 40 miles and hour until it moved into this area. There were a lot of technical things that had to go into it, but also several months of prep.
"...I feel like cinema, right now, has hit some kind of plateau or skid or a dead end."
Patterson: As for the philosophy behind it, one of the shots is definitely just to wake you up. Not that the movie is boring, but great cinema is about managing people's attention span, as much as anything. Great long stories are as much about changing things up so it continues to be interesting the whole time. To me this movie was three conversations in three different rooms. That's what the movie was. It was a conversation in a switch board room with a girl by herself. It was a conversation in a radio station with a guy by himself. And it was a conversation with an old lady in her living room.
That can get real boring, real fast! Those were big things to go up against. So we built things in between each of them to shake you awake. That was some of the logic. Now another bit of the logic is, I'm motivated heavily but what dates a film. I don't care if people like this movie in 2019. I care if people like this movie in 2039, 2049. I want to make a film like All the President's Men. I want to make films like Network. So if you watch those, they are careful about cutting. They are careful about lighting. They are careful about performance. They are careful about a lot of things that get sucked up into the philosophy, or the feeling or the tone or the trends of that time.
I didn't want any of that. I stayed away from anything that I thought would be trendy or reveal the time it was made. So that was a lot of logic. Look, I'm going to keep the camera going, and I'm going to figure out a way to make the performances and the drama as interesting as possible so we don't need to cut. So we don't need heavy-handed acting. So we don't need more plot points and too many plot twists inside of a 90-minute movie. I'm going to try to make it so that you're along for the ride, and I hope we succeeded. I feel like we did. But that was the philosophy, make something that would date well and keep people engaged without having to play tricks.
NFS: Given how complicated some of these visuals are that you and [DP Miguel I. Littin-Menz] created, can you tell us about what you used, in terms of camera and lenses or any other tools, to pull everything off?
Patterson: I live in Oklahoma. There is maybe one rental house. So if you need gear, you've got to buy it. My production company had done commercials from about 2013 to 2015, 2016. And still kind of do. But, now we're doing features.
We used my production company cameras, which at the time we had two RED DRAGONS with the DRAGON sensor and we shot at 6K. We shot the movie almost entirely at 2000 ISO which let us see a lot in the dark. It gave a graininess to the movie that I wanted. We were probably one of the first companies, first 50 or 100 companies to buy a Movi gimbal, way back when they were $15,000. So we paid out heavily for that gimbal!
And we used it almost the entire film. I wouldn't say every shot, but most shots the gimbal was floating or moving or being pushed in a lot. We used Zeiss Superspeed Mark 3 and we pulled those all the way open. We shot those at 1.3 the entire movie because I wanted the aesthetic. The way the Zeiss worked with the digital sensors was beautiful to my eye.
"...we had two RED DRAGONS with the DRAGON sensor and we shot at 6K. We shot the movie almost entirely at 2000 ISO which let us see a lot in the dark."
Then when we did re-shoots, believe it or not, we dropped all the way down and did some scenes on Canon L Series still glass. And those cut in fine. I can see it just a little bit. I can see contrast and crunchiness in those lenses. But I can also see what nobody else can. So that was an encouraging thing for, I thought of as a DYI filmmaker was that under the right circumstances you could use an $800 lens and mix it with a $8,000 lens or $20,000 lens and it wouldn’t necessarily show the difference.
So those were the tools. Then a lot of proprietary made-up stuff where we were running go-karts. We bought some things that didn't work. Ultimately, like I said, we're using rural farm tools almost as much as anything. I had people welding stuff together for us and that was crazy. Some of the stuff we did was stupid, but it served the film and it served the vision. That was the tool set.
A still from 'The Vast of Night' by Andrew Patterson set amidst a radio DJ and strange signal interferrences one night in 1950s New Mexico.Credit: The Vast of Night
"If you're trying to protect yourself from fucking up, and not putting something shitty out into the world, you'll never get off the ground."
NFS: With your production company you’ve made all kinds of stuff but this being your first completed feature, so what would be your advice for other filmmakers?
Patterson: Get ready to fail and create an awful lot. I've done 1000 pieces of media before I made this film. Everything from roofing ads for local businesses, to documentaries, to anything you can imagine. And you learn through that process. If you're trying to protect yourself from fucking up, and not putting something shitty out into the world, you'll never get off the ground.
I am adamant that if you can get something made, do it. I’m not an advocate of people putting out stuff and then promoting it. The world will tell you if what you’ve made is good. It will. It will give you the green light or the thumbs up or whatever. I made this film very quietly, very personally, with no social media. Nothing. And Slamdance came back and said we want it. So that’s what I would say. Make something and then let the world tell you what they think of it. And then no matter what, whether you like the answer or not, turn right around and make something else.
I've already shot another feature since this one, and it's being post produced right now. I plan on making one every year because I didn't know if this one was going to go anywhere. So to anybody that's making stuff, keep pushing, and be ready to screw up.
The Vast of Night is now on Amazon Prime.