How ‘The Vast of Night’ aims to tell a retro sci-fi story with a fresh touch

May 28, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

The Vast of Night isn’t shy about referencing The Twilight Zone. In fact, the film is framed very similarly to an episode of the Rod Serling series, informing viewers that they’re being transported to the “Paradox Theater.”

But while such genre references are peppered throughout the movie—available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday—director Andrew Patterson also saw the film, his feature debut, as an opportunity to tell a familiar tale a little differently.

“I was very much obsessed with getting to play with the medium of cinema,” Patterson tells Fortune, noting that the script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger felt similar to stage and radio plays, with elements of a modern-day podcast.

The story, set in the 1950s, focuses on two teens—switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz)—as they investigate a strange audio frequency detected in their small New Mexico town. The tale essentially unfolds in real time, and while it pays homage to UFO stories familiar to fans of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The X-Files, the influence of films like All the President’s Men and Zodiac—which Patterson is open about—is also clear.

The Vast of Night
Jake Horowitz as Everett (left) and Sierra McCormick as Fay in “The Vast of Night,” which arrives on Amazon Prime Video on May 29.
Amazon Studios

“As actors, we always thought of it as more of like a [Richard] Linklater movie,” says Horowitz, who was drawn to the “amazing rhythm” and “musical” qualities of the script. “It’s more a slice of life, it’s more real-time, it’s more—how would this actually happen?”

The project’s rich script and dialogue weren’t the only qualities that appealed to the actors. McCormick, whose character reminded her of her younger sister, says the role was too good to pass up.

“Characters like Fay for actresses just don’t come along all that often,” says McCormick, who notes that she is a “nuanced real kind of female character that…has this wonderful arc throughout the movie, where in the beginning she is more hesitant to assert herself in situations, she’s more timid, she’s more self-conscious maybe about taking charge in situations, and then by the end of the film, she’s taking charge, she’s asserting herself, she’s bossing Everett around, she’s leading this adventure.”

The production design team worked hard to give the film a true ’50s quality—Patterson says this is evident in the smallest details, such as characters’ watches and glasses, as well as the technology seen on-screen. When they weren’t actively shooting the film, Horowitz says he played around with reel-to-reel tape recorders in his hotel room. McCormick, who looked up footage from the era on YouTube, had a switchboard to practice with, which she did repeatedly until she captured the quick flick-of-the-wrist movement she noticed in old videos.

“I wanted to make sure it…looked authentic, and it didn’t look like I was an actress from the 2000s fumbling through this crazy technology,” she says.

The Vast of Night
McCormick practiced how to use a switchboard to get in character as Fay.
Amazon Studios

Part of the film’s atmosphere is established by the fact that it was shot at night. But this also presented challenges. “When you shoot at night, you have to light everything. There isn’t any available opportunity for you to just turn the camera on,” says Patterson, who notes that the team had to work quickly within the constraints of when the sun rose and set, eventually wrapping up the shoot after 17 days. “Anytime we had to pick up and relocate or move the shoot even just 10 or 15 feet, we lost a lot of time.”

That made for some tension when Horowitz shot a key radio station scene.

“They did it about six times, and it sort of ends on me,” he says, adding that he was more concerned than usual about making a mistake. “This incredible long shot was ending on me and it was pretty simple. I just have to stand there, smoke a cigarette, then pick up a phone. But the pressure of doing that at five in the morning, after they have spent six hours lighting this whole street, that was pretty intense.”

Many of the movie’s scenes involve long takes of dialogue—including one with a radio station caller who isn’t seen on-screen, and the viewer rarely gets to witness a moment without one or both of the main characters in the frame. The one time this changes is during a particularly long take about half an hour into the film, when the audience gets a sweeping view of what’s happening across the town. Patterson says this was an “intentional point in the movie” meant to highlight how the main characters were isolated from others in their town, while also allowing for a change in pace.

“We know that the viewer gets used to the pace and the rhythm of what you’re doing,” he says. “Everything eventually gets clocked and tracked by a viewer, and if you aren’t evolving ahead of them, your movie will stop being interesting.

“We knew we needed to change from the location we were at and we needed to do it in an invigorating, exciting way.”

The film was shot during the fall of 2016, with Patterson spending a couple of years on production before it could hit the film festival circuit. It’s coming out now on Amazon Prime Video, after playing at select drive-in theaters the weekend of May 15, a release strategy tied to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Horowitz and McCormick are both upbeat about how the film has rolled out to audiences. “The idea that we would not have released this in drive-ins now seems crazy,” says Horowitz, adding that there’s also a huge audience for the movie on the streaming side, with many people inside all the time.

McCormick agrees with both assessments. She also had a chance to catch the movie at a drive-in theater in California; hearing the audio through the car radio made certain scenes in the film feel even more true to the story, she says.

“The drive-in atmosphere and that sort of way of viewing just really lends itself to the whimsy of the film and the nostalgia and the time period,” she says.

Meanwhile, Patterson admits that it’s been a “little disheartening” that the movie didn’t get a chance to make it to “hundreds of screens.”

“But at the same time, with as many movies getting pulled and relocated and shifted around, and release dates getting moved around, I think we may get more attention than we would have otherwise,” he says. “So that’s the silver lining in our situation.”

The Vast of Night will be available on Amazon Prime Video May 29.