You have to read Steven Soderbergh’s advice to emerging director Andrew Patterson
“The Vast of Night” is an ambitious, enigmatic science-fiction story set in a small town in 1950s New Mexico. Taking place over the course of one night, as most of the town is preoccupied with a high school basketball game, a local radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and telephone switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) notice something strange is happening, something with perhaps extraterrestrial origins.
The movie, available on Amazon Prime starting Friday, is the feature directing debut of Andrew Patterson. It premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival before moving on to other festivals, including the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Critic Amy Taubin, writing for Film Comment, declared the film “a display of visionary moviemaking intelligence” while comparing it to such notable debuts as Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko,” Shane Carruth’s “Primer” and Christopher Nolan’s “Following.”
Around Slamdance, “The Vast of Night” caught the attention of Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who was there that year to premiere his “High Flying Bird” and pick up the festival’s Founders Award. He reached out to meet Patterson, and while he has no official title or role with the movie, Soderbergh has become a friend and mentor to Patterson.
Patterson, who will be 38 in June, is for now staying put during the COVID-19 crisis in Oklahoma City, where he has a commercial production business. He has already shot another film, a revenge thriller about beekeepers, but now isn’t sure if he wants that to come out before the other projects he is currently developing.
With Soderbergh in New York and Patterson in Oklahoma, the two recently connected via video conference to talk advice and influences.
Andrew, you’ve said that you submitted “The Vast of Night” to something like 18 festivals before you got into Slamdance. What kept you going through that phase?
Patterson: That was all the year of 2018 and that was pretty rough for me. Because that was the only feedback I had. I didn’t have any mentor or connection to the film industry. No agent, no manager, nothing. We started with Sundance, South-by, Tribeca. Every one of them said no. And then on a whim, at the end of 2018, I submitted to Slamdance. I did it on my phone. I just clicked and then I went back to what I was doing, thinking that they won’t take my movie either.
And so to answer your original question, how did I get through that? You know, I have a wonderful wife who kept saying, “You did something good here.” I had a couple of wonderful producers on “Vast of Night” named Adam Dietrich and Melissa Kirkendall, and they were very supportive. But a lot of it was just kind of being patient and holding on.
Steven, when you saw the movie just ahead of its premiere at Slamdance, what was it that struck you about it?
Soderbergh: In my mind there are three components to directing that a filmmaker should have some grasp of. The first being narrative, the second being performance and the third being the camera. There have been very good people who’ve had very good careers knowing one of those things or two of those things. But it’s rare to see somebody that I felt had a grasp of all three, and a pretty significant, sophisticated grasp, not only in one movie but in a first film. As Andrew’s career develops I’m sure we’ll get a sense of what other things he’s interested in by watching the films that he makes. But this seemed to have a level of craft that was extraordinary for somebody who’d never made a feature before.
One of the things that I was thinking about, Andrew, when we were preparing for this was to talk about what were you using as sort of Rosetta stones as you worked your way through the development of it, the shooting of it, the finishing of it. I usually have a bag of homework of films that I watch over and over again to sort of analyze how they’re executing certain things that I like. What were you looking at?
Patterson: I love that question. I don’t usually get to talk as much shorthand because I’m not usually talking to other directors. I think you could immediately see a huge influence is “All the President’s Men,” characters on phones having to figure out something bigger than them. That was a huge kind of North Star influence.
For me, visually, also was a movie that came out not too long ago called “’71,” Yann Demange’s movie from 2014. When you hear that and then you look at “Vast of Night,” you can almost see like a one-to-one, how much we stole that visual and a little bit the structure even, a movie that takes place over nine or 10 hours in one general location. That was really important to me.
I think when I feel like I cracked the idea of “Vast of Night,” it was me thinking there were two big ones. First was the visuals of Yann Demange’s “’71,” the second was the Melvin Belli [Brian Cox] phone call in the middle of the movie “Zodiac.” When I saw that [David] Fincher had taken the time in “Zodiac” to not let you see the other side of a phone call, I thought that was brilliant. I remember texting one of the [“Vast of Night”] writers; I said, “Why don’t we stop the movie in the middle act and just have a phone call?” And I said, “If we could pull this off, this movie might be special.”
That was kind of my structural linchpin for the movie. Those three in particular, and then probably the fourth would be something like a mixture of any of the Richard Linklater [films], a character-driven “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” watching characters have interactions with each other, especially in the first act of a movie. I think you can get away with that a long time — just watching two people figure each other out. So that’s why we took the time on “Vast of Night” to do about 20 minutes of two characters interacting. That would have been something I grabbed from any of Linklater’s movies.
Andrew, when the film finally did premiere at Slamdance and Steven reaches out, what was your first thought?
Patterson: I don’t want to embarrass Steven. I’ll just pretend that he’s not on the call. But it was a little hard for me to believe initially. I was working at movie theaters and I was a projectionist [in 1998] when “Out of Sight” hit theaters. We didn’t get “The Limey” in Oklahoma City, unfortunately. But then [came] “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” and then “Ocean’s 11” and “Solaris” and so on. So I kind of had the porthole view of his movies through the projection booth. I built up 35-millimeter prints of his movies as a 19-, 20-year-old. And so when we get the call, when my team says Steven wants to watch the movie, I thought initially, he won’t watch it. Why would he want to watch my movie? This is at the end of the year of 18 film festival rejections.
And so we get to Slamdance and he’s there and he still wants to meet and he’s seen the movie. I felt a little bit like — I once read Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Steven Spielberg wanting to talk to him about “Boogie Nights” and he said that it felt like he was being called into the principal’s office. In a little way it felt like that for me, for him to want to talk to me was surprising. It was the first industry meeting I’d ever had. I didn’t have a meeting with an agent or a manager or a publicist or anything before that. It was really a special hour to kind of get to tell somebody whose work I admired, ”OK, here were some of the things I did.”
Steven, I’m assuming you had questions of your own for Andrew as well as just lending your support.
Soderbergh: I had a lot of questions about how he’d accomplished these very complex sequences. But also I wanted to know something about him — who he was, where he came from, how he grew up and all of that. We were in some coffee shop or something; I just remember it was loud. One of the first things I wanted to know was: What else are you working on? What do you want to do? In your mind, what’s the five-year plan?
I guess the way I responded to the movie, I looked at it like, well, this guy’s not going to have a problem getting work. Like I would be throwing money at this guy. So we talked a little bit about that. I think it’s helpful to demystify, if possible, the business for anybody who’s now starting to navigate it.
I just wanted to be a sounding board, if I can help. If somebody comes to me and goes, “Wow, I’m being told these three different things by three different people, what should I be listening to?” I’m happy to use whatever experiences I’ve had to say, “Well, I think that sounds reasonable. I think that sounds like bull.... And the middle one sounds like something that you’ve already passed up and you’ve moved beyond. So I would ignore that one.”
Because sometimes it’s hard to know where north is, especially when people are saying things that they think you want to hear. And so I have a real empathy for anybody in that situation.
One of the first things I did after “Sex, Lies” emerged at Sundance and at Cannes: I moved back to Charlottesville, Va., and got married. In my life I’d separated myself pretty drastically from the parts of the business that I felt really weren’t going to be helpful to me. It didn’t seem like hanging out and becoming a social Hollywood person was going to really help my advancement as an artist. So I really stepped away from that and I appreciated my sense that Andrew was, as I was, a sort of a regional filmmaker who, despite the fact that I live in New York, has spent a lot of time living outside of the film business.
Steven, did you have any other questions or anything you specifically wanted to talk about now with Andrew?
Soderbergh: Where is your credit?
Patterson: You caught that? You know, I came into this [film] basically without the intention of it doing anything. My only objective on this movie was maybe somebody will pay for my next one. That was it. I didn’t expect to get my money back. I didn’t expect to get an agency and build a network. I’ve watched a lot of people gravitate toward social media and gravitate toward almost tricking themselves into thinking that they are very important directors and screenwriters. And so I stayed away from social media because I never wanted to feel like 200 followers made me a brilliant creative individual. I chose to hide out more than anyone I know. And I stayed off of all of them, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. So when I got to this movie with this credit, I mean, I’m the one typing the credits in. I’m literally the one typing with my own fingers. And it felt pretentious for some reason to write “directed by Andrew Patterson.”
I love this movie, I’m proud of this movie, but it felt maybe like I appreciated the fact that I hadn’t disrupted my life by letting myself be accessible. And so I kind of wanted to stay out on the mountain, like a hermit. I thought it would be more fun 50 or a hundred years from now if somebody watched it and they didn’t see a name and then they kind of got to go down a scavenger hunt to figure out who this guy was. That was the end reasoning for it to keep my name out of the film altogether.