Though it’s currently in a few drive-in theaters, on Friday, May 29, The Vast of Night will be dropping for everyone on Amazon Prime. The movie from first-time director Andrew Patterson is an ambitious one. Set in the framework of the fictional Paradox Theater, a Twilight Zone-esque TV show, the story unfolds at the tail end of the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War. Our two plucky protagonists are Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), radio DJ for the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, and 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a precocious girl working her shift as the town’s switchboard operator. While the rest of the town is huddled in the high school gymnasium for the first basketball game of the season, Everett spins tunes and delivers the nightly news while Fay fields the evening calls coming in and out of town.
But as the night unfolds, Fay and Everett start to pick up on a strange signal coming through their speakers. It’s eerie. It’s unusual. And after speaking to a radio caller and a witness in town, the pair start to believe that maybe they’re not alone…and something is up there in the sky over the town. Vast is a throwback sci-fi movie of a bygone era, but it’s full of interesting camera work. Long takes eat up minutes, one-take tracking shots swoop through town, characters walk and talk as the camera follows them.
I was excited to sit down with co-lead Jake Horowitz to discuss what it was like getting to be part of such a fun, ambitious movie. Full disclosure, I saw it at last year’s Fantastic Fest and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. We talked about nailing the cadence of a mid-century radio DJ, the deep research involved for this movie, and how his theater training helped tremendously with a movie like this.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This movie has such an interesting cadence of dialogue. It’s one of the most “talky” movies I’ve seen in years, but it’s never boring because each character has such distinct linguistic rhythms. Everett has that rapid-fire patter of a mid-century radio disc jockey. Was it hard to nail that rhythm?
Jake Horowitz: It may have been hard, but I don’t really remember that part of it. I actually remember it being so – the music of it was so there that in memorizing it, it was easy because after I sort of bought in to this kind of language, the next thing I’d want to say ended up being pretty similar to what was already written. So it was actually really fun in that way. But I do want to agree with what you said: The way that there are distinctions between people in the script is incredible. It totally read like that from my first reading of it. It reads sort of like a Coen brothers script or an Aaron Sorkin script. The different people each have such a distinct and fun way of talking that you just want to keep reading. I agree, the language is such a big part of the texture of the film and why you’re able to keep watching through very long takes and through lots of walking and talking. It’s because that cadence feels so authentic. In retrospect, it was really just more fun to work on something so different-sounding than difficult.
Was all of that on the page or did you improv any?
JH: You know, it’s funny. I really think there were one or two moments of improv in the whole thing. Almost everything we did and said was in the writing. Which was incredible because me and Sierra [McCormick] found such a good groove that things just started to feel improvised, and that’s the most fun for an actor. There’s one moment where this car is driving by, Andrew [Patterson] was like, “Just yell something out!” and I think I just yell out, like, “Wahoo! I’m Everett, they like me.”
Right! I think it was something like, “That’s the Coyotes! I’m Everett, I like that cat.”
That’s right! It was the Coyotes in the car. We cut and Andrew just cracked up, like, “We’re not going to get better than that, let’s move on.”
Even with the tough dialogue, there’s still a lot of sly humor in it, especially from Everett and his neverending impatience with Fay. With a script like that, you really have to nail the chemistry with the other actor. You and Sierra hit it off, though.
Sierra is a total dream. She’s such a pro and we were – I mean, we had this amazing gift of a week of rehearsal before we started, which is such a game-changer for actors and it makes just the whole process way more fun and trusting. Doing it with Sierra, we sort of just hit this groove where we’d drift in and out of characters. You know, we’d be joking as ourselves but that sort of became so close to what we were doing when the camera was on.
The blocking of this movie is unique. Scenes are shot from behind you, actors in the same shot are often blocked very unusually. Orson Welles often said it was a lot easier for him to shoot Citizen Kane‘s ambitious camerawork because he used all his theater players and their stage work made it easier to block. With your theater background, did you find that helped you intuitively understand how to position yourself with the strange shots?
Yeah, that’s a great point. Me and Andrew talked about that from the first Skype meeting we had, we talked about how my theater background would help in this. I think the way it helped most is that theater acting is so 360, you know? Once you’re on stage, you’re on. You’re completely visible and what you think and feel, that’s part of the story. So I think it did help me feel comfortable telling a story with a camera at my back, which is a weird thing most of the time. But I feel like my theater work helped me be in charge of the story and just blocking a little different, and whatever. You still need to be able to find a way. So yeah, I totally think it helped me and helped Andrew sort of know how to talk to me, as well. And Andrew also took a lot of inspiration from radio plays in making this.
Yes! I loved the feel of a radio play, framing it as a throwback Twilight Zone-esque episode of TV and really digging into the history of that era. Did you do a lot of research for this? Because it is so steeped in that 1950s, Cold War, Soviet-era history.
The research was so fun for this. A lot of the research was listening to music, which was great. I learned about so much music from that period. I just kind of had it on repeat for a few months before we started shooting. But also there’s just such great YouTube footage and recording of radio DJs from that time. The personas and their attitude, I think my banter was an amalgamation of YouTube. And then when we were down there (shooting), from the first night they had a reel-to-reel recorder in my hotel room and so it was just like practicing guitar. I’d work on it for 10, 15 minutes a day just doing the sort of tactile things like that to get me into it. Sometimes research can feel very heady, you know? Like, okay, I’m learning all this but how is it actually going to get into my body and be useful to me in playing the part? And so it was so great to have these tactile things to work on while listening to the music from the period.
Was there any specific DJ from that era you modeled yourself after?
There’s no one, it was just listening to all of them. Oh, but apparently there’s a picture of a radio DJ from that era who looks kind of like me. When Andrew sent it to me – I probably still have it somewhere – but I had that pulled up on my iPad throughout filming because it was inspirational to see. I do think the costume is based on this guy – just a small, radio DJ and he’s wearing big glasses and a cardigan and thinking that he rules the world [laughing].
But you have to admire Everett’s no-nonsense, can-do attitude. I think the line that made me laugh aloud was the one about not caring about seeing Gretchen in her nightgown.
Oh, yeah! [laughing] I’m glad you liked that one.
It’s such an ambitious project. What did it feel like when you finally sat down and watched the final cut for the first time?
Man. Well, the first time I saw the final cut was at Slamdance with an actual audience.
That’s really cool.
Yeah. It was incredible. You know, Andrew had kept me and Sierra up to date, but everything we’d seen was without that final touch. Without the music, without the color, all of that. So the first time, getting to see that in a packed audience, was unforgettable. The feeling of people watching it with us was as memorable to me as the movie itself because just seeing that these things worked, these ways that we were hoping, you know, that, like, the tension would build and the audience would focus in. It was just joyful to feel that happening and to see all these long takes, this really ambitious, beautiful thing come together.
When the storytelling characters are telling their stories, it’s honestly unsettling because of their conviction as they’re telling them. Did doing this movie ever change your mind? You know, “Man, maybe there is something up there. Maybe we’re not alone.”
I totally think maybe there is something up there. If anything, this movie made me have to be okay with that. [laughing] It’s such a scary idea – maybe, maybe they’re there. And if they do ever come down, I want to be on the side of people who were like, “I’ve always believed in you! So don’t hurt me. Take the nonbelievers!”
The Vast of Night is currently in drive-in theaters and hits Amazon Prime on Friday, May 29th.