Sundance 2016 Interview: Bleak Day, DARK NIGHT - Words With Tim Sutton
The method in which Dark Night provides its food for thought is so apropos to the Colorado shooting that took place at a multiplex screening of the most anticipated blockbuster of the summer '12 movie season, you can't help but feel like a potential victim of such a massacre. All public shootings are utterly terrifying, but that unspeakable night struck a particularly deep nerve on account of how much weight our society places on the value of escapism and the safe, almost religious, gathering ritual of the movie-going experience. Everyone reading this could have been there. Maybe one of us will be there tomorrow. It's too haunting to handle, but Sutton gracefully insists upon its important.
The film consists of bittersweet fragments of American youth. Sutton's teenagers hang out in parking lots, work mind-numbing jobs, fantasize about power. Their parents are doing the best they can. They yearn for popularity. They struggle to keep the demons of loneliness and alienation at bay. Some grasp for relevance; others demand to exist. Some will do so through provocative selfies. Others will do so via attention-grabbing acts of violence as a desperate means to claim their voice.
In Dark Night, the beauty of youth floats alongside a looming horror always threatening to poison innocence and arbitrarily destroy families. Sutton softly expresses a hard concern that doesn't preach, nor does it exercise a blunt agenda. The film exists to better understand how these things happen in hopes of getting closer to the roots of the issue. He's not so bold as to claim an answer, but he does have a strong compulsion towards exposing the question and inspiring the conversation.
Shortly after Dark Night had its Sundance premiere, I had the pleasure of engaging Sutton in one such discussion. Here's hoping his film provokes many more. American safety might just depend upon it.
ScreenAnarchy: Can you talk a little bit about experiencing Maica Mata's music for the first time and how that got your imagination going?
Tim Sutton: Sure. I was at the RIDM Documentary Festival in Montreal, which was great because Memphis was not a documentary but they wanted to bring it in as a new take on cinema. It being Montreal, they have music every night, and I was running into some people and I was like, "Oh are you going to go see the music?" They're like, "No, it's really depressing tonight." I was like, "Ooh!"
I went and it was this big room and there was this woman singing with a guitar and the floor was empty and as soon as I heard a single note I went and I stood right in front of her, right underneath her, and I saw my movie for the first time. I really did. I had not written a word. I knew I had a concept, I had a treatment. We were going back and forth to Sarasota to try and start finding types of people that were inspiring and shore up financing, but her music came down like a cloud of dark prayer. I just knew right then and there that I wanted the music.
I wanted her to be near us and to be a character in the film, just so she could experience what a character would feel like, what these other people were like, what the landscape felt like, and she'd go back to her little bedroom and play for a couple hours and that's the score.
What kind of images did her performance start inciting in you that night?
The imagery in my head was always very clearly parking lots. Very clearly streetlights. Very clearly the 21st century nature. The style that I enjoy is long tracking shots or pushing in or coming out, exploring visually all these man-made landscapes. For me, her voice was what sensitized that. Not sensitized, but wrapped that in a little bit of earth or something more heavenly in a way. I wanted to have this voice that came from the sky or came from the passing breeze that would help bring a sense of humanism to this oppressive landscape.
Speaking of your understated camera work, I love where you choose to place the camera. Can you talk a little bit about your eye. When you enter a scene, how do you go about selecting your angle for it to all play out? I'm not entirely sure why, but one image that comes to mind is in that Price Club type store. You have the camera in the aisle.
The first thing is because of my aesthetic, but also because of logistics, I often choose very few ways to cover a scene. I don't like over the shoulder, reverse shots. I don't like coverage. I don't like an establishing shot just outside a building that's kind of flat. It always depresses me whenever I see it in a movie and it's hard for me because if I'm inspired by the image then I know that I can translate that into somebody else being inspired by the image. What I'll do is I'll look around the room, this time with Helen and we'll try to find one way to cover a scene and see everything.
I didn't want the typical wide shot of the whole Gursky kind of shot. As much as I wanted to feel like these people are so small in this giant marketplace of goods that nobody needs, I wanted to be in a corridor. I wanted to see all this stuff. I wanted to see people walking by and feel both middle America, suburban America, but also just the weirdness of... those stores are so weird. They're so big, they're too big. I wanted to place people very small in the frame. At the same time, I did the same thing but opposite when that young woman is walking to the beach. I wanted all of a sudden that danger that we're feeling to be like she's dwarfed by what's left of the natural world, so I wanted to always make her feel small.
A shot has to inspire me. I can't say I have a very specific way that I want to do something. It comes through dialogue with the DP. It comes through logistically where you are. I do have a sense of how I want to reveal people, that I don't always want to see their front. That I often want to see their back so you wish you could see their front. It's all about the ideas of not shooting a play, not shooting a close-up constantly, but to think of ways that you look at people when you're in this room and you're looking at that guy through her. To create something that's more authentic and not something that's obviously perfectly staged.
When you began to think about your characters and the types of teens you wanted to portray, how did you land on these specific kids? What about their stories did you want to represent about American youth?
I don't think it's just about American youth because I do think there are people, let's say in their 30s, in the movie. I wanted to see a suburban America that people would recognize. And I live in New York. I don't want to make a New York movie because I wanted to make something that was where these shootings are happening and where they most likely could happen. America is a big place and I didn't want to make anything that was necessarily geared toward New York and LA, but geared towards my cousins in Phoenix.
I wanted to make something that people could recognize - not stereotypes, but archetypes. I knew I wanted to have a vet. I knew I wanted to have a troubled teenager. I knew I wanted to have a Latina who was trying to get out of her status as immigrant, and I knew I wanted to have a fit selfie freak because I think that was an important statement for me to start talking about - how we document ourselves and how our eyes are also buried into this alternate reality whether we're playing video games or doing screens or watching movies.
The character types were by design and then I knew I wanted to find someone who I felt could play, right from the start, a guy who shouldn't have a gun. It's clear. At the same time I wanted to make someone that's not evil, but someone troubled because, to me, evil is a grand, grand statement and I don't think necessarily these people who are doing these shootings... I think they're lost. I think they're isolated. I think they have some type of illness or delusion, but they're not necessarily evil, and I wanted to make everyone in the film a human being that we could recognize.
I think the selfie aspect is the most indicative of the modern landscape of youth. I'm wondering why you said at the premiere that the selfie character is the person you relate to most. You're obviously not of that generation so your connection is not on the same level.
It's not on the same level but we've all changed so much. The iPhone has changed everything. Everybody deifies Steve Jobs. They make movies with Aaron Sorkin. Steve Jobs has enslaved us all. I'm one of the slaves. To me, I don't take selfies but I do take a lot of Instagrams. I do document a lot of things and I do carry my life through this documentation. I find it very satisfying, but at the same time I'm looking at a mountaintop and taking pictures of it instead of just experiencing it and that to me is very much her character.
It's like this mirror. She might as well be holding a compact mirror up to herself. At the same time, it's also a front. When you get near the end and she's talking to that cancer victim, you start to realize she's taking selfies to protect herself because there's something else she doesn't want to deal with, maybe. It's this idea that we're trying to show the surface of being something that's so beautiful or so approachable or so right or so funny or whatever, where it's covering up a wealth of hurt.
One thing about the Colorado shooting that I think was so much more disturbing for people than the average shooting was the fact that it occurred in a movie theater, which is a public place associated with enjoyment and escapism - it just felt like nothing is sacred.
I think afterwards a lot of people were hesitating to go to the theater, not because they actually thought something was going to happen, but because there was something sinister in the air from that point onward. I haven't felt that way in a long time, until watching your film. Can you talk about how just simply being in the audience of your film is participating in its message.
Absolutely. The premier was phenomenal. It was perfect, but I will say tonight is the first time the film will play in a multiplex. I don't know if it's a Regal, but whatever, Redstone Cinemas is, it's sitting in the same kind of place that we have for years and years and years and years, but now there is something painfully meta about the experience that I think is important.
Again, I don't want to make a movie that horrifies people. I don't want to make a movie, and I didn't make a movie, that scares people away. I want people to be put in a position to feel deeply about the environment and you cannot help but feel deeply about the environment. I think the film does that, but I think the state of the film and how it plays and you sitting in that theater, it means something... how you identify with the characters, but they're just in a movie theater.
We're all characters in that theater and it's harrowing and it was a harrowing thing to make, but at the same time, it's meaningful and it can help you get somewhere as an audience member to re-establish your connection to the issue. Not through just the frustration or just the anger at the republicans or just the fear of guns, but to rejigger your emotional connection to where we are in the country.
I found it curious that you were talking about this sense of responsibility and fear you have; worrying about this movie potentially contributing to the problem in the same way that a lot of violent video games can be influential. I don't quite understand why because your film is not in the lineage of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES. I think it's of a totally different breed.
I think people who are going to do something like this are going to do it, not because of this movie, but because they've been planning it for years and years or their delusions are to take over for absolutely no reason. Their reasons are their reasons and not necessarily a part of this film.
I think the fear that I had from the beginning was that I made a creative movie about something that I thought maybe people didn't want to see a creative take on. I think seeing the film the other night at the premier made me realize I was wrong, that people are ready, they're open. They're ready to experience it. Maybe they're fed up from gun control issues. Maybe they're frustrated or maybe they're exhausted, but they're open for this kind of film because maybe this can speak new language.
As far as copycats and that kind of thing, I took a risk by making the shooter a character that you didn't necessarily hate because I think these people that we read about in the news, while they've done hateful, horrible things, they are also people who are like, "They were my brother. The sweetest neighbor." Things that you just can't believe. This movie is not about an evil person and aftermath. It's about that person who slips through the cracks of everyday and then does something, and we've seen them in a way that the news coverage has not. I haven't made him evil. I think that's the big risk, but it's the more human take on it.