Breaking Genre, Relinquishing Control And Suburban Anxiety – Scott Stewart On Dark Skies

dark skies
Scott Stewart‘s Dark Skies starts its preview screenings across the UK tonight, ahead of its general release on Friday. The film’s above-the-title names would be Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, but JK Simmons pretty much steals all of his scenes, as you might imagine.

This movie has been out for a few weeks in the US, and there have been posters and trailers spread about everywhere. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to see this film without knowing what the basic story premise is first.

But test audiences did. They went in cold, and they got to have that near-unique experience. This was one of the things Stewart and I talked about when I caught up with him a couple of weeks back.

Now, you can choose to read what he told me – about the test audiences, and pretty much everything else, including some elements of the film’s pay-off – or you can choose to see the film first, go in as clean as possible. You might appreciate it best that way.

In any case, here’s some of what Stewart had to tell me. The choice to read it, or not, is yours.

For better or for worse we live in a world where movies get marketed in a way where they find a box to put it in and then they sell the hell out of it based on that box. There’s an expectation based on that box. or on who the producers of the movie are. But in a perfect universe you’d sit down knowing nothing about it. You’d start thinking “Is there an intruder in their house?” and then “Is there something wrong with their son? Is this a possession story?” and all of that would unfold and it would eventually be revealed what is happening to them… well, at least what they think is happening to them.

The only audiences that got to experience movie exactly that way were our test audiences. They found it all very exciting and said “We were guessing all the way through.” And then the surprise got revealed to them, and revealed to them in a particular way, and the film doesn’t do what the monster-budgeted movies that have aliens in them do. The aliens are more a presence or a force of nature rather than something you’d take a bat to and beat up in your living room.

I’ve always described this as a suburban psychological thriller. It’s about that stuff, about suburban anxiety, the feeling that you can do everything, make everything right, but chaos will still happen in your life. Your thirteen year old is acting out, you don’t have a job even though you’re highly qualified, you’re trying to maintain appearances with friends and neighbours and people think you’re hurting your children.

I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California in the late 70s and 80s and I live in the suburbs of Los Angeles now. I’ve always been very interested in the feeling I had growing up that the suburbs are a wonderful, terrible place. There’s a feeling of safety, of being in a bubble, but then there’s an ambulance in front of somebody’s house down the street, and there’s a feeling of terror and darkness in that. There’s the feeling of kissing a girl for the first time at the age of thirteen and then riding your bike home, feeling like you’re on the edge, some of you just wants to get home and still be a kid because somewhere in the nether regions of your mind you’re starting to realise that you soon won’t be a kid any more.

Each and every character in the film is experiencing their own form of anxiety. There’s this other idea, a particularly contemporary idea, is that there’s been a financial crisis and we’re still in the midst of it. Every day you’re hearing these stories in the news. You can do everything right but still feel that you’re being thrown around on these tidal forces, that you’re out of control.

For me, the most effective scary movies are the ones where it feels that the boogieman is embodying a collective, common set of fears and anxieties. The greys in my movie, the way they are described by JK Simmons, they’re just as much a part of our lives as death and taxes. They are the chaos that comes in and turns our lives upside down. They are a teen suicide, they are an affair that breaks up the family, they are a banking crisis, they are what happens when our houses lose our values. We can live in the suburbs and put fences around our homes, try to do everything right and try to maintain a veneer of control but, in reality, there is chaos. You can’t beat a force of nature. And that’s why the movie resolves in the way it does. It’s about characters having their eyes opened to this, knowing that they shouldn’t fight it, but embrace the chaos.

[Producer] Jason Blum has a strong sense of the market, a sophisticated understanding of what makes a scary movie, but he’s very entrepreneurial, wants to keep expanding his brand, growing what he does, and not making all of his movies Paranormal Activity. There’s been a variety of Blumhouse films. Some have had wide theatrical releases, like Insidious and Sinister, and other ones were much more niche-oriented, like Lords of Salem or The Bay. They haven’t had such a wide release but they represent the visions of the filmmakers who made them.

I made two pictures for big studios and there wasn’t a lot of control there and this was an opportunity to make something that was a lot more personal to me, with a much smaller apparatus, and for a very small amount of money that would allow us a lot more freedom. And it shows in the movie – it’s a blend of a suburban drama and something like a haunted house or home invasion thriller, but it gives equal weight to both ideas, treats them as equivalent. That’s riskier, but that’s what makes it interesting.

I had made two very, very stylish movies and I wanted to go totally in the opposite direction and make something that was actor driven and naturalistic and was about slowly building suspense and investing the audience in the characters. There’s a lot of improvisation in the movie, and an eschewing of design. In previous films I had storyboarded every frame but this time I wanted to cede as much control as possible. I had written the script so I had a very clear idea and I created shotlists so that my crew had a plan, but we didn’t want the actors to feel overrehearsed.

With Kaden, the six year old we always pointed the cameras at him first. Because we were shooting digitally I wouldn’t need to call action and Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton would just start playing with him and asking him questions, leading him gently into the business of the scene. And we could just keep rolling and I could whisper things into their ears or ask Kaden questions while we were filming.

This allowed us to bring improv into scenes with a six year old. We would even handle scenes like this with Josh and Kerri. When we were filming their big fight later in the movie my instruction to them was “Do whatever you want. We have three cameras in this room but we’re going to stay out of your way and just keep winding you up.” And they’d just go at it. The actors were spending most of their days in front of a camera, not in a trailer, and it got us the most interesting stuff.

Dark Skies is in UK cinemas now. Thanks again to Scott for taking the time to talk to me.

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