In January, no one could have predicted that one of the year’s biggest comeback stories would belong to drive-in theaters. It would be a bit like predicting a resurgence of rotary phones or cassette tapes. Sure, they used to be everywhere and if you look hard enough you can still find them, but who uses them anymore? In a pandemic, however, it turns out that most anyone who wanted to see a film projected took a new interest in going to the drive-in. And why not? Watching a movie under the stars is a pleasure we gave up too soon, thanks to changing tastes, trends in real estate, and the introduction of the VCR. But they used to thrive. And for a couple of decades after World War II, they served as a natural home for stories of alien visitors and otherworldly happenings.
They did the same for a few days this summer, too.
Ahead of its Prime Video release, the film The Vast of Night played a few select drive-ins. The promotion was a bit of a gimmick, but an apt gimmick. The first feature by Oklahoma-based director Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night is deeply influenced by ’50s and ’60s science fiction movies and TV, even using a Twilight Zone-like show as a framing device. But though the homages don’t stop there, there’s no mistaking the film for a product of another time. Scrappily made but breathtakingly original, it’s the confident vision of a filmmaker drawing a variety of influences and using the tools at his disposal — a modest, self-financed budget powered by income from directing commercials in Oklahoma — to make the movie in his head.
Nobody else was going to make it, after all. Patterson co-wrote the screenplay (under another name) with Craig W. Sanger, whose research allowed him to recreate a night in the life of a small New Mexico border town that serves as the unexpected site of some weird occurrences. (Patterson also refrains from giving himself a directing credit.)
It’s not the sort of script that follows the Robert McKee or Syd Field playbook. It begins as a long, bantery walk-and-talk between its teen protagonists, a fast-talking, small-town DJ named Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a switchboard operator with a passion for science named Fay (Sierra McCormick). It ends — well, it’s best not to say how it ends. In fact, it’s a little hard to describe even if you try.
Along the way, Patterson keeps redefining what sort of film we’re watching. There are flashes of bravura, how-did-they-do-that filmmaking, including a long, unbroken shot that moves from one side of town to another (then keeps going) accomplished partly via Go-Kart. In other scenes Patterson relies entirely on words, even dropping out the images entirely during one monologue from a never-seen radio listener named Billy (Bruce Davis) who captivates Fay and Everett with stories of mysterious covert missions performed during his time in the military. This and another, later monologue from veteran Texas actor Gail Cronauer, who plays an older woman named Mabel who remembers the town’s past, help tweak the idealized image of small-town ’50s by acknowledging the era’s racism and sexism. Billy and others like him were given top-secret assignments because no one would believe the stories of a Black man. A single mother raising an unusual child, Mabel ran into problems of her own.
Patterson shot the film in 2016 then spent the succeeding years editing it, again under another name. (Cast photos from its premiere feature a visibly older cast.) “I definitely was too close to the film,” Patterson told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson. “I thought I hadn’t gotten what I needed, I didn’t have enough coverage because of the budget. I got so close I could no longer see the magic in it.” In the end, however, he brought it all together, creating a strange, mysterious, science fiction gem whose champions came to include Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh knows something about starting small and working outside the system. His 1989 film Sex, Lies, and Videotape turned festival praise into commercial success, helping to kick the American independent film scene into a new gear. That scene becoming a vibrant, thriving movement that helped reshape the movie business in the 1990s. We’ll never see its’ like again. The conditions that created it no longer exist and the industry’s interest in independent films seldom extends beyond seeing it as a pipeline to the franchise world.
There are worse fates. If anyone can redefine blockbusters for the ’20s it’s Chloe Zhao and Barry Jenkins. And maybe that’s Patterson’s destiny as well. But what’s most heartening about The Vast of Night, isn’t the potential it suggests for bigger films. It’s remarkable on its own scale.
Patterson’s story of self-financing isn’t quite Robert Townshend financing Hollywood Shuffle by maxing out credit cards or Kevin Smith selling his comics to make Clerks. But he undoubtedly still had to stretch every dollar and cut as many corners as could be cut. In the end, he made a movie that no one else could have made. What’s more, that movie made it into the world, premiering at Slamdance after multiple rejections and ultimately landing just a click away (if only for subscribers to a particular streaming service, but that’s another issue).
The world Sex, Lies and Videotape helped create may have disappeared but the possibilities it suggested haven’t entirely vanished. There’s still room for small, weird movies to get made and an audience eager to embrace the best of them when they do. After all, if the drive-in can make a comeback, surely anything is possible.