Tim Sutton is a filmmaker with a distinct visual style, which he brings into the heart of the gun control debate with Dark Night, an entrancing, terrifying exploration of the moments before a horrible event. Following multiple characters living in a Florida town, Sutton paints an American portrait that feels doubly relevant following last year’s election and everything that’s come since. The Film Stage had an earnest conversation with the writer/director about the the business of indie film, how politics affect art and how one casts a film so it feels authentic to the story being told.
The Film Stage: When you jump into a project like this, what’s the research process like?
Tim Sutton: So, research-wise I really tried to limit myself. People have asked if I’ve talked to a lot of people in Aurora or in Denver, and I did not. The work is purely fiction, outside of a few newspaper articles that I read. I did read Dave Cullen’s book on Columbine (titled “Columbine”) to just see a very matter-of-fact storytelling style of events that happened before, all the way up to the event and then to the post-event. It really was important for me to think about it in terms of what would happen in my hometown, any day of the week, knowing the fact that it all just comes down to the theater. The film was not supposed to be a movie that had dramatic arcs or had great relationships to any events that happened outside of the fact of the movie theater.
There are hints of, you know, Aurora has already happened. There are hints of other acts of violence that have already happened. And the fact that there is a [military] veteran character. You know, there were a lot of Air Force people in the theater in Aurora which I thought was, you know, it’s horrifying for anyone to die by the end of a gun. But to come home from Iraq or Afghanistan and then die in a movie theater I just thought was as wicked as it gets. So I did want a veteran character but no more so than I wanted a young Latina who was trying to fit into a new crowd or a troubled teenager who is smothered by his mother or a kind of self-obsessed selfie freak. I was more interested in looking at it in terms of the greater culture, rather than something that specifically came from events.
It certainly does, in that way, feel like a mosaic for our country. Something you’re trying to paint and it certainly comes through. Now, of course, this film was screened a year ago [at Sundance] and made before then. When you’re watching it now under this new [presidential] administration, is there anything to be taken differently? Do you feel differently?
It doesn’t make me feel differently. There are two things: one thing is while I was actually making the movie, before I had shown it anywhere, two more mass executions happened. And then before, on the eve of Sundance, San Bernardino happened. On the eve of BAMcinémaFest, Pulse in Orlando happened. And, you know, Fort Lauderdale has happened since then. Trump’s election is another mass execution, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a place where the media has gone crazy. Where the public is completely at odds with each other. And that there is acts of violence and that there’s an act of violence done towards liberalism in general. So I think that the country is traveling a very, very dark path right now. And I think the film is not a piece of entertainment. It’s not going to do “box office,” but it’s just as vital as it was on the day we finished it or on the day we thought to start shooting it. It’s a living document and to me it still feels like a living document. The great blame, in a way. Not blame, but the great frustration is not that I didn’t make any money or my feelings are hurt because it’s a good festival film but not necessarily a marketable film.
The problem is the industry does not want to show this film. But the industry will show the most violent, asinine depictions of violence and of cultures and of people and of races and yet a sensitive movie that’s really trying to just be a document of what the county is, years ago, won the Cannes Film Festival and got bought by HBO. And sure, yes, Sundance put [Dark Night] up and Venice put it up, and I’m not saying I’m not completely elated by its reception. But it’s barely getting a New York [theatrical] run. It’s barely getting an L.A. run. And I think that’s because the market has turned its back on films like this.
So you would say between that fifteen years or so gap of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and now, you see a change in the indie market. People just saying, “Hey, you know people don’t want to pay to see that so we’re not going to take the chance.”
Yes, I am saying that. I feel that way, unequivocally.
It’s hard not to see that and not see where you’re coming from.
I think the indie film world can make very daring films and very exciting films. And so can Hollywood. But there are the priorities of the marketplace that have fully taken over. If they hadn’t fifteen years ago, they’ve fully taken over now.
And even when you talk about the small screen space where more adventurous things are happening, there’s no other way to justify the [big-screen] change other than financially.
Yeah, financially, and I think the small screen matters but what are the films but what are the films that do well on demand? You have to have like a name actor. Listen I think Dark Night…whoever sees Dark Night is moved by Dark Night. Whether they love it or hate it is not my concern. They do experience something that I think a lot of films leave out, and that is a deep, deep personal connection. So if you’re watching it at home or watching it in the theater you are going to experience something very, very meaningful. It’s just, you know, if you have Joaquin Phoenix’s name up on your marquee it makes it a hell of a lot easier for people to have that meaningful experience.
Right. People say there’s no more movie star, but on iTunes that name is still going to mean something.
Yeah, even the name of some TV actor you’ve never heard of but has fifty-thousand Twitter followers.
Let me segue into the production of the film. Following Pavilion and Memphis, you’ve got an aesthetic of sorts. Found isn’t the right way to describe your movies, but like you said it feels like a slice of something. Almost, uninterrupted. Fluid. So when you’re making this movie, how much footage are you shooting? Are other locations and scenes getting cut out?
Yes. Each film has a similar vibe as far as its aesthetic. But each approach has been somewhat different. Pavilion I shot for ten days, so I did not have a lot of footage left over. But to me that was very much specific. That was always going to be 50/50 Arizona and upstate New York. I knew the film was going to start with one character, lose him, go with the main character and eventually lose him. That to me was the, kind of, arc. There was some things got cut out that didn’t feel authentic. And, to me, I will always side on creating an authentic strings of events, even if they’re strange or weird or dreamy, rather than give information that might make you think, ‘huh? I didn’t really buy that.’ You know?
So in Memphis there are things that are cut out. But Memphis was very much an exploration of day-to-day, and felt very much like Willis [Earl Beal]. Looking for our muse, and finding our muse and letting it guide us. Dark Night I had sixteen days. I had a very specific script. We shot the script pretty much to a T.
I cut a few scenes out that I thought didn’t help the tightening of the narrative. The narrative had to act as a funnel, in a way. Getting tighter and tighter and tighter. There are some scenes that I really did like that I cut out. It’s a tough enough movie as is, and I didn’t want to take people out of this spiral. And so we sided on in terms of the thriller vibe. Not thriller vibe, but tightening of the grip, rather than sticking with the the real moments. But I don’t find the movies in the edit. My editors, who I’ve worked with, have been tremendous storytellers without question. I mean Dark Night was…we got the first cut together in three weeks. That’s not final cut but there was one movie to tell.
So you came in with a specific script and a way to get there. Following up on that, how does someone like Robert Jumper come into the fray. How do you find him?
Sure. Well, you start with someone like Eleonore Hendricks, whose are casting director. She did everything from the street casting in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she cast Memphis and she also, her latest credit, is American Honey. So she just has this ability. You send her down to Florida, with a car and an assistant and a few bucks and she’s just on her own. She goes to bowling alleys and parking lots and malls and bars and schools. And she’s got specific types she’s looking for but she’s the type of person who can, in a moment, can explain what she’s doing in a way that makes you want to be a part of it. You go up to someone in New York and say ‘do you want to be in a movie?’ they’ll walk right by you. But if you do it in Florida, where everybody’s kind of curious and they don’t get that question asked of them a lot, you can find some very interesting people.
For example, Robert Jumper. So Eleonore and my producer Alexandra [Byer] were following this cool vintage white Mercedes and they pulled up right next to him at a stop sign and he looked over and his eyes popped and they had him pull over. And, you know, it turned out he had never acted before but he had randomly modeled for [photographer] Ryan McGinley once. He got the feeling he kind of wanted to be in front of the camera. Certainly had movie star good looks. I came down to Florida. I met him in a bar, we didn’t drink. Talked for five minutes. And then I asked if we could just get in his car and drive me around. And, so, I kind of come from the Nicholas Ray school of casting. He would meet with people and take walks. He would never cast. He and James Dean would just walk around the block endlessly, instead of go through more traditional. So Jumper and I just drove around and he showed me Sarasota and the sun was going down and it was beautiful. And then we went to his roommate’s place and they happened to have a lot of guns and it started to get dark and I was like, ‘alright, I understand that you are my character,’ and I did that with other characters as much as I did with him.
You could say it’s a little lucky but it’s not. Someone like Eleonore and that search. The casting and the writing was a search. The casting was a search. The movie is a search. It’s all part of the same process. They also say in Memphis, ‘Tim, don’t you feel lucky that you found Willis?’ And I was like, ‘Well, Willis is lucky we found him too, because we’re the only one who could tell his story.’ So I think it’s an open-mindedness that brings you that access.
Right. And like you said Robert is magnetizing on screen.
Well, his character is trying.. I think these shooters want to be stars. And Jumper in his own way wants to be a star. So his character wants to be a star and he wants to be a star so that’s why I ask in the movie, ‘Is that your movie star face?’ He’s like, ‘I sure hope so.’ I mean, there are so many layers working together that I think a movie like this, that a guy like Jumper can just tear up.
One thing that jumped out at me was the color palette. It’s so vibrant at spots throughout the film. And I know you worked with a new DP [Hélène Louvart] who has done a bunch of great stuff. You’ve got a very patriotic opening, color-wise, in the beginning and some lush greens in the middle. What’s that conversation?
All three of the movies, to me, are very colorful. Pavilion you have the lush greens of upstate New York and the endless lakes. The vast desert. And Memphis, of course, is kind of a mythic, emerald city of trees and greens and skin tones. And I wanted Dark Night… you know the red and blue is very much an opening. I’m a subtle filmmaker, so when I decide not to be subtle it’s very, very purposeful. So that opening is America. It’s red, white and blue. When he dyes his hair orange I want it it be very very clear, ‘Yes, I’m summoning up your fear of James [Holmes].’ And I think that you do that through color. You can only do that through color and through the frame. I think this is our world at the same time.
My Instagram style of photos looks just like the movie. So it matches the natural aesthetic. But you have to take a stand as a filmmaker to sometimes say exactly what you’re trying to say. Like when Bertolucci uses green and yellow in The Last Emperor or red in The Conformist. He’s not shy to try and evoke a very specific reaction. To me, it’s important especially when you’re not working with dialogue. You’re not working with the traditional dramatic arc. You don’t have Marlon Brando to have that perfect monologue that says, ‘It was you Charlie.’ You have to use your senses and to me the senses are always visual and always color.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m developing a couple of things. One is set in Coney Island and the other thing is set in Indiana. One I’m doing with the producer David Lancaster who did Drive and Nightcrawler. It’s kind of an art film for the red states. And the other one is based in Coney Island is kind of my surreal gentrification movie. Both are visual stories. One is going to be a little more genre-driven, the bigger one, because there will be more money at stake. And the other Coney Island one is going to be just as wild as Dark Night. It’s kind of like my Repo Man.
Well, you got me there.
It’s a good hook. That’s what we’re going for.
Dark Night is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.