Dark Night of the American Soul: Tim Sutton’s Latest Feature is Beautiful, Tense and Provocative

Fiction will always lose the battle against reality when it comes to mankind’s most inhumane and baffling actions.

Nothing one can write is more perverse than what someone somewhere has already perpetrated. Yet, what creativity allows is introspection and thoughtful assessment of the triggers that lead a person to violence. Exact answers are often impossible, but analyzing how a society fosters and enables destructive behavior is as close as anybody can get to understanding it.

Ignited by the despicable 2012 mass shooting inside a theatrical screening of The Dark Knight in Aurora, Colorado, unconventional moviemaker Tim Sutton devised a fragmented narrative that follows a series of characters over a single day leading up to a tragedy.

Titling the film Dark Night, a powerful double entendre, is only one of the storytelling devices that construct the unnerving and relevant drama. An exploration into the American psyche from diverse perspectives is perhaps the only vehicle to make sense of today’s world. Prompting his audiences to feel fear via the sound design, and playing with each individual viewer’s biases, Sutton evades simplification and captures a mosaic of suburbia that capitalizes on the so-called warning signs about what makes a person violent. Teenage angst, disentrancement, unfounded resentment, the search for acceptance, compromised self-esteem and disturbed aspirations all collide inside a movie theater—once a sacred place, now vulnerable.

Admitting that he can only speak as a creator and not as an expert in the conflict that permeates his film, Sutton opened up about Dark Night‘s serious premise and the connections between media consumption and the instability of many Americans who have access to guns. Needless to say, Dark Night isn’t a light popcorn flick; it’s instead a provocative,  necessary and gorgeously rendered experiment.

Aaron Purvis in Dark Night

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I understand that the idea for this project emerged directly from the shooting in Aurora, but how did it develope into something as multilayered and cinematic as this film?

Tim Sutton (TS): It started for me with Aurora, because at that time it felt like an outlier of a violent incident. As it kind of grew in my head, I started looking at the shooting as not just a horrible tragedy for the people involved, obviously, and for the country as a whole… it also started dawning on me that something happened to the movie theater that day. The movie theater no longer was safe, and a testament to that is that there was probably security outside the screening you saw the film at. That shows how clearly the movie theater has changed. As a filmmaker I felt like I wanted to touch on those themes. At the same time, I didn’t want to make a movie that was all about violence and all about death. I also didn’t want to make a movie about the aftermath, because I think that’s what documentaries and newsfeeds are able to do much better.

What was missing was the idea of how people lived, how they spent that day, from the innocents to the shooter. That’s how this came to be a fictional account based originally on the premise of Aurora. However, as I was making the film, there were multiple other shootings, and that deepened the necessity for the film in my mind. I felt like I was really on the right track, and that the same time I wanted to incorporate that, so later on in the film when one of the guys is in the car and the radio is playing the press conference of the 2015 Trainwreck shooting in Louisiana—that was happening while we were editing. I really wanted to make the film a living document of our time, not just about Aurora, not just about fiction, but about all of this with a hybrid sensibility.

MM: This film has a fragmented narrative structure, like your previous effort, Memphis, but the narrative here is much more complex because there are multiple characters going though what should have been a regular day.

TS: In a way, Memphis had no boundaries. The only boundary was that it was only one character. But the main boundary in Dark Night, for me, was that the film should feel like it happens in one single day. Now, some people see it and they feel like it happens over a few days, and that’s fine with me. It had boundaries in the writing so that it felt like it started at sunrise and that it ended at midnight. Everything within that time frame doesn’t have to fit together perfectly in any kind of traditional narrative sense—they can be fragments, they can be moments that we kind of just steal with each character. But as you go forward, as the sun gets lower and lower, and as soon as twilight comes, is very clearly that the sun is not necessarily going to rise again [in the film] and that we are now at night. This creates this tunnel effect. I do feel that it does start as pastoral—fragmented snapshots of life—but as the movie goes further and further into the night, it becomes more a tighter grip. Dramatically, I think it works because of that structure. Once the sun goes down, all the characters are headed to the same place.

MM: Did you design each character’s journey separately? Would you say the film was assembled in the edit room because of this approach?

TS: When I wrote the script, I wrote each character out individually for two reasons. One, I wanted readers to really get a sense of who each character was, because they don’t cross paths a lot. They cross paths very little and in very specific ways until the end. Secondly, I knew the film would fit together because the screenplay was a blueprint, but it wasn’t locked in stone. I wanted to keep that going in production and the edit, so that it could feel like you could build the day naturally. The edit was a very important part of the structural creation of the movie, but I wouldn’t say, as a lot of people do, that we wrote in the edit room. Still, I do think we left an open mind for the edit that helped shape things in an organic way.

Tim Sutton (L) with actor Robert Jumper (R) on the set of Dark Night

MM: Tell us about your reasoning behind the use of sound. By placing specific sounds in tense moments, you trick us into expecting violence.

TS:  I used it as a device because I wanted to keep the idea of the threat of violence very near, but at the same time it does play with what each viewer brings into the theater with them. All around us, now, there is the possibility of a shooting. Guns are all around us and violence lurks all around us. I don’t mean to be morose, but things could happen in any parking lot in the suburbs, it could happen in any store, it could happen in any supermarket. I wanted to create this feeling that it was all around us and yet, there is nothing happening. The kid dyes his hair orange, and immediately you think, “Oh my God, copycat killer.” The idea is that he is just a skater kid dying his hair orange, but our worldview doesn’t allow us to take that so lightly. We immediately start playing with the idea that we should be fearful of him. The same happens in the scene with the kids in the parking lot. It is a horror film technique, but the idea is that we are so on edge in this movie that anything, even something playful, feels like it could turn bad at any moment. That’s a heightened version of what I think real life is like. I don’t walk through a parking lot scared, but I will say, I took my kids to a Cineplex this summer in Connecting, and I’m a person that loves movies as much as anybody else in the world, but I didn’t feel so safe there. I wanted to create this feeling that even the most innocent things, if you tilt your head and look at them a different way, could present something very frightening.

 MM: Another compelling characteristic about your writing here is how deliberately misleading it is, as one attempts to discover who the potential shooter is. At some point the identity of the shooter becomes evident, but you play with our biases brilliantly.

TS: I didn’t want a traditional thriller with a cat-and-mouse feeling to it, because I think the subject matter is too important and too sensitive to play games with. It was very clear to me, when I was writing, who the shooter was. If you really watch it carefully, there is never a doubt that that particular character is the shooter from the beginning. However, the audience brings in their own stereotypes and their own point of view. [Spoilers ahead.] Some people see the teenager and say, “Oh, he is smothered by his mother, he lives in a fantasy world, he has no friends, he is addicted to violent video games; he must be the shooter,” or “There is the veteran who can’t get along with his family, has PTSD, and has an obsession with guns; he must be the shooter.” The idea is that people come with their own thoughts and they have to then deal with those thoughts and wonder, “Why is it that I’m considering this person capable of being the shooter?” At the same time, I’m also suggesting that the teenager might not be the shooter this time, but maybe he is a shooter in two years, or in six months. It’s very clear, in America, that there is this group of people, seemingly unlinked people, who are waiting in line to do the next public shooting. I wanted to show that if it’s not this time, it could be in the future. If you really look at it, it’s very clear that [actor Robert] Jumper should never have a gun in his hand. He is the one that’s the most clearly disturbed, and yet has access.

MM: It could seem like the men in the film are more prone to act on their violent thoughts, and even if that’s true, every character appears to represent the American experience one way or another.

TS: Some writers have singled out that the men in the film are troubled and the women are innocent. That’s a very binary way to look at it, but often victims of these shootings are women, and they are very rarely the perpetrators. I wanted to be very clear that unstable men with access to guns can cause this. At the same time, I wanted to make a movie in which people could recognize themselves in the characters, and that meant including what I thought were archetypes of Americans in the suburbs today. I wanted to have a Latina who is trying to explore her new community, I wanted a vet, a wanted a troubled teenager, and I wanted someone who is obsessed with selfies and fitness, because there isn’t a person that can’t recognize himself or herself in at least one of them. I thought it was very important for people to be sitting in the audience to see something familiar, whether they lived in New York, L.A. or the country—they could see that these are Americans today.

Anna Rose Hopkins (R) in Dark Night

MM: You used mostly non-professional actors. How much information about the each other’s parts did your cast have, and about the film’s thematic elements as well?

TS: I never showed most of the actors the script. I only showed Jumper the script the night before we started. Working with non-actors is something I’ve done three times—I feel, in a way, successfully—because I don’t expect them to be actors. I don’t give them lines or a script to study, because I think it would just take them out of that naturalism. You give them as little as possible, so they really have to depend on their own person or their own character to get through scenes. Nobody really knew all the different characters. It wasn’t a closed set, so if someone wanted to hang out with the other actors and watch what they were doing, they could. What was most important was that nobody felt like there was some catastrophe about to happen, but that they were just going about their day in their own ways. Everyone was aware of what the movie was about and how the movie ended. That was very clear, because I absolutely didn’t want to manipulate anyone who didn’t want anything to do with this kind of movie. Everybody was aware, but I didn’t try to incorporate a real cast or group feeling. I wanted everyone to be focused on being themselves in the frame.

MM: Do you think that audiences crave or expect violence in cinema because of what we have been fed endlessly as entertainment? It seems we are now predisposed to expect violence, even when only cued by sounds.

TS: I’m not an expert on the sociology of violence or in gun control, but I do think there is a connection to the popularity of the giant market of superhero and vigilante movies—where violence, killings and explosions are taken as wonderful entertainment—and first-person shooting games where the objective is to kill. I think that’s affecting us. People say, “Oh, it doesn’t make you violent;” that’s probably true in some cases, but not for everybody. Everyone experiences this violence in different ways and I feel, not as an expert but as an artist, that it’s absolutely connected. Violence is something that is celebrated in this country, while the idea of healing, art or thoughtful observation is something that’s seen as foreign. MM

Dark Night opens in theaters February 3, 2017, courtesy of Cinelicious Pics.

 

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