CFF 2017: Interview with Dark Night filmmaker Tim Sutton

Dark Night is the third film by New York based filmmaker Tim Sutton (Pavilion, Memphis). The 85 minute ensemble film serves as a day in the life story, building up to a mass shooting in a movie theater in Florida, modeled very much after the 2012 Aurora, CO shooting during opening weekend of The Dark Night Rises. It’s a slow burning, haunting film- and where Sutton’s previous films were never in a hurry to get anywhere, drifting comfortably through a suburban haze, we all know exactly where this movie is heading.

The creeping dread of Dark Night may come off as a departure for Sutton- but the film still has his singular touch. With his common usage of gorgeous photography, minimal dialogue, and amorphous narratives, his films call to mind Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) or even the stillness of Taiwanese master Tsai Ming Liang (What Time Is It There?, Goodbye Dragon Inn).

I got to catch up with Sutton last week; we got to talk about what it’s like to craft an ensemble film, the connection between everyday technology and violence, how to film people looking at their phones, his fascination with Google Maps, and more.

Note: Where spoilers are, you will be warned ahead of time in capital letters. There are only two.

Andy: I noticed your other films have stuck predominantly to one point of view. What was it like to work with more of an ensemble?

Tim: It was definitely different, not necessarily in how they interact as people, but how they interact as timelines and stories. With Pavilion, even though it stuck with one kid’s POV, what the narrative did was start with him, lose him to go with another kid, then eventually lose him to go with another kid. So I like to play with the narrative in an elusive way, and not make it about a specific character going through a specific arc. So what I did with Dark Night was set very specific rules for myself. It had to happen in one day, and the shooter is one of the people but isn’t revealed right away. So you get an idea of how close all of these characters are to a shooter just by living where they live. There is a feeling that anybody could be a shooter, or if they’re not the shooter now, they could be at some point.

As far as making a movie with multiple characters, I felt like Dark Night just had to be that way. I didn’t want to make a movie that was a “diary of a killer.” I didn’t want to glorify one person who does violence upon another. What I wanted to do was observe how people live. Everybody’s day is very simple and the film making is very straight forward.

I also wanted it to feel like a suburb. There are a lot of veterans back from the war. There are young immigrants caught between old friends and new friends. There’s a troubled teen who is sheltered by his mother. There are skate punks, and everybody’s a social media freak. I wanted to include all of that as simply as possible, which is why I didn’t have the stories interact like a Short Cuts or Crash. I wanted it to be streamlined, for everyone to be alone in their own world.

Andy: As a viewer I was assuming they would all cross paths at some point before the climax, with my preconceptions about it being an ensemble film. But we assume at least that they will cross paths at the movie theater, where you’re with strangers but you’re all there for the same reason.

You set up a portrait of a climate of gun violence that we’re living in, as though we have gotten used to living with this everyday threat. Was there anything in particular you wanted to get across about this issue?

Tim: What I wanted to do was show the incredible horrifying power of guns. Whether that’s the fact that guns can take away a life right away, or guns are all around us. You can get stuck in a parking lot or movie theater, hear a loud noise, someone scream, and think “oh my god it’s happening.”

Andy: I know whenever I hear a loud noise coming from somewhere if I am out in public, it’s always in the back of my mind.

Tim: I wanted to point out that climate we are all in. We’re geared towards jumping to the worst case scenario. I’m no expert on gun violence or mental health, but what I wanted to do was observe in a dark and artful lens, how it is out there. Not in a documentary sense but in a way that shows: ‘this person has access to a gun. He goes to a shooting range. Watch him clean his gun. Then we see another person who maybe shouldn’t have a gun.’ My politics are left wing but as a filmmaker I kept my politics out of it. I wanted to simply show that there are guns, there are people, and there will be places where they intersect and we don’t want them to.

Andy: I felt that neutrality come through but it still felt like a powerful statement. There’s an epidemic happening and the film treated that with a lot of grace. For example the veteran character, I was thinking he might end up being the killer because of what we hear about vets with PTSD in the news. One of my favorite scenes was when he was cleaning his guns- even though I feel like guns are terrifying, it’s still awe inspiring to watch someone with such expertise clean out these incredible machines with such care and precision. What were you interested in in your portrayal of him?

Tim: I’ve asked people to bring their own prejudice into the movie. You might think the vet is the shooter, or the teen who is living in a fantasy world, who is very angry, alone and delusional, and think he is the shooter. Then you see the skate punk with orange hair and think he’s a copycat killer- but he’s just a skate punk. The idea is to play with our prejudice, not in a playful way- but to introduce it as you bringing your own point of view into the movie. Not necessarily to get proven wrong, but to point out that everyone has a certain point of view. You may say thank you for your service to a veteran, but cross the street afterwards; and yet the vet is doing everything right. Then the skate punks are just being skate punks. Kids dye their hair orange all the time- they struggle with their parents, with authority, this is nothing that many of us haven’t gone through ourselves. But in the context of the society that we live in, we look at that as a possible danger.

(SPOILERS BEGIN HERE)

Andy: When it ends, it ends as if we have seen this movie before. We know what happens, what’s coming, so there’s no need to show the climax. What influenced your decision not to show the real culmination of the story?

Tim: I didn’t want to end it with a shootout and some glorification of violence, as a sense of catharsis. There’s no catharsis in this film. You are forced to meditate on what you have seen and what you think instead of getting the release of the violence. When you walk out of the theater you have to sit with that violence, have it in your head. You have to drive home to your house and turn on the light with that violence still possibly happening, which is more powerful than ending the film in a more traditional way.

(SPOILERS END HERE)

Andy: In our minds we’re thinking of this situation as another Aurora. Why do your own version of this and not just go for a true life, biopic?

Tim: I didn’t want to exploit the people in Aurora. I did get influenced by the happening there and for it to be related to that, but it’s not Aurora. It’s Newtown, its San Bernadino, its the Pulse shooting. Its the culture, the bigger picture. I used the Aurora shooting as a stand in for something that is growing in scope, in the American psyche. I am not interested in docu-drama, in re-enactment; I’m more interested in telling a story that has a timelessness, so in thirty years it won’t feel like Aurora, but like all of this.

Andy: Do you remember what it was like when you first heard about the Aurora shooting?

I was horrified for the people in that theater and their families. I also felt like it was the most wicked piece of performance art ever. The fact that he went in there, threw cans of tear gas and said “I’m the joker” and everyone applauded because they thought it was a promotion- it’s absolutely sickening they went in there for a fiction but got the reality of some crazed vigilante taking over a city. At the same time that those people died, there’s a sense that the cinema died too- that space where we go together to collectively dream on the screen has been corrupted, forever in its own way.

Andy: Dark Night shows how technology is consuming our attention- how did you figure out how to present that in a cinematic way? And what does the future of film hold for how to portray our relationship with technology?

Tim: I try to show it in the stupefying way we use it- like when those girls are walking through the parking lot on their phones. You know how when you use your phone, you’re not really walking, you’re trudging along and missing everything around you, being inside your phone. And there’s a character of a “selfie freak”, someone working so hard to exploit herself, to exploit her body for likes; which people do, I do, we all do. Then (there’s a scene where Google Maps street view takes over the screen) the street view is about being taken into this world that is completely fabricated and completely real at the same time. I’m fascinated by street view, the fact that you can literally be underneath a bridge, look up and see the bottom of the bridge. The access that tech has given us is stupefying- and in that scene, you have no control, you arrive at the final destination and realize you have just been scouting a mall with the shooter. You’re part of it, you have just planned the murders with the shooter.

I wanted to present technology as a very complex thing, in a way that isn’t just people getting messages on their phone. I think the way technology is presented in film typically is very communicative and kind of boring. I wanted to make it seem as complex, strange and dangerous in its own way as the guns that are also technologically advanced.

With Memphis and Pavilion there’s no technology, by design. But this time I wanted to make a film about today. That isn’t really about seeing what people do on their phones, it’s more about watching people watching their phones and what that looks like…and it looks very very sad.

Andy: It may not be very compelling, action wise, to watch someone watch their phone- but it is so how we live now that you have to show it that way- it doesn’t even seem like an option anymore when it comes to telling accurate modern day stories.

Tim: Yeah. It would be fake otherwise.

Andy: What are some movies you had in mind when making Dark Night?

Tim: Obviously Elephant– the one directed by Gus Van Sant as well as the one by Alan Clarke. This is a continuation of that dialogue that they were trying to present, and it’s a dialogue that needs to continue- a cinematic response to violence in a way that’s artful. There’s also Taxi Driver– the idea of the precision of the camera, the low creeping horror and dread that Taxi Driver is able to create is definitely an influence.(SPOILER AHEAD) But where that ends with a bloodbath, this ends without that. And it’s based on a real event as well, so everyone knows what’s going to happen. (SPOILER OVER).

Dark Knight is having its Philly premiere during the Cinedelphia Film Festival on Tuesday, April 18. Get event info and tickets here.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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