Scott Stewart’s background is in visual effects and the VFX company which he co-founded, The Orphanage, was responsible for a number of movies including Iron Man, Sin City, and the final cut of Blade Runner. His first two feature films as director, Legion, which he also wrote, and Priest, were sci-fi/horror films which were heavy on effects, but his new picture as writer and director, Dark Skies, is a much more stripped-down and “realistic” foray into the alien abduction subgenre. Mr. Stewart was kind enough to speak with us about Dark Skies, about working on a lower-budget, and writing characters that both feel real and serve a narrative purpose.
NERDIST: First of all, please tell us the plot of Dark Skies.
SCOTT STEWART: It’s a story about a family living in the suburbs who believe there is a mysterious and terrifying force entering their home and preying upon them and their children. Events increase in severity, and they’re forced to take matters into their own hands because their friends, neighbors and the authorities don’t really believe the truth about what’s happening to them.
N: We talked to Jason Blum [founder of Blumhouse Pictures and producer of the movie] the other week, and he said that you came to him with the idea for Dark Skies and that you wrote it in a very short period of time. Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration for the story and the writing process of it?
SS: It’s something I’d been thinking about for a long time. It’s a much more personal project for me in terms of where my head was at compared to the other films that I’ve done. I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’ve always been drawn to the idea of telling stories set in the suburbs and exploring the spookier feelings that come with growing up in the suburbs. I’m always a big fan of family-in-jeopardy stories and unhappy families that are struggling to be happy. Dramatically, that’s always been very interesting to me, and that’s kind of where I started. [chuckles] And then I thought, as a writer, you always think about what’s the worst situation you can put your characters in; the worst predicament. And I started thinking about these parents who’ve become infamous in the public’s eye because they’re accused of committing, or believed by the public and the authorities, these terrible crimes against their children and yet there’s not really enough evidence to convict them of it. People like JonBenet Ramsey’s parents or Casey Anthony. I started thinking about that in the context of a genre story or a supernatural story. Can you imagine if JonBenet Ramsey’s parents said a ghost strangled her in the basement? [laughs] You know? People wouldn’t even want to have a trial; they’d just want to string them up. What if they were telling the truth, at least from their point of view?
That was a really interesting place to start, and that’s where I started with Jason in terms of what the story was about and what the unique presence that is entering their home is, and how their community begins to turn against them. Within the family, there’s a huge amount of discord and lack of belief in what’s really happening for quite a long time. Taking a more realistic approach to these things, if they started happening to you, it’d probably take quite a long time for people to start thinking it’s supernatural. So, I tried to straddle that line between drama and very scary supernatural genre movie. Those were kind of the initial inspirations, and then I pitched the story to Jason and he responded to it. Since I’d been thinking about it for a while, I spent the summer, prior to this last one, writing it, and it came out pretty quickly, and I showed Jason the first draft and he loved it and said “let’s do it.” So, off we went. And we shot it this last August, so the speed in which we went from script to shooting to screen was insanely fast. Also, one of the best parts about making a movie with Jason is (that) you don’t lose your momentum. I’ve made movies where we’ve sat in post-production for more than a year doing visual effects and 3D conversions and all sorts of crazy stuff. There’s something really raw and sort of pure about doing this as fast as we’ve done it, and I think it shows on the screen.
N: You come from a special effects background, and the first two movies you’ve directed were fairly effects-heavy. By the very nature of this one, there wasn’t going to be a lot of effects, so did you find that a challenge or was it a freeing creative experience?
SS: I wrote the movie specifically to try to make something that had almost no effects in it at all. I really, purposely did that. I’m very comfortable in that milieu, and my favorite effects are generally the ones that are invisible. There are things in the movie that no one will ever know are effects. They won’t be thinking about it because [the effects] aren’t trying to be flashy or exciting. I’d purposely written a movie that was more character-focused; I was really excited about doing that.
My approach to making this film was very different to what I’d done with the other movies. It is a way of having more control by ceding control. I wanted real life to influence it as much as possible; I didn’t want to make a movie about other movies, I wanted to make a movie about parents and their children, a six-year-old and a thirteen-year-old. Both of the actors I cast as the parents, Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, are parents and I wanted them to bring as much of that as possible. The six-year-old kid, Kaden Rockett, is just a little Rain Man of an actor, but he is six years old and I wanted him to just play. David Boyd, my cinematographer, I’d always wanted to work with. David shot the pilot for Friday Night Lights and The Walking Dead and Deadwood and he’s someone who’s really adept at getting at the poetry of the lives of people and the details of the performance. We shot on 100% real locations; we shot very quickly with two cameras and I wanted to get back to a very, very nuts-and-bolts, character-focused, grounded, realistic kind of filmmaking that was just about characters and genuine suspense. I’d made two very stylized movies, and I wanted to, kind of, throw all that away, and I was very pleased with the result. It felt like a much more natural fit for me.
Visual effects, I think, kind of have a tendency to be grossly overused. I’m very comfortable doing them; it’s a great tool for me to be able to express what I want, but when it comes to scares, and when it comes to scares and to comedy, for example, adding visual effects makes them not that scary and not that funny. I think comedy and suspense are two sides of the same coin. The anticipation of the scare is a lot more delicious for audiences than the actual moment itself. There’s nothing more enjoyable than slowly tightening the screw. So, that’s the approach I took with this movie. That being said, there are effects in it, but they’re very, very limited and, I think, used very judiciously.
N: Did you do any research as far as real-life accounts of alien abductions or haunted houses and things like that to give you an idea of how to approach that?
SS: Absolutely. I’ve always been a fan of that stuff, so I read a lot of blogs and what were assumed to be or presented as firsthand accounts, and I took inspiration from a lot of that stuff, and my approach for what is happening to the family and how they’re dealing with it is largely from that. And it is very much in the realm of the psychological. My favorite movies are the ones where the Boogie Man, real or imagined, is giving voice to everyday, common fears or anxieties, and this movie’s really about that. What’s happening to the family is really just amplifying the things that are already there in them. So, what’s in their house and what’s effecting them are, in many ways, more of a force of nature and a darkness that exists that they just happen to become aware of that buzzes around everyone, bringing chaos into their lives. And that was a key thing about what I had read; if you read them and take them at face value, they’re very disturbing, but if you try to look at what maybe these people are really saying, then you start to get into some really interesting psychological stuff.
N: The J.K. Simmons character is the expert as far as what may really be going on. Do you find it difficult to write characters like that, who essentially just have to deliver plot? I’m a writer myself and that’s always a very hard character to write and not have them just spout exposition.
SS: You’re absolutely right. As a writer, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience, you just don’t want “that guy” in the movie. I was very conscious in not casting, like, a British stage actor to play that character. It’s really tempting to do because they can perform exposition in a way that gives it a sort of gravity, but really it’s just exposition. I had based him on a character, once again sort of an amalgam of the so-called experts that you’d find online in their blogs and the forums that they’d run and the way they’d interface with people who were sharing experiences with them. Clearly, they really believe what they’re saying and there’s a seriousness to that, so I used that as an inspiration. And, also there’s a strength to J.K. as an actor, and one of the reasons I cast him, is that he makes the scene, which is basically just people talking in a room, so compelling. People who’ve seen the movie really love that scene and love that character. One of the choices J.K. made was that he was a guy who’d been too long in the foxhole. He’d been thinking about this and trying to help people and things had happened to him in the past and he’s just tired. It makes it feel very real and spooky and kind of sad and compelling. So, I really lucked out with him.
N: What was your directorial process for this movie? You mentioned ceding control a bit, but did you make storyboards and things? How loose were you on set?
SS: I’d made storyboards for my other two movies, and as a form of control I thought that’s what I should be doing. I was very restrictive in the shots and the use of color and almost all of those types of things were 100% set. In this case, I wanted to go with a totally different approach and kind of get out of the way and bring as much mess and reality into it. I actually storyboarded nothing in the movie. I shot-listed everything, but there’s nothing better than a well-laid plan abandoned, and that’s something that I discussed extensively with David Boyd. We tried to let the performances dictate. There was always something that I was trying to do, but what’s the best way to capture the scene, to tell the story, to do something really scary or really emotional? So, that’s always at the forefront, but, by ceding control, in some way I’d gotten much closer to what I was after creatively, interestingly enough. That’s something I’m very excited about, but it’s also the nature of the work. We’re working in very intimate situations with multiple cameras in real rooms, so it’s always packed pretty tight, so it was always about getting out of the actors’ way, letting them find the scene, and then placing the cameras where they could best tell that story. We shot the movie in 21 days, and it looks quite a bit bigger than it was. That’s a testament to David and our production designer Jeff Higinbotham.
If I were doing some very complex action scene, particularly if it involved a lot of effects, I would storyboard, I would pre-visualize and all of that stuff, just from a purely technical point of view; it just helps the various departments in terms of executing these things. But, I felt that everything I was doing in this movie was about slow-moving suspense, even with additional visual effects I could do in a much more performance-oriented way. And that seems to have worked pretty well. Audiences seem to have jumped in all the right places, and that’s really satisfying. I kind of took that approach with a pilot I directed for a show that’s coming to the Syfy Channel called The Science which I did just before Dark Skies. Even though that was storyboarded and heavily pre-visualized and all that other stuff, I still tried to approach it in a similar way in terms of lots of cameras focusing on performance. Being a visual effects artist, the way I direct can make things more difficult for the artists executing the work technically because of what we’re doing with the cameras, but ultimately I think it makes things look better and more realistic.
N: What are some sci-fi or horror movies that inspired you, maybe not just in the making of this movie, but in general?
SS: It’s interesting; for this one, again, I tried to take as much inspiration as I could from real life and the lives of my friends. You know, we’re all getting to the age where we’re having kids, so there’s a lot of kid anxiety and asking am I a good parent? Are my kids acting out? Am I making them crazy? Are they well adjusted? Are they nice? A lot of that, as I was saying, suburban anxiety was really what I was drawing from. So, instead of looking at movies, I was looking at the seven-year-old that lives in my house. But, when I looked at movies for some kind of inspiration when making this one, I very consciously stayed away from science fiction or horror films. I’m fairly well schooled in them and I watched some of the requisite ones many, many, many times, and some of them are my favorite movies ever, but for this one I actually looked at dramas, particularly ones where there was amazing child performances. I was really interested in looking at that. Kind of a different answer to your question [laughs] but I looked at movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and The Ice Storm. Ordinary People, which to me, in many ways, feels like it’s a ghost story; it felt like a family living with a ghost in their house. Little Children also; movies about the suburbs. Those were a big influence in terms of what was in my head. The underlying tension that’s in those movies is something I was really interested in getting at. The sense of unease. More broadly speaking, movies that really live in the world of the psychological and spooky are things like Don’t Look Now. In so many ways, that’s a movie about a disintegrating marriage. You know, Rosemary’s Baby and things from that time period, pre-The Exorcist, were really influential because they were so grounded and realistic. While I did not really look to them while I was making the movie, they were always going to be in the back of my head.
Check out Dark Skies out today in theaters.