In Hollywood, a low film budget may not seem advantageous, but it has the benefit of forcing filmmakers to be creative and judicious with the limited budget they do have to create something memorable. Enter the overlooked Amazon Prime original 2019 film The Vast of Night by first-time director Andrew Patterson. The film was shot on a $700,000 budget in three to four weeks. That is absurdly dirt cheap; the average major Hollywood film between production and marketing costs $100 million. $100 million!
The films stars Sierra McCormick (as Fay Crocker) and Jake Horowitz (as Everett), two kids who operate the sound systems in a small town set in the 1950s; Fay is a switchboard operator and Everett is a radio personality. While doing their thing, most of the town is at the local basketball game. That’s when they hear a mysterious frequency over the airwaves.
Then they get a story from a caller into the radio after crowdsourcing help understanding the noise. Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis) tells a story about mysterious military duties he was stationed to, and which made him sick. He suspects that the military intentionally stationed him and others like him to those roles because of his minority status. That is, nobody would believe a black man talking about potential UFOs and aliens and radiation poisoning.
An old woman, Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer) adds to the story Billy told by telling Fay and Everett about how her son was abducted by aliens and prior to that, was speaking in a weird tongue. Mabel thinks nobody will believe her because she had the child out of wedlock and they suspect she killed the son. She thinks the aliens induce humans to behave badly.
As it turns out, there are aliens and the aliens abduct Fay and Everett (along with Fay’s little sister) from a field just as the townsfolk are coming out of the basketball game. The only thing left are their footprints in the dirt, much like with Mabel’s son’s abduction.
Again, Patterson working on a budget of $700,000 with his cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz, aided as they are by great performances from McCormick and Horowitz, pulled off an incredible technical and engrossing film. In particular, this feels like a star-making performance from McCormick if only more people could see it. She handled the unraveling mystery perfectly, adding a proper amount of tension and desperation. She also runs a lot in this movie and that added to the tension.
But seriously, Patterson and Littin-Menz do one of the most astounding tracking shots I’ve ever seen. Yes, for real. The camera races down a town street and goes through a parking lot, which at that point, you’re thinking, Okay, this is cool use of a drone. But then the camera, still tracking in one shot, goes through the basketball game occurring at the gymnasium, up the crowded bleachers and out the window. I can’t figure out how they did that! In one shot! No edits that I could see! I was wowed, folks. That shot alone makes the film, but the entire film is a technical and masterful use of filmmaking to create atmosphere and creepiness around the potential aliens. I also enjoyed the use of the old timey radios and television to convey the story.
And, to its namesake, the cinematography and direction within the small town help convey the vastness of the space within that confined space, which is a helluva feat to pull off.
Patterson, under the pseudonym James Montague, also wrote the screenplay with Craig Sanger. Despite the short 90 minute runtime largely being the snappy dialogue from Fay and Everett, and the haunting storytelling from Billy and Mabel, the film feels like it flies by. That’s a mark of great dialogue writing. I’m impressed.
Remember, this is Patterson’s debut film. If he gets more money to play with going forward, I can’t wait to see what he can pull off.