This weekend, in theaters or on VOD, you can watch a different sort of monster movie, one starring Kevin Durand as the hero instead of a villain, and focusing on the family drama of a grieving couple. Dark Was the Night stars Durand as a sheriff of a small town plagued by what he first thinks are animal attacks. While he discovers it’s something else, he’s also trying to move on from a family tragedy.
I spoke with director Jack Heller this week. This is nine months after I initially saw Dark was the Night at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angels. Heller told me about previous attempts to film Tyler Hisel’s script and how he finally got it made.
Nerd Report: What’s been your journey with Dark Was the Night? Did it have this distributer, RLJE/Image, when it played Screamfest?
Jack Heller: It didn’t. We did not. They had seen it that night or in that same period. A deal was put into the works right away so it was very exciting for us.
Nerd Report: Were you embracing the philosophy of don’t show the monster for as long as possible?
Jack Heller: 100%. I think it’s sort of a mix between my own personal desire to try and make something out of the movie that wasn’t just a monster movie but also, when you make an indie film and you have budgetary restraints, it helps you really think about how much of something do you want to show and where do you want to show it? So I think it was sort of the perfect marriage of my own desire and embracing the limitations.
Nerd Report: Was it also in the script that the creature isn’t quite revealed yet?
Jack Heller: I always think that scripts are open to such interpretation, but Tyler did a really good job of creating an eerie tone in his screenplay. But I think that knowing what earlier people who had tried to make a film version of the screenplay had tried to do, other people I think were looking to make it a little bit more of a nonstop presence than we ended up deciding to do.
Nerd Report: Well, even the script can say “the creatures do this” and you can imagine we either see it full on or we’re just hinting at it.
Jack Heller: Exactly.
Nerd Report: How long did you work on the sound design for the finale?
Jack Heller: I was very lucky and fortunate to meet some guys who got really passionate about it. The creature itself we worked on a lot. We spent a lot of time mixing up different sounds and recording things and playing with it. I would hear things in nature and record it on my iPhone and send it to the guy who was designing that end of it, but in terms of the actual sound mix, it was a really short indie schedule. I think our mix was basically a week, if that. They probably had a week and a half or so to really put all the pieces together without me, based on my direction. So it was very collaborative and it was very organic, but in terms of the hard time on it, it was only a couple of weeks.
Nerd Report: What are some of the nature sounds you used?
Jack Heller: When we were doing it, I can’t remember exactly what he ended up putting in the sauce but I do remember that there was a tree frog that I had heard when I was off somewhere in South America and I recorded it. It sort of had a very knocking kind of noise. And so we definitely had taken that and tried to find that and warp it up a little bit and really give it a throaty thing, not just make it a rasp or a roar. Breath was so important to me that you felt it breathing. So those were all things that we really worked on and found animals that had that air in their vocals.
Nerd Report: You said the script was open to interpretation, but did the script already have the family drama?
Jack Heller: Yeah, the basic bones of that element of the story were there. It was a sheriff in a small town who his son had passed and he had at this point when we find him separated from his wife. There were things that Tyler and I worked on to make it what I wanted it to be which was a little bit more of exploring his grief and how his grief impacted the family relationship. So beyond that, the bones were really there and then we worked on some of the other characters and really tried to put the whole lens of the movie through that concept of Paul’s grief through the family drama.
Nerd Report: To me it’s scarier how the entire town is trying to “help” when their help is more harmful than letting him deal with his grief.
Jack Heller: He’s suffering from something that really prevents him from being the kind of help that everyone actually needs. So it definitely has a huge impact on his personal relationships, his communal relationships and his own relationship with himself and how he feels about where he is in the world right now.
Nerd Report: In the real deadly crisis he keeps a cool head. In 99% of situations, would Paul have been right? He wasn’t the ignorant authority ignoring all the warning signs.
Jack Heller: Yeah, I think with casting Kevin, I wanted somebody who you felt was physically up to the task, and someone you would never doubt. If you met Paul Shields or Kevin Durand as a sheriff, you’d pretty much say this is the kind of guy that you’d want to get behind and believe everything he’s saying. And so for him to discredit things and not want to believe it, it’s almost tied to his own issues of believing in himself. I really worked with Kevin trying to find the exact opposite of what he stands for as Kevin Durand for example. He’s a big, strong, tough man’s man who pain is not something he wears on his sleeve. So we really wanted to work on a character that did wear it on his sleeve and we did feel that grief coming through. Then by the end of the film, you can actually see him transform and get past it. Or if not get past as much as be right with it. I think a lot of the discrediting and not believing it has to do with the fact that he just doesn’t wanna believe that there’s something, again, outside of his control, again, something that he can’t address in the current state that he’s in.
Nerd Report: I mean in the real world where there aren’t monsters, he’d be right. It’s not like the mayors in Jaws refusing to close the beach when they know they have a problem. Paul is actually the voice of reason.
Jack Heller: There were a few times where we had talked about well, do we want to make a character who is sort of like that mayor character in Jaws. For us, it’s a small town. There aren’t a lot of people there. We did come up with the storm and trying to sell the storm to be something where people leave the town. Only the people who really have to be there or the types of people who would never leave no matter what are staying behind. The danger that exists for them is real and is in some ways their only line of defense no matter whether it’s real or not. The stakes are not against some sort of level of greed or viewing it out of his own ego. It’s really the true belief of is this for real? Is this possible? And then seen through his own grief, am I back to the person who I was prior to the loss of my son? Can I actually assess the situation and protect people?
Nerd Report: Was it ever a fight to cast Kevin?
Jack Heller: No, none at all. There’s a reason he always sort of plays the fun guy in the movie. Even if he’s the villain, he’s always the guy doing it with a smile or doing it with a vibe or context that it could be the worst thing in the world but you still sort of love the guy. He really brought that to this character, so you really felt for him. The only thing I think people were really questioning me on about Kevin and the movie is when we were editing it, and I was dead set on having that shot at the beginning where he just looks straight ahead and you look into his eyes. For me, it was really about putting something in there where you could get that warmth and that comfort that I felt Kevin could bring, as just who he is, to the character. Once people finally saw it in the context of the whole movie really embraced it on our end. Everyone was really behind it. He’s definitely one of those people who I don’t know how you could ever not just want him to win and be on his side. He’s easily one of the most engaging and most hard working guys that I’ve ever worked with. Everyone feels that and he brings that to work every day.
Nerd Report: What do you want to direct next?
Jack Heller: I’m always looking for anything that I can not only bring my perspective to but have fun doing, anything that allow me to explore this genre more and new genres. There are a couple of things going on right now that I’m excited about. I love thrillers and I love horror because I think nothing about the human psyche is more telling than what you can find about it in those genres but I’d love to take those concepts and spin it onto an action movie or just a drama. I’m really looking to do things with scale and scope and see what comes my way.