Tim Sutton’s Dark Night is a story loosely inspired by the Aurora shooting that occurred during the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. However, its purpose is not to re-tell that story but to spread a message about the depths of madness that isolation can bring. It’s a rather impressionistic film. It’s light on dialogue, using visual language and sound design above all else. Here are Tim’s thoughts, coupled with a few of my own, about the final product – –
M: I personally felt that the first act of the film sets Aaron up to be the one who will do the shooting, only to reveal later on that he’s just a good kid who feels disconnected from the world. Did you purposefully engage with some of the stereotypes that people associate with violent teenagers in order to surprise us later?
T: Absolutely, but it’s not meant to surprise in the vein of a twist. What I had in mind was to have the audience bring in their own prejudice and their own ideas with them into the theater. So some people will see Aaron and think “oh god, he’s delusional, he’s living in his own world, he’s got dark thoughts, he’s smothered by his mother, he’s probably violent,” Some people will see the skate-punk dying his hair orange and think that it is a copycat. Some people will see the veteran and think that his need to use his guns and the lack of connection he has with his family and the difficulty he has in this therapy group and think that he’s the killer. So the idea was to make it feel as though we’re close to lots of different potential shooters. That there is a sense of threat all around. Perhaps if Aaron isn’t the shooter now, maybe in two years he is depending on how his life goes. There’s one thing that’s very clear and that is the very isolated, delusional, angry young man (Robert Jumper) who is the shooter has access to guns just like like everybody else.
M: Is the point you’re trying to make with this film that all these people who have different mental illnesses and deficiencies all have access to guns?
T: I think the overall message is one just of observation. Specifically, a non-political observational eye in a corner of our country that I think stands for a great sense of isolation and nothing more. I’m anti-gun in my own politics but as an artist, I wanted to make just an observation. I want people to see that this is what it is like. This is what it’s like for someone to clean his gun. This is what it’s like for another person to stalk his neighbor. This is what it’s like for a teenager who’s upset and takes it out on his turtle. This is just what it is from a very creative and artistic point of view. It’s not a documentary but it isn’t saying one thing or another politically about guns. It’s just showing that there is easy access and that guns are very dangerous and that people are very alone. Those are more important points to see than my political views.
M: I found the film, in a good way, to be voyeuristic because we’re just watching these people’s lives and we’re not really, besides Aaron, not really getting inside their heads so much as we’re just watching them.
T: We know as much as we see. That’s it.
M: Going back to Aaron, there’s the scene where he gets mobbed by imaginary cameras reprimanding him. Do you think Aaron subconsciously sees himself as somebody who would be capable of violence even though he says that he isn’t?
T: Yes. I think Aaron has delusions of grandeur and a misunderstanding of his sense of control over his environment and has a growing isolation that I think is pretty typical of people who tend toward violence.
M: At a certain point, Barron describes people who play video games as ” “The people playing are more immersed in what life isn’t than what it is.” Do you think that Jumper’s downfall is his inability to see what life isn’t?
T: I can’t speak for the psychology of the characters. I can say that I think that Aaron in many ways is wrong. Aaron is contradicting himself in that scene and that’s one of the reasons I put the paparazzi scene directly after that. It was to show this lost kid who says these very intelligent sounding things who is also very confused. My own personal take as the director is that these first-person shooter games, like the giant vigilante movies where people are killed, the sport of the game is to kill. That’s how you get points and win. That’s affecting us culturally as a whole. I don’t have scientific data to back that up and I know that certain data says they’re unrelated. I think they’re completely related. Why would we be surprised when an act of violence breaks out in this country when we celebrate it in our leisure and entertainment? As far as Jumper is concerned, I tried to make him a wannabe star. His character wants to make a mark, he’s delusional and angry. He’s getting further and further from a sense of reality. I don’t think he has angry thoughts about those people in the movie theater, I think he’s on a mission to be known. I think there’s a whole line of people now who want to be Dylan Klebold, who see him as a martyr. That’s why during the scene in the bar, the person asks him “is that your movie star face?” and he says I hope so.
M: It’s funny that you bring that up because my next question deals with that “movie star face,” line. Do you think that the common mentality among mass shooters is that they see themselves as movie stars?
T: I want to repeat that I’m not an expert on the psychology of mass shootings but I think they do want to make their mark. I think Jumper as a character wants to make his mark and if you go a layer deeper I think Jumper (*speaking now about the actor of the same name) is desperate to do the same. If you put all of this together into one act, one character, one action and you have a person who is desperate for attention and some kind of payback for a debt that is unclear.
M: That’s what I got out of it too. I want to move on to some of the more directorial elements. One of the things I found really interesting, especially with Jumper, is that you used the actor’s real names. That’s a tactic I’ve seen used in horror movies like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity when they’re trying to make it seem like real footage. I’m curious why you decided to use that technique here when it is formatted as a narrative.
T: I’ve done that in all my movies thus far. First of all, it cuts out the middle man. These people aren’t actors so why pretend that they’re actors playing a role? If you can get them closer to being themselves on screen you create a much more believable performance. Also, Jumper is a guy who has real ambition to be an actor, he’s a wonderful artist, he modeled for Ryan McGinley. He wants to be a star and I wanted this character to feel like he’s trying to become a star so I wouldn’t have him play anyone else. Everybody is themselves in the movie, they’re just versions of themselves that feed the fiction and if you keep their names that fiction feels very documentary-like. The fact and fiction blur and feed off each other. I find it to be a really powerful instrument but it’s also logistically much easier than pretending to put these people in roles that they wouldn’t be able to perform.
M: So do you write the script after you cast?
T: Dude, I’d love to do it that way and I tried but nobody would give me money until they saw a script. I came up with the type of characters who I’d be interested in working with. I wrote the script and then we went out and found the actors. Then I usually try and forget the rigidity of what I wrote so I can make sure each character, each person, comes alive. I had lines for the Eddie, the veteran, but he was uncomfortable saying them. So, it’s my job as a director to say that the dialogue is not important. It’s looking at your face, watching you be you. In the context of the story, the audience feels a deeper pain and wonder about your character. If I had stuck to the script completely, you wouldn’t have the authentic feeling and immersion that you get in each character. So I think it’s important that the film is molded to the people who are cast so that they can be comfortable playing themselves.
M: That’s a very interesting process. I’ve never heard of somebody using that exact motif before.
T: Thank you.
M: There’s a consistent motif, especially in the first half of the film, of the characters owning animals. I personally interpreted it as the need people have a need to preserve other lives, which is why Jumper does not have a pet. How do you see it?
T: I like that interpretation a lot. Mine is that we’re never more human than when we interact with our animals. Karina is the sweetest person in the movie and you feel that way because she’s so sweet with her cat. You get this warmth and closeness to her. Meanwhile, Aaron his turtle. His turtle is stuck in a glass cage and is completely dependent on those who take care of him just like Aaron is stuck in his mother’s house and under her care. At the same time, I like putting animals with many of the characters to show them as humans. You know how in movies people never eat food? This is them eating food. A visual metaphor for humanity.
M: Another thing that surprised me was that you actually include coverage of the James Holmes shooting in the background at one point. Do you find the film to be about the influence that such an act can have on other acts of violence?
T: I think the most important thing about the film to me is that it felt like a living document. While we were editing, the Trainwreck massacre in Louisiana happened so we brought that sound into a car radio. Right before we premiered at Sundance, the San Bernardino shooting happened. When we played it at Bam Cinema Fest, the Orlando shooting happened. It’s important for people to understand that this film is not about Aurora. Yes, the nucleus of the story is from that and we use our relationship to that shooting with the title and the act of killing in the movie theater. I put the Holmes footage in there to illustrate that this is happening after the fact, this is next. At some point, there will be others. It’s important that this document doesn’t feel like a remake or a specific interpretation of Aurora. It’s something that’s still being made.
M: So part of it is the fact that if you were to directly adapt Aurora some people would take it as tasteless or too soon and what you’re trying to do is tell your own story.
T: Yeah. I’m trying to tell a story that is in a greater cultural context. It’s about violence, isolation, the suburbs, gun control, the screens that have taken over our lives. It’s about more than Aurora. It’s important, of course, to be respectful of Aurora and I had no interest in making an “adaptation.”
M: Right, and it also throws out the whole United 93 esque controversy that happened.
M: One more thing. Early on, one of the girls making the video blog says “ The only reason I would compete is to prove to myself that I could do it and that I could dedicate myself to something so structured and strict.” As a director, do you ever feel the need to compete? Or are these more experimental films where you want to spend the rest of your career?
T: Well, I think it’s impossible to stay here for your whole career because you make no money and it’s very specific. I think if it were 1963 I’d want to make nothing but art films because people made their living doing so. I have in my three movies made very deliberate attempts to have a specific style of storytelling, casting and the whole process. I wanted to make a language come alive into something that I was proud of. Going forward, do I want to make United 93 or do I want to make big action films? Not at all. I am interested in making films that reach a wider audience and that work for all different kinds of people that I can make a living doing. However, I’m an artist at heart and I want to make the stories that interest me come alive.