Exclusive Interview with ‘Dark Skies’ Writer/Director Scott Stewart

Writer/director Scott Stewart wasn’t interested in creating a typical alien encounter movie, and in fact the inspiration for Dark Skies came from following a most unusual train of thought: what if parents who were suspected of harming their children (like Jon Benet Ramsey’s parents or Casey Anthony) were actually in fact the victims of alien encounters? In support of the February 22, 2013 release

of the Dimension Films sci-fi thriller, Stewart (Legion, Priest) provided some insight into the creation of Dark Skies as well as how he wanted to portray the aliens in the film.

Scott Stewart Exclusive Interview

You don’t really provide any shots of the aliens in that trailer. Does that reflect how they’re treated in the film? Is their presence more suggested than actually seen?Scott Stewart: “I’m always a big fan of the anticipation of the scare, the slowly building suspense and dread. I just think that that’s a lot scarier. It’s always scarier what lurks in the shadows, what you can imagine as opposed to what you really see. That’s very true in this movie. It’s a lot about the building of suspense based on that.

Audiences that we’ve shown the movie to have seemed to really respond to that because they feel like everything that happens to the family in the movie, which they don’t really know what’s causing it for quite a while, is all very possible. I think they’ve described that the thing

that feel scariest about the movie is that everything that happens to them feels like it could happen to someone – and it doesn’t feel like it’s happening in the realm of a movie, like the things are so extraordinary or extreme or fantastic that, ‘Well, it’s just a movie so relax.’ That was the approach that I took in making the movie and writing the movie, was just trying to make it an intimate family drama, a family in jeopardy story that gets really, really scary.”

Isn’t a bit of a double-edged sword though because you’re telling people this movie does have an alien presence in it but then you’re not showing quite so much? Is there a possibility that people could be left wanting to see more?Scott Stewart: “We screened the film just very recently for people that have seen all the ads and they all universally said that they felt the movie was much scarier than the commercials. They really liked how the aliens were handled. The examples being that you go and look at huge movies that spend a gazillion dollars showing you everything you can possibly want with the aliens and with the exception of a few movies in the history of science fiction or horror – or movies more like ET, Close Encounters, Alien, Predator – most of the time people don’t like the alien. They find themselves disappointed. It’s like showing Heaven. I was much more interested, just in terms of my research, what do people that describe these experiences really experience and then taking it at face value. Reading some of the first person accounts, when you read them you think, ‘Oh my goodness, these people are suffering from abuse or something has happened to them.’

It’s very disturbing psychologically, but you assume that something explainable is happening to them. But if you take it at face value, what they’re describing is really, really…it’s disturbing no matter what. It’s even more disturbing I think if you think that something else unexplainable is happening to them. If you take it at face value, what they describe is very psychological. They’re not describing beings coming down and having conversations with them. They’re describing things that happen in a much more…it’s almost happening at the level of nightmare level of dream. The movie plays with it like that. When you see it you’ll experience that, which is they prey upon our fears. They use our fears and they manipulate us with them. There’s a lot of, ‘Why are they doing what they’re doing?’ To me, these are very unknowable things because we’re the lab rat and how does a lab rat understand what the guy in the white coat is doing to them?

It’s a point that’s raised in the movie. It kind of takes an un-Hollywoodish kind of approach to that stuff by keeping it in the realm. People said when we’re developing it, ‘These things are happening. How long can the family really take to not believe it.’ There’s always one character that takes longer than the others to believe what’s happening – in this case it’s the dad. I was saying to friends, ‘How long would it take for you to realize that there are aliens in your house?’ and it would be like, ‘Never.’ You would never think that, unless it was actually standing right across from you. You would never get there. You would think something else is doing something to you and to your children and it was very, very, very scary. That’s the place that the movie lives in. So far people seem to be pretty satisfied with that so we’re excited.”

During that research process, were there a lot of things that you found out in discussing these encounters with people that you were actually shocked to hear?Scott Stewart: “It’s just the details of it were just really fascinating. The details of things in the way that is used elements of what seemed like people describing dreams or the way that they would feel like they were…it was almost like they were describing possession. There seems to be a lot of overlap between those kinds of ideas: the abduction or alien experimentation versus possession or hauntings. It was always interesting people would say, ‘We thought the house was haunted and then we realized it’s not that. Our children would stare up at the corners of the room or the lights would flicker off when we would ride our bikes by. Then we started to just black out in the middle of the day. Then I realized that it wasn’t and we moved and then it kept happening. We realized it wasn’t the house.’ You know, those ideas. That stuff was always very, very interesting to me.

And then there’s another aspect of the story which is outside of that kind of stuff which I think is that the scariest scary movies for me are the ones where the boogeyman is giving voice to a universal fear. One of the things that I was really interested in was stories about parents who were being accused, you know, like you see in the press, people like Casey Anthony and Jon Benet Ramsey’s family. These are people that are accused in the public eye of doing terrible things to their children and yet they were not convicted in the court of law. There wasn’t the evidence. There was too much unknown and too much mystery and too many unanswered questions, and they just couldn’t do it. That’s a really disturbing place for everybody. I started thinking about as a writer, you sit there and think what’s the worst thing I could do to my main characters? What’s the worst predicament I could put them in? I started thinking about what if Jon Benet Ramsey’s family said a ghost strangled her in the basement? People would be like, ‘Okay, do we even need to have a trial because we should just string them up?’ But what if they were telling the truth and what if it took them weeks to realize it? What a super disturbed thing.

So I started thinking in terms of this film, if these things start to happen and it’s not just about what’s going on in their house but it’s also about what’s going on in their lives in relationship to their employers, to their neighbors, their friends, and as their lives spin out of control, what these people think is happening to them and their children and what they think they’re doing. It creates a very real dark cloud over them as parents. I think that’s another aspect of the movie that’s interesting and spooky because, once again, it’s just taking a much more dramatic – and when I mean that I mean by like drama point of view on stuff as opposed to just, ‘Oh, it’s just a scare machine.’ The movie is really scary, but it’s scary maybe in a slightly different way than sometimes some of these other movies are.”

Your mind goes to weird places.Scott Stewart: [Laughing] “It’s got to go somewhere.”

Who else would be thinking about a story about Casey Anthony and have that lead them to this story? It’s a very interesting connection.Scott Stewart: “It’s like what you would imagine would happen after the end of this movie and where all that would come into fruition. These are the steps that lead up to it. It’s a precursor to that situation. I was thinking about that when I was first developing the idea.”

Dark Skies wouldn’t work if you didn’t cast the family right. How did you know Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton would work well with these two young kids?Scott Stewart: “Keri was my first choice. It’s rare that you get your first choice. You make lists in your mind and you swing for the fences. Keri was my first choice and the first Lacey we offered the role to, and I was just very fortunate that she responded to it and wanted to do it. It’s sort of in keeping with what I described my goal was with the movie about relatability and realism. Keri is very beautiful but in a very, very real way. She has a real empathy and a real sense of warmth. She’s a mother. She seems very believable and reliable. She just brings that to the table because extreme things are going to happen to them and she starts to believe what’s happening to them and she gets to a pretty crazy place that in reality most people would never believe or get to. The fact that she’s so grounded and real and trustworthy I think it adds a lot of emotion and power because you believe her.”

Audiences could actually imagine that she lived in their neighborhood.Scott Stewart: “Absolutely. She’s rare, she’s beautiful and guys like her and girls like her. Everybody just likes her and I think they feel like she’s grown up in front of us. We’ve grown up with her through her TV career and now movie career. She’s spectacularly skilled. I don’t think people realize how good she is, maybe. I think they all know that they like her and think she’s really good, but she’s really good. It was really just a pleasure to work with her.

Then when I was looking for Daniel… Daniel is a really challenging role because I wanted someone that you could believe was married to her and an actor that had a lot of skill and subtlety, and someone that you would like because his character takes a long time to believe – and there’s always someone that’s going to take a long time to believe. He just can’t wrap his head around it and that’s pretty understandable. I wanted somebody who you didn’t lose empathy for because people are showing up to a scary movie and they’re going to be very inclined to believe right away, and yet the movie wants to slow everything down and say, ‘Wait, really, seriously, when would you believe?’

Josh was someone with tremendous experience on Broadway and TV and movies. He was really able to convey it. He’s also a father. He and Keri were friends from New York so they already had a rapport, which was really helpful because they knew they had friends that they had in common. There was already a history there for them, which was helpful because I really tried to make the film a very performance-oriented movie. We really got out of the actors’ ways and just tried to capture the performance, really allowed them a lot of freedom. We shot on all real locations.

Then with the kids… Dakota [Goyo], who plays Jesse in the movie, a 13-year-old, he’s a rare kid that does have quite a bit of big movie experiences. He’s been in a lot of big movies from Thor, he’s the young Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and obviously co-star with Hugh Jackman in Real Steel. He’s has a bunch of experience. But, he lives in Toronto; he doesn’t live in Hollywood and he does not come across as a movie kid at all. He’s just very sweet and very unassuming and liked to listen to his music and was really excited about the fixed gear bicycle that we got him to ride in the movie. He was so excited about it and his birthday was while we were shooting it so I gave him the bike for his birthday – his prop bike. He just was a real 13 year old kid. In that, it was really about trying to get as much of that out as possible and to try to just keep it as honest as we could. He just does a great job. He’s very expressive.

Then with Kadan Rockett who plays Sam, he’s a six year old. We auditioned hundreds of kids and you’re looking for basic things. like can they remember their lines and can they follow direction or do they get too distracted? Kadan was capable of doing all those things and he’s a total Rain Man. It was shocking that he actually, on our first day of rehearsals, knew all of his dialogue by heart, 100% through the script. Keri and Josh would be sitting across from him and go, ‘Kadan, we’re going to do this scene now.’ And he would go. without looking at the script, he’d be busy playing and he’d go, ‘So that’s they scene where my first line is…,’ and he would say his line. Keri and Josh would thumb through their scripts and go, ‘Yep, that’s the scene.’ It was so amazing.

There was never an issue of that. What was the thing that we figured out how to do with him was how do we make it – because he did know all of his dialogue – how do we make it feel like you could get him to forget all of that dialogue and to be himself. We learned very quickly that we should always shoot all of his coverage first, and very often I wouldn’t say action or cut. We would just start to play and he would be busy playing and Josh and Keri or Dakota would just start to interact with him and we’d roll them into the scene. It was really effective and I think Kadan delivers a remarkable performance regardless of the age, him being six. He just did a great job.”

Was that more difficult for you though? You were having to adjust the way you direct to suit a child actor.Scott Stewart: It’s not easier, but the job isn’t easy. I think that’s one of the things that makes a job fun which is that you have to be very flexible. You’re trying to get at a thing you’re after and you just have to figure out different ways to solve that puzzle. But ultimately my goal was always 100% to just try to get as much of them, of realism, of reality onto the screen as possible. I just wanted to do something very different than what I had done before, which would make these very stylized worlds and stylized movies. I just wanted as much humanity as I could get and that was my approach.”

Was this more freeing for you as a director because it wasn’t as stylized as either Priest or Legion?Scott Stewart: “Absolutely. I really changed the style entirely. Those movies I had storyboarded every frame and designed everything. In this movie I took a very different approach where I didn’t do any of that. I knew what I wanted but I wanted to cede as much control as possible to the performers and observe what was happening more than try to control it. The result is that I think I got closer to what I was really after than I’d every gotten to, and it’s just more relatable. It’s beautiful, but it’s beautiful in a very real way.

David Boyd was my cinematographer. I had chosen him because I loved his work. He’s very well known, particularly in television. He was a photographer for the pilots for Friday Night Lights and Deadwood and The Walking Dead. He was someone that I knew could help me get at that poetry of realism, of reality. You know, a bunch of people sitting across at a dinner table talking and overlapping and talking over each other, and just keeping it very real. The pace is very fast and keeping the pace of our day very, very quickly. I think because of all that the movie is scarier because you’re more invested in the family. It just feels more like your family or people you know.”

After doing one like this, is this more what you plan on doing in the future?Scott Stewart: “I do all sorts of different things. This was a step more towards more of a drama and less of a hard-core genre movie. I’d be more interested in doing that. It was a more personal movie for me. I’ve got a pilot of a television, it’s a premiere of a TV show Defiance which is an entirely different thing all together. It’s a crazy, wild, science fiction, action adventure, soap opera. It’s super fun, really a lot of fun. It’s entirely different than say Dark Skies or the other films that I’ve done. I just want to keep doing new stuff pretty much.”

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