Scott Stewart interview: Dark Skies, aliens, and suburban anxieties

Interview Sarah Dobbs 28 Mar 2013 - 06:43

The sci-fi horror Dark Skies is imminent. To mark the occasion, Sarah Dobbs spoke to director Scott Stewart about its making...

According to the Arthur C Clarke quote that opens Dark Skies: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Judging by the rest of the film, the second option is far more terrifying. We called writer/director Scott Stewart for a chat about the film, and why aliens are the new ghosts…

Minor spoilers for Dark Skies lie ahead. But nothing massively spoiler-y, hence we've left them in.

You wrote and directed Dark Skies – how did you come up with the idea for the movie?

It came from a few different places. I grew up in the suburbs of northern California in the 70s and 80s, and that was formative for me, so I’d always been interested in setting a movie there. And I like families-in-jeopardy stories, and I’m getting to that age where myself and my friends are having kids and moving to the suburbs of Los Angeles, so I was thinking about becoming an adult – ‘am I doing a good job? Am I a good parent? Am I going to be able to pay the bills and pay the mortgage?’ – and there’s a lot of suburban anxiety that’s out there right now, given, you know, the state of the economy around the world.

I always think the best scary movies are the ones where the boogeyman is giving a voice to a very real world fear, so I liked that idea, of having those anxieties amplified by a kind of supernatural predator…

Then there was another idea that came to me. As a writer, I’m always thinking ‘what’s the worst possible situation for my heroes, my main characters, to be in?’ And there have been a lot of stories about parents who have become notorious for being accused of doing terrible things to their kids, but they don’t end up being convicted of them, like Casey Anthony or Jon Benet Ramsey’s parents, or others around the world.

I was thinking about that, and about how the public is rightly very sceptical of them and their stories are hard to believe, so I wondered what would happen if you took that into the realm of the fantastic? What if Jon Benet Ramsey’s parents had said that a ghost strangled her in the basement? Everyone would immediately be like “String them up! Why even have a trial?” But what if those characters were telling the truth?

And that’s where the kernel of the idea came from. I thought it would be an interesting idea for a scary movie if there was something disturbing happening in your home, a force that’s preying on you and your children and creating chaos in your life, and your friends and your neighbours, and the police, and others, just don’t believe you. I was interested in taking a very, very grounded approach to that, where the suburban drama had equal weight as the more supernatural elements. 

The film plays a lot like a haunted house movie – that idea of there being something in your house that’s messing with you – so why did you make the monsters aliens, rather than ghosts, or any other kind of boogeyman?

Well, if you look at research that’s been done with people who’ve had what they claim are first-person encounters, like abductions, it sort of occupies a different realm, in a way. It’s in the zeitgeist in the same way that ghosts are, but it’s got a slightly different flavour to it. I feel like it enters the realm of metaphor a little more interestingly.

There are people that really, really believe in it, and the way they describe their experiences – they overlap with hauntings, in a way? – but the experiences don’t leave them. If they move house, the experiences go with them. It’s an interesting thing, because some people believe that possessions aren’t possessions, they’re people that have been experimented on by other beings. Or people confuse extra-terrestrial experiences with religious experiences.

And then there’s the basic primal idea, for parents, that there is a predator in the neighbourhood that may take your children. I think the idea of abduction comes through more strongly with aliens than it does with supernatural stuff.

There are other ideas that relate to body dysmorphia, and the idea that you’re being experimented on – it fitted with what I was interested in getting at with the family dynamic, you know, you’ve got the 13-year-old son who’s right on the edge of being a teenager or still being a kid, and having a sexual awakening, and there are all those ideas of not being in control of your own body; you can get at those ideas in more interesting ways with an alien mythos, that idea that maybe someone is experimenting on you and you’re not aware of it.

You read about those experiences, where you blackout and you wake up three hours later, or you’ve driven three hundred miles and you don’t know how you got there  - it felt like it was exploring a different kind of territory than a ghost story.

Would you call the movie sci-fi or horror?

Maybe I’m in the minority but I always call it a psychological thriller, or a suburban thriller. It’s definitely a scary movie; people sit in theatres and there’s plenty of screaming and jumping. But it’s a hybrid between that movie and a psychological story that has sci-fi elements – it does deal with aliens, but it never deals with them in a sci-fi way. It’s story about suburban anxiety and the boogeyman in the shadows who may or may not exist, and may or may not be in your house, or may or may not be just another force of nature. That’s the other idea, that it’s a force of nature, it’s a thing that has always been here and creates chaos in our lives, and these characters just happen to be the unlucky ones who face it, and kind of have their eyes opened to it, to how the world really is.

It’s like – bad things happen to good people, and chaos happens. Teens drive drunk and crash and die. People get divorced. You know, we move to the suburbs, we send our kids to the right schools, we work hard, but – you know, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with the economy crashing but my house is underwater’, ‘I lost my job, I’m over qualified for every job’ – it’s about people feeling like they’re at the mercy of some kind of tidal force that is throwing us around.

Everyone’s trying to live right and do the right thing, but we still feel helpless, and there are forces that are stronger and greater than you that are affecting your life. Maybe it’s bankers, maybe it’s governments, maybe it’s Mother Nature, who knows? The movie is trying to get at those ideas, those kind of collective fears. 

The climactic scene takes place on Independence Day; why did you choose to set it then?

Well, I wanted to set it during the summer for practical reasons – the kids are out of school, right? And then it kind of evolved that way. As a writer, you’re like, ‘what’s a good demarcation?’, and then there was the idea that although guns are going off in the house, fireworks are going off outside at the same time, so from a practical point of view there were good reasons to do it because it would make it more difficult for anybody to have any idea that anything bad was happening in that house.

And then it started to evolve from there – again, it’s about the suburbs, and about portraying a kind of Americana that ends up getting distorted and perverted. I mean [Lacy] walks down the hall to a distorted version of America the Beautiful, and that’s where the movie starts to play around with the idea of metaphor.

And the suggestion is that the greys are fully aware of all that stuff. A lot of movies play around with the ideas of aliens and alien invasions, where they come down and look like squids and do dumb things like not realising that water is deadly to them, and all that stuff is fine and those movies are great, but I always thought that if there was an entity that was so intelligent and sufficiently advanced that it would be able to get here and not be seen by us, it would be too difficult for us to understand because they would be so much more advanced than we were that they would essentially just be another force of nature.

That’s kind of what JK’s character is getting at – you know, the greys are just as much a part of our life as death and taxes!

Let’s talk about JK Simmons then – he’s always good value whenever he pops up in anything, how did he come to be involved?

The same way as everyone else! He read the script and he really liked it and was game for doing it. I really wanted to try to go in a different direction with that character; we’ve seen a lot of those kinds of characters in these kinds of movies, and I didn’t want to go to the professorial type, the British stage actor who’s going to come in and give you ten minutes of exposition – that’s always the tempting thing to do, whenever there needs to be a lot of explanation, go get someone with an excellent accent, to our American ears, to do it!

I think this movie is something of a departure from everything else I’ve done, quite intentionally; I just wanted to keep going back and grounding things in a kind of suburban realism. And the people that you would reach out to if you went online and started looking for someone who would help you, if you were experiencing what the Barrets were experiencing, you might find some man of that age who runs a website and a forum, probably from his bedroom computer, and he probably lives in a small apartment and has a bunch of cats and I’m not sure what he does for a living that allows him to pay the rent, maybe it’s advertising on his website or maybe he does something else…

But the thing that JK and I talked about was that there’s a fatigue to him. There’s a kind of ‘too long in the foxhole’ idea, he’s been fighting this battle for himself and on behalf of others for a long time, and there are elements of this idea that Daniel – you know, the Josh Hamilton character – he’s the last member of the family to believe, he is the most sceptical of him, and by the end of the movie he’s starting to become him. He’s starting to pin things up on the wall, and they move to the city and will probably get cats – you know, that’s life. We don’t win against the force of nature. You don’t win against a force of nature, you just learn something about the world.

JK was wonderful, we shot for a few days with him, he’s got just incredible delivery, and it was just right for the movie, it was an honour to have him in the film. 

The whole project happened quite quickly, didn’t it – from pitching it to writing it to actually shooting it? How long did it take?

Well, we shot the movie last August and here we are in theatres, so very fast! I wrote the script the prior summer, and –

[BEEP. Line goes dead]

Hello?

[The PR comes on the line to tell me Scott must have lost signal on his phone, but I can ask one more question if he dials back in. I wait, in silence, wondering if the aliens got him. He eventually comes back.]

Hi Scott! Where were we – oh, yeah, how long did the movie take to make?

So, yeah, did you hear – I had written the movie the summer before, and everybody said “great, we love it, let’s make it!” And we would have started shooting, but I went off and shot a pilot for NBC Universal for a show called Defiance, and that took all of the winter and spring. Then I came back to Los Angeles in June and started prepping for Dark Skies and we shot it, fast. There’s a certain energy in moving that quickly that’s a lot of fun and forces you to be a lot more instinctual and a lot less precious.

Finally – what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

My favourite Jason Statham movie? Um… I like The Bank Job, is that the period one? Or, probably Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, that was a lot of fun, I liked that one.

Scott Stewart, thank you very much!

Dark Skies is out in UK cinemas on 5 April.

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