Tim Sutton’s Dark Night is loosely based on the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado which took place during a midnight screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. The sacredness of this communal space being disrupted so violently changed the idea that going to the movies was a safe space. Sutton’s dreamlike film focuses on a day leading up to a similar tragedy, one that we luckily are protected from witnessing, but which still raises questions about our nature, how we live with each other, and the importance of communal worship. I spoke to Sutton about his remarkable film.
Do you remember when you first became aware that movie theater shootings occurred?
I remember when Aurora happened, like everyone else in the country I was horrified for the people who lost their lives, and for their family members. I was also deeply disturbed as a filmmaker because movie theaters are the place where we go to daydream, and to sit together in a dark room and collectively dream. It was a horrible death in cinema, as much as it was a death of people. Years later working with students, a young woman brought Elephant to my attention, I’d seen that before and knew Gus Van Sant’s work, but I realized someone needed to continue that conversation, there would be more theater shootings, and as filmmakers we needed to respond. The response shouldn’t just come from CNN, politicians and the news cycle, but cinema itself needed a document that would try to make sense of it, but also spoke for the time. While I was making the film three mass shootings happened, so it felt that we were actually making a living document.
How do you walk the line between outrage/anger/sadness and avoiding didacticis in your film?
One of the keys is that my politics are not in the movie, my politics are very left wing, I believe in full gun control, I hate all guns. But as a filmmaker I thought it was important to observe. I’m not saying “guns are bad” or “people are evil”, I’m saying this can happen. You can have a guy who does things right and takes his gun to the shooting range, you can also have a guy who goes and shoots his neighbor for no reason, there are many possibilities. I’m just trying to show people for who they are, and letting the audience bring their own ideas, sometimes they’re prejudice, sometimes they’re politics.
Even though the film was inspired by Aurora, you create a sense of dread in the film, because we feel anyone can be the shooter, not just necessarily the white guy. Can you talk about these characters?
I wanted the film to feel like suburban America, not stereotypical but archetypal. When I thought about who I’d see in a parking lot in a movie theater I thought about veterans, a young immigrant, a troubled kid who’s relatively harmless, a selfie freak who’s very image conscious, and I wanted to make it clear there was also a psycho with a gun. Movie audiences bring their preconceptions so when they see the guy who dyes his hair orange, or the one who goes to therapy, they think “oh that’s the killer”. You’re supposed to feel close enough that you know these people, and yet one of them is the shooter.
Can you talk about the movie within the movie that we never get to see?
Everyone assumes it’s The Dark Knight, or they see the movie poster in the movie also called Dark Night. We’re seeing the same movie, the people in the audience have come to see the same movie that the people in our movie have come to see. It’s a mirror reflection. The movie ends in a movie theater, meanwhile you’re in the movie theater, the point is to make the screen disappear, if you look to the left you see the young Latinas talking about eyeliner, or the selfie freak drinking her soda.
You said movies are we go to dream, the dream within a dream structure disturbed me more than seeing an actual shooting to be honest. I wonder, do you remember when you realized movies had the power to access dreams like no other art?
Off the top of my head, when I started watching Tarkovsky movies like Mirror or Stalker and Solaris, even Ivan’s Childhood...he has this uncanny ability to have the seamless territory between a dream and reality, and people and nature. I’ve always been moved by this otherworldly quality of how he sees the real world. In Stalker they’re going through a field, and it’s just dudes going through a field with a guy with a camera shooting them, but you literally feel they could be burned at any moment, or fall off the edge of the world. That power the director has to communicate his imagination is something I first realized with Tarkovsky. A movie like Donnie Darko too, it’s perfect, it’s a dark and dangerous movie. It could be Breakfast Club from a different viewpoint.
I’ve always loved the intertextual nature of movies, I always watch Stalker I think of it as a The Wizard of Oz remake.
That’s a great way to see it.
Did you have specific movies in mind when you shot Dark Night?
Certainly Elephant was a starting point, people compare them but I feel stylistically they’re very different. I didn’t watch movies specifically but I feel the one that best captures the mood I was feeling at the time is Taxi Driver, the obsession, the meticulousness, the operatic sense of the landscape, and the dangerous landscape that is also an “everyday” landscape. There’s also the gun details, and having a charismatic person at the center.
I love Memphis and you saying that Dark Night is a document made me think Memphis is also a document. You’re making realist movies that fit into Americana, but you’re filtering them through a poetic lens. Do you think your purpose as a filmmaker is to preserve this alternate chronicle of America?
I think that’s a really interesting way to put it. I feel comfortable telling stories in a specific way, which is to create almost legends, rather than realistic stories. Things that can be taken from the news, your backyard, or your life which can become myths. Pavillion is about a teenager who moves across the country, but it’s also about the secret life of youth. Memphis to me is about a true mystic, and not about writer’s block at all, but about a person who has a third eye, a person taken from blues legends, people like Monk or Coltrane. Dark Night to me is trying to be its own kind of modern folktale, it sees the world, but doesn’t give lessons, rather it’s something that feels alive, something that can keep growing in your mind.
Dark Night is now in theaters.