Director Scott Stewart exploded onto the scene with his first two visually stunning films, ‘Legion’ and ‘Priest’. His latest project, which he has both written and directed, is his most ambitious work to date.’Dark Skies’ stars Keri Russell (August Rush, “The Americans”) and Josh Hamilton (The Bourne Identity, J. Edgar) as a young couple with children living in the suburbs. As husband and wife, Daniel (Hamilton) and Lacy Barrett (Russell) witness an escalating series of disturbing events involving their family, their safe and peaceful home quickly unravels. When it becomes clear that the Barrett family is being targeted by an unimaginably terrifying and deadly force, Daniel and Lucy take matters in their own hands to solve the mystery of what is after their family. DARK SKIES co-stars Dakota Goyo (Rise of the Guardians), Kadan Rockett (The Fortune Theory) and J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man franchise, Juno) as paranormal expert Edwin Pollard. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director Scott Stewart to discuss his influences, the origins of the film, it’s underlying themes and the challenges involved with bringing it to the big screen.
How did you get started on your journey into the entertainment industry and what made you pursue filmmaking as a career?
Like so many, growing up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, I had all of the regular touchstones of films that I loved. I got that bug very, very early and wanted to make movies. I grew up in the shadow of the Lucas companies. At the same time, I really liked computers. My father built the first home computer in Marin County, back in the early ‘70s. I had both tracks going growing up. I continued to play with computers and video cameras growing up and I ended up going to NYU’s film school for production. All of those elements converged in a way that was fun. I took some writing courses but I focused on production and ended up working at Industrial Light and Magic for four years. I eventually went on to start my own company called Orphanage, which I have had for 10 years and we worked on many movies. We also started a commercial, feature and television production division in Los Angeles, which I ran. My film “Legion” was one of the films I had written for hire. I was hired to write it, or re-write it I should say, for another filmmaker but it eventually came back to me as a director. Everybody always said it seemed like it happened overnight but it took six years for overnight to happen! [laughs] Sony Screen Gems bought the movie and it was off to the races from there! I have been working non-stop ever since.
Who would you cite as your biggest influence or even a personal mentor who guided you along the way?
At different parts of my life, at different ages, I have had different filmmakers influence me. Early on, I was in awe of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and then all of the Amblin directors. One of the nice things about growing up near Industrial Light and Magic was that every summer they would hold these daylong seminars called Brown Box Luncheon at the Civic Center where they would go into great detail about how they had done various movies they had done or had been working on over the last year or so. They would bring out some of the models they had made and all that great stuff. It was a pleasure for me. My parents were very supportive of me doing that and would pay for me to go and do that at 13 or 14 years old. It was cool to get to spend the day with them and a lot of them were people I would end up working with when I started there. A lot of those folks were influences. As an older teenager, going to school in New York at NYU, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Francis Ford Coppola and The Coen Brothers were very palpable influences. As I started to become a professional screenwriter and come up in the world, it became more about writers and screenwriters I had a lot of excitement for. As I got older, I became a member of the Director’s Guild. They have these dinners once a year as a toast to the great directors of the past. Growing up as a kid who wanted to make movies, it is pretty much the coolest thing in the world to sit next to many of your idols. Fortunately, it is one of the great pleasures of the job that they become peers as you move forward and establish a body of work. It is interesting discussing film with those filmmakers and learning about the techniques they are using and things they are interested in. It is a pretty wonderful, collaborative thing.
Your latest film is “Dark Skies.” Tell us a little about the inspirations for this film and what made you want to bring the material to life in film form?
I was interested in doing something smaller and more intimate after making bigger and bigger studio films with lots of visual effects. I had grown up in the suburbs, so I was interested in telling a story about some of the suburbs being a wonderful and terrible place at the same time! [laughs] I also am getting to the age where I have a family, kids and live in the suburbs of Los Angeles, although most of Los Angeles feels like a city and a suburb at the same time. I wanted to talk about those things — where we moved to the suburbs to have order in our lives. Yet right now, in the last 15 years, people have been dealing with an economic crisis, people are upside-down on their home mortgages and there are a lot of environmental and geo-political things happening around the globe. It kinda feels like you are being thrown around by these tidal forces you don’t have much control over. No one chose to have a banking crisis that would destroy home values. I wanted to get at that in the movie. My favorite scary movies are ones where the boogeyman is an embodiment of our day-to-day fears. In this story, “The Greys,” the boogeymen, are really a force of nature. I tried to treat them in the most realistic way I could imagine. I did a ton of research on people who have said they have experienced something or have had direct contact with these beings that no one can definitively point to and say actually exist. If we take the point of view that they actually do, then you start to ponder, “Well, if they were that sophisticated to come here, then they are a force of nature. They are almost God-like.” You can’t really reason, argue, deal with, stop or beat a force of nature! It is kinda like a banking crisis, global warming, a drunk driving incident, a teen overdose or any other thing that seems to be happening that is completely out of our control. All of these things can happen in our lives in the suburbs and make us feel like we are out of control. I was really interested in getting at that with a family drama — parents dealing with their children, parents feeling out of control, parents feeling that they can’t talk to their kids, kids not really understanding becoming 13 years old and having your first sexual experience and having it be a really exciting and terrifying thing. There is also the influence of someone who is a little older and not really sure what to believe about how things are in the world. All of those things were really interesting to me and I drew from my own life about things I could talk to other people about. I really wanted to get those things into a genre movie!
There was another thing that was happening that I thought was really interesting. As a writer, you are always trying to figure out what the worst thing you can do to your main characters is. In looking at stories that happen in the news, every few years there is always a story where someone is accused of doing something terrible to their children, whether it is Casey Anthony or JonBenet Ramsey. Yet, there isn’t enough evidence for them to be convicted but in the court of public opinion, everyone has convicted them. They, of course, say they are innocent. In the back of my writer brain, I say, “What if JonBenet Ramsey’s family claimed a ghost strangled her in the basement?” Everyone would immediately want to string them up! There is no way anyone would believe them! I thought, “What if they were telling the truth?” Or at least what they perceived to be the truth. Suddenly, then you have a really interesting idea for a scary movie that has all sorts of other interesting ramifications to it. It started a convergence of all of these different ideas. I wanted to tell the story of this family going through something and also wanted them to get totally isolated from their friends, neighbors and the world around them where they literally look like crazy people when they start boarding up their windows. By the end of the movie, they are under a tremendous cloud of suspicion.
As a writer and director, you control a lot of the aspects of the filmmaking process. How have you evolved in those capacities over the years?
It is interesting. I did two movies, “Legion” and “Priest,” which were very stylized, technically complex and had a lot of visual effects. I started out in the process wanting to control every aspect. Of course, you don’t because the studio has the final say on all sorts of things related to your movie! [laughs] They have a say in how it looks, the edits, how it ends and all sorts of stuff. As things change you don’t feel like you are that much in control by the end but at least in the process you hope to! I would storyboard every frame and be very, very specific on what I wanted in the pre-visualization process. The more I get into it, particularly with a movie like “Dark Skies,” I became more interested in less. I was interested in planning it all out but then seeing what a 6-year-old could do and where he would take it. I wanted to provide him room to just be himself and for a 13-year-old to be himself. I also wanted to give that space to our two incredibly talented actors, Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell, who are also parents, to make the characters in the movie the greatest they could be. By giving them that space, the more realistic it would feel and the more the audience would care about and relate to it as people. I really wanted to get out of the way of the movie in many respects and not stylize it. In the end, I think by trying to see this much control is possible, I ended up getting much closer to the mark than I was really after. Some things in the film seem a little more alive, more vibrant, more relatable and real. I care about that a lot more. Between those first movies and “Dark Skies,” I had done the pilot episode of the television show, “Defiance.” I had to learn to shoot very, very fast because it was the first thing I had done for TV. That was like a baseball player practicing their swing before heading up to bat. It was the same shooting schedule as “Dark Skies” but considerably more complex with CG characters, green screen stages, stunts and tons of characters. “Dark Skies” was very intimate and took place mostly on location. All of that was definitely an evolution for me. I feel the more I work as a filmmaker, the more interested I become in trying to get at — something that feels more intimate and more actor and character driven, even if it is told on quite a grand scale.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers in the current climate?
As a writer, read a lot. Read your favorite writers. read things that aren’t good just as much as things that are. Read as much as you can. I think it was Stephen King who said in his book on writing, “If you don’t have time to read a lot, you don’t have time to write.” Read and write a lot! Just hammer away at things! You really have to commit to spending a certain number of hours with your ass in a chair or you just won’t ever bake any of the pies all the way through. For directors, people are so empowered now. In my earlier career, I have been involved in technology that was high quality filmmaking technology that was becoming less and less expensive. The barriers to entry and making great looking movies have continued to get lower as the quality has continued to get higher. I look at a movie, most recently, like “Upstream Color,” which is taking to the most extreme with a consumer grade camera, self distribution and all of these types of things. Yet, it is a beautiful, exquisitely crafted movie. I think you should just go out and shoot. Spend less time and money on film schools. Buy your gear or get it whatever way you can and shoot, shoot, shoot!
Great advice! Hopefully you will motivate a few individuals out there. Thank you very much for your time today! We look forward to talking with you soon!
Thank you, Jason!