Struggling to overcome your deepest challenges, in a commendable effort to overcome your fears and achieve your goals, can be a terrifying process for many people, no matter what their situation is like. But director-producer Jack Heller intriguingly overcame the financial and creative limitations he faced while making his second independent feature film, the horror thriller ‘Dark Was the Night.’ The native New York filmmaker’s drama powerfully chronicles the daunting emotional and physical burdens two police officers must overcome in their isolated small town. Audiences can witness and relive the characters’ chilling battles on Tuesday when the film is released on Long Island by RLJ Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, the latter of which will be exclusively sold at Best Buy.
‘Dark Was the Night,’ which is set in an isolated upstate New York hamlet and was filmed in Southampton, opens with a logging foreman searching for two of his workers who didn’t return back to the base at the end of the day. After witnessing the violent fate that fell upon them, the thriller moves 90 miles south to the isolated rural town of Maiden Woods. The community is led by the reliable Paul Shields (Kevin Durand), who’s separated from his wife, Susan (Bianca Kajlich). The two are still grieving over the recent accidental death of their oldest son, while also trying to stay strong for their younger son, Adam (Ethan Khusidman), of whom they’re sharing custody.
The town’s leader, who’s still emotionally struggling with his personal dilemmas, is placed into an even more harrowing situation when cloven hoof prints that are leading into the woods suddenly appear. A series of mysterious deaths, as well as the unusual behavior of the town’s animals, seem to indicate the presence of a malevolent creature. While searching for an explanation with the help of his loyal deputy (Lukas Haas), who recently moved to the town from New York City, the sheriff discovers that the manifestation of a Native American myth may be occurring in Maiden Woods. While most of the local citizens temporarily left after receiving a severe storm warning, the two officers must overcome the guilt they feel over their own perceived responsibility in the recent tragedies in their lives to protect those who are still remaining in the town.
Heller generously took the time to talk about directing ‘Dark Was the Night’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was drawn to helm writer Tyler Hisel’s script after reading it, as he not only liked the realistic family relationships and dynamics that surround the sheriff, but also the relatable metaphors abut grief the creature represents throughout the story; how he was happy to be able to cast Durand as Paul, as his physicality and ability as an actor prove that he can infuse his protagonist with the ability to stand up against, as well as fight and conquer, any physical or emotional threats he faces; and how shooting the movie independently greatly influenced its overall creative development, as there were many extra elements he would have initially included if he had more resources, but he ultimately realized that the process allowed him to strip away everything that was inconsequential to the story.
Question (Q): You directed the horror thriller, ‘Dark Was the Night.’ What was it about the script, which was written by Tyler Hisel, that convinced you to helm the film? How did you become involved in the movie?
Jack Heller (JH): Well, I read the screenplay a few years ago, as part of an annual review that I do. I read all the scripts on the Black List, which is a list of all the screenplays that those involved in the film industry believe are the greatest, but they haven’t been produced yet. So I read ‘Dark Was the Night’ during that process, and saw that there was an opportunity to dive even deeper into the script that Tyler wrote. I knew we could pull out a great family drama from his foundation.
What excited me about directing ‘Dark Was the Night’ was the opportunity to work in genres that I love, including creatures and horror. To also be able to put on a lens on a character who was going through grief in a town that’s trying to recover, and a family that’s also trying to move on, which was reflected in the creature itself, was great.
Q: The film intriguingly intertwines the main characters’ personal struggles, including Sheriff Paul Shields coping with the death of one of his sons and his separation from his wife, and his deputy, Donny Saunders, moving from New York City to start over, with an increasingly violent predator. Why was it important to you to showcase the relatable internal conflicts the characters are contending with, in addition to the physical threat from the predator?
JH: My goal was to create stakes for the characters. I wanted the audience to feel like whether or not there’s a monster, there were insurmountable stakes still ahead of them in their lives, and they had to work through those conflicts. In a way, their own redemption is tied to what happens as the film progresses, and they have to deal with these things.
I really wanted to include things that weren’t just driven by the plot; I wanted to show that the scares and everything that’s happening would be a setup for everything that’s happening. As an audience member, the more you feel as though the characters are growing, changing and going through things, the more you’re going to care about them, especially when they’re under attack and under pressure.
Q: Since this is such a character-driven film that’s largely based on the characters’ motivations, what was the process of casting the main actors in the thriller, including Kevin Durand, who portrayed Paul, and Lukas Haas, who played Donny?
JH: I knew there was a physicality that I wanted for the main character of Paul Shields. I wanted someone who, when you look at him, you feel like they can stand up against, as well as fight and conquer, anything. But when you really meet them, I wanted to strip all of that away, and bring them into the grief that they were going through.
So when I was looking around to see who would be available, Kevin’s name came up, and I’ve been such a big fan of his work. I wanted him to steal every scene he’s in, from the moment you first see him on screen. So that was a really interesting way to view the character and the film, both physically and emotionally. He’s always going to be 6’5″-he’s enormous.
But Paul starts out feeling small in the beginning of the film, as he’s dealing with his character’s grief. But as the movie goes on, the audience sees that he starts to physically change. For me, that change was a really important aspect to communicate to the audience through the actors we used.
Lukas Haas was always someone I had in mind for Donny from the very beginning, and we were lucky enough to get him. We were really fortunate with this cast, and it all came together well. As on all indie films, there’s a lot of hard work from everybody on the casting, and we were really proud of everyone.
Q: Once the actors were cast in ‘Dark Was the Night,’ were you able to have any rehearsal time with them to develop their characters’ relationships and backstories?
JH: We did a couple of things we did that I was really fortunate to be able to do. In this day and age, you have Skype and all of these other amazing ways to communicate with other people. You can be on the other side of the planet from each other, but still be in contact. So with all of the actors, especially Kevin and Lukas, we really spent a lot of time talking through things. We tried to build the characters’ foundations and backstories, and what led to their different circumstances.
Once the filming process began, we all went out to the location, where we were all basically living together. The crew was there much longer than the cast-the actors arrived at the location about a week before we began filming.
I then sat down with everybody, both individually and together, and really tried to create the dynamic of them having known each other, because the story’s set in this small town. So you do want there to be a familiarity between all the actors. That way when they arrive at work, we can take all of these things that we discussed, as well as the relationships and bonds we built outside of the set, to be in the background. So we made time that wasn’t necessarily always scheduled, in order to talk through how everyone wanted to portray their characters.
I’m a big believer that there’s not just one way to direct actors; every actor just needs something different. So we were trying to figure out in pre-production what would be the best way to work with these actors on bringing forth the performances that they wanted. That process was really helpful when we began shooting.
Q: What was the process of filming ‘Dark Was the Night’ independently? Did it influence the way you approached the drama’s creative process?
JH: Well, there’s no way to say shooting independently doesn’t influence the creative process. You have your financial possibilities laid out from the very beginning, which are limiting. But at the same time, on a movie like this, there are 100,000 things I would have added, in the sense of production, if we did have more money and time.
But ultimately, the story that we found was the story that we should have told from day one. So I think having those limited resources, as well as the indie spirit that we possessed, added so much to the film, as well as the processes and experiences that we had. That’s why I love indie filmmaking-it allows you to strip away everything that’s inconsequential, and not at the core of what your movie and story is about. The process also helps the actors.
There are a lot of people who prefer to have a million resources. Thankfully, that’s something that my crew members and everyone I have worked with on indie films have gotten to experience in the past. But I don’t find indie filmmaking to be a crutch; I find that it just forces us to pay more attention to details, and I enjoy that process.
Q: What was the process of creating the overall look and production design of Maiden Woods, the small and isolated rural town where ‘Dark Was the Night’ set? Did you shoot on location in an actual remote town, in an effort to emphasize how secluded the area is from neighboring towns?
JH: We actually chose to film in a town that actually has a very populated summer community. But in the winter, it becomes empty; the winter population must go down to about five percent of what it is during the summer. So I really wanted to capture that sense of isolation. It was really important to me that the isolation was in place for a reason, and it wasn’t just to cut the residents off from civilization when the monster struck.
I also wanted to show that for Kevin’s character of the sheriff, everyone was looking at him at all times for everything. If anyone had a problem, he was the guy they would go to, and that really creates a lot of pressure for him. There’s no one else in this town who can help everyone; since it’s so small and isolated, the town can’t get help from other communities that quickly.
There is also only one bar, grocery store and church that everyone can go to in the town. So that shows that the town is essentially an extended family to him, which also emphasizes the fact that he can’t truly separate from his wife and become a loner. So that continuous pressure that Paul felt was something that I wanted to show in the production design.
Q: Since the film features several scenes that were shot at night and in the forest that was supposed to border Maiden Woods, and it utilizes darker hues, what was your collaboration process like with its cinematographer, Ryan Samul, to capture the overall look that you wanted?
JH: That process is something I really care about. I actually started making compositions when I first started reading the script. Ryan, who also shot ‘Cold in July’ and ‘Stake Land,’ and I immediately saw eye-to-eye on everything, including how we wanted to portray the town, the character and the story.
Something that we really focused on was using practical lighting as a source to evoke a mood and reflect a scene. So when we were outside during the day in the middle of winter, the scenes were very cool and blue. We were trying to make the production design a character. So it was really important to use to capture the mood through the lighting, and Ryan’s brilliant at capturing that in the way he films.
Q: Besides directing the thriller, you also served as a producer on ‘Dark Was the Night.’ Why did you also decide to produce the movie-was it beneficial to making it independently?
JH: I think knowing what a producer has to know, and actually going through the process on a lot of films, which included everything from driving trucks to making budgets and even sandwiches, is really beneficial. In indie filmmaking, producing is like a Swiss Army Knife-you have to be multi-facted. You have to be on set every day and be really helpful; you can’t just put your name on a film.
So knowing all the ins and outs of what it takes to get a movie made, as well as the daily structure of making a film, is like my magic bag of tricks, in a way. It’s not something I try to divorce myself from while I’m in the director’s chair and actually shooting a film. While my main focus is on directing once we begin filming, also being a producer, and having that say in such important areas as allocation of resources and time management of when we should shoot each scene, is really important. In indie films, it’s very tough for directors to not have a voice in those aspects.
But I also had great producers on this film, like my colleague Dallas Sonnier, who has been my producing partner for a long time. I also had great collaborations with the other producers on the film, including Dylan (K. Narang) and Lizz (Morhaim), who were helpful on a day-to-day basis. So it was great to have their support while we were shooting.
Q: The film had its premiere at last year’s Screamfest L.A. What was the experience of having the thriller premiere at the horror film festival?
JH: Well, I was definitely nervous. We had been accepted into Screamfest and the New York Film Festival, which features a scary movie series at Lincoln Center. We found out that we were going to be in both festivals at the same time.
My first film (‘Enter Nowhere’) actually premiered at Screamfest, and I stayed close to Rachel (Belofsky), the festival’s programmer. So I was so excited that we could also premiere ‘Dark Was the Night’ there, especially since the audience there is such a big supporter of me and my films. So being able to see all these people again really felt like a homecoming. The crowd there is really tough, and they really know their stuff. They’re really looking for something when they see these films.
Rachel does a great job of programming the films. But none of the comfort of being accepted into the festival sets you up for horror fans watching your film. So I was fortunate that we had an amazing response at the festival. That night led to our distribution deal, so that was a high point in the process. Then four days later we flew back to New York, where I’m from and grew up, and went to Lincoln Center, where I’ve been going to watch films my entire life. So it was really a phenomenal experience.
Q: ‘Dark Was the Night’ was the second feature film you directed, after you helmed the 2011 thriller, ‘Enter Nowhere,’ like you just mentioned. Were there any lessons you learned from your first feature that influenced the way you approached making this movie?
JH: I think time management was a big thing I learned. It’s something every director who’s just starting out needs to be aware of when you’re filming. Your time management on set is so important as you try to figure out what to shoot every day and fully tell your story.
You learn that process as you go along, as there’s the movie you read, the movie you prep, the movie you shoot and the movie you edit. There are so many times as directors that we hold onto something so dearly during pre-production that once we get to the editorial process, we realize we don’t need it. That really comes from your time and focus.
So the thing I really learned from my first film is to always stick to your path. Both films were made with micro-budgets. While we made ‘Dark Was the Night’ with a little bit more money than ‘Enter Nowhere,’ we learned those tricks on both films. It’s a cliché, but actually filming both movies independently was the best way to learn the whole process. Every time I get to make a movie as a director or a producer, I learn so much, and I can’t wait to learn more on whatever I do next.