Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick didn’t need to travel 70 years back in time to re-create small-town paranoia about communist plots and alien encounters.
Instead, the twentysomething co-stars of The Vast of Night just needed to travel 70 miles southwest of Dallas. Most of the low-budget science-fiction movie was shot in the Hill County town of Whitney.
“You would step on to these sets that felt like old Hollywood 1950s back lots. You couldn’t believe this little town looked like this,” Horowitz said by phone. “Part of what made the project so fun were the opportunities for immersing ourselves into it.”
Whitney stood in for a fictional New Mexico border village, where the “Twilight Zone”-inspired story unfolds over the course of one crazy night. While most of the locals are cheering on the basketball team, radio deejay Everett (Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (McCormick) begin hearing strange frequencies. Using their wits and curiosity, the teenagers’ ensuing investigation suggests the signals are coming “from the sky.”
“The cast and crew would get to the set at 7 p.m. and get to bed at like 9 a.m. There’s a bond that gets created when you’re doing that,” Horowitz said. “Everybody in the town was so kind to us. It was a blast.”
The directorial debut of Oklahoma native Andrew Patterson has garnered acclaim on the festival circuit for its affectionate evocation of B-movie nostalgia combined with its audacious visual flourishes. For the latter, Patterson collaborated with Adam Dietrich, a producer and production designer from Arlington.
McCormick said the vivid setting enhanced the visual cues in the script, which informed the performances.
“The town is another character in the film. We were living there while we were filming, so we were integrated into this small town,” she said. “We did a lot of people-watching and talked to the locals. There’s all this shorthand and the regional colloquialisms. Jake and I got into that mindset with the characters.”
Horowitz listened to radio deejays of the era and practiced on a reel-to-reel machine that Patterson placed in his hotel room. McCormick also strived to bring conviction to her role — performing a once-critical job that’s since become obsolete.
“I wanted to make sure I learned how to operate the switchboard authentically and quickly,” she said. “There’s this very efficient way of doing it — a swift, flick-of-the-wrist, plugging-in motion. Take it out; plug it in; release it. I wanted to adopt and embody that. Operating that switchboard was one of the most satisfying things I’ve gotten to do as an actor.”
Although he’s a New York native, Horowitz starred in a Dallas Theater Center production of Romeo and Juliet in early 2016, a few months before production on The Vast of Night. And McCormick returned to Dallas from Los Angeles last year to shoot the horror film VFW.
Both actors hope Patterson’s ambitious vision comes across, as the film explores the universal fear of the unknown from a perspective that’s both familiar and fresh.
“All of these great ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes have a very specific rhythm and a very specific way that things are revealed. They have all these tropes that go along with them. This movie takes those expectations and rips them out from under you,” McCormick said. “It has this story that you’ve seen done many times, but executes it in a brand new way. It manages to be on the cutting edge without sacrificing nostalgia.”
In addition to playing at the Galaxy Drive-In near Ennis, the film begins streaming this weekend on Amazon Prime.