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“Dark Skies” filmmaker Scott Stewart may have launched his Hollywood career in the arena of eye-popping visual effects, but he’s well aware that it’s often what you can’t see that has the greatest impact.
Early in his career as a key member of the cutting edge fx house The Orphange, Stewart helped craft the unforgettable visuals in films like “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Sin City,” “Superman Returns” and “Iron Man,” and went on to direct effects-centric films like “Legion” and “Priest.” But when writing and directing his latest project “Dark Skies” – a potently disturbing psychological thriller centered around a suburban couple (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) who begin to fear that the bizarre phenomena their family’s experiencing at home may be extraterrestrial in origin – Stewart decided that for a bigger fear factor it was best to put more a more subtle array of visual tricks on the screen.
"I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California in the late '70s and '80s and had wanted to make a movie that was kind of coming out of that experience," says Stewart. "And I like families in jeopardy stories. It was really fun to work with that cast and to take a kind of more realistic and grounded approach with these things. We shot all on practical locations. So we were all sort of shacked up together in a house in Los Angeles for a good number of weeks. It was a really enjoyable process."
Having started your career in the visual effects industry, was it a treat for you to take a more subtle approach?
Yeah. That was part of the conception of the movie, for sure, when I wrote it. I set out to write a movie that was heavy in the sense in realism and wasn't about all the whiz-bang, bells-and-whistles visuals that you often see in the bigger movie. Because usually, no matter what the budget of those movies, they just aren't as scary when you see everything. And I think visual effects are wonderful – I've made a career out of doing them, and I'm very comfortable incorporating them into my movies, but they have a tendency to generally not be so scary and not be so funny. You're just seeing too much.
Whereas for audiences, the anticipation of the scare as opposed to the scare itself – I like to say there's nothing more pleasurable than a slowly tightening screw. In my research with looking at websites and first-person accounts of people who said that they've encountered these things. We don't have many pictures of them. There's not a lot of proof, which means they're not visible very often. If you accept the premise that they do exist and that they are here, they are hard to seek. So I wanted to come up with a set of rules which was how do we make it feel like they could really be in this space, but very, very difficult to see? So it's more like a nightmare where you know that you saw something, or you saw someone, but you can't remember what it looked like exactly. You just have the feeling that you saw it, and that can even be scarier
I'm curious about your influences because – and I mean this in complimentary terms – “Dark Skies” had a touch of ‘Poltergeist’ meets ‘Close Encounters.’ Were you looking at some of those movies for inspiration?
I was six when I saw ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Star Wars,’ and obviously saw ‘Poltergeist’ as well. I was a child of that, growing up in that era, so it's hard not to be influenced by that, but it's not that I'm dealing in a similar milieu; it’s the idea of an extraterrestrial and a suburban family. So that alone puts you in that category: parents and their children. I tried to take from my real life. I’m at an age where I have kids, my friends are having kids, and there's a lot of conversation. Am I good parent? Am I going to be able to provide for them and myself? Suburban anxiety. Are they going to be okay, decent people? Are they going to act out at the park when you go to the park? Are other people judging us, or are we judging them in that kind of quiet and insidious way that people do?
And I think the other thing, the references, the stuff that I looked at were actually dramas, particularly dramas that had great performances by children or teenagers – things like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ or ‘The Ice Storm,’ or ‘Ordinary People.’ In a lot of those movies, particularly things like ‘Ordinary People,’ it’s almost in a way a family living with a ghost. As I was writing it, it was little movies like ‘Little Children’ which is suburban dramas about families dealing with real or imagined boogeymen. And then, of course, in ‘Dark Skies,’ it's a real boogeyman. And I think the scariest movies are the ones where the boogeyman gives voice to a collective, common, very understandable primal fear: That there's maybe a predator in our midst, preying upon us or our children is something very primal to people, particularly people with kids. So while it’s hard not to live in the shadow of those great films that you mentioned, my references were placed in other places.
Next up for you is the launch of SyFy’s ‘Defiance.’ What hooked you about that because it's such an unusual sounding project?
That one – talk about wall-to-wall! That is wall-to-wall visual effects. It is big, monstrous, really fun – it was just such a cool world. When I got involved, Rockne O’Bannon was the show runner on it, and then we had a transition over to Kevin Murphy and we did some re-conceiving so I was very involved in that. And it just came out great, with wonderful writers – Kevin and Michael Taylor, and Andrew Kreisberg – just great, great guys who do some incredible world-building and sci-fi action adventure, and it's just everything in it.
Having just seen the finished pilot of the first episode – I did the first two hours – it's just an incredibly rich and comprehensive world. The characters are very vibrant, and I'm just really excited about it. It was a big technical challenge. It was a big design challenge. It's not just designing a two-hour movie. It was designing 13 hours of television in a wholly imagined world, so there was a lot more work and detail actually to do that.
We built a town, built vehicles, weapons, and then working with Trion, the game company was really cool, just because of the synergy that existed. They had two or three years’ worth of art development, which is just the kind of stuff you would never get. You would never have the resources, the time, or the access to have that much material developed for a movie oftentimes, unless it's a really big animated movie, much less a television show which never has that kind of time. So I think it's pretty special, and I'm really excited to see how the series plays out and how people play the game, how the synergies between the two are going to manifest because it's never really been attempted at this scale. It's very cool.