A movie inspired by a horrific mass shooting shows no violence, but rather, the quiet suffering of everyday life.
In 2012, James Holmes murdered 12 people and injured 70 others when he opened fire at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. American filmmaker Tim Sutton made a film inspired by this tragic event. We spoke with him about Dark Night.
Please tell us about the inspiration for Dark Night.
The original reference comes from the Aurora massacre at The Dark Knight Rises. And the thing that really got me, other than obviously the horror of the people who died and everybody involved, was when James Holmes walked into that theatre and he [used] tear gas and he was in full body armour and he yelled out, “I am the Joker,” he was met with applause. People thought it was a promotion by the studio. And it just struck me as the most wicked piece of performance art that I’d ever come in contact with, and a very American piece of performance art.
So a couple of years later, I revisited the idea of making a movie about it, knowing, I think, that most American filmmakers would have made a movie about the actual act of violence and made it into something that glorified violence or rationalized violence or simply used violence as an entertaining tool… I wanted to make a movie about life rather than death. Life through the prism of the audience already knowing what’s going to happen at the end, every moment in everybody’s on-screen time is something that we know is fleeting. To kind of illustrate the idea that life is very fragile.
I knew that I should end it before the violence, not only cause I didn’t want to show the violence cause I think it’s unnecessary, but because without showing the violence the audience has to go home with that threat of violence still in them. They haven’t seen an ending, that it’s still in process. That’s one of the main powers of the movie: just like life in America right now, it is this constant idea, this constant threat that violence can spring up at any moment. The idea of leaving the theatre not having witnessed any violence but understanding that it could happen is a much more powerful feeling.
In terms of the characters, you cast non-actors?
Two things: If you put Joaquin Phoenix in this movie, you know who the killer is right away. This movie’s power [is] for the first forty minutes or so, you’re stuck kind of wondering and dealing with your own prejudices of who you think makes a killer…. So the idea is, if you’re using non-actors, if you’re using these anonymous people, the audience looks at them as if they’re just anybody. They could be in the theatre, they could be their neighbours, they could be their cousins. When you put actors in a movie, no matter what, no matter how good the movie is, you’re still part of that movie-making system. This movie kind of flies below that radar.
What was it like directing and working with them? Their performances are quite remarkable; the level of emotion and truth.
Thank you. Well, I think you find people who can live in front of the camera. Most people can’t. But some people have an essential comfort in front of the camera. You don’t make them act. You don’t make them [do] lines that they may not be able to deliver. You just set up a framework, a very specific camera angle and you set up a very specific meaning. When you say, ‘Action,’ the director steps away from controlling the scenario and lets them just be people. So the more you get into their kind of comfort, the more you’re allowing them to just be–to do what they would be doing in regular life but you’re framing it from a very specific, artistic point of view.
The sense of isolation, too. All the characters seemed so lonely and tormented and cut off, is that something you feel is happening in society?
Yeah, I think we’re all heavily connected in social networks, but that’s not physical space. I think it’s easy to text people or Facebook or Instagram and promote a certain sense of yourself. But deep down, what are you really getting out of that? I mean, some people get a certain satisfaction or happiness but I do think the American culture is one of a deepening isolation, a divide between people rather than connection. I’m sure these characters have good times, too. But what I wanted to do in a specific way–and in a way that was efficient for a feature film–was to show these people in their own worlds. Because I think that’s how a lot of people spend most of their time. Even if they’re working in a communal situation. We’re all at our desks, at our phones, in our own space. And I wanted to show that, even though it’s kind of hard to watch sometimes.
The film also has a Montreal link, with an original score by Montreal musician Maica Armata. How did you connect?
We met at the RIDM documentary film festival, and they play music every night. So I went in and saw her sing one night while I was writing Dark Night. And just felt like I saw my movie for the first time. This movie needed a narrator, it didn’t need a voiceover, it didn’t need a human narrator, but she serves as the kind of mantra that we always go back to, the dark, scary but also warm prayer. That’s what I heard in her music and that’s why I asked her to be part of it. It was a great experience. To me she’s one of the three authors of the film. I’m only one of them, the other is the cinematographer Hélène Louvart, and Maica.
Please tell us more about the cinematographer.
Hélène Louvart is a very, very well-respected French cinematographer. She shot Wim Wenders’ Pina, which won an Academy Award. She shot Agnès Varda and Larry Clark, she’s an incredible cinematographer. One of the things that’s amazing about my experience with her is that I wanted to work with someone who could teach me something, and she was very generous in that she’s not interested in making things look good, she’s very invested in the storytelling. So she challenged me to make sure that what we were doing was always essentially executing the story. And I became a much better director, for sure.
Photo credit: Alexandra Byer
Dark Night screens November 26 at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as parts of [email protected]