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Grimmfest 2022: An Interview With Jacob Gentry About Night Sky

Photo courtesy of Jacob Gentry

Night Sky is a very unusual and gently compelling film about a car journey: Annie (Brea Grant) patches up the injured Oren (AJ Bowen) and in return asks him to drive her from Los Angeles to New Mexico, taking the scenic route. Annie is being hunted, and…let’s just say she claims she’s not from ’round here. The film had a mesmerising tone to it, and I was intrigued to grab the opportunity to talk to its director Jacob Gentry, who also co-wrote Night Sky with Bowen, just prior to its screening at Grimmfest in Manchester.

After a little introduction, I asked Jacob about that writing partnership with AJ Bowen. “It started as we both had this dream of something we wanted to do at around the same time,” Jacob said. “The movie involved me, the three actors, a producer, and a sound guy, and we went in an RV all over the American southwest. We wanted that trip to be an experience, so for the movie, the characters and that trip to all be informed by each other; letting what happens to us on the trip define the movie. We wrote what is basically a sixty-page outline, some pages detailed and some with just story beats, and then pondered: what if we took this alien visitor story and then gave it a seventies free-wheeling vibe? Add some more ambiguity, more mystery, and throw in some Cormac McCarthyesque villainy…I’ve known AJ for twenty-something years, and we’ve been working together forever, so it was a culmination of doing something outside what we would normally do.”

Night Sky movie poster

Jacob didn’t just do the writing and directing, but producing, editing as well, and—most strikingly—the cinematography. I asked him where he got the inspiration for his style. “That actually came as a response to my previous movie, Synchronicity,” said Jacob. “I shot Night Sky in between that and Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which came out last year. Basically, Synchronicity was a fairly hard science fiction movie, very stylised in terms of how we shot it, the cinematography, and even colours that were only used in certain moments; very rigid, with every shot on a dolly, and the whole thing on a sound stage. We made a movie some years ago called The Signal, rough ’round the edges, but the storytelling had an energy that’s hard to get when you’re composing everything perfectly. I remembered that after Synchronicity and wanted to free myself from the things I’d become used to doing, and hopefully combine them all when it came to Broadcast Signal Intrusion: how do I bring this formulistic, stylistic filmmaking together with this freewheeling DIY approach? That was really the journey as an artist. We had a small amount of money, felt like we could just do what we wanted and then if the movie wasn’t great, we’ll have had this trip, this life experience, anyway. As you get older you recongise that the experience of things is the thing. So I was challenging myself to get back to how we started, and take inspiration from that. There’s kind of a relearning curve that you can see as you watch the movie because we shot most of it in sequence; and I had no crew, so had to shoot it myself. If you’re in tune to the cinematography, you can see that it gets better as the film goes on, because I was relearning it all.”

Considering the geography, I guess it all had to be done in sequence. “Yes, but it helped doing it that way, too,” Jacob said. “We shot in this beautiful state park in Utah called Zion. You might remember in the movie this really narrow canyon, and it’s actually called ‘The Narrows’; and Brea and I are floating up to our waists in water in this thin canyon, where her character was searching for the signal from ‘elsewhere.’ Getting into the park was interesting: we wouldn’t have been able to do it with a full crew. With minimal cameras, we were able to tell them were just going to take some pictures of our hike or whatever. So we had the freedom to just steal or grab the shots we wanted. I could just grab the camera and go into the water with her. Then there were other situations where we only had a certain amount of time in a location, and I was able to do a shot-reverse-shot, jump back and forth depending on what happened; and that’s really tough if you have to move a whole crew like that.”

Talking about the locations, I was really intrigued with one particular set that appeared to be ruined buildings. “That’s actually one of the things we’re most proud of in the movie,” said Jacob. “We shot in this place called Chaco Canyon, which is a thousand-year-old ruins in New Mexico. You have to stay in Farmington, New Mexico and then drive an hour from there, and it’s on this little dirt road, a really deep place. It’s in the ten lowest light pollution places in the world and it’s in the three lowest sound pollution places; so you could be like a football field away from somebody, whispering, and they can hear you, really bizarre. There are theories, but no one knows for sure: they say it’s connected to the Pueblo people, and the ruins of the entire civilisation are in this canyon; but the canyon makes no sense because it’s extremely cold in the winter, extremely warm in the summer, and the doors to the rooms (which you might have noticed in the movie) are like three-and-a-half feet tall.”

It had been difficult to get a sense of scale while watching the part of the film in that location; some of it was almost like a maze. “That was intentional,” said Jacob. “That’s how the place feels, which is cool because there’s not actually much cheating going on; but there’s also this celestial meaning that you can read into the way the buildings are organised across the valley. But then also being able to have the low light pollution where you can see the stars gives it this extra cosmic feeling there, because it is so quiet and not very touristy. I’ve not even seen it in another movie before or since, so I was really proud to have made part of the film there. I knew I had to set the finale there, because if you’re going to do the classic ‘sparks factory’ kind of ending with molten lead or whatever…this is the place.”

Jacob Gentry (writer, director and cinematographer) on the set of Night Sky in Arizona
Photo courtesy of Jacob Gentry

There was something I was curious about in relation to the ending, though wary about not giving anything away. As I watched Night Sky, I had expected it to end in an inconclusive way with respect to the origin of Brea Grant’s character. I asked Jacob how he decided to take the direction he did with the ending. “Well actually, the interplay between characters in relation to her claim about being from another world came after we decided on the ending. I love science fiction movies and horror movies, all genre types; but ultimately I like those genres for what they are. As an audience member, I get a bit irritated sometimes when it feels like they think they’re too good for the genre, above the genre, and therefore don’t have to fulfill the promise made to the audience. So I took this story that we’ve all seen a bunch and the metaphor within it is about whether what she is saying is true, and it definitely respects the genre in that way. But because it’s a character story (with this engine of science-fiction mystery and road trip mysticism added), about this guy who’s not a very good person being given an opportunity for redemption; and if it’s too easy for him, it will feel like he didn’t actually do anything worthy of redemption. This one isn’t like Starman, where you know from the start that he’s an alien; but that one has a different dramatic problem, about dealing with loss and grief; but in Night Sky, the guy has an opportunity at the moment he should have died to do something with his miserable life that is of value and could be considered good. And so it has to be a difficult test: he does question what’s going on, but commits to it, at least after a while.”

I think that commitment was made easier by the fact that she was an attractive young woman! “Yeah,” Jacob laughed. “It’s actually interesting too because I think the way that Brea played it is that she learns a lot from him, and it could have turned out like he was teaching her to be a terrible person, but she does have agency, which is pretty important. As the movie evolves, you can see that he’s not the driving force, but is able to make important decisions that define what happens. I like the idea of a two-hander for this story.”

Back on that topic of whether Oren believes his passenger’s claims, I recalled a brief conversation about the windmills they passed on their journey, which he called “robot flowers”; and apart from that and one conversation in a motel, it felt to me as though he didn’t question her much, but rather struggled past his disbelief on his own. I asked Jacob if he had considered adding more testing conversations to the dialogue, to figure out if she really was human. “Don’t forget,” said Jacob, “in the first half of the film, he tells her a few times that she’s crazy, like he’s simply going along with everything as a good cover for him. The point when he’s starting to believe her is quite late really; but when he decides to believe in her mission, it’s not because of those claims, but because he’s gotten to know her by then. Maybe to not accept it would have been a barrier between them. Maybe that’s why he accepted it; not because of believing her as such. And it’s the same for her too: she chose him for her own reasons to go on this adventure.”

Sounds to me like Jacob was giving his audience a message about friendship in Night Sky. “Potentially, yes,” he said. “Human relationships, really; caring about another person in any way. How to connect is something many of us struggle with on a daily basis, and I think it’s an interesting drama when there’s two people who have a lot of difficulty relating with another human being. Or non-human beings, if that’s the case. I think the goal was for him to accept taking her on the trip: there’s a line near the beginning of the movie where she says ‘you said you would,’ and he keeps trying to get out of that. For those who haven’t seen the film, this woman saves this guy’s life, he’s been bleeding out from a gunshot wound, and she says, ‘In return, you have to drive me to New Mexico.’ He says, ‘No I’m not,’ and she says, ‘Yes, you are: you said you would.’ The whole movie is about his redemption—if he has that—which is from following through on what he said he’d do, simple as that: stick to your word. There’s something so simple and yet not that I thought the movie could hang on that: for him, it’s not complex, but for us as viewers, it could be. What does it mean to be true to yourself, or to your fellow man?”

I couldn’t help but recall my interview with Rebekah McKendry about Glorious, in which we also discussed redemption. In that film, the message was that no matter what you do, the sins of your past are still there. “I’d say that’s true of this movie too,” Jacob said. “You’re not going to be forgiven completely for everything you’ve done, but is there a chance to do something right before you die? I mean it starts at the moment when he could have died, so you can see it in a metaphorical way, like a Jacob’s Ladder thing. The attempt at redemption could be as meaningful as the redemption itself.”

My head spinning a little from the philosophical turn this conversation had taken, I brought it back to the film itself, raising the subject of the third important character in Night Sky. Scott Poythress played a character who chased the main pair relentlessly along their journey, like the Terminator, almost. He made no attempt to connect with others, strikingly different. I asked Jacob about where the idea came from for that character. “It had inspirations from Under the Skin, perhaps; that movie was hugely influential on this one. And Cormac McCarthy, of course: there’s something here about dealing with humanity by someone who’s not just inhuman in terms of the vile, horrific things he does, but also how he sees things; the pure sociopathy in the fullest extent of the word. The main character in Under the Skin is very similar, like she’s saying, ‘I’m studying you, like I’m dissecting a frog.’ The movie hangs on the question of whether he’s from another world too; but would he have to be though, in order to have such little empathy?

Jacob Gentry, writer, director and cinematographer of Night Sky
Photo courtesy of Jacob Gentry

“Funny, to me, Scott Poythress looks just like Peter Sellars; particularly the older he gets, too. It’s remarkable. And he’s obsessed with Peter Sellars, and he has great comic talent too. He’s one of my favourite actors because he’s just so good, and I’ve known him for a long time too. I relish the scenes he was in; and those scenes were the most scripted and clinical, while the relationship scenes were more improvisational.”

I was never fully clear about the motivation being his chase, but then everyone’s motivations were a little sketchy at times. I asked Jacob whether he considered them to be ambiguous, or whether he had a full back story in his head for each of his characters. “I do have very clear back stories,” he said. “We don’t hold back on much plot stuff—that would be frustrating—but the character detail is stripped back. I wanted each of them to communicate aspects of their character through their actions, as opposed to explaining themselves. So if you revisit the movie, you might think ‘I get this now, I identify with this character, or I’ve felt this way.’ A lot of us are interested in movies for that kind of reward. The moral ambiguity, the human messiness of it all, is what we wanted to bring to this movie: it’s a road trip movie with someone claiming to be an alien, and we’ve seen that before, but the messiness around dark, light, pain of the journey…that’s the element I hoped to bring.”

Moving away from the characters, I turned to the composer, Ben Lovett, who he had worked with before. I asked Jacob how the relationship works, whether it involves a detailed brief, or simply showing Ben the script, for example. “I’ve made about seven movies with Ben at this point,” said Jacob, “no more, thinking back: we knew each other since we were teenagers. I’ve known everyone in this movie for a long time; I mean Brea the least, and I’ve known her for fifteen years. It’s weirdly a different process every time with Ben. With this movie, it was some music he had already developed that was sort of channeled into this because it felt right. With each movie, we chose a different musical form. Sometimes he’ll give me pieces and I’ll shoot with those in mind, and sometimes I’ll do the most detailed temp track in the world just to communicate that way to him, and sometimes I’ll tell him what I want and he works out how to get there. With Sychronicity, it was full of very Vangelis-inspired synthesizers, for example; and with Broadcast Signal Intrusion, it’s got this seventies conspiracy-theory feel with horns and stuff. This one was hauntingly American southwest. And this song that he’d made called One More Time, that was written for a different movie, but to me, it felt like this one. So it ended up being a song for the end credits, and we used the theme in the climax and a few other instances in the film too. There’s also incidental music that Lovett made too, a country bluesy song in the middle that was really nice to include because it fitted the scene. I don’t have enough good things to say about Ben: I think he’s a genius, he’s done some amazing scores, especially genre scores, like the new Hellraiser movie, and Bruckner’s The Ritual. He’s really good at taking the characteristics of the movie and giving them musical form. I don’t know how he does it, and I’ve known this guy since we were kids, I’m still in awe of his work.”

FrightFest called Night Sky a “provocative indie science fiction fantasy” and Grimmfest has described it as “a weird, wild ride to an unexpected date with destiny.” I asked Jacob whether both of those descriptions felt right. “Sure, yeah,” he said plainly. “I love the notion that it’s like a Roger Corman movie, or like Two Lane Blacktop as a genre movie, you know?” It had certainly called Easy Rider to me.

“Yeah, fantastic example,” he agreed. “Chasing the seventies is nothing new; there are a lot of movies with a seventies/eighties vibe. But here we did that in a sense of being less formulaic, and not feeling like it was constructed from a screenwriting book; having really messy human moments, weird and awkward.”

But despite that vibe as Jacob put it, to me there was a real timelessness about the film because of being in such a rural setting for most of its duration. “That’s a huge compliment, maybe one of the best I’ve had for this movie,” Jacob said, catching me by surprise. “I think that’s fantastic: the idea that it’s timeless is music to me.”

As my own feeling about the film went down well, I dared another: I confessed to having got a lot more out of Night Sky than I did Broadcast Signal Intrusion last year; I had needed more clarity in that film, but with this one, the simplicity really worked. “That was why it was a fun thing to be finishing Night Sky after Broadcast. There is some ambiguity about character backgrounds, but ultimately there’s not a lot of ambiguity about where it’s headed. For Broadcast, the whole point of the movie was about whether the conspiracy was true or not, and how the person ended up down a rabbit hole; more about that than an Agatha Christie-style solvable mystery. I like both kinds of movies, but sure, the direct simplicity of this one, that lets you get to the trip. I talk of it as a ‘relationship movie’ but it’s not a full-on Richard Linklater thing. There’s perhaps some romantic aspect, but it’s outside of that: as a result, we can get to the heart of the story with the dramatic problem of what he’s going to do, and who the woman is.” I agree: some Hollywood “love interest” plot strand would surely have distracted from all that.

There was one shot that to me summed up the whole film, when the two of them were silhouetted on a hillside with one of the planets halfway up the sky, and AJ’s and Brea’s characters were just talking together; no idea what they were saying, but that connection in the middle of nowhere seemed to sum it all up to me. “That was just one of those right-place-right-time moments with the actors and the camera,” Jacob said, clearly recalling the scene I was referring to. “There was nothing digital about it, nothing manipulated. Making movies is very hard and you kind of want to quit most of the time, but then something like that moment happens and you just want to be there in that moment and think about how amazing it is, and it makes it all worthwhile. The form we had taken with the movie allowed that kind of thing to happen.”

After looking back with a smile, it was time to look forwards: I asked Jacob what he’s working on next. “There are a few things,” he said. “I’m writing something very different to the two movies we’ve discussed today. It’s definitely going to be in a genre form, and ultimately I like subgenres, or combinations we’ve not seen for a while, so it’s going to be a mix. But I’m not going to say too much for now. There’s a chance Night Sky will be it, I’m done now.”

Personally, I really hope not. I’ll be looking out for the name Jacob Gentry in festival programmes to come.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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