We spoke with the director and stars of ‘Super Dark Times,’ the hauntingly bleak coming-of-age film from The Orchard.
With the success of horror movies like Annabelle: Creation and It at the box office this past month, plenty of critics have had occasion to weigh in on the value of jump scares. Jump scares are an easy thing to understand; images pop up on the screen, audiences react, and the whole thing resets until the next scare comes along. Films like Super Dark Times, the bleak coming-of-age film by director Kevin Phillips, exist at the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a film that establishes a sense of unrelenting tension, causing audiences to relax muscles during the final credits that they were unaware they’d held tight for the past 100 minutes. Oh, and along the way, Phillips and his young stars Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan also manage to deliver a chilling elegy on school violence in the years leading up to the Columbine shootings. We spoke with Phillips, Campbell, and Tahan at Fantastic Fest about their remarkable new movie.
Throughout the film, director Kevin Phillips finds small ways to highlight the differences between the nineties educational climate and the world of today. Nowhere is this more present than in the film’s opening segment. We are treated to a series of violent classroom images: broken windows, overturned desks, and a trail of blood guiding us through the hallway. Just when we assume the worst, the camera turns a corner and reveals the broken body of a deer in one of the classrooms. “This was based off of some sort of urban tale that happened at our school,” Phillips explained. “About a deer in Pennsylvania that broke through the window and bled to death on the ground.” While the image of the dying deer itself is haunting, given the alternative, this reveals seems strangely innocent, a subversion of our collective experiences – Columbia, Sandy Hook, Aurora – of the past two decades. This was always Phillips’s intention. “I always wanted to start this movie off in a very quiet way, and I wanted to kind of create a tone that could kind of last as sort of like a piano note, that could sustain itself throughout the rest of the film,” the director explained. “In a way, this scene, for me, acted both as an omen, and as a metaphor for everything that’s to come.”
This mixture of innocence and violence reaches its apex when the three main characters take things a little too seriously with a replica samurai sword. Super Dark Times builds to this moment flawlessly, teasing out the relationships and patter between the main characters before erupting in a sudden burst of violence; the moments leading up to the accident hang like a physical weight on the audience’s shoulders. While this pivot lasts only a few minutes on the screen, the expanded production schedule actually allowed the cast and crew to work tirelessly on the scene over the course of several days. “As the film-maker, I was naturally nervous about having to have my actors go back to this,” Phillips admitted to his two stars. “I was a little beside myself with feeling, ‘I’m sorry. We have to go back to this fucked up place where you’re in this absolute despair over the loss of your friend here.'” As it turns out, though, Phillips needn’t have worried: Campbell described the prolonged nature of the shoot as very “helpful,” noting that it gave him “this insane amount of time to just process each beat.”
This speaks to the collaborative effort of the production. While all three men are quick to praise screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski for the quality of their script, they were also able to bring their own ideas to the characters of Zach and Josh. For Campbell it was Zach’s cast, a prop that he actually recommended early in the shoot. “He started to see how, jumping ahead in the film, how radical it would be,” Phillips explained. “Then immediately, [screenwriter Ben Collins] and I are on fire with this idea, because I’m seeing it aesthetically.” The cast became a frequent point of inspiration for both Campbell and Phillips, locking in several key plot points along the way and giving Campbell’s character a distinctive look – headphones, backpack, and cast – that they all agreed was very iconic. Meanwhile, Tahan’s decision to try on Phillips glasses during rehearsal helped the actor find a valuable physical component to the character, an outlet for his underlying anger and discomfort. “I didn’t bring any glasses, but Kevin asked me to put his on,” Tahan recalled with a laugh, “It was mostly about the glasses.”
These choices were representative of a collaborative process that took place throughout the entire shoot. During our conversation, Phillips highlighted one particular line of dialogue that was inspired by Scott Johnson, the First Assistant Camera on Super Dark Times. In an early scene where the kids are bragging about being immortal, Phillips had originally envisioned a reference to Mortal Kombat‘s Raiden, but Johnson had a different suggestion: have Josh compare himself to a Highlander instead. “I was like, “Oh my God, that’s great!” Phillips remembered. “Then you just kind of run with that.” For the cast, the fact that ideas could come from anyone was one of the most memorable components of the production. “You’re entering into an environment where everyone knows each other really well,” Campbell explained. “And everyone cares so much about the project, and everyone was open to ideas.” By drawing on the collective wisdom of the crew, the Super Dark Times team was able to make little tweaks that only enhanced its authenticity. Or, as Tahan put it: “That’s how Keith Phillips gets it done.”
As for the audience response to their movie? To date, Super Dark Times has played at a handful of international and domestic film festivals, including ones (like Fantastic Fest) that focus exclusively on genre films. It may not quite be fair to call Super Dark Times a horror film, but there are elements in the film will resonate best with genre-minded crowds. The film is peppered with acts of brutal violence; from the accident that initiates the story to the shocking brutality of the film’s final scenes, Super Dark Times isn’t exactly afraid of living up to its namesake. “I think the response has been really great,” Campbell said when asked about the difference between general audiences and the genre festival crowd. “And not just like, ‘Oh, it’s a great movie, so it should get great response anywhere.’ But a very acute sort of response. People were responding to the film in ways that were very much intended by Kevin and everyone else involved on the team.” In other words? Super Dark Times is a film that can be ‘enjoyed’ by many audiences, but as with many of the trickiest films, it will be the genre fans that champion it.