Interview: ‘Dark Skies’ Director Scott Stewart Saves A Family (With An Alien Invasion)

Writer-director Scott Stewart’s “Dark Skies” doesn’t play like your typical alien abduction movie. In fact, at its heart, this family drama layers on the menace as someone or something begins invading the lives of a northern California family that’s fraying at the edges–and (this might sound trite, but it works) maybe only their love for each other will help them survive what’s coming next.

The film stars Kerri Russell and Josh Hamilton who find themselves the victims of something that seems like a possession and then an invasion as the supernatural begins to intrude on their everyday lives. Our Aaron Sagers spoke with co-star J.K. Simmons about his own role in this invasion drama.

I spoke with FX man (“Superman Returns,” “Grindhouse”) turned writer and director (“Priest,” “Legion”) Stewart about framing his film as a haunted house movie, and making a small scale alien invasion of the suburbs terrifying.

MTV Geek: I just had a chance to see “Dark Skies,” and one of the things that stood out to me the most is how much it feels like a haunted house movie. Why go in that direction for an alien abduction movie?

Scott Stewart: Well, I think it all comes pretty organically from the idea that I wanted to make a movie that was essentially kind of a family drama–that was centered on the family and the things that they were going through. The presence of the greys in the movie is kind of heightening and distressing the things that they’re going through [before the abduction plot starts]. It was also a home invasion story as opposed to an alien invasion story or ultimately an alien abduction story.

I wanted to tell the story of the fragmentation and ultimately the healing of a family–I wanted to tell a story about a family that gets disconnected from the beginning. Also, for various reasons, this was meant to be a small picture where most of the action would take place in the house.

Plus, for me, the most effective horror movies are where the boogeyman is kind of the personification of a fear, kind of a suburban anxiety. You know, you try to live your life right, and all of a sudden, you’re upside down on your mortgage, you can’t talk to your 13-year-old son, and he’s having his first awkward sexual experience and is under the influence of a slightly older kid. You’ve got excitement, but you’ve also got a lot of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.

So in the movie, the aliens are bringing all of that stuff out.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where to sell a movie, you have to talk a lot about it. When we first started showing the movie to people, and one of the things they’d enjoyed was that they didn’t know what movie they were in–in the sense that they knew the movie was from the producer of “Paranormal Activity,” so they expected it to be like that. But when they saw it, they wondered “Is this a home invasion movie,” or “Is this a possession story,” “Is this a ghost story,” and then it becomes what it is. And they really enjoyed that they didn’t know right away where the movie was going.

Geek: And one of the things that kind of helps with that whole rope-a-dope is that “Dark Skies” uses a lot of daytime horror, a lot of moments of tension set in the full light of day. It’s interesting that you chose to exploit this particular means of making the action feel safe for the viewer.

Stewart: Well, yeah, I grew up in the 80’s in the suburbs of northern California, and there was always this feeling that’s wonderful and terrible that it’s safe and nothing terrible will happen there. But then, a police car pulls up at a house down the street that you’ve never been to, and there’s a teen suicide or an overdose, divorce. Something bad happens and that veil of security is pierced. And as a kid, you feel it, and you don’t know what to think about it or whether it affects you and your family. And that’s sort of realm of scary movies, and one I’m interested in.

This is also a story about the craziness of the people who seem normal. They’re boarding up the windows, and you think they’re doing something terrible to their children. As a writer, you’re always wondering what’s the worst thing you can do to your characters, and inside the crazy person’s walls they thought something very real was happening to them and they did whatever they thought they could do to protect and take care of their children. The result is that they themselves look like the aliens in the neighborhood.

Geek: But you talk about this as being an experience that ultimately brings the family together. What is it about the Barrett’s that would give them an edge in coming through this intact?

Stewart: Ultimately, I didn’t want to do the thing you do traditionally in these movies where it’s like “It’s a family on the verge of divorce, but by the end they come together!” I felt like that was a little too easy. I wanted to tell the story of a family that was happy, generally speaking.

It’s a contemporary story about all of the things that create wedges between us in our daily lives because they’re so stressful and make it hard for us to put down our guard and relate to each other. Teenagers acting out, and being on the edge of becoming someone else or being a teenager yourself and not really wanting to talk to your parents, or parents being behind in their mortgage or not being truthful to each other. At the core, it’s a family that loves each other and wants to work it out.

Why don’t they fragment more? Maybe it’s more a device of the time frame: they don’t have a lot of time as it takes place mostly over seven days, a week. If they didn’t get an answer, you kind of get the sense that this would be an emotional meltdown time for them, and they would completely fragment. But they find an answer, and ultimately Josh Hamilton’s character, he ends up believing because it’s staring him right in the face.

He tells a story to his wife (Kerri Russell) when they’re lying in bed together where he realizes that the only thing that can get him through the worst night of his life is that he’s going to wake up next to her. And really, that’s what the movie’s about, and they have that dinner conversation where they have that Fourth of July memory. Because outside the real Fourth of July is going on, but they’re boarded up inside of their house.

Geek: Would you mind sharing with us what you have coming up next?

Stewart: Well, I directed the pilot episode of “Defiance,” the Syfy TV series. So that’s essentially a fun thing that’s continuing and it’s been a nice success. And then I have another show with the Syfy channel called “Dominion” which hopefully we’ll get to announce some news on in short order.

And then, I have another feature project which is very different from what I’ve done before; it’s sort of genre, but it’s in the realm of contemporary, bleeding-edge science set in the world of biotech. And then, another TV pilot, but I can be more specific than that because they haven’t been announced. I have a bunch of different stuff coming that’s hopefully very different.

“Dark Skies” is available now on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay.