Super Dark Times, the debut feature film from New Jersey–born director Kevin Phillips, tells the story of hapless teens Zach and Josh, and what happens when suburban ennui and pubescent white male angst collide with an accidental manslaughter by katana. Cut from the same cloth as Donnie Darko, Paranoid Park, and River's Edge, Super Dark Times is anything but what you'd expect from a teen thriller in 2017: It's calculating, quiet, and, most of all, beautiful.
In anticipation of the film's September 29th theatrical release (October 3 for digital and on demand), VICE spoke with director Kevin Phillips about inspirations, atmosphere, and why, like the part of night that comes between sunset and moonrise, growing up is just so super fucking dark.
VICE: You made the short film Too Cool for School before Super Dark Times.
Kevin Phillips: We made it in winter 2014 as a vehicle to get potential financiers interested in Super Dark Times. We were already on our fifth draft of the feature, and I already had an extensive director's treatment in place. We brought on Richard Pete and Jett Steiger to produce—both colleagues from SCAD where I graduated—and Richard thought it was in our best interests to make something narrative in the same stylistic tone that was also unique unto itself. Amazingly, we got into Critics' Week at Cannes, and we got things rolling from there.
The atmosphere of this movie is, indeed, super dark.
When Ben Collins approached me with the movie's general conceit six years ago, he had [seen] it in a dream. He had these images and wanted to develop a narrative around it, and he wrote the first draft within five or six days. Things changed over the years, but the desire to approach the story in a reserved, formal, yet expressive style was always there. We drew inspiration from our own artistic influences while making this movie—the Japanese film Eureka, Lynne Ramsay, David Fincher, Ingmar Bergman, and Jonathan Demme. I'm very craft obsessed—I work as a cinematographer as well—and I wanted to make a beautiful movie that brought a light to the nuance, subtlety, and melancholy of being a teenager.
What were some of the first images in your head?
There's one scene in particular where Zach just got done running as part of gym class, and then he's in class, and there's this kid behind him asking if he heard about another kid who fell off the bridge trying to get some weed. There's something about Ben and Luke's writing that really appeals to me—their sense of rhythm and how they place that within the narratives they write. There's a very keen understanding of cinema and detail, and for me that translated well in the sense that I was able to pre-visualize the movie right off the bat.
Tell me about the role the 90s plays in the film.
It was really important for us to set it in that time period, because those years were very formative for all of the key players making this film. This was the time of our lives. It was important to set it pre-Columbine as well, to give a sense of what suburbia looked like for teenagers—particularly young white males—before that one incident reshaped our cultural perspective and replanted our fears. We wanted to give the sense that there was an undercurrent of violence before that—to see it in a landscape that had a certain openness, with liberties that explored that myth of innocence before the whole dynamic shifted.
How does masculinity factor into the film?
We wanted to see how fragile masculinity can really be, particularly within the confines of being a teenager—how easily distorted and toxic it can get when harbouring guilt and shame on top of puberty, growing up, and trying to find a sense of identity.
The whole time I was wondering, Why don't they just go straight to the cops?
It's a really good question! There's a fear that was very much the fear of a lot of kids at the time—of getting into trouble with authority and being sent off to juvenile hall. These are kids in the moment of a tragedy that they're not emotionally equipped to handle. Their reaction to it is a bit daft, but it's more just inexperienced and based in a fear of getting in trouble.
Super Dark Times is in theaters today and available October 3 for digital and on demand.