Simply seeing the Dark Skies trailer and it's easy to gather that this is not your usual run-of-the-mill sci-fi horror fare. Dark Skies straddles a difficult line by balancing horror and sci-fi, and also faces a challenge of teasing the audience without giving away too much as so many films nowadays do.
“We live in an era where the audience expects to know a lot about the movie they’re seeing. As a child of the late 1970s and 1980s, coming of age watching movies, we used to know a lot less about movies that we were excited to go see. We were just slightly teased. You certainly couldn’t read that much about them,” Stewart said and laughed in our exclusive interview.
“Scripts couldn’t be leaked and there were no advance reviews. So, moviegoing was more of a mysterious, magical experience.”
He stresses it is not worse, now, but it is just different. Therefore, filmmakers seeking to truly surprise an audience have to be creative.
“You want to be able to explain why people need to see your movie when people have a lot of choices when they go to the movies… or do something else! To try to get people interested, you have to tell them what your story is about," he added. "At the same time, it’s a scary movie that is a pretty realistic one. You still want to keep all your secrets."
Dark Skies' "it could happen to you" feel is culled from the time the film spends with the family at the heart of the story, led by Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton. "Strange things start to happen with them in their house and around them. Then, they come to realize what is happening. So, there’s a slow burn to it, which is part of building the suspense. I’m always a big fan of the slowly tightening screw. The anticipation of the scares is usually as scary as the moment itself," Stewart said.
"What happens to this family is in the realm of things that could really happen. That is scary."
With Dark Skies, Stewart needed an actress who is the "believer" in the couple who could be someone that the audience took seriously. His dream actress, Russell, said yes -- even though she traditionally has not made movies like Dark Skies.
"It’s so rare that you get your first choice. She has not really done any scary movies like this," he proudly stated.
"She responded to the family at the heart of this story. What I wanted was someone like her who felt very reliable. Her character, Lacy, believes what is happening earlier than her husband (Hamilton), who is the last to believe. Keri’s a mother, people have grown up with her and there’s a familiarity to her. She brings so much naturally to the table. Her steadiness, when she starts to believe crazy things… you’re with her."
Stewart's scary story had its genesis in his suburban upbringing. "It had that feeling of it being a wonderful and terrible place,” he said and laughed. “I like family in jeopardy stories. It’s a lot about suburban anxiety and, 'Am I OK? Are my kids OK? Can I take care of them? Are the people at the park judging us? Are we judging them?'"
Also present are the financial anxieties that a lot of people are feeling these days. "The scariest movies are ones that give the boogeyman the voice of collective fear," Stewart admitted.
"I had been doing my research about aliens and presence of aliens. What we hadn’t seen is that these people's first person accounts of these things, if you take them at face value, they start to happen at the level of nightmare. It’s like there’s a predator in our neighborhood.”
This is a different type of alien invasion movie. “You’re not seeing a ship hover over the White House (like Independence Day). This is an invasion that happened a long time ago,” Stewart said.
“These are a presence in our lives and most people are not aware of it. But some people become aware of it because they become the focus of interest of these things. We are the lab rats, and they are the experimenter. And therefore, we can’t really understand more than a lab rat can understand why the dude in the white coat is giving it cancer. That’s really scary.”