Dark Night Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Batman makes an eerie appearance in “Dark Night,” a new drama that is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday night. The film was inspired by the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shooting that left 12 people dead at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and it follows a deranged, lonely man on the day he decides to carry out a similar attack on his local movie theater. In one scene, the gunman looks into the mirror, trying on different costumes, before he pulls on a Batman mask.

“I don’t think this is an obscure movie,” says the film’s director and writer Tim Sutton. “This is a layered movie. The Batman mask is a way to say we all know what this film is about and to stare it in the face.”

“Dark Night” was made in 16 days in Sarasota, Fla., using a cast of mostly non-professional actors. Although the world in which the film takes place isn’t Aurora, there are other illusions to the real-life tragedy, which could generate controversy around Park City, Utah., and beyond. One scene shows an image of “Dark Knight” shooter James Holmes’ trial on TV, while another character has his hair dyed orange — which also brings to mind Holmes’ likeness. “That was to plant one of the many visual motifs that are at times subliminal, that act like ghosts throughout the movie,” the director explains.

Sutton (“Memphis”) spoke to Variety about making the project, which will debut in the “Next” category.

How did you come up with the idea to make a movie about a theater shooting?
The starting point is obviously Aurora. After witnessing what happened there and the longer that evolved in my head, I started thinking about how horrible that shooting was and how horrible it was for the people in the theater and the families. But I also saw it as a wicked piece of performance art that was an American thing too. It felt that when he was throwing the smoke bombs and they were clapping, it felt like the scariest thing I heard of. It represented something that was both a death to people and also to our country. It felt like the sacred space of the movie theater had been corrupted forever.

What are you trying to accomplish?
I wanted to make a movie that was very much about America now. That has to do with people’s addictions to screens and people’s isolation from each other. At the same time, I wanted to show the fact that guns are everywhere — not to make something that’s a political movie, but to show guns for what they are.

Can you talk about your decision to show James Holmes on the TV during a scene?
This is not a movie about Aurora. Certainly, the nucleus of the idea comes from Aurora. But I wanted to very clearly show that Aurora was something else. That it was real. That is was part of this world. There were other shootings while we were making and editing the film. I wanted to make sure it felt like this is something that’s ongoing.

Your movie is called “Dark Night.” That’s obviously an allusion to Aurora too.
I wanted to be close and not be exact. It describes very much where I felt like this movie leaves us. The movie leaves us at dawn. After witnessing this movie, it feels like the country and the landscape is in darkness now. “Dark Night” felt like the right title. It should allude to Aurora, but it shouldn’t be trying to be the same story.

“Elephant,” which Gus Van Sant made following the Columbine attacks, must have been an inspiration.
Gus Van Sant is a big inspiration for me as a filmmaker. “Elephant” is a movie to me that is the most emotional and most direct and lasting document about Columbine, certainly more than the Michael Moore doc or the David Cullen book. That film inspired me, but also he took inspiration from Alan Clark’s “Elephant,” which is about the troubles in Ireland. Both those movies allowed me to consider the fact that I could continue a dialogue about cinematic response to violence.

Was it a difficult movie to finance?
It was extremely difficult. Everybody really thought the project was interesting and worthwhile but didn’t want to invest their money in it. I had a couple of financiers walk away because they wanted the shooter to be seen as evil, and I refused. I’m not an expert on why people shoot other people, but this is someone who is disconnected and has mental instability. This is a touchy subject, and some people will be upset with the treatment of the shooter. I thought it was important to show people as humans.

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