Bruce Davis: Making The Scene

An interview with the amazing voice actor (and former real-life detective) from ‘The Vast of Night’

Bruce Davis
Bruce Davis plays a mysterious voice in ‘The Vast of Night.’ (photo: selfie provided by Bruce Davis)

Making The Scene is a new column that will focus on one specific scene in a movie or television show. This installment will focus on one scene from The Vast of Night, the debut film of Andrew Patterson. The actor at the heart of the scene is Bruce Davis (Rattlesnake, All Eyez on Me). What makes Davis’s scene so remarkable is that his greatest tool – and only tool – is the power of his voice. When’s the last time a movie showed someone listening? When’s the last time you heard a story so good you practically stopped breathing, just so you wouldn’t miss a word?

The Vast of Night takes place in Cayuga, NM, on the night of the high school’s big basketball game. It’s an old-fashioned UFO movie and set in the 1950’s, but done with a light touch; the characters look and feel natural, the dialogue crackles, and there’s not a poodle skirt in sight. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is the DJ at local station WTOW and Fay (Sierra McCormick) operates the switchboard. Both are teenagers and they flirt a little and spar a little, and they’re both charming. They settle in for what they assume will be a quiet evening. Most of the town is at the game, so they expect few callers.

But a noise comes through the switchboard. It’s a strange sound, mechanical but not like any machine you’ve ever heard. What could be in the sky making such a noise? Fay tells Everett about the sound, and he jokingly promises a piece of Elvis’s carpet to the caller who can identify the eerie hiss in the night.

And that’s when the movie takes a serious turn. The radio phone rings, and it’s Billy (Bruce Davis), an Army vet from out of town. Billy says he’s heard that sound before. Billy’s accent sounds faintly Southern, his age and other details indeterminate, and his story both odd and completely believable. It’s a riveting and unforgettable scene – and all filmed with the speaker off-screen. The vastness of the night narrows to a single room, and then to the sound of a single voice. Bruce Davis, at home in Oklahoma, explained how this remarkable scene happened.

What do you make of the fact that you remain offscreen? Does that work for the narrative?

Bruce Davis: I was kind of skeptical about that when he [Andrew Patterson] showed me the little brief, because he kind of showed me parts of it. And I was like, “Isn’t that going to confuse the audience?” Because, initially, I thought the screen was just going to be, just totally black. But then when I saw it in the movie, I said, “No, this may work.” And the voice, I mean, he worked with me a lot, and so it was pretty captivating, it kept your attention. 

How did you create a backstory for Billy?

My grandfather served in the war. He would be 102. And actually, that’s where I got the voice. So I imagined my grandfather telling this story through Billy. When Andrew first sent me a couple of pages for the audition, he said he really wanted the caller to be racially ambiguous, but then, I guess you would kind of tell from this conversation that he was black as it went on. So, initially, I came up with more of a southern sound. He said, “Well I don’t like that, let’s go through this, let’s do this.” And so that audition was quite extensive. And, again, I think I was there for maybe an hour and a half, maybe two hours before he decided he wanted me to do it and to go into the studio.

When you recorded this, what was the situation? You’re not actually interacting with Fay and Everett at the time, were you?

No. I didn’t even know them. I hadn’t even met them. Andrew was actually reading the part, both parts, reading both parts of Fay and Everett, and it was myself in the studio, the studio engineer, and Andrew. And it was kind of hard because we worked. We worked. But, I mean, we were in that studio for about six hours and he worked me. And when I left, I had no idea if it was great or not. When I heard it, I was like, “man, Billy was really into it, wasn’t he?”

Bruce Davis
Bruce Davis at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Billy says, “I suppose I’m telling you because I’m sick.” And is the implication, do you think, that your encounter with the UFO has made you sort of permanently ill?

Yes, yes. That’s exactly what I believe, and the secrecy behind that. In talking to Andrew Patterson, let me tell you the writers really wrote a great dialogue for that.

Now there’s sort of a fascinating and tragic part of Billy’s story, which is that he he points out that everyone working on the secret detail was black or Mexican. And you say something like, “Who would listen to our voices?” After a tremendous amount of catharsis and pain in the last weeks, how does it feel to you?

It feels true, because it’s not that they don’t believe… I mean, if you haven’t reached a certain status, not just from white America, but in black America, if you haven’t reached a certain status, it’s hard for the masses to believe you.

But you never force your conclusion on Everett. You just say, “Well, you’re going to have to make of this what you will.”  In fact, Everett’s more convinced by you, I think, than when he goes to the old woman’s house next. He does not believe her and, in fact, is rude to her, and leaves abruptly.

And again, that’s because Billy is posing more questions, and she’s saying, “Okay, this is what I know that happened.” And is that really what happened, or is that really what you believe that happened? Billy only says, “Hey, this is what I think is going on. And you have to figure it out.” Billy is giving evidence and he’s asking unresolved questions.

 Vast of Night comes to a stop when it’s your story, and nothing else is happening on screen. You realize later who strange that is, that you’re watching somebody listening. You never see that.

Yeah, you never see it. And I think we need to get back to that. Because when I go and look at the action movies, after a while, it can be too much action. And especially with the fight scenes, and I see the choreography, and I’m starting to see everything over and over. I may see these two fighting and these two fighting and these two fighting. But I think we need more narratives in film.

It’s interesting that you actually have a military background, and that’s the role that you’re playing.

I lived in San Francisco, the Bay Area for four years while I was in the Navy. And I’m also a retired Oklahoma City police lieutenant.

You’re kidding.

I’ve been a detective and I really made it around. I was a detective before, a domestic violence detective. Went to homicide school. I worked as a campus officer and supervised the streets, too. And I also worked undercover in narcotics. I was in one of the landmark cases back in 1989 where we were able to obtain a wiretap. It was the first time we were able to obtain a federal warrant for a voicemail service.

That’s about when there would be such a thing as a voicemail.

Yeah. It was multi-jurisdictional dealing with several states, LA, Texas, and we were following this guy, we did surveillance. We would debrief on Mondays, with the ATF, the DEA, and the IRS. And we would all debrief at the Murrah Building, the one that blew up. And when we took this guy down, we called him Angel, we had undercover officers actually working with him and he had no idea. But this was when the crack cocaine was really big. I remember going in and making a buy at my first crack house, it was really something to behold. I mean, there was a line going into the kitchen. The excitement to get in there and get that cocaine was like standing in a line at an amusement park. 

You served in the military and then you had what sounds like a very distinguished career in the police department. At point did you say, “I’d like to try acting”? Had you retired?

No, I’ve always been a performer. I sang with a boy band at one time, and we opened up…I hate to say it, but we were the opening act for R. Kelly at one time. We were called For You to Love. And back in the early ’90s, they had a contest called Search for the Stars, and if you won that in your category you had an opportunity to go to Star Search.

I remember that, with Ed McMahon.

Yeah. So I won first place male vocalist, with an original song that I wrote. And it was right after my daughter died, so that was one thing that was given to me. They say that everything happens for a reason. But after my daughter died, I was able to write a song.

You’re a natural storyteller. Do you think part of it is that you have a trained memory as someone who was a detective?

I’ve got a lot of stories. Yes, yes. I have a trained memory. Let me go back to the Navy now. I worked with weapons and also with the nuclear. I was on the USS Enterprise, we always had to say,  “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on the USS Enterprise.” But I was part of this special operation, which required clearance. When we unloaded these supposedly nuclear weapons on the ship, that took us two or three days, because we didn’t want the Russian satellites to be able to detect such and such. The military, when they’re doing certain projects or developing technology, it is really secret.

But I have another story to tell you, too. In the early ’90s, while on patrol one clear night, I saw what I believed at first to be a helicopter unit. And it looked like it was just hovering. It was a bright light. Well, this bright light, when it gets to me, I mean, it’s just warp speed and it’s going southeast toward Tinker Field Air Force Base. And I was like, “What in the…” I mean, I don’t necessarily believe in UFOs, but this was nothing that I ever saw. So I called my lieutenant, because I was a street officer.

I said, “Has anybody called in about any strange sightings?” He said, “Did you see a UFO?” I said, “I don’t know what I saw, but it was warp speed.” And this kind of tripped me out. And so, when I got back to the police station, he had put up a poster with a UFO, and everybody was laughing,  “Officer Davis spotted this UFO.” But, thank God, for me there was two or three thousand people from Oklahoma to Kansas City who saw the same thing.

Is there something out there? There’s definitely something out there we don’t know about.

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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