Shadows of the Past

The director of Super Dark Times reveals how making the film helped him come to terms with two traumatic incidents from his youth.

When I was in junior high, my friend Michael and I accidentally lit a cornfield on fire. We had bartered for a few smoke bombs and low-grade bangers from the school’s “kid with firecrackers” and went off into the woods that lay beyond my neighborhood’s cul-de-sac. We weren’t trying to create a disaster, we were simply being stupid and the result was a large fire in a larger field, on the edge of an even larger forest. If the winds had been different, the fire could have easily raged into the woods, destroying everything on its path toward our neighborhood.

We were relatively useless throughout the ordeal. We panicked and argued in desperation about what to do. We peed on the fire when it was small enough to be peed on, but it grew regardless, engulfing the field and our attempts to extinguish it. In short order, we realized we were fucked and I took off through the woods to find help. I ran like hell in the pair of Penny Hardaways that Mom had bought me just weeks before, which were quickly turning to toast. Michael had the same shoes, a size or two bigger, also destroyed. He stayed back to tend to the flames, likely just watching them with growing intensity, every passing second an existential crisis.

Eventually I returned and brought with me a man and his rake, a landscaper tending to a neighbor’s garden who leapt into action because he was some sort of hero. By this point, the fire had grown substantially; it looked like the end of the world. Michael was nowhere to be seen, until he suddenly reappeared, blackened with soot and damp with sweat, using his shirt to swat at the flames. I recall looking 45 degrees left, away from the fire and toward the one road in the distance. I watched in amazement as a brown Toyota truck veered off and into the field, screaming past us and launching into the flames. A few other trucks and sedans followed, churning up dirt and corn stalks, suffocating the hot mess in a flurry of energy. They took turns drifting into the fire like it was some well-rehearsed routine; a beautiful choreography of strangers saving the day.

Soon enough, the fire department arrived and took care of the rest. The woods were unscathed and the neighborhood remained at peace, oblivious to the calamity down the street. As things calmed down, somebody with authority said the police would like to speak to us. He pointed his index finger at a line of cop cars blinking in the far distance and I remember that finger being huge and that array of cop cars stretching endlessly across the horizon. I recall the orange sky canopying over those red and blue lights, soft with the glow of the setting sun, foreboded only by the black smoke hanging above us. In turn, we hung our heads low and said something like “totally” and marched the long, solemn trek through the cornfield toward whatever awaited us. We looked like hell and our shoes were mush, yet we were smiling still because we survived. By the grace of God and the goodwill of others, all was OK.


When I was a junior in college, I was carjacked at gunpoint and forced to drive three men around town for an hour-and-a-half as they tried to get me to withdraw $2,000. I was a poor art student who lived like an idiot and had a total of $100 to my name, so technically it was impossible to give them anything more. Explaining this was pointless, and the prevailing mindset was that if one ATM couldn’t give them what they wanted, then another would. We went to four in total, their anger and threats growing with each failed attempt. I tried explaining how ATMs worked and telling them “sorry,” but that just made them more irate.

It was a miserable, infuriating experience as I spent the duration of that evening with a gun pressed to the back of my head, mired in a terrifying, absurd conversation. One moment I would be pleading for my life and the next I would be engaged in a full-on screaming match with all three of these men; burning down the road at 60 miles an hour, occasionally coming to a red light, taking a detour into the Walmart parking lot, slowing down for the speed bumps and not looking at the pedestrians as they walked by my window because I was understandably informed to not try anything “funny.” “Don’t try anything funny,” they muttered. All three of them, in unison. Like a song. Or a dream.

Over the course of that long drive, the conversation touched on everything from faith, to hunger, to bodies lying in a gutter. I was asked at one point if I believed in God, and I think I said yes. I remember praying to God that night, so yeah, most likely “Yes.” Either way, one of them definitely said that I had better pray to “God or the Devil” that I could get them $2,000, otherwise I was gonna end up like the last guy. The idiocy of that remark set me off, and I responded angrily, but the guy in the back seat just dug the barrel of the gun deeper into my skull. At that moment, I stole a glance in the rearview mirror, and what I saw seared my brain. Nothing short of absolute, incandescent rage bulging out the whites of the man’s eyeballs, reflecting the passing street lights, glimmering in the dark. He glared into me, through the mirror, behind the gun, behind a pair of Rec Specs. I didn’t know if he was playing sports before he jumped me and I’m not sure if anywhere behind his anger was an acknowledgment that we shared a bond, not just as human beings, but as two people with poor eyesight.

Soon after I looked into his eyes, the guys gave up on the idea of the money and had the collective thought to have me drive down some desolate dirt road toward the water.

“Guys, I don’t think this leads to any ATMs …”

“We’re gonna kill you.”

We eventually came to the end of the road, the end of the line, and thanks to one lone truck parked in the darkness, doing God knows what, the guys got spooked and frantically had me turn around and head back toward the main drag.

We were stopped at a red light and they were talking about how they wanted me to take them to a McDonalds drive-through when I thought it was a good time to leave. I popped the lock and ran like hell, hearing them scramble and peel out into traffic as I sprinted to the nearest gas station. The last thing I remember before diving out the door was one of them screaming, “I’m hungry!”

I called 911 and a dispatch went out immediately. I was informed months later that, at the very moment I called, there was a large assembly of police officers gathered at a nearby Krispy Kreme, having a nighttime snack. During the ensuing high-speed pursuit, some other cars were caught up in the mess, but fortunately nobody was injured. The officers successfully ran my car off the road, busted the windows with their fists and sticks, reached in and pulled the carjackers onto the grass. I think they were particularly aggressive because of the donuts they missed out on and the general fuss of it all, which makes sense.

My car was totaled. It was a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera handed down to me from my grandfather. I never told him about this. My dad asked me not to. The last time I saw the three dudes that fucked up my grandpa’s car was in court. The case, for a variety of reasons, went on for over a year and changed my relationship to this world in ways I only slowly came to realize.

I recall my father visiting me days after it all went down. We went to the junkyard together to have a last look at what remained of the car. If I close my eyes, I can see him standing before me, surrounded by the quiet that comes with such a place; hands in his pockets, stoicism masking sorrow. He asks me if I want to go to a movie; to have a moment together, to fall back to a shared space of innocence. To bring us back to a time before any of this, to something we both loved, devoid of complication and sadness; surrounded by darkness but safely enmeshed in the silver screen of someone else’s story. I tell him that I’m going to spend the evening with my girlfriend instead and I see him lowering his head, resigned to giving his son whatever he needs. A decade later, I think about this and regret it now as I did back then, resigned to the fact that I always will.


Following the hijacking, I moved through a series of emotions, dominated in large part by the denial of any psychological trauma. The school acted quickly to have me talk with a counselor, which I fought tooth and nail, giving in only after ranting to the administration for an hour about how I was fine and I just wanted to get back to my classes. It was guidance I needed and the counselor encouraged me to put my experiences into my art. Time passed, life happened and I took photographs and made films and had relationships and put every piece of myself into them, even if I didn’t realize it. I’m never quite sure what compels me. I know what interests me, but defining where this comes from is more difficult. I can take a guess, attempt to break it down, unpack layers of meaning or reasoning, but that deep dive seemingly goes on forever, often enough bringing me back to the hazy days of my childhood.

There is a memory and I’m standing at the edge of my driveway in tears, no older than seven, waiting for my mother to return from whatever errand she was running. I am overwhelmed with the potential for tragedy. This feeling has been a sporadic, unpredictable presence in my life, coming and going at its own volition, as resonant now as it was then. Perhaps it was simply a manifestation of basic truths; mortality, chaos and the lack of control I have over any of it. The fire rendered me incapable of leaving a candle lit in absence, and the hijacking transformed my relationship with the night, depressing me with a weight of despair every time the sun set. Through experiencing the repercussions of these events, I’ve come to recognize this growing fear that seems to have been with me forever, lying in wait.

Two years ago, I directed my first feature film, Super Dark Times, written by my good friends Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. The roots of the film, an exploration of guilt and its ramifications on the soul, came to Ben in a dream. The story focuses on teenagers experimenting with violence, depicting the fragility of youth and masculinity in the wake of tragedy. I was at once enticed and terrified by the material. The themes felt heavy, and I saw a careful balance was needed to do justice to the material. I was worried I’d stumble, fuck up, freeze. That I wouldn’t understand my characters, that I’d lose control of the rhythm and tone, that the audience wouldn’t connect with the story. Mostly, though, I was scared to invest so much of myself into the bleakness of it all; scared it would haunt me, that I couldn’t bear it.

In the build-up to making Super Dark Times, I was forced to step back and consider it in a whole new light. I took two months and buried myself into the world of the film, trying to own it as much as I knew I needed to. As I reflected on my past, I began to see something of a mirror; a parallel under the surface of the story. The film was about trauma and its degenerative effects and I saw a reflection of my fears in the stress the characters endured, and that hooked me. Once this realization hit, the film quickly became something I needed to make; a vessel to confront and surmount the obstacles I would continually lay out before me. A means of finding some sort of peace within the shadows of the past.

Born in New Jersey, the second son of a chocolatier, Kevin Phillips directed the short film Too Cool for School, which was accepted into the 2015 Cannes Semaine De La Critique. Super Dark Times, his feature debut, premiered at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam and the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. The film was highly acclaimed and went on to participate in more than a dozen festivals around the world, garnering awards including Best Feature Film at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland. The Orchard acquired worldwide rights to Super Dark Times in 2017, facilitating the domestic theatrical / on-demand release in September of that year. Kevin was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award in 2018 as “Someone to Watch.” He is signed as a director with United Talent Agency and as a cinematographer with WPA.