One of my favorite films and interviews from this year’s SXSW was Mickey Keating’s POD, so when his new film DARLING popped up on the Fantastic Fest schedule a mere six months later I knew we were in for something special. Set in one of the oldest residences in New York City (according to the film mythology), Darling brings back POD’s Lauren Ashley Carter as a caretaker left alone in a home with some history. Shooting in black and white and with long sections of film entirely without dialogue, Keating offers us a very particular window into a world he has specifically crafted. What I love about Keating’s films is that you always know there is someone guiding the ship in their own particular way. Some of the set up may be something you’ve seen before, but the way Keating handles it can only be him.
Carter plays a young woman in need of a job – the one she is offered seems to a have few drawbacks, mainly that the last caretaker committed suicide. But as is slowly revealed to us through the film, she does not have many options. Despite being cautioned against a locked door at the end of long hallway, she leaves herself open to whatever force has taken up residence in the home. On the street, a stranger (Brian Morvant) gives her a necklace she ‘dropped,’ an upside down cross that she saw inside the house – surely she hadn’t been wearing it. As she endeavors to learn more about the stranger, she also falls deeper into the mystery of the house, having visions and restyling her hair in a way unmistakably influenced by the past. When she invites him back to the house, the tension finally erupts.
DARLING is simple, short and intense. A singular story that ratchets up with every minute, Mickey Keating’s film ended up being one of the strongest films at Fantastic Fest this year. From the long, other worldly establishing shots of New York that open the film, to the tag in the midst of the credits, DARLING is all about atmosphere, a suffocating terror that seeps inside you until it drowns your soul. Anchored by a masterful performance from Carter, who has to carry a majority of the film by herself, DARLING opens the door to mystery but lets us wander inside on our own, rarely offering explanation to what is happening on screen. This is a good thing, the viewer is left stranded with their own nightmares, just like Carter is.
I had a chance to sit down with Keating and Morvant and discuss the film how Keating could possibly be producing such great work so fast.
BEARS: So, you shot POD in February, 2014?
Keating: February of 2014 and then we had so much fun that we just decided to make another movie in November and, it’s been my dream, since interning for Glass-Eyed Pix to make a movie with them. It was so funny because when I was interning there, I was watching all these directors do their films, like Jim Mickle was working on STAKE LAND and I think Joe Maggio was working on BITTER FEAST. When I got to go back was on the opposite side of that and it was really an honor.
BEARS: Obviously having worked with the same cast from one movie to the next it probably tightens things up with having communication.
Keating: It felt very freeing and I think there’s a reason why we were comfortable setting up a locked off 4 and a half-minute dialogue. When you work with the same people and you work with people you like, you break through that barrier and so now you can just talk specifically about the intention, like, “We’ve done it before, it didn’t implode, so what do we want to try this time?”
BEARS: I think the thing that I love about your films is you really take some risks. Like, I would say shooting in black and white is a risk because it’s not what people are expecting and it’s a very contained film, but it’s not a CABIN IN THE WOODS film, she can walk outside at any time and get help.
Keating: Absolutely. The reason why we shot it in New York is that it’s about that alienation and detachment from humanity. At any point of time she could have kicked open the front door and said, “Some shit’s going on here!” The way we shot New York was to feel distance from it and feel it’s almost ghostly in a way.
This is first and foremost, a character piece. Travis Bickle [Taxi Drive] at any point in time could’ve checked into a hospital and said, “Look I’ve got some bad ideas in my head,” but it’s really about that journey and that descent into very personal madness. Once you realize that like, “I can’t talk to somebody,” or “I can’t connect with people.” Or, “The person who’s hiring me and giving me a job, I can’t even look them in the eye,” that’s terrifying. That’s what we went for.
BEARS: Well, I love that she has a past that really doesn’t come out in the film – you don’t even really let us know what that is.
BEARS: So, what did you tell Lauren?
Keating: One of the movies that really was a big, kind of influence in terms of the offbeat nature of the character was AUDITION, you know, Takashi Mike, When we first started talking about the character, I had this vision in my mind of a girl who was pacing back and forth in front of a payphone waiting to receive a phone call. And so, I think what’s so great about DARLING and the same kind of ambiguous character pieces of the ‘70s. Shit went down and we’re meeting this person in the third act of their experience and their descent.
BEARS: And then shit goes down again…
Keating: When we go back and we look at a tragedy and start picking up all the pieces and “Oh yeah, all the indications were there, but we just didn’t clue it together,” and so by showing a little suggestion of her having scars on her side, or even just the way that she looks at people. Or the fact that she tears up a check at the beginning – we know that whatever is going on in her head is incomprehensible and not necessary, so we’re just along for the journey.
BEARS: Yeah, well it’s that idea of a narrator that you can’t trust in a book.
BEARS: And really, she’s not a very good view for us.
Morvant: I feel like there’s literally moments where you see it from her view. There’s moments where it’s the lens is a slowly blinking, dreamscape of an eye, and so you’re really getting into the head of this untrustworthy character.
BEARS: Yeah, and I think your character [the stranger on the street] is a good example of that because, I mean, on one hand you seem like you are a nice guy, and you even tell her that, “I’m one of the good guys,” right? But did you give her the upside down cross necklace intentionally? I mean, what’s the history there, what do you know about the house?
Morvant: And what is the perspective of that scene? There’s moments where it seems like it’s happening in real time, but then there’s moments where you see it more stylized. The character is more framed like something more active and with more agency over her. Is that her perspective? Is that what the film wants you to know? I dunno, I think it’s neat ‘cause like, as an audience member like, it almost leads you to believe you can’t trust this guy, and so you’re on her side.
Morvant: And you have reasons later to question it and you go, “Well maybe you were seeing it from her perspective and her perspective is not trustworthy.”
BEARS: Yeah, I don’t think you want to be on her side. I mean, she’s a crazy person. Or has at least been driven crazy. Let’s talk a little bit about black and white. Other than it’s cool to shoot movies in black and white, was there a reason behind the selection?
Keating: I think all the movies that I had been watching when I was writing influenced it. I just saw the world in black and white. So, it was totally REPULSION, it was totally THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENCE, SHOCK CORRIDOR by Sam Fuller, it seemed right and it seemed necessary. I think that when you have that kind of gut instinct, to shy away from it, well there’s no point. If we’re gonna make a movie and we’re gonna do something that is its own complete experience and open for that interpretation, you may as well present it in a way that’s totally different for people. So, they immediately are either on for the ride or their not. And that’s fine, if you hate black and white, sorry.
Morvant: You give them a little pink, though, too.
BEARS: Well, that’s true. I mean, the other thing that’s interesting about it is, you know, when you think of old movies in black and white, classics and all that, they are long, slow takes, and you’ve got that. But you’ve also thrown in really powerful flashes using modern editing techniques, and throwing like kind of strobe vision at us.
Keating: Right, but I mean, you know, those go back to like, Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, On top of that the movie has a layer of experimentalism just to it inherently. The ‘60s, especially for psychological horror, that was prime time, man. There was that fun and that embracing of film as an art. I wanted to capture that essence, you know? Even though the movie’s not necessarily in a specific time period, I still wanted to go with that vibe. Because, without those films, there would be no DARLING.
BEARS: We talked about this same thing with POD. In the description you’re like, “Oh okay, I know what that is.” But you never give anyone exactly what they expect. Its your version of that.
Keating: A girl going crazy in a house is a very familiar story. And the beauty of horror in general, to me, is like, there’s a wonderful playground to just take something that’s familiar and tell it in a different way. I think that if you’re a filmmaker who is just trying to retread on the same thing over and over, like, you’re wasting everyone’s time, in a way. I think that it’s not interesting to tell THE SHINING again, it’s already been told. But you can definitely pay homage — “Alright, these are the reference points.” The language of cinema has to have some familiarity with it. And so, if we can present these ideas that are familiar enough where people are like, “Oh, I like movies that are about creatures. I like movies about descents into madness.” Then, hopefully, by the time they walk out of it, they’ve seen something totally new.
BEARS: Right, let’s have that conversation.
Keating: Dialogue’s not interesting when two people are agreeing about everything. So, if we can have a conversation about a movie and you go in saying ‘I hate those flash backs, I hate the way that is,’ that’s fine but let me present it to you, and then let’s keep talking about. That’s how you get your money’s worth, you know? If everything’s agreeable then you come out of the theater feeling screwed.
BEARS: Well, and you were talking about THE SHINING which I think is a good example, but there’s a safety in that film. You know, he’s going there with his family and there’s the family unit and how it’s breaking apart a little bit. I think we’ve all analyzed THE SHINING to death and we all have our own opinions. But if you only put one character in that space and she’s got no one to talk to, except the space. We’re doing all that work for you – which is, I think, that’s a big risk to take.
Keating: Well, what’s scary to me in a lot of horror is “Oh, shit, I’m stuck with this person.” Like, all of the sudden it’s “Oh my god, like, this is the protagonist!” And it’s just gonna go from there, because I feel like if you have that kind of ‘save the cat’ moment for every single character, at some point you sit back and you may as well put the IV in your arm. Hopefully when people watch this they see her, kind of, slowly crack, you know? There’s always some weird, offbeat things about it, so that by the time shit goes down we’re claustrophobic in a way. It’s “Shit, there’s really no one else that we can connect to.” And I think that if done right, that’s very terrifying. You watch Taxi Driver and from the get-go it’s unapologetically like: “Here is this character, and here is this character’s journey.”
BEARS: And with her, we don’t even know how messed up she is from the beginning.
Keating: And she looks so sweet and unassuming. You know things are gonna happen to this girl.
Morvant: And I like too that we don’t know the trauma that she’s coming from. Like you said, we don’t know, we audience, doesn’t know her specific backstory. So, it puts you in this interesting place where you’re watching her take the actions she takes later in the film, and you don’t know entirely how to justify it. This is how she’s reacting to some trauma.
BEARS: And you already have your next film done, right?
Keating: Yeah, we’re almost done with post on that.
BEARS: Are you really? I was joking.
Keating: No, yeah, no seriously. I did a movie in May called CARNAGE PARK.
BEARS: Oh yeah, okay I read about that. So that’ll be at SXSW then.
Keating: I hope. Yeah, your mouth to God’s ears, man, please.
Mickey Keating’s DARLING was acquired by Screen Media Films during Fantastic Fest, so you should be able to see it in theaters soon. POD just finished its theatrical run. Carnage Park should be ready soon. I hope to check in Keating at SXSW next year.