Mickey Keating just completed the Triple Crown of Indie Filmmaking. In less than eleven months, he has had a new film world premiere at SXSW, Fantastic Fest, and now Sundance. Three new films, all genre films but which take simple concept (the haunted house, the alien invasion) and put the director’s own distinctive spin on it. Keating is a consummate student of film. His own work always exists in the shadows of the films he loves, yet still offers surprise after surprise to the viewer. He is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
In his latest CARNAGE PARK, (which premiered in the Midnight section at Sundance and brings Keating back to SXSW a year after the premiere of POD) a robbery goes bad and the criminals end up stranded on a madman’s property in the middle of the desert. It’s like Reservoir Dogs gets hijacked by Sam Peckinpah and filmed on the set of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. “There’s nothing scarier than being too far away from a hospital,” says writer/director Keating, “whenever we would drive through the desert there’s always that strange sort of feeling of things that the human mind creates when they’re by themselves.” CARNAGE PARK is completely informed by place, like POD and DARLING before it. “There’s no better way to convey something, some sense of isolation than just watching somebody endure something so much larger than themselves and feeling that intimidation, that emotional collapse,” he says, “ location’s always very important. Fortunately, [each film] I’ve made has been very different in terms of tackling that stranger in a strange land idea.”
I had a chance to sit down with Keating at Sundance, along with editor Valerie Krulfeifer and producer Eric Fleischmann. CARNAGE PARK opens as a botched robbery has already turned into a hostage situation – Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert) and sidekick Lenny (Michael Villar) have Vivian (Ashley Bell) in their truck because she just happened to be at the bank. Lenny has been shot and the car pulls off the side of the road onto the property of Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy), a crazed Vietnam vet who enjoys hunting down passerbys for sport. Very quickly the film becomes a western version of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Vivian as the prey. As she crisscrosses his property, running across traps and victims, and eventually into an abandoned mine, Vivian flirts with the pantheon of great scream queens. However, part of the setup of the film is that the killer, a sniper by trade, always is removed from his target and so she never even gets the privilege of facing off with him.
There are long sequences where Vivian is not even sure if he is watching, making him as much just one of the traps in this ‘Park’ that she may encounter, as the designer of her plight. “Ashley’s so strong as an actress, her character is just so- everything that she does is so energetic,” Keating says, “at the end it’s like, you want to see her losing her mind, you want to see her not quite know where her own voice is coming from.” In effect, it makes the whole danger even more chaotic, more random, and makes her survival (at various points in the movie – I’m not going to give away the ending) that much more unsettling. Did she just make it through or was there never any danger in the first place? The director agrees, saying, “when a character who’s not really in control is beginning to lose slip on their psyche then I think the audience feels very strange and uncomfortable as well.”
The audience is stuck with her, in the middle of nowhere, as separated from the rest of the world as anyone could be. “If you get lost in the desert you could be wandering forever and really not find anything,” Keating suggests, “in Joshua Tree you can find these amazing art farms of people who’ve just retreated out into the deserts and built these gigantic structures that look like the works of total madmen, you know?” So not only is Vivian isolated, she stumbles into the personal playground of a deranged madman. Even though it’s the middle of nowhere, there is nowhere to run, so the effect is very claustrophobic. “I think there’s something so incredibly interesting in being that kind of isolated, and just stumbling upon things that are just worse and worse and worse,” the director says, “to present something so terrifying that’s so uniquely sun-torched and almost like, acid-trippy.”
CARNAGE PARK is almost perfectly divided into three distinct chapters. In the first Vivian is trying to escape her bank-robber kidnappers into the outer world. And then she does, and in the second part, she is trying to escape that outer world into something, well – safe. The final section is almost entirely in Vivian’s head. She is in the mine, but she is also in her mind – is Wyatt still chasing her? She can’t see him, only hear him, and his crazed sirens that blare throughout the movie. “The way that I described it to all the actors is for certain moments everybody’s the main character,” says Keating, “what I really, really love about films like Psycho, is this idea of creating something that’s so visceral and energetic and then completely pulling the rug out from everybody.” In fact, you don’t even realize Vivian is in the film at the open, let alone the lead character. The writer/director suggests that this turnaround is central to the film. “I feel like if you can emotionally connect with a character, even for just one moment, [and then that character is killed], you immediately don’t feel safe and can’t predict where the movie’s going to go,” he says, “you think you’ve seen this movie before, you think that you know what a movie called CARNAGE PARK’s gonna be about – but watch this.”
In fact the film, set in the wide-open desert, gets more and more contained as it goes. “It was really important for me,” says Keating, “to constantly enclose the area around the character. So, when she first wakes up in CARNAGE PARK, it’s very wide open, when she ends up getting attacked, it’s very claustrophobic, she’s surrounded by trees, and then we just keep going deeper and deeper until she’s literally surrounded on all sides by tunnels.” Part of the shift in pacing from section to section domes from the pacing. According to editor Valerie Krulfeifer, the middle section of the film, with a lot of intercutting between Vivian’s escape and the Sheriff searching for the robbers (a sheriff who also happens to be this crazed sniper’s brother) wasn’t even in the script originally. “Time was very fluid in the film,” she says, “the chapters were sort of set there, but the intercutting was something that we found.”With a film so dependent on location, you could be forgiven for assuming the script was written with a specific set in mind. “Funny enough, location scout Danielle Eden found the location,” says producer Eric Fleischmann “this beautiful ranch in the middle of Acton, California that just had- it was very serendipitous, because everything in the script, both structurally and spatially, existed on the property.” Acton is fortuitously located inside the ’30-mile-zone’ around Los Angeles, an important distinction when paying cast and crew. “It’s a strange place out there because really, it’s like, meth country, you drive by dozens of trailers,” recalls Keating, “we were doing the initial location scout, one time we were like, “This would be perfect for one of the scenes.” And we pull up to a gate and then a guy comes up – he pulls up behind us, he’s like, What’re you guys doing out here?’ We’re like, ‘Oh, we love the property, we’re, you know – ‘both Eric and I look like we’re sixteen-years-old so we’re like, ‘We’re students, we want to film out here.’ He’s like, I wouldn’t drive down that driveway if I were you boys.’ We were like okay, okay, fair enough.”
In addition to place, the thing that makes CARNAGE PARK distinctive is sound. This film almost seems like it was made for headphones, especially the last sequence where Vivian is in the mine. Most films don’t take advantage of the spatial quality to sound. Part of what’s so frightening is she can’t see anything, she doesn’t know where anybody is, and she doesn’t know what’s happening.
“I do a lot of my own sound design,” says Keating, “I like when sound is a character and I like this kind of surreal sense of you can hear anything it doesn’t really have to be so specific and on the nose.” The director mentions the way Edgar Wright uses sound, and David Lynch, and gives a lot of credit to his sound man Shawn Duffy, who he has worked with for years. He says the team is also quite aware that films are not only watched in theaters. “We know that kids are going to be watching this on their phone and their computers inevitably,” he says, “the stereo mix has to be just as effective. So, we spend a lot of time going through it and making sure that both of those formats are specific to the screening area.”
Whenever I talk to Mickey Keating (and its beginning to be an every-four-month occurrence), I always come away with the feeling I’ve just gone to film school. He is such a student of cinema, and draws inspirations from so many amazing films to build his own art. Carnage Park draws heavily from Sam Peckinpah, specifically THE GETAWAY and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, but also, according to Keating, Martin Sheen’s character in BADLANDS, and neo-western crime films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. “Psycho, too,” the director adds, “I keep going back to it because it is a crime movie, the best crime movie that turns into a horror film.” Horror references include the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the HILLS HAVE EYES (“obviously,” Keating admits), “but Ashley and I talked about EDEN LAKE, and HIGH TENSION.” Other influences include THREE WOMEN and THIEVES LIKE US by Robert Altman, for, as the director says, “this kind of eclectic mix of 70s style, California-type movies that really feel specific to that era.”
Even with all the genre-hopping and never letting the audience feel settled, the film feels most like a Western, although some sort of perverted, backwards version of a Western. We’re watching the bad gunslinger. “It really just comes down to like, to Peckinpah, man,” Keating says, “I think he made so many of the most brilliant ultra-violent, neo, like revisionist type Westerns. That’s just so fascinating to me and there’s something so exhilarating about taking something so ingrained in our culture – the cowboy with the white hat and the cowboy with the black hat facing off and flip them on their heads.”
This is the sort of work Keating has been doing since RITUAL, his first film, also produced by Fleischmann and edited Krulfeifer (with the same sound mixer, same composer, as well another cameo from director Larry Fessenden). “Mickey and I met at Blumhouse when we were both 14,” Fleischmann jokes. Fleishmann also produced SLEIGHT at Sundance, making him the youngest ever producer to have two features at the festival. “Mickey was an intern of ours and we did Ritual together on the weekends,” Fleishmann says about Blumhouse, “when I left, Mickey stayed and did Pod and Darling eventually and I went off and produced independently, separately.” CARNAGE PARK was one of two scripts they were going to do right after Ritual, and it was in various stages of go with different independent financiers and it never went through. When Fleischmann formed Diablo with a solid group of financiers, according to the producer, they were here at Sundance last year and “they said ‘Okay, we need something that’s totally unique and out there and bold and edgy.’ I was like, ‘well, I have a script, it’s called Carnage Park.’” They read it that night and greenlit it.
When CARNAGE PARK premiered at Sundance, it gave Keating three feature film premieres in ten months. “It feels surreal, man,” he admits, “it’s awesome, but it’s also- because we just panic all the time. I can’t really speak for Val, she has to live with me so I’m sure it’s a much different feeling, but the moments where I’m not making a movie, that’s the hard part for me. So, I feel extremely grateful and thankful to everyone who’s embraced and supported the movies and it’s been such an awesome trip and I just want to be able to keep, you know, showing people like, ‘Alright, here’s something different.” Keating’s next film is Psychopaths and then the following film will be with Diablo again. “The title we’re not sure,” says Fleishmann, “the pitch is it’s going to be American Graffiti with an atomic bomb.” They describe it as a 1960’s nuclear thriller. “Like, those 60’s paranoid fallout movies, you know?” Keating offers. Of course, I have to ask, knowing Keating’s work ethic, if its already been shot. “They’re shooting down the street,” says Fleishmann, followed by Keating’s “I actually gotta go.”
CARNAGE PARK plays SXSW first March 12th. Keating last film, DARLING, opens theatrically April 1st (you can read my last interview with him here).