Having the past relentlessly come back to haunt you can be a truly horrifying experience. The ordeal can be even more terrifying when those menacing memories aren’t even your own. ‘Darling,’ which is the new gripping thriller from versatile genre writer-director-producer, Mickey Keating, powerfully and alluringly explores how the history of a reportedly haunted New York mansion quickly deteriorates the psyche of a vulnerable young woman.
The chilling fourth psychological horror feature from Keating was entrancingly shot in black and white in the sprawling city. ‘Darling,’ which enthrallingly focuses on the emotional crisis of the title character through a limited use of dialogue, as it primarily focuses on her body language and the camera movements, premiered in September at Fantastic Fest. The thriller will be distributed into theaters by Screen Media Films on Friday.
‘Darling’ follows the lonely title character (Lauren Ashley Carter), who moves into an old, mysterious Manhattan mansion. She’s employed as a caretaker by the home’s older owner, who’s only referenced to as Madame (Sean Young) by the seemingly virtuous protagonist. The home owner, who quickly dubs the young woman who’s set to begin working for her, as Darling, casually mentions that the last woman she employed jumped off the building’s balcony to her death.
Soon after arriving at the mansion, Darling is left alone with far too much time on her hands. As she innocently wanders through the house’s lavish rooms, her recent discovery that the estate may be haunted becomes a backdrop for her violent descent into madness. The stories that have fueled the mansion’s reputation, as well as her detection of a locked room that she can’t open, lead to the loss of her touch with reality.
With her emotions crumbling, Darling decides to leave the confines of the house and visit a local bar. While there, she meets a man (Brian Morvant) who readily accepts her invitation to accompany her home. When the two arrive at the estate, the complete unraveling of Darling’s emotional and mental health are quickly revealed, showcasing how much an environment and the power of suggestion can truly affect people.
Keating generously took the time to talk about writing, directing and producing ‘Darling’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how as he was finishing editing his previous horror movie with Carter, last year’s ‘Pod,’ he began watching numerous 1960-70s surreal thrillers, which inspired him to create the character and story for ‘Darling.’ He also mentioned how he reunited with cinematographer Mac Fisken, after working with him on several of the previous films he directed, including ‘Pod’ and ‘Ritual.’ The two worked together to bring the helmer’s idea on how to make their latest movie very minimalist, stark and restrained, in terms of the composition and camera movement, to life.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the new thriller, ‘Darling,’ which follows the title character as she loses touch with reality while house sitting for a wealthy socialite in New York City. What was the genesis of the story, and what was the process of then developing it into the script?
Mickey Keating (MK): Well, when we were just about wrapping up the edit on my movie, ‘Pod,’ I started watching a lot of new movies to get back into the zone. I found that I was watching a lot of 1960-70s thrillers that are really surreal, creepy and psychedelic. I was watching movies like ‘The Haunting,’ ‘The Innocents’ and ‘Repulsion.’ So I started writing from that.
Originally, (‘Darling’) was supposed to be a little bit more like ‘Repulsion’ and take place in a big New York City apartment. But when I started talking to Lauren, the star of the film, she said, “I know these people who have this house. Maybe they’ll be interested in letting us film there.” From there, they said yes, so I wrote the script around that, and we then shot it. So it was all very fortuitous that we made the film that (audiences) are seeing today.
SY: Besides penning the screenplay, you also directed ‘Darling,’ after writing and helming your previous films, ‘Pod,’ ‘Ritual’ and ‘Ultra Violence.’ How does working on the script influence your work as a director? Why do you feel its beneficial to do both duties on your films?
MK: Of course. I write my scripts for myself to direct. So it’s very exciting and freeing to just have the freedom to write what I want to direct. So it was satisfying to write something specifically for me as a personal project, and not have to worry about sending it out to too many people and explaining too much.
The script wasn’t tremendously traditional in the Hollywood sense. I drew a lot of pictures and shots, as it’s not a dialogue-heavy script; there are only a few pages of dialogue, so it was almost like making a comic book.
SY: Speaking of drawing pictures of the film before you began filming, how did having those storyboards influence the way you approached filming in the mansion in New York City?
MK: Yes, from the very beginning I knew that I wanted the movie to be very minimalist, stark and restrained, in terms of the composition and camera movement. On my previous films, we tried to have really aggressive camera movements, so much so that the cameras were almost like characters.
But on this movie, the intention was to try to make every frame look like a painting. So even before the script was written, I knew that was the kind of aesthetic that I wanted to capture. Hence the reason why the house is very bare, white and sterile in a lot of moments.
SY: What was your collaboration process like with ‘Darling’s cinematographer, Mac Fisken, who you also worked with on ‘Pod’ and ‘Ritual?’ Did you both feel it was important to include such elements as strobe lights and quick cuts to showcase the title character’s loss of touch with reality?
MK: I’ve worked with Mac for five movies now. So we have developed a language for the vibe that we want to capture. So for this movie, we knew it was important to shoot it on very wide angle lenses, in order for it to have this very elegant feel to it. For all of our movies, we always try to get one solid long take, as they’re very important to me.
For this one, instead of having weaving Steadicam movements, we locked off the camera for almost four minutes, and we didn’t cut away from that. It took a while to shoot those kinds of shots, but it was a lot more satisfying, in a way, because there wasn’t a lot of time wasted getting coverage that no one’s ever going to see.
SY: The title character in ‘Darling’ is played by Lauren Ashley Carter, who you mentioned earlier. What is it about her acting that convinced you to cast her again in your new film? Since the thriller primarily features only her as her character tries to contend with the house’s reported haunted past on her own, what was the process of collaborating with her, in order to capture her heightened emotions in her scenes?
MK: I love when I can talk to, and work with, an actor, and then present them with a totally different idea or character. One of my favorite things in movies that directors do is when an actor plays a great character in one of their films. Then in their next movie, the actor will do a complete 180-degree turn from the previous film. I think that’s cool and really impressive.
So that was the approach for this film, as Lauren played the screaming victim in ‘Pod.’ So it was interesting to me that while we were in post-production on ‘Pod,’ and I was also watching all of the fractured, descent-into-madness type of movies, I thought, it would be interesting to see if Lauren would be able to do something like that. I also thought it would be interesting to see if Brian, who played the insane brother in ‘Pod,’ could also do a 180 and play the victim, in ‘Darling.’ So it was a really exciting process to see them both be able to do that.
I’ll continue to do that with my next few films, as well. Ashley Bell is one of the main actors in my upcoming movie, ‘Carnage Park.’ In my next movie, ‘Psychopaths,’ we flipped it again, and made her completely different. So it’s something I hope to continue to do with many more actors in the future.
SY: You also featured an interesting score in the film, as you incorporated both quiet and loud sounds to also reflect Darling’s slow detachment from reality. What was the process of also creating the score in the film, in order to reflect the distinct emotions she experiences?
MK: The score was very exciting and interesting, because it was very important to me to make something that really gets under your skin. It was more important to me to make something that creates a deep internal reaction, as opposed to a big traditional score, for a majority of the film.
But I still wanted it to feel traditional and elegant in certain ways. So we went through a lot of noise. One of my favorite Robert Altman movies is called ‘Images,’ and that soundtrack is brilliant. It was created by a Japanese noise artist. ‘The Exorcist’ soundtrack also left a big impact on me.
SY: What was your collaboration process like with ‘Darling’s editor, Valerie Krulfeifer, as you determined how to mix the visual, audio and emotional elements into the final cut of the thriller?
MK: Yes, I think the editing was super specific. We were inspired by, first and foremost, the experimental filmmakers, Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage. It’s really about the embrace of editing as its own aggressive art form, which was really exciting.
The big reference point for us was the stylistic editing of the nightmare sequence of ‘The Exorcist.’ If you watch that kind of continuation of experimental montage, where it’s just jarring imagery that’s intercut for a split second, it’s terrifying. If you see the face of the demon, even for one second, it’s horrifying.
So we really wanted to play with the idea that while you’re watching our film, nothing’s safe. There’s really nothing that you can anticipate. I think that puts people on edge, tremendously.
SY: With all of your films being in the horror and thriller genres, what genre filmmakers have inspired you in the way that you approach making your movies?
MK: It’s funny, because a lot of my favorite filmmakers aren’t necessarily horror directors, although a few of them have had their hands in the genre. Robert Altman is my favorite, and I think ‘Images’ is really indicative of ‘Darling’ in a lot of ways.
I also love the work of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, and Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers. With the exception of Woody Allen, I would say all of my favorite directors have kind of dabbled in genre films, and in the horror genre, in particular. They’re always making different films, and are putting their own creative spin on their work.
SY: Besides writing and directing the thriller, you also served as one of the producers. Why did you also decide to also produce the film-was it beneficial to getting it made?
MK: No, not necessarily. I think it’s all kind of the same process. All of my films, regardless of their size, are made the same way. It’s all a matter of distributing credit to particular people at particular times.
‘Darling’ was a film where I raised the financing, and did more work as a producer during in the pre- and post-production stages. But during the production of the film, I try not to let that element of filmmaking really bleed into the actual artistic creativity. If you spend all day worrying about craft services, it hinders the effect of the emotion you’re trying to create. I compartmentalize, but I don’t think that my input as a producer on ‘Darling’ was any different than my films on which I’m not credited as a producer.
SY: ‘Darling’ premiered last September at Fantastic Fest in Austin. What was the experience of bringing the movie on the film festival circuit, particularly Fantastic Fest, and interacting with the audiences who attended the screenings?
MK: It was incredible and amazing. I feel very lucky that I have been given the opportunity to hang out with audiences and show them my movie. I think it’s so exciting to make a movie like this, which is different from a lot of the other movies you’re seeing in horror today, including the aesthetic of making it in black and white. It’s exhilarating to sit with an audience and share something new with them.
I think this movie also evokes a lot of dialogue after the credits roll. So it’s thrilling to be able to show the film to as many people as I possibly can, and I’m lucky that people seem to be responding to this one.
SY: Speaking of showing ‘Darling’ in black and white, why did you decide present it in that way? Did you think it would make the story and title character more intriguing in black and white than in color?
MK: I think so. Anyone in the entire world can shoot something in New York City. But what we wanted to do was create this separation between the audience and what’s on the screen. I think in black and white, New York becomes its own dream-world state. That was something that was very exciting to do.
All of the movies that I was watching as I was writing the script for ‘Darling’ were in black and white. So naturally, in my mind’s eye, the movie, even though I hadn’t made it yet, looked black and white. I think it’s very exciting to do something like that.
SY: With the majority of the film set in the mansion that Darling’s housesitting, as well as several of the home’s surrounding New York City blocks, what was the overall experience of filming on location? How did that process influence the way you could shoot the movie?
MK: I think the approach that I went for very early on was to make the mansion look like the hotel in (the Coen Brothers’ 1991 comedy-drama,) ‘Barton Fink.’ While you never see that hotel from the outside, or even its layout, you get this all encompassing ominous feeling about it. It seems other worldly in a sense. Even when John Turturro (who plays the title character) goes outside and into the world, there’s still this massive separation between his life outside and inside the hotel. So that’s what I wanted to try to do in ‘Darling.’
The mansion that we shot in was an old, renovated boarding school from the 1900s. So just the way the architecture is laid out creates this separation between what’s inside the house and what New York City actually looks like outside. So having the mansion really benefited us, and allowed us to create this dream world that we created in the movie.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, besides ‘Darling,’ you also wrote and directed the upcoming horror films ‘Carnage Park’ and ‘Psychopaths.’ Are there any details about those two movies that you can discuss?
MK: Sure! ‘Carnage Park’ is going to be released by IFC over the summer. It stars Ashley Bell and Pat Healy and a great ensemble cast. It’s a completely different turn from ‘Darling.’ It’s a ‘Most Dangerous Game’ type of movie that’s set in the desert, and it’s vicious and bloody.
‘Psychopath’s is almost like a 1970s psychedelic dream. It’s an ensemble piece about a bunch of serial killers over the course of one night. It stars Larry Fessenden and Helen Rogers, who are also both in ‘Darling;’ Helen is one of the main actresses in ‘Psychopath.’ So I think all three of these movies are all very different from each other, especially since they’re back-to-back. So I’m interested in seeing which one people like the best.
Watch the official trailer for ‘Darling’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello