Cleverly interweaving the tropes of both zombie cinema and classical ghost stories together isn’t always an easy task for both movie casts and crews, even the most experience filmmakers. But up-and-coming writer-director, Justin P. Lange, as well as rising stars Nadia Alexander and Toby Nichols, effortlessly crafted an emotionally potent and quietly unnerving drama with their fantasy movie, ‘The Dark.’ Lange, who made his feature film writing and directorial debuts with the horror movie, and his actors tapped into the most fascinating aspects of both the zombie and ghost sub-genres. AS a result, they created a passionate coming-of-age story about an undead protagonist who learns how to live again and mature, even though she can no longer physically grow older.
‘The Dark’ follows Mina (Alexander), a teenage girl who’s been turned into an undead ghoul. She’s cursed to haunt her childhood home in the woods, where nobody’s allowed to gets in, and nobody gets out alive. That is, until she comes across Alex (Toby Nichols), a blind boy who’s about the same age that she was when she was still alive, and is dealing with his own trauma. After she effortlessly dispatches his companion, Mina lets Alex live. By doing so, she begins to notice some old feelings, such as empathy and love, have resurfaced. It could be just a fluke, or Mina might be more alive than she previously thought.
Dark Sky Films will release ‘The Dark’ on DVD on January 15, 2019. The DVD release comes after the distributor unveiled the drama in theaters and on VOD on October 26. The official theatrical and home releases come after the movie had its world premiere during the Midnight section at this past spring’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Lange and Alexander generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Roxy Hotel in New York to discuss writing, directing and starring in ‘The Dark’ during the Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the scribe-helmer and actress discussed how Alexander and Nichols formed an instant sibling-like connection on the set, which helped them both build the emotional and physical arcs their respective characters endure together. The filmmaker and lead performer also mentioned how they’re thrilled that the drama premiered at the festival, as they both have personal connections to it, as well as New York.
The conversation began with Lange explaining that the development of ‘The Dark’ began “during my last semester while I was an undergrad in the film program at Columbia University. I had a professor there, Eric Mendelsohn, who challenged me to break out of my usual style that I was doing at the time, and try something far from what I was used to doing. That was hard for me at the time, but something eventually clicked when I did my first exercise,” the filmmaker revealed.
“I then wrote my thesis film, which was the short version of ‘The Dark.’ With the short, I experimented with some things that I was planning on doing with the feature. I had modest success with the short, as it went to a bunch of festivals,” the writer shared. “That experience gave me the confidence to tackle the feature.”
The inspiration for the feature also “comes from ‘Let the Right One In,’ which is one of my favorite films. I was also inspired by Guillermo del Toro and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.'”
Lange then added that “I also liked the idea of doing a film with these kids, and the mixture of innocence and violence, which feels very powerful in the context of this world. Then it was about finding Mina, the main character.
“I knew I wanted to do a film that was from the perspective of the monster. I was initially thinking about making the film a slasher, in the vein of Jason Voorhees and Candyman. I was thinking about making a film where we actually feel this character, who’s our protagonist,” the scribe further divulged.
“A common thread through a lot of the things I do is abuse, which is something I feel strongly about. So when I crafted Mina, I knew she would have to be righteous and have anger. It then took off from there, and was about writing those 20 pages.”
Alexander then chimed in that she received the script “in about August 2016. I was actually on a bus, coming back from visiting my best guy friend in Virginia. I was sick, so I had his sweater, which was a key part to my audition,” the actress revealed with a laugh. “So I was sick when I got the script and breakdown of the character while I was on that bus ride. While I was reading the breakdown of Mina, and who she was as a person, I was immediately like, I have to be in this movie!’ I knew just from reading the description of her that I had to play her.
“As a young woman, I’m always looking for complicated, complex and anti-hero-type characters,” the actress admitted. “There aren’t that many for young women, but there are a lot for older men. But I’m just super attracted to those roles, and hopefully play them okay. They keep casting me as them, so I think it’s working”
When she read the script, Alexander thought “it was brilliant. I had never read a character like Mina before. So I was like, I must convince this man to hire me, somehow, some way,” she stated with a laugh.
Lange then delved into his experience of casting the drama, which he called “intense. We saw 100 actresses, including actresses from Canada, Australia and here. I think you (turns to Alexander) were about the second or third actress I saw here in New York.”
“Really?,” Alexander asked with surprise.
“Yes. When you walked out, I was like, that’s Mina,” the director revealed.
“I thought you couldn’t stand me! I’m not even being sarcastic. When I left, I cried, because I loved the script so much, and thought I was so perfect for it. When I first walked out, I thought I did a good job. I think, as an actress, I can normally tell when a director has that moment that they see what they’re looking for. You can feel it, even if they’re trying to play it cool,” Alexander admitted. “But he was so cool, I then started to think that he couldn’t stand me! So I felt miserable for about a week until I got the call back from him.”
Lange then interjected, “We then had a three-hour lunch…”
“…And all I did was eat a sandwich the entire time!,” Alexander noted with a laugh. “He won’t ever stop talking about that sandwich. He would be like, ‘Do you remember when all you did was eat a sandwich?’ I do recall when I ate that sandwich!”
The filmmaker then continued discussing the casting process, and noted that he felt it was important to cast Mina first before the other characters. “For me, this isn’t really a romantic film, as much as it’s just a human film. I wanted Alex to be slightly younger than Mina, and have a little bit of a shift in the power dynamic, where Mina would be a little more powerful. Then we could feel a little more sympathetic to Alex.
“So we decided to cast a younger actor for Alex. I narrowed it down to six (actors), and I wanted all of the boys to read with Nadia, and see how they interacted,” Lange shared. “We actually spoke to Toby over Skype, and he was sick and drinking tea. But the read went really well, and afterward, I really wanted Nadia’s input on how she felt. So it was really joint decision between the two of us to cast Toby,” the helmer revealed.
“Toby was about 14 or 15 when we shot the movie, and he was so good,” Lange added. “He kept going over his lines before we filmed each scene, and at first, I thought, I hope he gets them down. I would get a little nervous, but then he would really get into the scene, and knock them out. He was very instinctual.”
Once Alexander, Nichols and the rest of the actors were cast in ‘The Dark,’ they didn’t have much official rehearsal time. The lead actress noted that since Mina and Alex meet in the film, “we didn’t want them to feel as though they’ve known each other forever. So we would go on set and play a bit before we shot each scene.
“For me, within about 15 minutes of meeting Toby, he reminded me so much of my little brother, who’s a year younger than Toby. My brother and I have a nine-year age difference, so Toby reminded me of him. They have the same sense of humor, and even look the same! They both had the really long hair at the time,” Alexander recalled with a laugh. “So I think that hit me right off the bat, and it felt really easy.”
Lange then admitted that he wrote tough material for Alexander and Nichols, so working with the two performers, especially one-on-one, was helpful. “We talked about the characters, but I had different conversations with Nadia and Toby. We would get down to what was really going on with these characters, and we were very frank and honest during our discussions.
“With Toby, since he was younger, I had to walk a fine line on how I discussed the subject manner,” the director admitted. “Oddly enough, he just really got it, almost to an uncomfortable level,” he added with a laugh. He turned to Alexander and admitted, “I didn’t even tell that to you! But he’s such a smart kid,” he added, to which the actress agreed and said, “He’s so mature!”
“So from there, I felt the relationship between them was really organic and perfect in the sense that there was a sibling vibe between the two of them. Toby has acted on some shows and in some movies, but Nadia has more experience, so she was really supportive of him,” Lange added.
Alexander agreed with her director’s sentiment, and noted that she and her co-star “bonded really quickly. It really helped that we had the same dry sense of humor. We had the type of brother-sister relationship where we love each other, but we also joke with each other. It was really fun!”
Lange then delved into what the process of transitioning from helming short films, including ‘The Dark’ short, into directing the feature-length movie. “With the short, there was a lot of experimentation, and figuring out what worked, even through the edit. We shot a lot of stuff, and then I went through all of it to find what worked best.
“With the feature, I had everything planned ahead of time,” the filmmaker shared. “I had the entire movie storyboarded, so we had every frame of the movie in a book. I even went through it with the actors,” to which Alexander responded, “I remember that.” Lange added that since there was so much going on, he wanted to go through everything with the actors first. For example, “I didn’t want to have Toby be blind the entire shoot for practical reasons. So if I knew ahead of time that I wanted to film Toby from one side, he could keep his other eye open. So doing all of that preparation really made this film achievable.”
The duo then delved into their experience of shooting the horror drama on location in Canada. The actress revealed that when she checked into the hotel where they stayed, she saw a sign “that basically read, Don’t dillydally outside or carry food, because there’s a bear in the area. I thought, I’m so in Canada right now! It was also cold, and there wasn’t much to do in the town, but the people there were very welcoming.”
The helmer added that the town “is small, and is about two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto. The town’s on the edge of Northern Ontario, and is called Parry Sound. I think the town’s more bustling during the summer, but we were there during the winter. But that was good, because then everyone could focus on the work. We had an Austrian crew and a Canadian crew. We also had Americans working on the set, so it was an international affair. The town was really welcoming, and it was really great to film there.”
The experience of creating the look for her character of Mina was also something that Alexander cherished. “I had to get up about 4 or 5 am and then head to the set. I would have to sit in a chair for two hours while the makeup department glued things to my face. Marissa (Clemence) and Tara (Brawley), who both did the application process, were brilliant and patient. They were a great support system to have while I sat for two hours everyday,” the actress gushed.
“They would paint my prosthetic mask, and then cover it in blood and grime. I also had dentures, which were sort of like a retainer that was all blacked out, which made my teeth look nasty,” Alexander continued. “I think the worst part was wearing the nails. They always fell off, and weren’t fun. I was so glad when I didn’t have to wear them anymore.”
The actress added that she also had to wear contacts that made her look like she had “dead eyes. When we did the initial contact fitting, I was worried, because a lot of the contacts also made me blind. I thought, if I’m blind, and Toby’s blind, this movie’s not going to happen. So we were able to meet a happy medium, where the contacts blocked out some of my vision, but I could still see some things. I had to use a flashlight to walk around, though.
“In terms of the physicality, there was a lot of athleticism that I didn’t train for!,” Alexander admitted with a laugh. “During our first meeting, I said to you (turning to Lange) that I only run in very short spurts, and I did that for you for the film,” she reminded the filmmaker. “I remember you asked me if I had one more run in me for the scene where I race after the truck. I ended up pulling a bunch of muscles in my back, and he then very generously paid for me to get a physical therapy massage. I think that was the worst injury I sustained, besides getting an infection in my eye from the make-up,” the actress divulged.
Lange added that “Both roles had their physical challenges. I really had to rely on Nadia to help Toby, because he couldn’t see. They would talk while filmming, and Toby had to be careful,” to which Alexander jokingly responded, “I couldn’t push him!” Lange added that he “had a great assistant director, Jeremy Doiron, who immediately would rush in to make sure that Toby was okay between takes Jeremy was Toby’s rock, and made sure he was always taken cared of on the set.”
The duo then discussed what the experience of premiering ‘The Dark’ at the Tribeca Film Festival was like for them. The director noted that both he and Alexander have previous ties to the festival. “My first job in film was actually one block away from here, on the corner of Franklin Street. I worked there for four years for an indie film producer, so this area was my home for the beginning of my career. I also grew up in New York, in Westchester, and lived between Manhattan and Brooklyn for about 15 years. The idea for this movie also came to me while I was attending Columbia, so it felt like the film had to premiere here. On Nadia’s side, the festival is familiar with her.”
“They vaguely know who I am,” Alexander playfully joked. “I also had a film premiere here last year, which is called ‘Blame,’ and was my first lead role that anyone’s seen. I won Best Actress in the US Narrative Competition, which was just wonderful. There’s such a love and respect for indie films at this festival, which I adore. I think New York is such a great place to host it, and it’s also my home. I’ve lived here for about 10 years, so I can call myself a New Yorker now. I just love this festival, and it felt like coming home to have ‘The Dark’ play here. I was so excited when Justin told me that it had gotten in, because I was like, ‘I get to go back!’ It’s amazing that we’re able to premiere the movie here, and I couldn’t be happier.”