Young adults often have commendable plans when it comes to achieving their goals, and would take whatever means necessary to achieve those ambitions. But when tragic obstacles unexpectedly hinder their dreams, they have to quickly adapt to their new dire circumstances. That’s certainly the case with the admirable young protagonist in writer-director Mickey Keating‘s latest horror film, ‘Carnage Park,’ as she’s forced to fight back against her new enemies, who threaten her plans to realize her objectives. In the action crime film, talented actress Ashley Bell, who first made a name for herself in the horror-thriller genre in ‘The Last Exorcism’ series, once again proves her abilities in portraying a strong protagonist who’s unrelenting in her fights against her horrific enemies.
Keating and Bell generously took the time recently to talk about creating such a captivating lead character and story in ‘Carnage Park’ during an exclusive phone interview. The horror auteur and performer discussed the process of writing, directing and starring in the action crime film, which IFC Midnight distributed in select New York theaters and on national VOD this weekend. The distributor will also release the movie, which played at such festivals this year as Sundance and SXSW, in select theaters in Los Angeles this Friday, July 8.
Set in 1978, ‘Carnage Park’ follows two criminals, “Scorpion Joe” (James Landry Hebert) and his sidekick, Lenny (Michael Villar), who frantically go on the run, after their latest bank robbery gone awry. Innocent bystander, Vivian Fontaine (Bell), has the misfortune of attending to business at the bank at the same time, as she’s desperately trying to secure a loan, in an effort to save her family’s farm. As she leaves the bank, she’s distracted from what’s going on around her, as the bank manager, Mr. Oates (Bob Bancroft), denied her the loan.
While walking back to her car in the parking lot, Vivian is taken hostage by Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert) and Lenny (Michael Villar). But the group’s outlook becomes even more bleak when they unexpectedly arrive at the Californian desert outpost of a deranged ex-military sniper, Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). Vivian soon find herself to now be the victim of a deranged killer who finds pleasure in hunting passersby for sport. After being drugged, she wakes up and discovers that the area is surrounded by an electric fence that has trapped her inside.
As Vivian struggles to find a way to save herself, Wyatt suffers from Vietnam flashbacks, which are driven by snippets of audio from actual war demonstrations. He also rants about how he feels psychiatrists haven’t upheld their responsibilities to veterans. As Vivian determinedly sets out to protect herself from her latest captor, she must also find a way to maintain her own connection with reality, before she, too, descends into madness.
Bell began the conversation by revealing what elements of the protagonist and overall project that attracted her to play Vivian in the action crime movie. “There were several reasons why I wanted to be a part of the film. I wanted the chance to work with Mickey. Vivian also isn’t a victim, and that’s what spoke to me,” the Independent Spirit Award-nominated actress explained. “I also thought that the script defied all expectation.”
The performer further praised her character by saying, “This isn’t really a spoiler alert, because you can see it in the trailer, but when she throws that first punch, I was sold. What I loved about the script was it wasn’t a horror film for the sake of just putting people in scary situations.”
Bell also commended Keating for “writing a full character. You can see this girl fight for her life and problem solve. She fights through her fear and the elements in this scorching-hot desert, so that she can take the next step forward, and I love that about her.”
In addition to featuring creative stunts and physicality for a female protagonist who determinedly fights back against her tormentors, Bell also noted that she felt it was essential to include a developed backstory for the lead character. “I give all that credit to audiences now, as they’re so savvy and tuned in. They’ve seen it all, so you have to answer all of those (emotional) questions,” the actress emphasized.
“Also, one of the incredible things of working with Mickey is that he’s seen every movie ever made! So having seen all of those films, and knowing the genre so extensively, he knows how to break those rules, and make something completely new,” Bell divulged. “I think that’s what audiences will be completely surprised by when they go through this thrill ride of a film.”
Keating then chimed in on what inspired him to write such a unique horror and thriller story for ‘Carnage Park.’ “I really wanted this story to be an homage to crime and survival movies from the ’70s, like (director-producer) Robert Altman’s (1974 crime drama) ‘Thieves Like Us,’ which is flipped on its head by the end. It was really fun to be able to do that with this film,” the indie helmer admitted.
The genre filmmaker also discussed how in addition to writing the script for the thriller, he also directed ‘Carnage Park,’ like he has done with his previous four movies. “For me, as a filmmaker, writing and directing go hand-in-hand. I don’t know if I could necessarily direct someone else’s script, because they poured their own voice into the story. This is the way I have always worked, as I see filmmaking as two parts of a whole, through writing and directing” Keating admitted. “It’s great for me to be able to direct something I can break and toss out. If the actors have a better idea or things they want to do, there isn’t a third party saying, ‘Don’t touch my words.’ So I think I will always have a hand in the writing of every movie I make.”
The helmer then divulged why he decided to cast Bell as the female lead in the horror film. “I knew from the very beginning that this movie was going to star a badass lead. I thought Ashley was the only one who could do that, and she did it incredibly well. As soon as we had the money in the bank, I thought there was no one else besides Ashley who could play Vivian,” the filmmaker revealed.
“So I got a hold of her management, and sent them the script. I sat there and thought, there’s no way she’s going to do it! But then she wanted to read it, and everything aligned in the best way possible,” Keating also revealed. “I have been such a fan of the movies she’s been in that it was a pipe dream, in a way, but it worked out. So this was mostly a vehicle that I used to start working with Ashley!”
In addition to Bell, the helmer disclosed how the rest of the actors were cast in their respective roles. “I had interned at Glass Eye Pix after they shot the Ti West movie, ‘The Innkeepers.’ I was helping out on the post production while I was an intern there. So I watched the film a few times, and while I was watching Pat Healy, I thought, he’s so good!”
Keating laughed as he added, “Pat’s another one of those actors who I admire so much, but he has been in so much, I thought, there’s no way he’ll read this. But he did read it, and we sat down to talk and had such a great experience.”
Another actor that the filmmaker mentioned was Alan Ruck, “who had gotten the script on his own accord from a friend of a friend, I think. He received the script about a year-and-a-half before we even got the financing. After he read it, we sat down and he said, ‘I love it, and want to play the sheriff,'” Keating revealed. “I told him that I would figure out a way to raise the money and would let him play the sheriff. Once we did secure the financing, I called him and told him, ‘We’re ready to go.’ I think that’s pretty uncommon in Hollywood, so it was really nice to be able to do that.”
After Bell signed onto star in ‘Carnage Park,’ Keating noted that he “just got to sit back and watch Ashley work. The amazing thing about her is that she’s a true brilliant genius. So I felt lucky just to be able to watch her performance.”
As Bell then began discussing her process of connecting with Vivian’s mindset, before and during the production of the crime thriller, she revealed that she didn’t do much additional research besides reading Keating’s script. “For me, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage, as they say. This script was full of things to explore. I was lucky enough to be brought onto this movie about about a month-and-a-half before we began filming,” the performer revealed.
“What’s so rare now is the opportunity to do rehearsals, and that’s something that Mickey was big on. In rehearsing for this character, and having conversations, Vivian began to grow,” Bell explained. “A lot of that came from being able to meet with the rest of this phenomenal cast before filming began. So I was able to shake Pat Healy’s hand before we began shooting. It was fantastic to have that introduction on safe ground before we began to play.”
Further speaking of rehearsing with the rest of the cast, Bell added that “I love, and live by, it. If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to chance to have rehearsals, I take it. I come from more of a theater background, as I went to (the Tisch School of the Arts at) NYU, and I also performed on Broadway. Having the luxury of rehearsals allows you to find some really cool things, especially with a film like this.
“With a name like this, you know you’re in for a brutal ride. We filmed out in the desert in these different elements, which was crazy! There were bees and rattlesnakes and all of these different animals,” the thriller’s lead actress also admitted. She laughed as she added, “So getting all of the initial conversations out of the way before we got out there allowed our imaginations to embrace the script.”
Since the horror film takes place in the California desert, as Bell previously mentioned, the actress and filmmaker then further discussed the process of shooting the movie on location. Keating first explained that he enjoys shooting his films in real locations. “Part of the challenge, but also part of the excitement, in making a movie like this is that with the exception of murdering people, everything’s real,” he revealed. “I think that experience really added to the elements because that’s the way filmmakers would have a movie like this back in the ’70s, but they would have had twice the equipment that we had.
“I’d shoot a movie on location over being in an air-conditioned studio any day! But I don’t know if the rest of the crew agrees with me, but I think it was the best experience of everybody’s lives! But I believe filming on location added to the 1970’s authenticity that we were trying to capture,” the director also revealed.
Bell quickly jumped in and reaffirmed that she “had a blast! I love going away to film a project. It just makes the entire process so much more immersive.” Keating then garnered a laugh from the actress when he playfully added that he “loved that there wasn’t any cell phone reception, so no one could call for help!”
The performer then discussed her approach to her protagonist’s physicality, and the process of creating the stunts between Vivian, the bank robbers and the ex-military sniper. “It’s so much fun to have the opportunity to be physical, because it allows you to feel the toughness of the character. You can grow with her as she’s kicking ass and plummeting people with the back of shotguns,” Bell explained. “There was a phenomenal stunt team on set. When all of the stunts start happening, you just react, and it’s so much fun.”
Keating also embraced the action sequences that are featured in ‘Carnage Park,’ noting that “everyone was on board.” The physicality that was brought to the characters “was a testament to the performances. All of that stuff is really physical, but everything worked out. We tried to be as concise as possible.” The filmmaker added that most of the crime drama was storyboarded, “but on the day, we wanted to make sure that we had some sense that everything was running smoothly.”
He added that “When you have actors who are totally willing to immerse themselves into their characters, and throw themselves to the ground and then run through this unsafe terrain, it’s very exciting. It leads to something that looks incredibly more physical than the average thriller.”
With ‘Carnage Park’ paying homage to the overall visuals that were prevalent during the glory days of grindhouse cinema from the ’70s, Keating also discussed the process of creating the overall looks and costumes for all of the characters. “I really wanted there to be a certain level of authenticity. Whenever a film is set in a specific period, it has the danger of almost becoming a caricature of that time,” the filmmaker revealed.
Keating also noted that “In the desert, fashion doesn’t really catch up” as quickly as the rest of society. “We talked about there being a five-year delay. So everyone’s outfits are a little dated in the film. For example, I wanted Scorpion Joe to be dressed like Martin Sheen in ‘Badlands.’ I also wanted Vivian to have a dress that she would have made herself,” the directed explained.
“Then going forward, in the way that we shot and edited the film, we used the hallucinatory dissolves and experimental sequences that you see so often in films from the ’70s,” Keating added. “It was also important to me in the way that we colored the movie that it wasn’t dated, but it stood out in the way that we did everything. So a lot of conscious effort was put into all of that.”
Further speaking of the way the final version of the horror movie looks, the helmer noted that ‘Carnage Park’ is the fourth feature he worked on with cinematographer Mac Fisken. He laughed when he noted that “We’re almost like an old married couple at this point. In the previous movies we had worked on together, there were more handheld moments. But in this movie, we knew we only wanted to have those handheld moments in specific parts.”
So one of the biggest aspects that Keating focused on while making his latest film was “the storyboarding and scouting. We also really made sure that the landscape is constantly closing around Vivian. So we really took our time, and only shoot on a couple of lenses. I wanted to be very strict in the visual look of the film.”
In addition to the camera work, costumes and action sequences, the music in the thriller also enhances the imagery on screen. Keating then described the process of working with the sound department to determine which songs they could feature in the crime thriller as “both wonderful and terrible. Tracking down the rights to the songs was a challenge,” the filmmaker said with a laugh. “A lot of the songs were written during periods of turmoil in Thailand and Vietnam during the ’70s. But we knew from the very beginning that that was going to be the soundtrack we were going to use.
“Most of the songs you hear in the movie were either songs I had written or storyboarded to, and we also played that music on the set. That process is very important to me,” Keating revealed. “I think the problem that many indie films run into is that they’re not able to afford the music that they aspire to have. But with this movie, we were able to make it work, and I was very insistent on that. I think it was supposed to represent the psyche of Pat’s character, so it was a very intense effort to get all the music we wanted.”
Bell also spoke about the music that influenced the director and the thriller, and revealed that “Mickey had sent me the Thai and Vietnamese songs early on, and was hoping to use. When you hear the songs while you’re reading the script, it takes the story to a totally different place. I felt something from the beginning that there was something very special about this, and that’s the beautiful thing about working in this genre.”
In addition to discussing some of the challenges he had to overcome while finding and securing the right music to include in the horror film, Keating also spoke about the difficulties of making independent movies on a fast pace. As the director of ‘Carnage Park,’ he revealed that he thinks shooting films independently “is always a give and take. I think on every movie you make independently, there are things you can’t include, and you can only do if it was backed by a studio, and vice versa,” the filmmaker explained.
“I only make movies if they’ll make sense; we don’t shoot too far, and then pick up the pieces if the budget doesn’t pan out,” Keating also divulged. “So this movie was defined with the confines of making it independently, so I can’t really say if doing it differently would have been better or worse; it probably would have just been different.”
Bell added that she appreciates starring in independent films, because she can “break bounds and push things even further. You can dare to do things that you don’t need to have approval for from a committee. You can make something truly bold and original. That’s what everyone’s going to be surprised about when they see this.”
Keating then concluded the conversation by discussing the experience of bringing the crime thriller to the film festivals it has played at earlier this year. “It has been an amazing experience,” he revealed. He garnered a laugh from Bell as he added, “When I got the call that we had gotten into Sundance, I almost fainted in the street. It was the greatest honor in the entire world.”
The director also noted that “Especially with indie films, the festival experience is quickly dying and becoming a disposal thing. So to even go somewhere and have my movie play in front of an audience, who are there because they want to be there, is great, and you can’t ask for anything more. So I feel extremely grateful to everyone who’s seen the film at the festivals, as well as the festivals that have accepted us. It’s been a phenomenal experience.”
Watch ‘Carnage Park’s official trailer below.
Written by: Karen Benardello