By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Out today in select theaters and on VOD from Dark Sky Films, writer/director Justin P. Lange’s THE DARK puts a special, compelling and frightening spin on the undead genre. Read on for an exclusive chat with Lange and his star, Nadia Alexander.
In THE DARK, Alexander plays Mina, a resurrected and disfigured girl who lurks in a forest and kills those who trespass there. She’s not a simple, savage villain, however, but a damaged soul who may find redemption when she befriends a boy named Alex (Toby Nichols) who has also been victimized. (See our review of the movie here.) RUE MORGUE spoke with Lange and Alexander (who talks about her role as another scarred youth in this year’s BOARDING SCHOOL here) following THE DARK’s world premiere at this past spring’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Tell us about THE DARK’s origins as a short film.
JUSTIN P. LANGE: It wasn’t a direct short to feature, in the traditional sense. I was studying at the Columbia University grad film program, and I made a short called THE DARK that was my first foray into horror. I knew I wanted to make the feature already, so I used my thesis movie as a kind of testing ground. There were a lot of things I wanted to explore that I didn’t have the resources to do in the short film, so I shifted the kind of monster Mina is. It was a bit of a sketch that turned out to have a life on the festival circuit; it went to about 20 or 25 of them. It gave the producers confidence to buy the feature version and trust me to direct it, and it also gave me the confidence to feel like I could pull it off.
THE DARK is one of a few recent films that go very much against the grain of what people expect from zombie films. Was there any resistance to that when you were seeking backing for it?
JPL: Not really. The interesting thing is that executive producer Florian Krügel, is my best friend; we met at Columbia, and he was there from the beginning. He was the producer on the short, and was my sounding board throughout the process of writing the script. What happened was, an Austrian production company made kind of a package deal; they hired Florian to be a producer for them, and they also bought my script to be his first movie for them. So they were always aware of the way I was planning to make it, and there wasn’t a lot of resistance. They were on board from the beginning.
I didn’t necessarily pitch THE DARK as a zombie film; I never was thinking in those terms. When you think about horror, one of the big things is the mythology, the rules. You have to follow certain rules of the genre sometimes, so I tried to do that in certain iterations of this script. Then I would send it out to people, and they’d be like, “Yeah…I don’t really care about the rules stuff.” So then I just took that out, and they’d say, “Yeah, that’s better.”
One of the intriguing things about the film is the way Mina’s makeup changes as the movie goes on, indicating what’s happening to her. Can you talk about the conception and execution of that idea, and what it was like to wear it?
JPL: That came into the script later, I don’t remember when. It just kind of hit me at a certain point, and I fell in love with the idea. I believe somebody who read the script had a note like, “What do her hands feel like? Are her hands cold?” I thought, “Yeah, of course,” and then I had this visual of her with the Zippo on her hand, and it all blossomed from there; I really liked this redemptive idea.
The execution was…a nightmare [laughs]. Luckily, we had a fantastic 1st AD, Jeremy Doiron, and he just planned the crap out of this shoot. Every makeup change took two hours, and Toby was 14—he turned 15 while we were shooting—so we were limited in our hours with him, and the planning and preparation, in order to make this film achieveable, were paramount. It wasn’t like, “Well, if it rains, we can just run inside and shoot something else.” It had to be planned impeccably in order for us to pull it off. Now, as for the endurance part…
NADIA ALEXANDER: Oh, it was great! I loved it. I loved getting up at 5 in the morning…
JPL: I told her when I pitched the film that it’s a glamour role.
NA: I did it to look good! No, it was intense getting up every morning to sit in the chair for two hours to get stuff glued onto my face. But thankfully, we shot the film sort of in sequence. A couple of things we shot out of sequence, but for the most part, we followed the script so that the makeup got lesser as the shoot went on. There was just one day, maybe two, when we did the flashbacks and I got to keep my regular face. Those were my favorite days—rolling up to the set at 8 instead of 5, feeling good. It was a long process, but instrumental to feeling like I was Mina. That’s what worked so well, seeing the makeup on me and thinking, “Now I am the monster!”
Can you both talk about the process of keeping empathy for Mina, even though she does horrible things, sometimes to innocent people?
JPL: That was the driving force for me: I wanted to make a film where we’re with the monster, and she’s our protagonist. The thing that’s a little bit different is that I didn’t want this to be one of those films where the vampires or zombies lack agency about the things they do—you know, they do these awful things because they have to. Mina’s doing things as an emotional defense, but she has agency. Directing this film was like walking a tightrope; it was a constant challenge of not going too far in one way or the other with every single aspect, including the design of the makeup. I worked very closely with Zane Knisely from MastersFX, and then Marissa Clemence and Tara Brawley actually applied the prosthetics. Everything was planned to create the feeling that even though what Mina does is immoral, it also feels tragic, as opposed to, “Oh, this is a horrible character.” The shots were planned to make you feel that way, so that you never feel a distance from Mina; you’re always in her world and in her perspective. And then there’s Nadia’s performance, which is a brilliant balance of strength and rage, and then these dashes of vulnerability as you see the walls start to crumble down.
NA: I see the whole film as a metaphor for abuse, and the monsters that are born out of it. The reality is that—obviously there are some exceptions to this rule—but I would say most teen girls who are abused can cause pain to others. Not as far as murder, of course—some do, I’ve read some interesting Wikipedia articles—but for the most part, Mina’s attacks and killings are born from this pain of what made her the monster. Even though there are people who get trapped in that wake, the wake is still understandable.
And because it’s a zombie film, and it’s fantastical in that sense… It would be a different story if it was just a regular-looking girl killing a bunch of people. That would be harder for people to respond to like, “Oh, this is cool!” But because of the zombie lore, and what zombies are supposed to do, I think people are able to go, “OK, I understand it a bit more, and I understand the psychoses underneath the actions.” That was most important to me, to not just have her be a cold-blooded killer, but to realize that it comes from this horrible, traumatic abuse she suffered, and to tell a story about that. It was very important, and something I felt very responsible for and wanted to do with a gentle hand, and portray in a way that felt respectful but accurate.
The name Mina obviously has associations with DRACULA, so where do you feel THE DARK and Mina exist in the overall sphere of genre films and movie creatures?
JPL: I always like to do research on names when I’m thinking about characters, and it was so long ago that I found the name Mina, and one meaning of it that was like “protector,” and then another that was something like “angel.” There was this dichotomy that encapsulated the character for me, and I fell in love with the name. Where does it fit in? I don’t know; I hope it kind of stands on its own, and it’s not just another one of anything, you know?
NA: It sits in the middle of a bunch of different genres. What I loved about the script, what initially drew me to it, was that it was not just one thing. It’s got the horror stuff, it’s got the thriller stuff, it’s got the emotion and the drama and the friendship and the love and the character-driven aspects. That lovely hodgepodge situation is what is unique about THE DARK, and what audiences who are interested in seeing something different, that has not necessarily been done before, will hopefully enjoy. They’re probably the people who will gravitate toward it most, who are open-minded. As an audience member, I like to see stuff where I go, “Oh, I didn’t know that was going to happen, but that’s cool!” I enjoy those twists and turns and melding of different genres, because we’ve had them for so long; let’s start crossing over!