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‘Darling’ Dir. Mickey Keating on Being Inspired by Classic Horror to Form Highly Stylized Nightmares

'Darling' Dir. Mickey Keating on Being Inspired by Classic Horror to Form Highly Stylized Nightmares

Channeling some of the most legendary masters of tension and
fright in cinema history, young auteur Mickey Keating takes an empty New
York house and a lonely young woman and molds these two seemingly traditional
tropes into a black-and-white nightmare. Plunging into the viewer’s sense with bone-shaking
atmospheric sounds and cohesively deranged editing, “Darling” shatters any
expectations and delivers an immersive experience of intimate horror. The film’s
star, Lauren Ashley Carter is an absolute revelation. Each scream, gesture, and
diabolically spoken line of dialogue compliments the elegantly designed frames
inspired by 1960s genre gems. Unsettling from its opening frame to its
unshakable horrifying conclusion, Keating’s minimalist creation is an alluring
and elegantly diabolical vision. An exquisite genre work to be counted among
the best horror films of the year.

“Darling” is now playing in NYC at the Village East Cinema and opens April 8 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema. 

Carlos Aguilar: I made the big mistake of
watching “Darling” at night.
It was absolutely terrifying. It took me by surprise, because its
very economical in its design, but its very powerful in the emotions that it
provokes. Tell me a little bit about the inception of the project and the films that you use as references or influences that inspired its visual aesthetics. 

Mickey Keating I think first and foremost its an homage to 1960s psychological horror movies with fractured narratives told with
untrustworthy protagonists. Films like “The Haunting,” “The Innocents,” “Repulsion,” “Diabolique,” “That Cold Day in the Park” by Robert Altman, which show a much more restrained, psychological
decent into madness. That’s what really inspired me to write this one. In
terms of composition and framing and camerawork, I turned towards a lot of Haneke
films and then also restrained Kubrick-ian and Hitchcock-ian type black-and-white horror movies. It was a great eclectic mix of all these insane,
beautiful works of art.

Aguilar: While writing “Darling,” were you certain from the start that you wanted it to be focused on a single character with a story that takes place in a single location and very economical
in its mechanics? 

Mickey Keating: Definitely. It was very important for me to have
this movie be this way because my two previous films were really about characters
that were playing off one another, really interacting, debating and fighting
one another, so with this film I wanted to be much quieter. I wanted to
focus on one single person predominately. From the very beginning it was this way. If we could have had no characters in the film we would have

Aguilar: Can you talk about your stylistic
decisions including choosing to make the film in black-and-white, the unique framing, and the evocative lighting? The film is definitely a departure from what we commonly see today in the horror genre. 

Mickey Keating: I think what was really important for me
with this movie was a certain level of restraint. Horror movies, especially indie horror movies, in the past 5 years,
have been nothing but hand-held footage and not necessarily about anything beyond
trying to capture this weird pathetic intensity and also jump scares. What I really wanted to try and do was push back and go in the complete
opposite direction of that. From the get go it was supposed to
be like this. The script’s not very long and it was all about, “OK, we’re going to try to make every shot a
painting.” We knew we were going to really fixate on how we could tell the story the best
way possible with the composition, which is a much more traditional approach in terms of classical filmmaking techniques. It was very satisfying to strip that back and really get back on the same page as
traditional audiences and not have to try to fool them with fake realism or
anything like that.

Aguilar: Editing is a crucial part of what makes “Darling” successful. You chose to use intercuts that can be perceived as flashbacks to what brought the character to this point or as premonitions of what’s yet to come. 

Mickey Keating: Absolutely. While
I was writing the movie, we were also watching a whole bunch of 1960s experimental
films. Even the works of John Schlesinger, like “Midnight Cowboy,” or especially that dream sequence in “The Exorcist.”There was this
really exciting notion back then that had this fluidity in editing. The editor is just as present as the
cinematographer or anyone else on the film. That’s what we kind of wanted
to do, create this almost liquid type of storytelling that’s very abrupt
and in a weird way upsetting. I think the goal was to make the
audience who endured the film really unsettled and uncomfortable and always on
edge. I feel like an exciting, effective horror film for me is a horror
film that I can never really see where anything is coming from. That’s
what we really tried with this one.

Aguilar: What builds the unsettling atmosphere in “Darling” is the fantastic sound work that enhances the imagery on screen. This is clearly of crucial importance in horror films but
sometimes it can be feel overused or on-the-nose. Not in this case. Tell me about the process of creating this other layer of emotion through sound. 

Mickey Keating: Definitely. Because the film takes place
mostly inside in the house, it was really important for me. Sound is a huge
passion of mine, sound design is one of my favorite things in the world, and I
think that it’s often underutilized. Going back to that idea of pure
naturalism, it just kind of exists in the space. What I wanted to do from
the very beginning of shooting was give each room, each floor, each kind of
location in the house its own sound and its own feeling, as if the house is its own being. Darling walks
throughout its body. When she gets up to the door on the top floor, that’s
like being in its brain and in the middle that’s like being in
its lungs. Every single area is set up differently. It’s really upsetting in
a way because it makes you very disturbed. Where we looked to for that was the video game “Silent Hill.” It has the greatest example of sound work in the
entire world because the majority of the first game, especially, is walking
around. There are very few monsters in that game, but you are so constantly
horrified and on edge because you can never anticipate what’s gonna come next
because that sound Is always moving, always liquid, and always changing. Very disturbing I feel.

Aguilar: “Darling” is also a period piece even though this is never specified or delved into. It’s a very noticeable quality of the film that coincides with the films that inspire you, but is not a definite factor in how we perceive the story. 

Mickey Keating: I think if we had decided to go full blown
1960’s black-and-white probably we would have been pushing it a little bit too far. I didn’t want tot make a movie that wouldn’t be
able to get an audience on all, or at least some level. My favorite thing I’ve ever read
about David Lynch is that his moves exist in a dream-time in a way. They’re
very heavy handed 1950s but clearly there’s some from the 80s. All these references make all of his films very anachronistic, and
that’s was my intention. While its definitely a
1960s type of horror film, we never explicitly say it. The fact that the world is all black-and-white and New York sounds very
strange in the film, it almost seems like it exists on another plane, or at least that was
my intention.

Aguilar: Tell me about your star, Lauren Ashley Carter, who is terrific and terrifying beyond belief. Her screams and her facial expressions are really hard to shake
off once the film is over. 

Mickey Keating: I knew Lauren because she was in my previous film, and
in my previous film she’s one of the victims. She screams, she’s terrified,
and so for this movie I wanted to flip that on its head. I wanted to cast
her again and see where else she, as an actor, could go. When
I was talking to her I referenced a lot of movies like “The Seventh Continent” by
Michael Haneke and we also talked about those old 1920s horror
movies where you see those violent screams that burn in your mind. She
totally took that and ran with it. It was very exciting to be able to bring
her on board. She’s definitely fantastic. It was also very exciting to be able to bring Sean Young on board as well as Brian Morvant, from my previous film, who plays the antagonist in the film. I wanted to
flip that again and have him play the victim in this one. It was really a
total world of friends making movies with friends, which is very satisfying.

Aguilar: Her character is sort of a blend between a victim and a
villain. She has this
sort of duality about her throughout the film, which that doesn’t let us know what
she really is until late in the film. 

Mickey Keating: Absolutely. That even goes back to southern gothic
literature or even a movie like “Taxi Driver.” When Travis
is doing the pushups and we see he has all these scars all up his back, we know he clearly has a very disturbed past, and yet somehow he’s still the protagonist. Travis
Bickle was always a big point of reference for that as well.

Aguilar: What would you say were some of the most difficult hurdles you had to overcome to make an independent horror film at this scale and with the particularities that “Darling” showcases? How difficult was it to get people on board with the project you envisioned? 

Mickey Keating: There are plenty. Its never
easy. I think that at all scales of movies there’s always stuff that’s very
difficult, stressful and horrible to deal with and that never really
changes. If you have enough money to solve anybody’s problem,
then clearly theres somebody who will charge that rate. It’s never quite easy.
I think the main challenge on a film like this was first and foremost that I wanted to
make a black-and-white movie. A lot of people, when I even mentioned it before I even shot it, would say, “Oh don’t do black-and-white because you can’t sell it.” Clearly that’s not the case, so it’s interesting. I feel like if I had
brought this to any other production company besides Glass Eye Pix it wouldn’t have happened. Nobody wants to be the guy saying, “Alright, lets make a black-and-white period
horror movie,”  but everyone wants
to come on board after the fact, which is very very frustrating to me in a lot
of ways. I think that’s one of the challenges, being able to step
back and say, “No, we’re going to find a way to make this. We’re
going to figure out something. No matter what anyone
says we’re going to make this movie this way.” Another challenge that
really kind of comes to mind was, shooting in New York City in November was not easy. It was raining and it was cold. I’m from Florida originally
and I live in California, so it was just a nightmare. But I think what’s
fortunate about these movies is that we make them for a price so we make the
movies that we are excited to make. Hopefully the right people that are drawn
to them are drawn to them and everybody is happy at the end of the day. Overall
it was a great experience.

 Aguilar: The constraints that come with independent filmmaking, whether these are financial or logistical, often force artists to elevate their creativity to new heights in order to find solutions. Of course having more money makes things easier. Creative freedom that comes with a reasonable budget would be ideal. 

Mickey Keating: Absolutely, there is a difference between committee
filmmaking and having an individual voice. For all these movies that we are
referencing and celebrating that used to be a no-brainer. You got a lot of
money and you could make something that was very personal. Now, the way that
the landscape of filmmaking has changed, every cent that you get that’s more
than $1 million comes with a great big asterisk. It was great to be able to do something
that was very personal. I had a great support system through Glass Eye Pix, they
were totally like, “Yeah, do your thing.” It was great.

Aguilar: How have audiences reacted to the film? There is, of course, a niche audiences that will probaly enjoy the elegant madness of the film. Has that been the case? 

Mickey Keating: In general in terms of the movies that I make, people are
either very rabidly passionate about them or rabidly hateful towards them
[Laughs]. The people who have been supportive of “Darling” have been very
vocally supportive. I feel like what’s so fun about a movie like this is that
in the first 30 seconds of it you are going to decide whether it’s a movie for
you or not. In a way that’s very exciting because people who have stayed on the roller-coaster and gone all the way through are very adamant about how they feel
and the emotions that it invoked. To me it just comes down to the fact that you
are creating a conversation with your audience. The more you can talk about it,
it’s a sign of an effective film and there have been a lot of conversations
about this one so far, which is very exciting.

Aguilar: This is a film that takes a seemingly peaceful locations and a passive character and turns those preconceived notions on their head. 

Mickey Keating: Definitely, We kind of approached the movie almost like a
drug trip using the chapters. I’m not use drugs guy, but I think you can see that
at the beginning there is this excitement and the further you get along down
the rabbit hole or down the drug trip it becomes more jarring and fractured,
and then by the last chapter it’s almost something like a hangover. It was very
exciting to try to tell that story that way.

 Aguilar: Seems like this is a busy year for you. What is the next frightening trip you are taking us on? 

Mickey Keating: I have another movie coming out soon called “Carnage Park” that we premiered at Sudnance and SXSW this year. It’ll be out in the summer. I also just wrapped another film called “Psychopaths,” which is an ensemble serial killers movie. It’s basically a whole bunch of stories about a whole bunch of serial killers over the course of one night in Los Angeles. This film’s sensibilities are a bit closer to “Darling’s” because “Carnage Park” is definitely a Sam Peckinpah-esque, Neo-Western, survival type movie. “Psychopaths” is much more of a psychedelic fever dream, which we are very excited to start showing people. 

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