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On Set: Mickey Keating’s Psychological Creepfest “DARLING”

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Walking toward the Harlem townhouse serving as the key location of DARLING, your faithful Fango correspondent spots a couple of cops hanging around the front steps. It seems odd that such a small independent shoot would need this kind of security—and then it turns out that the uniformed lawmen are actually executive producer Larry Fessenden and his regular actor John Speredakos, making cameos in the movie.

For Fessenden, a longtime supporter of up-and-coming talent, DARLING (beginning its theatrical release tomorrow in New York and Toronto via Screen Media before moving on to other cities and VOD next week; go here for complete details, and see our review here) is the culmination of a professional relationship that goes back several years. “Mickey was an intern years ago at Glass Eye Pix,” he recalls, “and he was so enthusiastic, and I really took a liking to him. He was there around the time we were doing the STAKE LAND webisodes, and he was a great PA on those; every day, he was like, ‘This is my favorite day of my life.’ He just loves cinema, and I always kept in touch with him.

DARLINGSETVISIT2“I did a piece in his first film, RITUAL—actually, it was just a phone role, I did it through the door—and then I went up to Maine to be in [Keating’s second feature] POD,” continues Fessenden, pictured at right with Speredakos. “I like the way he works; he’s got a great relationship with his DP [Mac Fisken]. Then he called and said, ‘I want to do one in New York; will you guys support it?’ So I got Jenn Wexler [who’s producing with Keating and the latter’s longtime creative partner Sean Fowler] and Chris Skotchdopole [associate producer] involved, and we all teamed up to lend a hand. I’ll always want to work with Mickey; I think he’s a great filmmaker, and he’s only getting better.”

When we meet Keating inside the multistory apartment, he looks too young to be on his third feature as a director, though our conversation quickly reveals that love of the movies Fessenden referred to. A devotee of scary cinema of all types, he previously explored the supernatural in RITUAL and sci-fi terror in POD (which he discussed here), and DARLING sees him venturing down yet another avenue. “I wanted to do something a little more meditative and Polanski-esque,” he says, and DARLING certainly fits that bill. Lauren Ashley Carter, who previously starred in POD as well as JUG FACE and the upcoming THE MIND’S EYE, has the title role, a young woman who lands a caretaking job in the tastefully opulent building. She’s advised by her employer (Sean Young) about a bit of the place’s unpleasant history, and told not to enter one particular locked room.

Those are signposts of what’s to come: Darling’s slow descent into madness, an intentional change of pace from Carter’s POD role that Keating wrote specifically for the actress. “I’m very good friends with Lauren, and I really liked what she did in POD, and how we worked together,” he says. “I thought it would be cool to create a totally different part for her, so what I wanted to set up was the idea that you were going to watch this kind of ’60s-style haunting movie, and then pull a switch on the audience. That was very intriguing to me, and I wanted to take Lauren from being the victim in my last film to playing someone slowly going insane in this one.”

Carter uses her big, expressive eyes, which served her so well in her ingenue roles in POD and JUG FACE, to palpably express Darling’s many levels of psychological vulnerability and mania. As Fango watches (sometimes on monitors displaying the images in black and white, as they will be in the movie), she creeps through the townhouse’s stairwells and out onto a balcony, very much appearing to be not quite in her own head. “She looks very sweet, but she’s…not,” Carter, who’s also an executive producer on DARLING, laughs. “She’s got some demons, for sure. She’s a nomad; she doesn’t come from any family that she makes anyone aware of, and she goes from place to place working as a caretaker or a nanny.

“The cool thing about this film,” she continues, “is that even though I’m in almost every frame, the house is such a character. And as an actress, I have to let the house be part of the performance, and use everything around me. I’ve been staying in this place by myself, and every so often I have to get out of the crazy house for a little while.”

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Carter actually discovered this perfect setting for Darling’s descent. Keating had originally conceived DARLING to take place in a smaller apartment, but when a friend of the actress who had recently moved into the townhouse offered it as a location, he rewrote the screenplay to take advantage of its expanded opportunities for atmosphere, adding Young’s role in the process. Wexler notes that the greater space has been a boon to the production as well. “It’s awesome; this house is gorgeous, and it fits Mickey’s vision perfectly, and it’s also nice to be [filming almost entirely] in one place,” she says. “I was telling someone before that our company move is, like, ‘Let’s go across the hallway now.’ [Laughs]

“We’re flying through our days,” she continues. “It’s great, because it’s a very small group of filmmakers, and everybody’s really close. Mickey and his DP have worked together before, and they can kind of read each other’s minds.”

“That kid’s a genius,” Keating says of Fisken, noting that “just to be safe, and to appease our financiers, DARLING is being shot in color and will be post-converted. But I love black and white, and it’s really cool that you have filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Ben Wheatley coming out with beautiful movies shot that way now. This movie was born in my brain as black-and-white, and I feel like I’d be betraying that sensibility if it was released in color.”

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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