An Interview with Darlin’ Writer/Director/Star Pollyanna McIntosh ( @PollyAMcIntosh )

As Darlin gets ready for its showing at this years Grimmfest, and I get ready to see Darlin, and hopefully get my own chance to meet the films writer, director and star Pollyanna McIntosh at the event, hers courtesy of Pollyanna and Grimmfest, comes this wonderfully interesting interview with Pollyanna. Enjoy! I hope to see you at Grimmfest this October.

An Interview with Darlin’ Writer/Director/Star Pollyanna McIntosh

For your directorial debut, you’ve not only directed a sequel to a beloved cult film, but also made a sequel that’s ambitiously and distinctly different from its predecessor. What was it about Darlin’ that made you feel that it was the right project for you to finally step behind
the camera?

Essentially I was offered to write and direct my first feature with a producer I knew well and knew would get the finished film out there, so I saw it as a great opportunity to put my heart and soul into a story that I thought might affect in an inspiring and thought-provoking way. The horror genre, because of the stakes, encourages a great deal of commitment from its audience and allows them to be vulnerable emotionally. So you can really affect an audience and I was excited by this prospect, especially as a continuum to a film I loved and respected such as The Woman. As a fan of the film I was excited to offer audiences the next chapter—hell, I wanted to see it.

Once I hit on some issues that I felt warranted more exposure and consideration and had found them woven through a story I wanted to tell with the film-worthy character of Darlin’ after 10 years in the woods with The Woman, I really got excited with the casting prospects and my look for the film. The genre is also very freeing visually and creatively, as is Andrew van den Houten as a producer, so it was a natural fit for me. I was lucky enough to be included in the process of making The Woman beyond just playing the lead, partly because Lucky sent me the script in process four months before shooting for feedback and continued to ask for my take on its process in building up to the shoot. And partly because once on set, I made it my business to understand every department’s work in the piece.

That film and that character live in my bones, so when producer Andrew van den Houten was looking for the right director for the sequel, he came to me and I could see what a natural way for me to use what I already knew and to take on a whole new challenge amongst film family this could be. I knew this character of The Woman from Jack Ketchum’s novel Offspring in which she first appears to the film we made of that novel, that Andrew had directed, to the world Ketchum and McKee created in The Woman and onwards inside my own head where I knew her from the inside out. Andrew knew I was starting to direct; he likes working with people who are good-humored and can hack the indie challenges and I think he also knew that bringing a woman to the table would provide the nuance and female gaze that a sequel at this time would ask for. We have known each other a long time; since he cast me in his first feature, Headspace, in 2002, he always felt I should direct because I was always coming at him with ideas or asking questions of him about the process.

Headspace was my first film in the U.S. so that was my first American set experience and I bugged Andrew constantly with questions. I knew he had faith in me and that he gave creative space to directors with confidence and that was a major reason I said yes to writing and directing Darlin’ after many years on sets together. I wanted to ensure I had the capacity to really make the story my own, to personalize it so I could
get fully invested in what I knew would be a couple of years of my life so I asked if I could write it too and he was brave enough to give me the chance to prove myself. As well as directing and producing theatre I had co-written a crime drama called Reciprocal Beat and I had written and directed a 35-minute dark comedy short called Perfect, which, though a very different style of film to Darlin’, meant I knew I was capable of stepping up to the challenge of directing a feature. I have so much respect for what Lucky did with The Woman that following it was something to reckon with. How could I make my writing/directorial feature debut knowing it would be compared to something I could not emulate and didn’t want to copy in any way?

I found the answer in landing on a storyline that engrossed me, served The Woman well but focused on the teenage Darlin’ at a crossroads in her life. Once I hit on this very different world from The Woman which still utilized feral nature and overreaching societal themes plus intense character study I was satisfied to pitch my concept.  Once it was approved and as I wrote, odes to The Woman kept popping up, which means though the film is a standalone, there are plenty of callbacks to The Woman for keen fan eyes to find in Darlin’.

Of all the characters you’ve played, what makes “The Woman” stand out? And what made you want to explore her story even more with Darlin’?

The Woman is a totally uncompromising character but she has always showed promise of adaptation and nuance in her view of humanity if not in her propensity for eating them. She’s also that rare thing, a horror anti-hero in female form. At first she may seem a limiting character for sequels as she is mostly silent, when she does speak it is in her own language and she is wholly animal and conspicuous in how she looks. However, she exists as the animal in all of us to me and this is why I wanted to put a mirror up to us and to her through Darlin’. To put her mothering of Darlin’ into play whilst placing Darlin’ in “girls world” and also include her want to expand her clan and, what she has always done, to survive. It’s really fun to think of new ways for her to kill and new prey too. I knew I could have some fun with that.

Were there any specific challenges you faced while both writing and directing Darlin’ that stand out in hindsight? And if so, how did you confront and conquer those challenges?

It’s always a challenge in indie filmmaking because amazing film crews keep being pushed to do the impossible…and they pull it off! I’d love to be able to say that everyone had the time and resources on this film but they didn’t and we still loved making it and we’re very proud of what we achieved here. I think one of the most appealing things about the process of filmmaking to me is that a group of talents come together and bust their asses to make a vision come to life. We were all in it together on Darlin’. A nicer cast and crew would be hard to find. Just standout and stand-up respect and a sense of fun even on the late nights. Thank god. It’s an insane undertaking making an indie feature. I think the best way to conquer it is to come as prepared as possible and to be able to adapt on the fly and be a solution based leader. I was pretty exacting about what I wanted but I had a very smart DP, Halyna Hutchins, who I had enjoyed my prep with and we had references through many conversations and sharing of looks so it was always very clear what I was going for and her commitment to the beauty of it was moving. A huge challenge of Darlin’ was set dressing and building because the weather in Louisiana was messing with us plenty so the locations would often change order leaving the art team under great pressure. Our art director Darryl Gariglio and his team were literally The Dream Team and our production designer Jeff Subik is so inventive and talented and ran the department with incredible grace but they created miracles with their work on Darlin’. I think
they knew how important their work was and having lead the art team for a while in preproduction they felt very invested in the detail they understood from our conversations. I think the key to helping the crew do their best is respect and I hope I was able to show that to my crew. It was immensely moving to see what was in my head come to life through their painstaking commitment to the film.

Being that The Woman was directed and co-written by Lucky McKee, did you have any discussions with Lucky prior to writing Darlin’ as a way to further explore the characters of The Woman and Darlin’ as he and the late Jack Ketchum envisioned them?

Lucky is a great friend and it meant the world to me that both he and Dallas (Jack Ketchum) supported me in my bringing the next chapter of The Woman’s journey to life through Darlin’. Neither of them wanted to influence what I made but both offered to read anything or talk about anything if I chose to. Dallas was a great supporter of writers and he had encouraged me to write long ago. I was proud when he liked the script and I was proud when he grinned through his visit to set. He started all this and I was so glad he knew it was continuing. When Lucky read my first draft his only note, after much pushing for a note from me was “I’d like to see more of The Woman,” and though I always knew he was there if I wanted to bounce ideas off him, the only other input he gave me regarding set was “stay close to your actors when they’re working,” and after the first edit to “cut out everything but Darlin’s story then build the rest around it again. Just as an experiment.” He gives great advice. Rare and much appreciated
when offered.

Whereas The Woman dealt heavily with gender dynamics in an intimate setting, Darlin’ opens the narrative up to also grapple with religion and faith. During the writing process, what led to your decision to expand the story’s scope in that way?

I think I’ve always had a fascination of the obsession with “goodness” and “appealing-ness” that the female gender is saddled with as early on as when they’re little girls and long beyond. I find it limiting and manipulative, pervasive and grotesque yet still affecting, even for a grown ass feminist. I think that theme will be present throughout my work. Religion was all around me as a child too and served my world view before I was grown. Portugal and Colombia are both Catholic countries where I was raised, so in going into the head of Darlin’ having been raised until the age of 5 in a traditional, conservative family then experiencing the loss of both parents and her siblings and being raised by a feral cannibal, how might she feel if she were to have the idea of God and goodness raised again now when in crisis? I was researching feral children and I found this story of a Western priest in India who had claimed to have found feral girl sisters in the woods. It turned out that the girls had special needs
and he was using them in a lie. I began to imagine why he would do that and figured it must have been for fame or for money for his church. This was the seed that lead me to have Darlin’ “discovered” by The Bishop and thus discuss the hypocrisy of the church. I also read a statistic
that one in six Americans are treated in a Catholic Church run hospital without knowing it which means they would be unaware that the hospital’s rules being different from other hospitals in their states. I am all for separation of church and state but it seems America is not truly built that
way. The abuse of power of major religions in their treatment of children and their refusal to protect them is something that upsets me deeply so I saw an opportunity to trace that horrific trauma into a horror film in the perfect place for a “fish out of water with a problem” setting for
feral Darlin’.

One common thread between The Woman and Darlin’ is the focus on strained family dynamics. In your film, it’s specifically about this unique and deeply complicated mother/daughter relationship of sorts. What interested you specifically about the dynamic
between The Woman and Darlin’ at this stage of the latter’s life?

Characters are compelling when they want something very strongly. I wanted Darlin’ and The Woman to find themselves at a place in their relationship where what each wants is in direct conflict. There’s usually a point when a child’s path doesn’t suit the parent’s path laid out for them. I knew that in order to survive in the wild Darlin’ would have had to do as she was told by The Woman. It interested me to bring Darlin’ to a point of rebellion at the very moment The Woman needs her the most. The usurping of power is a dynamic that happens a lot in the film
and the strain over what is expected and what is denied of each party shifts accordingly. As animals, hierarchy for food or sex and the fight for it is very much in plain sight but in modern society it is more underhanded and hierarchy serves power beyond basic needs and with a
greater, quieter violence. A mother can parent but so can a church, a government, an institution and for different reasons. The Woman is a ferocious killer but she is trying to feed Darlin’ for life so is she better for her or worse than others who try to influence Darlin’? Creating a bond
between Darlin’ and The Woman then wrenching them apart for them to survive without each other and find substitutes for what they brought to each other and what they were missing was a good start for me.

Your film’s lead, Lauryn Canny, is a relative newcomer but gives an excellent performance in such a complicated role. Was it difficult to find your “Darlin’”? And what was it about Lauryn Canny that led you to casting her?

I had originally cast the phenomenally talented and lovely Annalise Basso as Darlin’ but her commitments weren’t going to allow us to stick to our schedule. I couldn’t imagine another Darlin’ but this was where we were, so we engaged David Guglielmo to help us find her. She had to be red-headed, convincingly 17 and feral, and then go through an almost silent transformation of the deepest kind. She also had to be able to lead a film and work hard and fast. The film hung on the right girl, an undeniable talent with the right attitude to work. David took up the challenge and sent me an array of tapes and pictures of possible Darlin’s. There was a lot of talent there.

At the casting office, waiting for the first round of young actors to show up and show their stuff, Lauryn was the first to arrive. I saw a pale, beautiful, gangly lass outside through the glass wondering how the hell to get in, a situation I’d found myself in ten minutes earlier, and so I opened the door for her. In the five minutes we chatted, I found her disarmingly natural, honest, funny and confident I wanted her to be the one already. I saw the fire she had when she auditioned. She was absolutely brilliant in the room; taken over, fierce, moving, vulnerable, intense and entirely focused on fee back between scenes. Once she was done with her amazing display of talent, she snapped back to a self-deprecating comfortable Irish girl who’s raised siblings and smokes with the boys.

We saw many more young women for the role but it was Lauryn I wanted. The producers approved her after a call-back and we set to work together. She was not only impeccably committed in the role but a delight to everyone she worked with. She’s funny as all hell too. I have no doubt Lauryn could conquer anything she puts her mind to and it’s been my privilege to direct her in her first leading role. She will go on to amaze again and again, I’m sure.

Through Lauryn’s performance, Darlin’ feels as much like a coming-of-age story as it does a visceral horror film. How did you approach striking that narrative and tonal balance?

It was very important to me that her role was not exploitative, that the gaze was much her own. This felt right not only to give heart and soul to the audiences’ experience but to raise the stakes for the visceral dangers in the film. The coming-of-age aspect comes from staying in Darlin’ perspective for most of the film whilst showing how that perspective is raised through the actions and beliefs of other characters. There is only one moment in the film where she is objectified and it is at the point that we are forced into The Bishop’s experience of her. I hope it’s an uncomfortable moment because it should be. Every character in Darlin’ expresses the rage, reassurance or blindness of another character at some point in the film too. I felt this the best way to bring in the audience for a multi-pronged and empathetic experience of life then grab them by their guts in the murderous parts of the film. I also wanted to upset the apple cart of tension or loneliness with humor to invest them further in and to layer the life of the film with absurdity because that’s how I see the world. I think I’d describe Darlin’s tone as three parts kitchen sink and one part killer garbage disposal.

For you, what is it about the horror genre that makes it such a compelling way to tell stories and shape characters?

It really feels endless with possibilities. With stakes so high, the audience engagement is intense and it’s such fun for a filmmaker to be so affecting. I love the new wave of social issue horror of late and of wit in horror and women in horror. I love films like Nina Forever, Sightseers, Prevenge, and Get Out, and they all come from the same place: the appreciation that horror can be very personal and very wide-reaching all at once. I think new perspectives in the genre are so exciting right now.

Lastly, what do you hope that audiences take away from the experience of watching Darlin’?

I hope they’ll feel they’ve been experiencing life through different eyes for a while. And I hope they’ll feel like being a wee bit nicer. And I hope they lose their fear of clowns. Because those fuckers are everywhere.

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