FrightFest 2019 Interviews

FrightFest Interview: ‘The Dark Red’ Director Dan Bush and Star April Billingsley

One of the most well received and reviewed films of Fright Fest was Dan Bush’s dark thriller The Dark Red. Centred on a young woman, desperate to find her child she believes has been kidnapped, the film deal with mental health and trusting yourself and believing your own story. I had the pleasure to sit down with director Dan Bush and star April Billingsley to talk about making the film and portraying mental health while the film was playing for the lucky festival goers.

 


Can you just tell a little bit about how the film started?

Dan Bush:
At the risk of repeating myself, often a strategy of mine as an independent filmmaker is when I have a movie that’s in development, I call it development hell. Trying to get agents to get certain actors attached, you can justify whatever budget to get that and that’s a process that can get caught up forever. The movie could take 10 years and never happen or whatever. My instinct is to go take whatever means I have, by any means necessary with the people that I know and trust, the most creative people I can find. And just go ahead and start making another movie, telling another story. And solving the problems that come with limitation, which typically make you more creative, that less creative limitations to tend to help you in your creativity. And to embrace that and to grab your friends and your talent the people who are the most talented that you see around you and make start making a movie. So that’s how it started.

 

How was the casting process and how did April get involved?

April Billingsley:
We knew each other sort of through our friend group, and whatnot. And he held auditions, he asked me to come.

Dan Bush:
But the truth is before she gave the audition, I was already eyeing April. This is weird, I don’t think I’ve ever told you this. But I was thinking about the movie and I was writing it at the time. And I had passed out one night after writing and I woke up in the morning and for some reason the name April Billingsley was in my head. This is true. And I was like “How do I know April Billingsley?” And then I remembered that I met you at Joshua’s party. And I started asking around, because I only talked to you briefly. So I invited you to come audition. And then she showed up at the audition, completely in character looking like… you had this bruise on your eye. She looked she had been through a war.

April Billingsley:
It was totally freaked me out when it happened. But my eye had blood in it, it was crazy looking. But I was like, whatever it works for the same.

 

I’m sure that helped more than anything!

Dan Bush:
She showed up to the point where I was afraid to ask her if she wanted water because I thought she might know you were just so in it. You were prepared. So I knew before we even audition, you were in it.

 

Another performance I was impressed by was Rhoda Griffis’, how did she get involved? Did she audition as well?

Dan Bush:
I had seen her in another movie that a friend of mine made called Congratulations. Her and John Curran had been in that film, and she had a small supporting role and in that very interesting, absurdist movie that my friend made. And she just was stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her and I wanted to work with her badly. So I asked her if she would come up. So what have you seen her in?

 

I didn’t recognize her, but the scene that really got me was when you guys get to the house. And her laugh is kind of over everything. And it just really creeped me out.

April Billingsley:
She is a wonderful actress. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s just a really nice human being.

 

Creepy though!

Dan Bush:
She does that well!

April Billingsley:
Another thing I saw her in recently, something where she was really mean, like she just had one line. But it was like one of those like, you just totally believer is like, I don’t know, rich Southern lady are

 

Rhoda Griffis in The Dark Red

 

A lot of the film especially in the first part of it, rely on your dynamic with Kelsey Scott, in those therapy session scenes. So what kind of rehearsals did you do for that?

Dan Bush:
(looks at April) You showed up the day before and you just ran lines together?

April Billingsley:
It was a lot of lines. We shot all of that in two days.

Dan Bush:
I wanted them to be off the hook. I wanted them to be guns loaded, so that we didn’t have to call cut, if we didn’t want. So we would shoot sometimes for 10 minutes before we called cut, like a stage play. Because I just wanted them to really feed off of each other the whole time.

April Billingsley:
We knew each other previously. We were actually looking for that character. And I knew Kelsey from Florida State University. I just thought she’d be great for it and reach out to her and she nailed the audition. And we’re actually really grateful that she came in, she booked this really big role. Almost wasn’t able to do this, because this was an indie movie. And this other role was a giant, big TV show for recurring role.

 

Dan, did you give them a lot of notes during the filming of those scenes?

Dan Bush:
I don’t believe I did, I maybe wanted some things clarified in different ways, or I would push them to battle each other more. But for the most part, we had so many discussions about what would you say, I think we have enough conversation going into it that I wasn’t really directing much. I was really just capturing.

April Billingsley:
I think Dan’s really an actor’s director. And you can have a very skillful touch, and how and when to say things to sort of bring out your best.

 

April, your role is also very emotional, but also very physical, you even get a training montage, which I was so happy to see!

April Billingsley:
I know! Thank you!

 

How do you prepare for a role that’s so much both? It’s not just an emotional role, but also the physicality of it.

April Billingsley:
It’s funny, Iworked out and been into hiking or rock climbing or whatever, my whole life. So I was excited about the physical parts of it. And we actually took a break before filming that last section, where I had time with our stunt coordinator on the film. Phenomenal lady, she helped me train and helped me get in shape for it. And I just had so much fun with that part of it. But the emotional part, certainly, I’m drawn to that, because it’s a challenge and kind of part of it. You feel deeply and you want to get excited about those challenges, although sometimes it is difficult, but I get excited about it

 

What was it that you could relate to most about your character, Sybil?

Dan Bush:
You can set yourself in a different set of circumstances.

April Billingsley:
I love getting to play strong women who stand up for themselves, fight, who don’t just accept their circumstances.I always thought I was raised to believe that I can do and be whatever I wanted to be. At the same time, I recognize there’s limitations. I was never as fast or as good at sports as my brother. It was always if you want to play sports, play sports, if you want to do any job that would normally be a man’s job, do that. I get delighted by roles that are three dimensional women, where it shows their femininity, but also embraces their strength and showcases what they’re saying. It’s a sense of the femininity of being vulnerable. But being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak, right?

 

It’s great character in that sense, because the first half of the film, it’s almost this mystery of is it real? Have they taken a baby or is the baby dead? But then it morphs into this revenge story. And I was really sort of fascinated by the structure. The Signal in 2007, it’s also told from three different perspectives. And I was just wondering, is this something that you’re fascinated by as a filmmaker, experimenting with the construction? And why?

Dan Bush:
Yeah, it’s probably been, commercially speaking, the worst career choices of my life, but all my movies, I’m always bending genres. I’m always looking at ways to play with structure. And I’m always interested in shifting perspectives. With The Signal, we wanted to do like a Rashomon effect. And that was not just me, that was Dave Bruckner and Jacob Gentry. And it was three of us working really hard to try to produce that. The Reconstruction Of William Zero, another movie I made, is about cloning. If you think about this, the idea of a film structure, which is based in catharsis, the idea of catharsis, which is identifying with the character, the character goes through a transformation, and then the audience receive some sort of benefit from having incident proximity, go through that as well. So if you’re playing with clones, you got several different, you know, so I’m trying to sounds like, Okay, how do I transfer that catharsis from character to character to character and have it stick? In other words, what is the protagonist to begin with? So I blew up the whole idea of what is a protagonist from the beginning, which was a very risky thing to do, because I didn’t even know what I was doing with that and trying to figure it out. And with this, it’s really three different genres. There’s a love story, a dramatic section to it, there’s a full-on horror aspect, and then there’s a revenge thriller. But I guess the only way to get through that was to follow your main characters, to stick with them. We saw her perspective throughout the movie changing. I wanted the audience to be aligned with her perspective, I wanted the audience be in the room with her, having the flashbacks with her, battling to get out of the hospital with her, going on a revenge spree with her.

 

 

When I was watching it and Sybil has a breakdown at the hospital, I thought that was the end of the movie and I was surprised I was only half way through. How was the editing process, because the narrative is so fractured?

Dan Bush:
It was fun. We restructured the whole movie, because we shot it in blocks over time, it took literally almost two years to make the movie. So we knew that we need to shoot off the flashback stuff first, just give us a linear perspective. And then we shot the therapy sessions in another block, which was a different mode, and we shot a little bit later. And then we took like six months off, so that April can get physically fit, cut for the role and train. So that when we cut back to her, from the end of that therapy session to beginning of act three, her eyes had to look different everything about her had to feel different. So it’s delightful to be able to get together and to be able to move around. Because it’s a story within a story. It’s a story told, so I have the luxury of either staying in the therapy session, or showing people the story that she was telling. That’s just so much fun. It’s almost it’s like you get away with a voiceover without it being a voiceover.

 

And you wrote the script with Conal Byrne. I’m always really fascinated when there’s more than one writer. So how did you two work? Who writes what?

Dan Bush:
Conal and I haven written several movies together and our process is different. With other writers I’ve written in the same room with them, like they’ll get a board out and figure it all out. But with with him, it’s more like, we’ll put all the pieces together, and we’ll talk about it. And then I’ll write the first draft of whatever scene all throughout and he’ll cut all of it. rewrite it and throw it back to me. And we’ve gotten to a point with each other where I’ll put all my shit back in there. We’ve got no other words, there are no hard feelings. We’re smart about challenging each other. Why are you sticking to this, why you have to fight for it. And whatever is the smartest argument that proves out why it has to be in there. There’s a lot of scenes in the movie that we cut, we have a lot of stuff showing how she is able to afford her life and activity and a lot of stuff showing her practicing her powers and all these wonderful things. They weren’t specific to the actual story of getting her baby back. And we had to make the hardest decision in the world, which is to cut them, because they’re cool scenes. Writing with Conal, it’s just a trust.

 

When you were writing, did you already know that he was going to play the man, David?

Dan Bush:
He’s a really fantastic actor. So I was looking for a role for him. In (The Reconstruction of) William Zero he played all three clowns. He’s just a really fun actor, he’s really good.

 

His character is quite tragic as well. Was that something that you felt was really important to the narrative, to keep that sort of complexity there?

Dan Bush:
Yes, I always wanted him to be complex.

 

The film also deals with mental health. So what kind of conversations did you have about that aspect of the film?

Dan Bush:
We did some research into different forms of mental health that might apply, and there are some some facts, some stats that we actually put in the movie, like a lot of people who were born in winter have a higher chance of showing signs of schizophrenia. But beyond that, my thinking was always it doesn’t matter if she’s schizophrenic or not, these are real experiences for her. Whether they happen or not, it doesn’t matter. They’re real for her, because she needs to go through the experience, she needs to find a resolution, whether they happen or not. Because for her, they’re just as real as anything else would be. So I was more interested in what her perspective was. And I was in whether or not she was actually crazy.

April Billingsley:
I did research as well looking up her mental illnesses and speaking to people about them and whatnot. But at the end of the day for Sybil, it’s exactly what Dan said. She believes everything. It’s just all real for her. There’s no question in Sybil’s mind. Ever.

Dan Bush:
There was a bit of a question there. Or were you just fooling us the whole time? Did you ever as an actress question it?

April Billingsley:
In the therapy sessions, there were definitely times, because I think that’s going to happen to you in life, the gaslighting effect of everybody is telling you that what you’re saying is wrong. Even if you know it’s right. Or you know, it’s true, you start to question it. I definitely think that she had that come up.

Dan Bush:
Sybil chooses to believe her own story, which is nothing short of heroic.

 

I think it’s brilliant. Because during those therapy sessions scenes, as an audience member, you don’t know what is the truth. It could literally be either way, but then you’re not cheated out of the narrative by the end. I really enjoyed that. The film is playing as we speak, what do you want people to take away from it?

April Billingsley:
I always wish that anything I do affects people and that they think about it and they continue to think about it. For me, I don’t know that there’s any particular issue or thing here.

Dan Bush:
What you took away from it. I want the people will have that same experience of going “Oh, right. So it’s more about what she believes in”. In the beginning, the doctor says “Don’t worry about what I believe or don’t believe, tell me.” When I do a movie, that’s the only thing that matters. I feel like we’re up against a lot of forces right now that are going to sway us in general, the media and things that we’re led to believe. I’m not a huge conspiracy theorist, but there are things that are definitely pushing our attitudes, opinions and our belief systems and these things are surrounding us. And the messaging is always there. And I just want people to think for themselves. I don’t know if they’ll get that from this movie and walk away from it going, you know what, I’m going believe all my own bullshit. But I want people to walk away going my trust for myself is probably the most important thing.

April Billingsley:
I have something I want people to take away from it. I’d love for women to watch the movie, to come away from it feeling like they can fight, even if they’re put in any kind of circumstance in life, that is less than ideal.

 

Absolutely. Thank you April and Dan!

 

 

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