Blog by: Dan Bush
What inspired you come up with the idea for the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
THE DARK RED is about a young woman named Sybil, who we first meet in a psych ward, where she is being held against her will. Sybil’s claims are extreme: She says that her newborn baby has been taken by a secret society in order to harvest its supernatural blood. She says the ancient bloodline has great powers — it lets you hear other people’s thoughts. She begs the doctors to let her go so she can rescue her child from the Dark Red dungeons.
I started this movie on a shoestring budget, with my own and few friends’ money, It began as a pretty simple sci-fi thriller in which I wanted to play a couple of games with the audience regarding what’s real and what isn’t.
Then 2016 happened. And we had a new president. And there was the women’s march. And the tone of the national conversation around women totally changed. And I had to react to that. I had to let it into the movie.
Also, while writing the movie my wife was pregnant with our first child. Our experience was traumatic. From the moment we entered into the standard western birth system and met our OBGYN, it felt like there was a clear and steady erosion of my wife’s power as a mother. Her control of her own pregnancy seemed to be constantly undermined. From the language used to the subtle expectations they had for us to constantly, aggressively and unnecessary monitor the unborn baby’s health – I realized that birth itself has become a cultural commodity. It is a massive industry designed to disempower mothers- to make them doubt their own ability– to create an environment of medical-dependence in the service of an authority figure. And eventually this erosion of power continues with more and more pressure all the way to the pitocin, the epidural and the c-section. Were we losing our minds? Was this a conspiracy?
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
It wasn’t until a few months after our son was born that I realized where the images in THE DARK RED were coming from, and how the experience of my wife’s first pregnancy and the birth of our baby informed this film.
See, originally I wanted to make the movie ambiguous with an unreliable narrator– I wanted to let Sybil build a complex narrative – as a mechanism d to cope with her trauma – and then I would turn my movie into that story. I would follow through on her version of events until the film, until, in its third act, the movie literally becomes her account – the “ending” she needs.
But the experience of having our first child during the 2016 election changed my mind. I decided to make it all as real as I could, so we could experience Sybil’s journey to motherhood with her.
I usually lean toward more ambiguity — in the hopes that there can be some transference of the conclusion to the viewer — so that the audience can actively make their own decision about what really happened. But in this case, I didn’t want to risk diminishing what our character, Sybil, was going through.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during production?
The most courageous decision was to spread the production across two years of filming. See more on that in the next question…
Were there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
We took lots of risks — structural — financial — production strategies — We had a big, complex story with a lot of locations and no money. There’s that saying, that you can make a movie “good, fast or cheap,” but you can only pick two of those options. We wanted it to be good and we knew it had to be cheap — so we decided to take our time. We shot the movie across two years in four “blocks” (with several pickups) over extended weekends. This “limitation” actually provided an opportunity for big character transformations and more production value. For example, our lead actress, April Billingsley, was able to physically transform from a shy and meek character to a bad-ass warrior. She was able to take 6 months and get ripped. Also, stretching the production also allowed us to shoot in different seasons — and you feel that expansiveness in the picture.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
THE DARK RED is a journey through several different perspectives. First, there is the objective level — in the therapy sessions — then there are the memories and flashbacks – -and finally, there is the experience inside the “dark red matrix”. Much of the movie is “a story told,” so, in the beginning, I wanted to contrast the objective and subjective modes with different camera styles — handheld camera and visceral flashbacks vs controlled and stable coverage in the therapy setting. Then, I wanted to create a visual style for the trippy, dreamlike state when our protagonist, Sybil Warren, drops into The Dark Red matrix. Inside the dark red she can move through time and space differently than the experience of normal consciousness. For this, I wanted an evolving style– from quick flashes (that exploit the audiences persistence of vision) to the fully immersive stream of the dark red matrix at the end of the movie.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
The risk of spreading out the production over more than a year caries huge risks obviously. For one thing, there is a huge danger that there will be a major loss of continuity in the movie. Availability changes a tone for people in the space of a couple of years. Also, our actors and key crew experienced a lot of life in those two years — major life changes — marriages, births, and funerals. But each time we returned for another block of THE DARK RED, it was like a family reunion.
The other risk of stretching the production out was not knowing the ending when we started. Because of major changes in the character’s looks over the course of the story, we knew we had to shoot somewhat chronologically. That afforded us a process where we could figure out what our movie was about as we went. We could react to different changes in the cultural landscape as well as respond to ideas that came out of the process of filming.
Also, frankly, THE DARK RED is a woman’s story — a strong and complex female lead — and I am a man. Telling her story was a huge risk — that I might miss something intrinsic to this character’s perspective. So — beyond my rich conversations and collaboration with April Billingsley, who played the main character, I leaned heavily on advice and perspectives from my keys, who were also women : Victoria K. Warren (Director of Photography), Jessica Joan Pinkstone (Production Designer), Karen Freed (Costume Designer), Elizabeth Davidovich (Stunt/Fight Choreographer) . Also my wife, Caroline Dieter, who was pregnant during much of the shoot.
All of us talked a lot on set and off, about questions of love, betrayal, rage, and motherhood.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screenwriting or film producing?
It’s all about perspective. Who’s perspective are you telling this story from? Which character’s point of view? Get in their head. Live in their circumstances. Find the TRUTH in those imaginary circumstances. All other elements (production design, camera, lighting, editing) spring from that.
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