Tribeca 2018: Nadia Alexander and director Justin P. Lange on ‘The Dark’ | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Nadia Alexander with Toby Nichols in 'The Dark'

Tribeca 2018: Nadia Alexander and director Justin P. Lange on ‘The Dark’

May 02, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Undead Mina (Nadia Alexander) haunts the forest around her childhood home. A traumatic past has turned her into a bloodthirsty monster, able to do nothing but kill – that is, until a blind boy her age (Toby Nichols) stumbles onto her hunting grounds while coping with a dark ordeal all his own. The two need each other in this moment more than they could ever know, and the new friendship ignites in Mina a compassion that has lied dormant since she counted herself among the living.

This violent fairy tale is the debut feature from writer-director Justin P. Lange. The Dark is Nadia Alexander’s return to Tribeca after winning the Best Actress award at last year’s festival for Blame, from filmmaker Quinn Shepard. We spoke to the filmmaker and actress at this year’s festival, where it premiered as part of the Midnight slate.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Last year you took home Tribeca’s Best Actress award for Blame. Did you see a spike in people contacting you about roles after that happened?

Nadia Alexander: Yeah! First of all, Blame was the first lead role that anyone had seen me in. I’d done leads in pilots which had never gotten picked up, but that was my only kind of taste of what a lead role would feel like. But Blame came out and people saw it, and so to get that award out the gate -- technically I’ve been doing this for ten years, but you know what I mean – and have that kind of validation was priceless. Even if everybody is like, “Who are you?” for the rest of my life, just to have that experience was really special to me.

But yeah, it totally changed the game a lot. It really helped people see me in a different light, which was great. I don’t think awards are necessarily the only way to rate talent, but I do think it made a big difference for casting directors and directors. They can go, “Oh, she won? That’s an impressive thing to do!” So I definitely think it sort of announced me in a very nice way. It’s no longer, “Here’s this garbage person, watch her act.” Now it’s, “Here’s this cool person, she won something, watch her act.” It really was quite wonderful.

Would you mind pitching this movie to me, as if I hadn’t seen it?

Justin P. Lange: Oh, man. That’s always been a hard thing for me to do. People will ask me, “Okay, give me your logline.” And I’d go, “Hold on, let me look at what my website says.” I mean, it’s a movie about two kids who were robbed of the chance to be kids, and they find in each other a chance to go out and trust the world again, through their connection. Also, a lot of people die in it. [Laughs]

Alexander: That should be the tagline. “The Dark: A lot of people die in it.”

Lange: It felt a little bit like a twisted fairy tale to me. It’s dealing with some very dark, emotional stuff. It’s no secret I’m over-the-moon in love with Let the Right One In, and that was a big influence. Also, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone. The vehicle for the emotional journey was playing with genre elements, but at its heart it’s about these two kids.

When did this project start, for you? How long had the idea been incubating?

Lange: A looooooooong time.

I hear that about a lot of first films.

Lange: Yeah, and this one was a very circuitous process. So, I graduated from Columbia’s Graduate Film program in 2014. I did a short called The Dark, which was my thesis film at Columbia. (That was in 2012.) The way that the program works, you do two years of course work, and then directors have up to three years where you do your thesis. A lot of directors will take those years to develop their thesis film and make that their big thing. I knew I wanted to do The Dark as a feature, but I didn’t have a background in horror. I’d just sort of stumbled into horror through my last film professor, who kind of gave me the nudge I needed. And so I just decided to do my thesis right out the gate, in my third year. I tried to explore some of the more challenging things, like tone and the quiet in this movie, to see how they’d work in a horror setting. I tried to make the short of a sort of sketch for the feature. That gave me the confidence to launch into writing the feature.

I actually spent most of my thesis years developing the script for the feature. By 2014, my best friend and producer, Florian Krugel, who lives in Vienna, got hired by FilmFilm, the production company who did The Dark. Flo and I had been developing the script together. He present the script to them, they were interested in doing it, so they bought it. I wound up moving to Vienna, developing it and trying to get it made. It took a long time. We were initially going to shoot it in Austria, in German, and everything kind of shifted very late. It was only a few months before [shooting] that we were still thinking we were going to shoot in Austria.

It was a crazy process, but a lot of first features are. You do anything and everything you can just to get the film made. At the end, it all came together very quickly and perfectly.

Was there something in particular that inspired these two kids, and led you to build your entire story around them?

Lange: It all starts with Mina. I knew I wanted to make a film where the protagonist was the monster. I knew that would be a challenge and I wasn’t sure how it would work. I couldn’t cheat on the idea that she had to be the monster. I couldn’t make it, “Oh, she looks like a monster, but inside she’s really nice.” I couldn’t do that. She had to be dangerous, and what would that look like? At that stage of the writing, it wasn’t about how the audience would see her. I needed to be there with her, and I needed to be on her side; not writing from a distance and not judging.

Something that’s present in a lot of my work is this theme of abuse, and that’s something that’s present in this. It’s a thing I can get very righteously in a rage about. And so I wrote Mina first and then brought Alex in. They’re these similar characters; they’re in somewhat similar situations. They’re mirrors of each other.

You describe this character as a monster – and in the film, she’s very scary, almost like a wild animal. Nadia, where do you turn to find that element for your performance?

Alexander: It’s interesting, because tapping into anger has been something that’s always been very easy for me, as an actor. I don’t know why, but playing scary girls has always come natural to me, perhaps because I’m not afraid to be scary. I think, unfortunately, a lot of young women are taught that, in film, your job is to be pretty, and nice, and sweet, the girl-next-door, the love interest, and that’s what a woman is; a woman is gentle and kind. I’ve never really subscribed to that. [Laughs] I’ve always felt that women are powerful and should, in some ways, be feared. I’ve always just sort of felt like that, growing up. I always to be powerful and strong. I’m five feet tall and I think a stiff breeze could probably blow me over, but I wanted to be bigger than that. I wasn’t afraid to scare people, especially in my work. I think Melissa [in Blame] was also a very scary version of a suburban high schooler. I feel like I’ve always gravitated toward characters who aren’t afraid to be monsters, both internally and externally.

Lange: What’s scary is her believability. You believe that she could do anything at any time, and that was imperative. It was so important for Mina, and that’s why it was so hard to cast [the role]. I saw over a hundred actresses for Mina. I told the casting director that “we had to cast the monster,” because a lot of actors will find “the girl,” but not very many could find the monster, and be scary. What that is, is someone who’s powerful, and is willing to harness that power. Then Nadia walked in the room. When she walked out, I knew that was her.

Alexander: Meanwhile, I thought that he hated me! He has such a poker face. Usually when you go to a director’s audition, you can tell what they think. Especially on an indie film, where the director’s looking for “the one.” I usually get a sense, where I’ll think, “Oh, he or she saw something in me.” With Justin, I had no idea. I went downstairs afterward and I cried, because I was so attached to the character and I really wanted the job. I was convinced I hadn’t gotten it, and I was wondering what I did wrong. I was upset for a week, and then I got the call that he wanted to have lunch with me.

What excited you so much about the role?

Alexander: As soon as I read the breakdown for Mina, I knew it was everything I was looking for in a character: to play someone who was that combustible and that dangerous and that monstrous. I’m always seeking out complex anti-hero characters. For young women, unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of roles like that. There are only one or two auditions a year where I really go, “Yes!” Roles that I can really sink my teeth into. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to book roles that are really unique and different characters I’ve never seen before. I’d never read a character like Mina before, and that was really appealing to me. 

Whenever I talk to actors who have played monsters, they’ve seemed split over whether the makeup was a useful tool for become their characters, or a distraction they had to work through. Which side do you fall on?

Alexander: I very much felt that it was a huge help. I just don’t think the monster would work without the visual look. I’d get up at five in the morning and sit in a chair for two hours. I had contacts, I had gross teeth, horrible nails that snapped off at every opportunity –

Lange: It was glamour.

Alexander: Yes, I do it for the glamour. But it was super-important because I could look in the mirror and feel like another person. It wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m Nadia, I’m here to do a good job.” I felt like a monster.

Lange: There’s a dichotomy to the makeup, I think. Yes, it’s grotesque, and it’s frightening to look at. But, you look at it and there’s also a tragedy there, that this happened to her.

Alexander: It’s also the thing that keeps her out of society, and kind of the driving force behind all of her anger. Yes, she also kills people, and that’s usually not something that’s cool within society, but it’s also the fact that she couldn’t even see another person. If they’ve seen her, they’ve already seen too much. It was so paramount to making the character’s isolation real.

The Dark premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.



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