One of the most talked about midnight movies to play at both Sundance and SXSW this year would certainly have to be Mickey Keating’s latest film, Carnage Park. The brutal, angry homage could best be described as a 70s set westerner-slasher; a grindhouse mix of Westworld and Hostile. And at the center of all that “carnage” is Ashley Bell; an actress becoming one of the indie world’s favorite genre actresses. Along with her memorable turns in the romantic comedy Love & Air Sex, the sci-fi action film The Day, and the noir-superhero film Sparks, Bell is best known for her own horror franchise The Last Exorcism and its sequel. Her take no prisoner approach to dramatic material inspired Keating to write the role of Vivian for Bell, a woman kidnapped by bank robbers (played by Larry Fessenden and James Herbert) only to find herself in a far more dangerous setting; the desert property of the deranged Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). While the movie is undeniably brutal and violent, Keating’s skilled directorial hand, also makes it a visual stunner with a clever dialogue and ruthless backbone. I spoke with Keating and Bell about their movie, which begins its VOD and New York theatrical run Friday (and a Los Angeles run starting on the 8th).
I understand that you wrote the part essentially for Ashley. What had you seen her in that made you think she’d be right for the role?
Keating: I’d seen her in a couple of things and she always impressed me and I always thought she brought so much more to the parts she played than just what’s on the page. And I really thought it would be a privilege to have someone who took that approach to my work. So I wrote the part, hoping it would find her and she’d actually read it, and agree to work with me. And I’m so glad she did, because she just gives a killer performance. She really wanted to make the character of Viviane someone sincere and genuine to watch on-screen. I really love actors that want to work with me as a director as a fellow collaborator, and once Ashley came on board we tried to build the cast up around her, hoping I’d find actors that would want to contribute as much as she did.
When you got the script, what appealed to you about the role and screenplay?
Bell: Reading it, I found it completely unpredictable. But I think the thing I loved most is, she’s not a victim. She’s placed in an impossible situation. She has no experience with anything surrounding her, but she will fight to survive, she’ll fight to the very end. And I wanted to work with Mickey.
I think my favorite moment in the movie is when you’re so scared, and Wyatt’s coming up over the rim, and you put your hand over your mouth to avoid screaming. Because it feels so real and you called back to, at the end, when you have the gun. Do you remember if that was in the script or was that something you added?
Bell: I’m sure that was in the script
Mickey: She’s being modest. I’m pretty sure that was something you or we thought of on set. But I completely agree about that moment, Ashley’s so great at playing that scene and showing how terrified Viviane is. She brought it.
Bell: When Pat Healy’s coming after you, magic just happens.
I think I’ve seen Pat in about 5 movies this year, and in all of them, he’s more than a little creepy. But this is definitely on another level for him. How do you connect with him?
Keating: I knew I didn’t want Wyatt to just be some movie slasher. It’s too easy to mask killers in movies, and I wanted there to be a real human being responsible for all this. And Pat brings a humanity to his work, even the unsettling stuff he’s in, like The Inkeepers and Cheap Thrills. But he plays a lot of neurotic creeps and villains, and he got really excited to play Wyatt as cocky and arrogant.
But he’s still paranoid and very disturbed, a veteran with serious psychological problems. But when developing the screenplay, why set it in the 70s, rather than use those 70s films simply as inspiration for something set in a modern-day, or a stylized version of today?
Keating: I didn’t want to just make this an homage to those films I loved, like the movies by Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman. I wanted to make a statement, and the thing about those movies are, there’s an angry undercurrent behind a lot of those films. During and after Vietnam, people were angry and there was a lack of patriotism and a distrust of the system that led them to make the types of films they made. There really were guys who returned from war and just completely lost their way, and didn’t get the help they needed. Also, there is just a certain logic to setting it in the 70s. Everyone hates watching someone lose their cell phone in modern-day horror. But in the 70s, a lot of people got lost in the deserts of California. It wasn’t that uncommon, and it could happen in broad daylight.
I found it really interesting that the entire movie was set in the daylight, partly because I can see what’s happening on-screen. But I think there’s something especially disturbing about crimes happening in broad daylight. It’s the same reason a villain not being masked can be even scarier, we can’t excuse him as an inhuman monster. We can’t plead ignorance because we can see what’s happening. What made you think of filming the movie that way?
Keating: Honestly, I wanted the added challenge of filming something like this in broad daylight. It’s easy to hide someone in the shadows, but that can also often be a cheat. But I think horror is so closely associated with events happening in the night, but things happening in the daylight can just as harsh, or harsher, because they are happening in the light of day, we can see it happen, but it can’t be stopped.
And the sheriff character is interesting because we immediately learn how complicit he is, or willfully ignorant, which makes him partly responsible for Wyatt’s crimes. I thought Alan Ruck was great in the role, but completely different from anything I’ve seen from him before. How did you cast him and what kind of statement did you want to make writing the character that way?
Keating: I met Alan through a friend of a friend. And in all these movies I’d been inspired by, there’s this tough as nails sheriff. And I wanted to deconstruct that good-ole boy image. And Alan’s such a brilliant actor, just a genius, and he brought this neurotic insanity to the character that was kind of unexpected. And he told me he never gets to play parts like that, he’s never offered roles like this one. So we really tried to build up the character for him. And I think he really appreciated the idea that we always hear after a crime, “if I’d only known” or “if we’d only looked into it things before.” But Alan’s character knows something is wrong with his brother, but won’t do anything. And in a different way, that makes him as evil as Wyatt.
When it comes to playing these roles in genre films, do you feel you have to elevate your performance more than you would in a subtler, realistic drama, or do you take the same acting approach regardless?
Bell: Actually, I think you need to find more realism in horror films than any other movies. Because you need to anchor the film for the audience, and that needs to be established right away, so audiences will take everything the director throws at them and the audience is willing to go along with your character. Basically, the further down the rabbit hole the character goes, the more grounded you need them to be. My notes for Vivian looked like the corkboard in Homeland. Lots of research and planning went into playing her.
You filmed in a real desert and while it looks beautiful, I loved that the whole thing had a pink sepia hue, almost stained. But it must have been really hard to film there.
Belll: Oh yeah!
Keating: I’ve never been that tan in my life.
Bell: There’s a little CGI in the movie I think, but filming in the actual environment adds so much. It just feeds the character and helps you ground them even more. But, there were a lot of bees.
Keating: Oh, yeah. A lot of bees. Eventually they just kind of overtook the craft services table and we just gave them half of it.
Bell: Any time Pat wasn’t on set to scare me, I just thought of the bees.
Was there a scene you remember being especially difficult to film?
Bell: The day I had to lay face down in sand. It’s just not fun to do that all day. But, that might just be my vanity.
Keating: We had one day with explosives and squibs. And it’s really hard to get permits for explosives in the desert, because they don’t want you to start a fire, understandable considering the lack of water. And we were about to film the scene, and the clouds started to come in. I’d read that I think on Nashville, Altman had a scene that was about to get rained out and he yelled at the sky. And the rain just stopped. So I thought of Altman and spoke to the sky, and we filmed the scene just before the clouds opened up and we had to get out of there. But filming out there’s a challenge every day. It took us an hour just to drive to set.
When you make a movie like this, how do you avoid cinematic violence becoming grotesque or desensitizing the audiences?
Keating: Well, the movie is meant to be fun for audiences, and I hope any audience that goes to see a movie called Carnage Park has some idea what to expect. But you always want to build in a sense of realism. Gore isn’t particularly scary, and grossing audiences out doesn’t add suspense. But if you focus on human reactions to the violence, that’s when audiences react. And having Ashley there to react helps a lot. When we tested, we started to see where we still needed to trim the violence to make people have a stronger reaction to what we were showing them.
The movie premiered at both Sundance and SXSW in the Midnight selections. What were the reactions like there?
Keating: It was such an honor to be part of those Midnight selections. The fans that go to festival screenings are great, but midnight madness fans are rabid. An audience is committing in a special way when they agree to see something at midnight. And the reactions were great. I just hope audiences react that well in theaters and it resonates with them as much as it did at festivals.