‘The Dark’ Director Justin P. Lange And Actress Nadia Alexander Discuss How Abuse And The #MeToo Movement Connect To The Haunting Story

The Dark, the first feature film from director-writer Justin P. Lange, made its Tribeca Film Festival debut this April. In the film, Nadia Alexander, best known for her roles in The Sinner and Seven Seconds, plays Mina, an undead girl haunting and killing in the woods of her childhood home. While in the woods, she comes across Alex, played by Toby Nichols, a blind guy dealing with his own traumas. A unique take on the zombie genre with a focus on abuse, The Dark tells a haunting tale about a girl pushed beyond her limits to become a monster.

Lange’s inspiration for The Dark came from the idea of wanting to create a film that followed a journey from a monster’s point of view. “When I was in film school at Columbia I started to explore, [but I] was late to the party when it came to doing horrors. It wasn’t until my last class in directing that my teacher started to push me in that way. I just love the films Let The Right One In, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Devil’s Background. These are films that really paved ways for me into the horror genre. But there was this nagging question in my mind — is it possible to do a horror film where the protagonist is the monster and we are with them emotionally?” Lange told me during an interview at the Roxy Hotel. “It was something that I knew would be a challenge, but that’s what excites me as a filmmaker. If I think of something that I feel like I haven’t seen before, that drives me forward.”

But where to start? “So then the question was finding the right monster that I wanted to be with. [With] a good amount of my work so far, there’s this common thread of dealing with abuse. I needed to find that thing for that character that would drive me forward and that I could be with her in her righteous anger and rage. That’s where I found Mina,” Lange continued, about finding the right story to tell. “It really propelled me into the script in a powerful way and I was with her. I trusted that if I was with her that I could bring the audience with me.”

Watch my interview with The Dark writer-director Justin P. Lange and actress Nadia Alexander, below:

Lange got very close to these characters and felt a responsibility to bring them to life. “Sometimes people say it’s not like a director chooses a story or a writer chooses a story, the story chooses them. It’s something that I feel really, really strongly about and it hits me in a place that’s very visceral. I needed that for this film,” he told me. “I just felt really strongly that I wanted to protect these kids. It got to the point where by the time we shot the film I was just so protective of them. I was so meticulous about everything, I thought so much of it through.”

He added: “It is an emotional visceral thing. You start to feel a responsibility to it. You’re giving a voice to something. You want to do right by [them], you want to do justice [because] these characters feel like people. You do start to want to protect [them] and want them to be represented in a powerful way.”

The Dark tackles the abuse these two characters have gone through in a very real and raw way and shows that two people can connect over these shared traumas to combat the hate and fear and violence within them to find love and empathy and humanity once again. Actress Nadia Alexander isn’t a stranger to these types of roles and does her best to give an authentic performance every time. In the role of Mina, she truly transformed and gave us a character filled with depth, strength, and authenticity. “In several iterations, I’ve played victims of abuse and you always feel a certain responsibility to portray it accurately and also to portray it unapologetically because abuse is horrible. It can make monsters that would not have been there if it weren’t for that abuse,” Alexander told me at the Roxy Hotel. “For me, it was really important to lean into the pain and the rage and the anger.”

Alexander hopes that bringing visibility to these tough topics will help  victims of abuse. “[There’s] just very, very few times we actually get to see the victim’s story as it happens. We hear all about it in retrospect, but it’s hard to watch and experience. It’s painful, but I also think it’s extremely important that we have these conversations and we have this art about abuse because I think for a really long time it’s been taboo to talk about,” she said. “But I think that’s ridiculous. Unfortunately so many people have suffered abuse in one way or another. It’s sort of a spectrum. There’s a lot of pain in our pasts, and how we were raised or whatever, that can change who we are and how we go into the future and how we deal with every little thing in our life. Our relationships, our careers, anything can be traced back to certain damaging things that happened to you. I think talking about that stuff and really looking at it is important for victims, for abusers to be faced with the reality of it.”

Lange added: “It’s really like the cycles of abuse, the cycles of violence — I’m always examining that. It feels like violence begets violence begets violence. Where does the carousel stop?”

“I hope it’s bringing it into the light. I hope that helps,” continued Alexander. “Not letting it just be behind closed doors and nobody talks about it. Having it be more in the forefront of the cultural discourse and talking about it […] is how we try to stem another deep seeded problem.”

…we’re uncovering the real monsters right now and that’s what’s most important. Mina’s not the real monster.”

Not only did this horror film give audiences a different take on zombie cinema, but the themes of abuse and sexual assault felt extremely relevant for the times we’re going through in today’s society with the #MeToo Movement and people standing up against these injustices. “A lot of what’s been going on with #MeToo is women coming forward and talking about abuses that they suffered in the past. I think unfortunately people disengage because they’ll come up with excuses or whatever and you read it in an article and you make your own opinions and they’re not always the best opinions,” Alexander told me. “I think being confronted with it and having to watch it happen and having to watch the consequences — because the film itself is really one big metaphor for abuse and Mina’s monster comes out of that — [is] fitting. I think we’re uncovering the real monsters right now and that’s what’s most important. Mina’s not the real monster.”

Lange agrees that talking about these experiences through outlets like the #MeToo Movement can help others realize they’re not alone and help put us on the road to stop these cycles of abuse. “What’s important is it’s starting to be talked about. Obviously, with the film, it’s pretty blatant what the abuses are and that is abuse. But there’s a spectrum of what is abuse and I think sometimes people feel like, ‘Well, my abuse isn’t that so it’s fine,’ or ‘I don’t really have to deal with it,’ whereas there’s lots of different types of abuse. What this conversation has done is [gotten] people talking and relating their stories,” said Lange. “What happens with Mina and Alex is that they find a mirror image of themselves and their experiences. It’s through finding an empathetic way to relate to each other that they’re able to move forward and that cycle stops. Before that, when Mina was in this quiet, self-protected cocoon, where ‘nobody-comes-near-me-if-you-come-near-me-you’re-gonna-get-it,’ nothing gets solved that way because there’s no discussion.”

Lange continued: “Obviously I didn’t know that the [#MeToo] Movement was going to happen, but it’s incredibly important that it is, that people are starting to discuss this stuff, and that it’s getting out there. If [The Dark is] part of that discussion, I hope it’s in a helpful way because that’s the side I want to be on.”

Lange broke down the relationship our lead characters Mina and Alex had. He confirmed it was definitely not a romantic one, but instead an authentically human connection. “It’s interesting because every once in a while somebody will say it’s romantic, which I never intended [but] you can’t control how people take the film. I cast Mina to be a little older than Alex. I saw Mina as a little more powerful than Alex,” he said. “Even though they’re both victims, Alex kind of played the victim a little bit more than Mina did. Mina took her victim-hood and turned it into something else. I think what they find is really something more human.”

Lange shared that something he and Alexander really connected over was musician Sufjan Stevens and that one of his songs really reflects Mina and Alex’s connection well. “There’s this song ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades…’ If you go on the annoying Internet, sometimes they’ll talk about like, ‘Oh there’s a boy who kisses the shoulder and that means this and that means that.’ I remember hearing that song and I was just like that feels human,” he said. “It doesn’t feel sexualized to me at all. It feels like these two friends that just are at sleep away camp. With The Dark, it was something deeper than romantic love. It was something indelibly human and real that they just needed each other. They were the thing that they needed to see, to experience to take the next step forward from their situations.”

Alexander agreed that she didn’t see Mina and Alex’s relationship in a romantic way. “I never saw it as a romance even when I read it. I don’t just automatically assume there’s a boy and a girl they must be in love because I think that’s dumb, just in the same way I don’t see a girl and girl and [think] they must just be friends,” she said. “Humanity, it’s all a mix, and I think we obviously, to make sense of this world, try to categorize things and put things into boxes, but this whole film can’t be put into a box and that’s what I love so much about it.”

“And also Toby [Nichols] is literally my brother’s age and we have a 9 year age difference so I was like no,” Alexander laughed. “He was like my little brother. It was that immediate kind of connection and protection. That’s what I loved so much about it. It felt really authentic and really not trying to be anything. Just being human. Even though she’s not, she’s undead.”

Watch my review of The Dark and more films from Tribeca Film Festival 2018, below:

Lange revealed that the hug that Mina and Alex share near the end of the film is a clear embodiment of what their connection is all about. “As much as the killing feels like a need and an instinct for Mina, it’s just as powerful in that moment with the hug at the table where you see that [Alex] just kind of needs it,” he said. “He’s grappling for it and they kind of sink into it and it’s like, oh my god, it’s like an exhale. That’s how I see the relationship for them.”

Throughout The Dark, Mina goes from undead to finding more of her humanity as she begins to heal her anger. But what was it that turned her into this creature of the night to begin with? “I see her as animated by rage. She’s like a rage monster,” Lange told me. “Something that some people pick up on, I’m not sure that everybody does, but in the flashbacks you notice it’s not like she dies and she comes back and she’s a zombie. It actually starts before she dies. In the first flashback, she’s drawing and there’s this growling as we’re moving in on her. It’s like something’s changing, something’s growing inside her. Then it happens again in the second flash back, so she doesn’t actually come back until later in the movie in the third iteration of the flashbacks.”

Lange continued: “The idea is there’s this growing rage inside her that is something bigger than herself at a certain point. It’s taking over and that’s what kind of propels her. It’s this justifiable rage that won’t let her go quietly. [If zombie] stories are allowed to play with the laws of nature, I felt like this was a rage that the world would say, ‘No, she can’t go yet.’ She’s got a score to settle and that’s where it was coming from. That was what was propelling her, that rage.”

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