Following the Midwest premiere of Pollyanna McIntosh’s “Darlin’”, I was fortunate to discuss the film with the writer and director herself.
We spoke about some of Darlin’s sociopolitical themes, how it is a horror film that embraces both the light and dark sides of humanity, how a feral teenage protagonist could very well be a guiding voice for young, horror-loving audiences, and much more.
But the actress turned filmmaker had so much to tell in this story and the background to tell it properly.
Although it could have easily been a challenge to undertake a sequel to such a beloved, cult film, there was no one better to successfully rise to the challenge.
“The story came to me quick and fast. And I was lucky enough to have the great influences of (Jack) Ketchum’s writing, his novels, and also Lucky (McKee) and Ketchum’s novel ‘The Woman’ and the film. I knew the character inside and out,” said McIntosh.
“…writing a story about a young, teenage girl (Lauryn Canny) and the awakening of her own sexuality and coming of age, I really felt that I did not want her to be objectified in any way. That was the only point in the writing where I had to step back and go ‘can I do this?’ Luckily, I got a lot of assurance that it would be done the way I wanted it to be done, and so I carried on. And here we are.”
Whereas The Woman is told via an grim, omniscient narrative that follows the Cleek family after the family’s patriarch, Chris (Sean Bridgers), captures The Woman (McIntosh), Darlin’ is a coming-of-age tale with heart and a powerful message underneath its blood-soaked scenery.
McIntosh seemed to know her work would be cut out for her.
But out of her immense love for the characters created by Ketchum and McKee, both of whom she’s worked with closely over the years, she was determined to bring this side of the story to audiences.
“Directing is a wonderful challenge. And again, knowing the thing from the inside out as the writer and having played her before, I think I had a great advantage there. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted the film to look like. I had an amazing cast and crew. But of course, it’s an indie film, so you’ve got a very tight schedule. You’ve got a very tight budget,” said McIntosh.
Beyond the typical challenges for independent filmmakers, the elements even contributed to some rather interesting days on set.
“It snowed in Louisiana for God’s sake, that never happens!” said McIntosh.
“Even our snow day, which could have been a real challenge for us because we couldn’t shoot that day — we couldn’t have people on the roads with the driving conditions and with the drivers who are so unused to them – we still managed to shoot some wonderful snow stuff that day. So even with the problems, I think it’s really coming at things from a problem-solving perspective and having that kind of crew around you. You could make anything happen.”
In the still male-dominated world of filmmaking, it is more important than ever for women to take their seats in directors’ chairs.
Women can tell stories from perspectives that aren’t always seen and heard. But, according to McIntosh, the narrative of a good story isn’t necessarily specific to gender.
“I don’t even think it’s just women’s stories. I think it’s our stories of humanity told by the female from obviously the female perspective, though we can also talk about the male perspective because we live in a male-driven society. I think that, for some people, it can be, ‘What does a female-driven movie look like?’ It sounds like it’s very much just for women, but no. It’s about opening up perspectives and allowing our voices to come into the fray so that we can tell more nuanced stories.”
She goes on to explain:
“I think for some people it’s jarring because they’re used to always the male perspective. A lot of people have told me you need to see this movie twice. A lot of men have said that, where a lot of women have said ‘I got it the first go-round'”
One of her close collaborators, Lucky McKee, is also known for making female-driven stories and has been for his entire career.
This further proves that, while it is important to have diversity amongst directors, the dedication to the characters can be told from any good storyteller — as they are committed to the material.
Another example of this is Cooper Andrews’ (The Walking Dead) character, who plays a nurse who wants to adopt a child with his partner but can’t. This is a common issue for people in the LGBTQ community, particular when looking to adopt through religion-based organizations.
Nothing in the film dwelled or lingered on Andrews’ sexuality in the film. For McIntosh, it was less about writing a gay character and more about the role that he plays, showing that these lives and stories are commonplace and not necessarily specific to any one group of people. She explains:
“He was wanting, like everybody else in the film, wanting a family and wanting a community and wanting to connect. He finds that connection in Darlin’. He’s longing for a family, and so she comes along at a time that’s important for him.”
A common theme shared by The Woman and Darlin’ is the notion that the real monsters frequently wear friendly faces.
The people who society may fear most are, deep down, not the ones who are truly dangerous.
“Who’s the monster? The cannibal feral woman or the Bishop?” asked McIntosh.
“I feel like our allowance for the abuse that’s gone on, not just in the Church or the MeToo Movement – it’s becoming more and more clear that it kind of takes a village. It takes a lot of blind eyes to allow this stuff to continue, and I really do believe in that saying… ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”
For Sister Jennifer’s (Nora-Jane Noone) character, finding her voice is a reflection of some of these themes including how important it is to have the strength to speak out and be a guide to others in need.
Even so, it is through Lauryn Canny’s Darlin’ that we get the meat of McIntosh’s intention.
“What really interested me about taking it from Darlin’s perspective is that if you go ten years later after THE WOMAN came out, you have somebody on the cusp of teenagerhood and discovering their own sexuality. And really I found, as a teenager around the age of 13, I started developing boobs and a butt. And I was having my own experience with my own sexuality. That should be personal and precious and wonderful, and you should have time to explore that. What I found was as soon as I looked like a sexual being, it was coming from all angles from adult men from adult women, just the different way I was being treated. It felt like a bit of a robbery,” said McIntosh.
In the film, the Catholic Church also essentially robs Darlin’ of the ownership of her own body by using her as a publicity stunt and objectifying her as a feral beast. The message to audiences is that there are many ways of taking someone’s autonomy away from them that doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual. But they can still be invasive and stunt someone’s freedom to come into their own peacefully and without outside influence.
Given the rise of film accessibility with modern technology, a lot of younger people may take an interest in this film and gain access to it.
Darlin’ has an especially potent message for younger viewers who may be experiencing some of the same things as the titular character.
“Being on ‘The Walking Dead’, I meet a lot of fans who watch it (the show), young and old. I think there are a lot of young people who are around that age who can handle that kind of horror. remember watching a French movie when I was 13 which had some really deep, dark themes in it. I felt they were beautifully explored, and I felt seen and heard for the first time in a film. I thought ‘oh my God, they’re writing something for me.’ I hope young girls and young men watch it because a lot of it I did write for that audience,” said McIntosh.
“A lot of it (horror) is outsider art as well. It’s about that sense of feeling on the outside, and I think for, again, for a patriarchal society, women are by default outsiders from the get-go. So I do feel that horror movies can be a very positive influence on young people.”
Some viewers may not know that Darlin’ is actually the third film in the series Ketchum started.
Pollyanna McIntosh has now revisited her character, The Woman, for the third time.
She first appeared in Offspring (2009), then in The Woman (2011), and now in Darlin’.
“It is weird directing something that you’re also in, which is one of the reasons why I put myself more in the fringes and focused on Darlin’ in this one. But I think for The Woman fans, you’ll really get a satisfying bunch of good kills and a bunch of vicious, unapologetic aggression. But she’s also showing herself here to be really adaptable. Here, she’s on another mission… a very different one, and very much unrestrained. It was a joy to get back under that skin again,” said McIntosh.
Darlin’ finds her place with other girls in a group home that’s run by the Catholic Church, and The Woman finds hers with a homeless encampment with other women who grow to embrace and accept her while she’s on her way to find Darlin’.
McIntosh found herself finding her place in the director’s seat just as easily as she found herself inhabiting The Woman’s skin.
“I could just switch in and out of character really fast. It was really weird for other people, I think, more than it was for me. I had all this dirt make-up on and these yellow teeth and these claws, and this huge, long wig. And I’m directing children, smiling at them with these big, blackened out teeth. And at first I was like ‘Why aren’t these little girls in the church warming to me? Oh right, I look like a terrifying creature.’ They got into it, believe me.”
Darlin’ isn’t without its moments of levity, and some might argue that the humor detracts from the horror. But there’s something to be said for finding light in any dark situation. There are some who may feel the humor is misplaced.
So I asked McIntosh to explain why she feels it’s important to showcase all sides of her characters, even in horror films.
“For me, life is absurd and funny even in the darkest times. I’m Scottish and Celtic. I have a gallows humor. It’s my style, and it’ll remain my style for sure. Big John Waters fan, and I just wanted some of that absurdity that life brings in horror. In a way, I don’t think I was consciously thinking that people needed relief from the horror. I think it’s just a way that I write.”
She goes on to explain:
“There was a lot of wit and humor in ‘The Woman’, too… even in ‘The Woman’. That awful slap that Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) gives his wife, people laugh at that. They often laugh nervously. But they laugh, because the cut of it is so brilliantly done — and because the absurdity of that violence coming after the audience is questioning ‘Do you think we really should be doing this? WHACK.’ It’s that uncomfortable kind of humor that was throughout ‘The Woman’, and I relate to that.”
“I don’t feel these things need to be exclusive. And like I say, when life is really tough, often the most absurd things happen. And I think it’s sometimes to remind you that there’s always the day and the night.”
The best stories lean on well-developed characters who are relatable to audiences and have their own voices.
McIntosh took inspiration from some of her own, real life experiences in developing some of the characters.
This is particularly true of the girls Darlin’ meets along her journey.
“If all the kids in the care home, for instance, had been miserable and depressed and upset about their situation, I didn’t feel you would connect with them as much. And I also think they would remain ‘other’ rather than you seeing yourself and a way into their community — and a way into feeling what they’re feeling. Also, I’ve worked with kids in their situation. I’ve worked a lot in jail, and in foster care with young offenders in jail. And, man, they are some of the funniest people. They’re in such hellish conditions, but they find a way,” said McIntosh.
With her directorial debut well underway, McIntosh took a moment of reflection to offer advice to fellow filmmakers who may be preparing to put out their first film — or even those who are looking for a push to get started.
“Oh my God, it’s such a great time for just doing it and just getting it out there. I think just listen to your own voice and really follow it, and obviously you have to collaborate with people in this industry. That’s one of the most wonderful things about it. But as far as starting to tell your story as a writer or filmmaker, I as an audience member want fresh perspectives. I want to hear from people I haven’t heard from before. And if a story is important to you, it will be important to somebody else out there. So just go for it,” said McIntosh.
Darlin’ will be released to the wild on July 12th in theaters and video on demand. To read my full review of the film from Cinepocalypse, click here.
McIntosh asked fans to consider supporting her work not just by seeing Darlin’, but also by considering a donation to her charities: the Joshua Nolan Foundation (https://www.joshuanolanfoundation.org) and the Skid Row Housing Trust (http://skidrow.org).
You can also follow her on social media (@pollyannamcintosh on Instagram and @PollyAMcIntosh on Twitter) to stay up to date with her current and future endeavors.