The 21st century has proven to be a golden age of teen comedies: from 2004’s Mean Girls (that now has a cult-like following) to 2019’s Booksmart (which could have a similar following in twenty years), these films jump into the hearts of viewers who crave an escapist experience that darker films might not provide. Streaming services, specifically, have found success in these films (see also: Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).
Hulu has joined the race to grab the attention of the youth, offering Crush, a queer teen romantic comedy, earlier this year. Now the streamer has another exclusive teen film that reminds viewers of the struggles of growing up: Darby and the Dead. The film follows a young girl with the ability to speak to the dead after a near-death experience earlier in her life; while Darby can connect with the dead, she has trouble making friends with the living. When a popular girl at her school named Capri unexpectedly dies, Darby finds herself trying to help Capri grapple with her death and understand her life. The two help one another through the shame that can be felt as a teenager, the loneliness of not being popular in high school, and what it feels like to be different than one’s peers.
At the center of this creative endeavor is the director of the film, Silas Howard. Howard has not only directed micro-budget films and television episodes in series such as Transparent and A League of Their Own, but served as executive producer on the first season of FX’s Pose. He sat down with AwardsWatch to discuss how the story was brought to him, the elements of the script that grabbed his attention, and how stressful it was to film Darby’s direct-to-camera dialogue.
Tyler Doster: I wanted to start by asking how you originally got involved with the film. At what point did you become familiar with the story?
Silas Howard: Yeah. The production company, Footprint Films, in particular, Adam Saunders, brought the project to me several years ago, and it was the original screenplay by Wenonah [Wilms], who was the original writer. It just caught my eye. It felt original, it had heart, and it had a certain amount of weirdness to it that I love. There was something that even though the structure was very familiar, there was a twist in there. Then, I developed it with Adam and a couple of writers, and Becca Greene being the one that brought it home with us. She worked tirelessly on multiple drafts. Of course, we worked on that all the way through production. Yeah, but all in all, it was about three years total.
TD: Is there anything in particular that grabbed your attention about this project? Was it the supernatural element or anything like that that drew you into this?
SH: I think the core thing that drew me in was the friendship. I really tend to make movies about friendships, even though it sounds a little tame. It’s something I’m often drawn to. Then, the metaphor of speaking to that of a young girl, who didn’t have a childhood, I think is also a metaphor for a lot of kids that have to grow up fast, either because of some trauma or whatever the circumstances, the gifts that come out of that, oddly enough.
TD: Speaking to that, I wanted to ask about childhood traumas and dealing with issues and messages of confidence amongst teenagers: was that something that you wanted the audience to take away from this film?
SH: Yeah. Intentionally we were playing with all these tropes, varied by design, playing with the Mean Girls, but hopefully flipping popularity around as really just more about connection. I liked that the outsider wasn’t trying to fit in, she was too cool for school and felt better than, which was just insecurity. I feel the message was definitely that a lot of the times the difficult things that we come from can separate us, but in fact they’re quite often, I mean, at least in my experience as I grew into adulthood, those are the things that help me connect people. Those are the things that set me apart in a really positive way because I had insights that maybe I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t go through it.
TD: What was the casting process like for finding your Darby?
SH: I knew I wanted the cast to be very close to the age of the teenagers, that was really important. As close to, but still of the age that they could work a full day in production. I wanted an organic inclusivity. I wanted it to look like the world around us, honestly, and without it having to be a thing where the diversity was a talking point in the film. I think it’s a talking point post the film, but a lot of my work has been as a trans person, really making work since my first feature By Hook or By Crook, where I present characters that aren’t typically in the center of the story, but I don’t explain it, and just allow it to be a lens. Don’t take it away either. I don’t know that colorblind casting is a great way to go, because it’s ignoring all of these really strong lenses that are of value to anybody and can connect to everyone. We can connect to each other’s differences, actually, if we let them live.
Yeah. I think that that was just allowing it to reflect the world around us and with Piper, the character, knowing her character was queer, but deciding together with the actress Nicole Maines, how she’d be out as trans or not. That was a really fun exploration. Even in the makeover, [we had] conversations about what that looked like in terms of Riele’s character, going from straightened hair to her natural hair. Just all of those things are things that we did with awareness, but hopefully made it feel like it wasn’t at all done making a big point about it.
TD: I will say watching the movie, I found it to be more realistic watching a diverse group of kids that were similarly aged.
SH: Yeah. No, it really made a difference, but they also have been working for so long, these kids. I got the benefit of that high level of experience for their young ages, and also a willingness to try stuff. They were just fun. It was a fun cast.
TD: Speaking of them acting and getting to know them, when you were filming the fourth wall breaking scenes, it obviously starts with Darby, and by the end of the movie, she’s not the only one breaking the fourth wall. What was your process for filming those scenes, and did you have a specific approach to filming those scenes to keep it realistic, but to keep that connection with the audience?
SH: Yeah, no, we thought about it a lot. It was a little bit nerve-racking to have so much direct to camera, because show, don’t tell. There were times that I was really aware of… Well, the cinematographer Ante Cheng, who’s on Pachinko, second season now, he’s an amazing cinematographer. We spent a lot of time thinking about who that camera was and having multiple angles, almost like a newscaster, where she could turn over here or she could turn over there. I thought of us as a character in the film, the audience, and what our relationship to Darby was. In the beginning, we [as the audience] are that best friend that you feel the funniest around, that you feel you’re most confident around. There’s that person that you just always let you be your best self. That’s the relationship to the camera, then as she starts to get friends, there’s less of a need for us, so there’s moments, where she shoots a look to us. I liked that she leaves the audience behind until coming back at the end, but it was really making sure that we saw this other side of Darby, that we knew who the…
Riele and I talked about who that camera was and making it really specific, making that close friend that you could bring that confessional and confident self to, like Ferris Bueller, because you get to be very close to that character. Yeah, and in the end of course, it really was a fun thing to play around with. It was tricky to film though, just because of all the… Like, can’t see Auli’i’s character [Capri], then there’s a camera here. We would get a little confused with the rules sometimes that we made.
TD: Other than those scenes with the direct to camera relationship, were there any other scenes that you really enjoyed directing?
SH: I mean, one of my favorite scenes is them on the beach, which we added very late, because I wanted that scene, where their friendship, they really broke through, because it’s a short time that they actually are vulnerable with each other before it turns. I just love that moment, where I don’t know, you’re laughing or screaming, then these emotions come out. I like the idea that Darby, as she started to do cheerleading, she was having almost a physical memory of that, doing that as a child, which is when her mom was still around. There was this getting back in her body thing. I love that scene, plus it was sunset. We were filming at the tip of the continent, so it was just beautiful sunsets every night. Then some of the rigging was really fun because it was just so in camera, and a little old school, like the bathroom scene.
In a way the rigging got away from me, because it was a 20-second scene, and it’s meant to be a minute something, so there was a lot of that slowing down or figuring out how to manipulate that and having one of the doubles hold the camera. That was just fun, old school, physical comedy.
TD: Speaking of comedy, I wanted to ask you about something that made me laugh when I was watching it. After Capri dies, the girls, her best friends are getting interviewed. Specifically, Taylor is talking to the news reporter, and they say, “Follow us on Insta,” and the Instagram handles pop up. I wanted to ask you, was that initially in the script, or is that something that came a little bit later?
SH: The handles, it was always in the script about this performativity of grief, when people… And I think it’s also a human thing, if you’ve been to any funeral. My friend’s Southern Christian, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” There’s the wailing, “Who’s got the most grief?” We were playing around with that, but the actual coming onto the camera, coming onto the screen, was added afterwards, their handles. Yeah, but the “Follow us on Insta” has always been there.
TD: Speaking of these teen comedies, are there any teen comedies that you watched growing up or even in recent years that have been either eye-opening, or in your early life, formative to you?
SH: I think I watched all [of those], The Breakfast Club. Clueless was obviously a big inspiration, and Auli’i, who plays Capri, brought the pen with the little pink puff ball in the end as an audition. Mean Girls and all of those, I mean, I was a little bit older when Mean Girls came out, but definitely Ferris Bueller. I love those films, and even Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick’s character is untouched by anything, but his best friend actually goes through the emotion of the film. There’s a lot of heaviness in this seemingly very light, swaggery depiction of the main character. On a class level, I thought they did a great job, but of course on a race or queer level, there wasn’t really anything depicted. I’ve connected to tons of movies that don’t show me, whoever my definition of my community is, but if they’re really well told stories, I can connect. Our hope was that this was, again, just reflecting a modern world that we live in, especially in a public high school, but just get to play around with that.
But yeah, I watched all those classic ones, they’re fun. I mean, I think in high school we get stuff there or we don’t. You know what I mean? I think it really is that formative time, where people are striking out on their own, and also the most pull to conform. It’s a really crucial time for a lot of people.
TD: You’ve directed an episode of Transparent, you’ve directed an episode of Pose. What are you hoping is next for you? Are there any career goals that you feel you’ve hit already and that you want to exceed now?
SH: I did two features, two micro budget features and I did [other things] that [were] absolutely… I mean, I got to brag. I got a Guggenheim for the work, but it was made on no budget at all, to the point when Transparent wanted to hire me, Amazon was like, “Oh, the budget of this work is so micro budget,” because there wasn’t really funding for stories that happened to have LGBTQ characters. With Transparent, working on two seasons of that, then Pose, as an EP, I don’t know, I feel I’ve gotten to stay in this world, and the world has caught up with a lot of us, characters that have been on the outside of things. I never worry about being pigeonholed because I’m just telling stories about people, and I hope that they’re open. I really love stories about hope and connectivity. Really, that’s my goal, but yeah, I’m amazed every time I go to work on shows. In Dickinson too, I was an EP and in the writer’s room for that. We had Ziwe and Lynn Nottage.
We just had an amazing group of writers through the pandemic and putting together a show set in the Civil War on the third season. The Capitol was getting taken over, while we’re writing in the writer’s room. I feel my goal is to just keep telling stories that feel timely, and I love recovered history stories. I think that Pose and Dickinson are looking at the past with a lens of today. In a way, we can see ourselves maybe more clearly. This is my fourth feature and my first video feature, and I had a great time. I’d love to let the stories that I want to tell be as big as they want to be without being too diluted. Yeah. Just keep on telling stories about, hopefully, just some fresh faces in the familiar stories.
Darby and the Dead is now streaming exclusively on Hulu.