Unlike her character Vivian, Ashley Bell could see the light at the end of the tunnel quite clearly — and literally — as she finished up shooting “Carnage Park.” The actress who had survived not one, but two “Last Exorcisms,” had been crawling through the muck, with her character pursued by any number of sadists in the extreme heat of the California desert after already surviving being handcuffed to a steering wheel after being thrown in the trunk of a car at various points in the film.
“It was like the last day and it was sunset and everybody was gathered around, sun burnt and I had the best exit to the outside world you could ever hope for,” Bell recalled. “I had a chance to essentially go through ‘Carnage Park,’ the filming of it, and get to live that moment.”
To see Bell beaming as she says this, and to know that she’s already filmed another movie with director Mickey Keating after putting her through the paces on this one, would suggest that she’s the only one likely to have more fun than an bloodthirsty audience with “Carnage Park,” which lives up to its title in terms of its grisliness, but uses the moniker to throw people off its scent immediately. Set in the badlands of the California desert in 1978 and said to be “a story that’s perhaps the most bizarre in the annals of American crime,” though a healthy skepticism will likely kick in upon seeing the formerly human decor in the home of a merciless sniper (Pat Healy), the acidic thriller tells of a bank robbery gone horribly awry, leaving two of its perpetrators (James Landry Hebert and Graham Skipper) and their captive (Bell) alone in the unforgiving and arid wasteland. Yet beyond the sweltering weather, the trio stumble into particularly cruel territory since it is owned by Healy’s aforementioned marksman, a Vietnam vet struggling with PTSD who, with few other amusements, gets creative in getting them off his property.
Keating, who in low-budget horror terms went to the equivalent of Harvard followed by a Rhodes Scholarship in working for Glass Eye Pix and Blumhouse before graduating to the director’s chair, wears his influences quite openly, yet ironically has resisted the urge to do the same thing twice, swapping genres from whatever he’s made previously and specific to “Carnage Park,” uses familiarity to add an extra “WTF” when it goes in a direction you wouldn’t expect. With six films in the past six years – including his second with Bell, the upcoming “Psychopaths” – Keating’s films have been down and dirty, both filled with passion and grit, an ideal combination for a brazen psychodrama like “Carnage Park.” Amazingly, the prolific director and his star Bell found the time to talk about shooting out in the desert, with a large amount of time spent in a car, as well as its unsettling use of 1960s Vietnamese pop music, exceptionally thick blood and a community of actors that Keating has already built up in his short career thus far.
Mickey Keating: I wanted to do this movie for quite a long time, but it’s a very particular film. I wanted to tell a story that was an homage to ’70s survivalist horror films, like “Southern Comfort,” “Deliverance,” “Punishment Park” and even “The Most Dangerous Game.” It’s told out of order — it’s not like the standard Michael Myers-type slasher film — and it’s fairly politically charged, so I kept running into these situations where financiers were interested in making the movie because I had another movie that had come out, but it always turned in to a difficult thing. Finally, Eric [Fleischman], the producer on it, said that he had found independent financing and that they’d let me do what I wanted, so we really just dove into it.
Ashley Bell: It was so unpredictable and that’s what caught me — Mickey Keating and the script. Vivian is a fighter — she wasn’t a victim, even though she’s completely exposed in the middle of the desert, thinking and figuring out how she’s going to survive and I think what’s going to surprise audiences when they see it is that there are so many twists and turns to it. It’s called “Carnage Park,” but you’re going to get something completely different.
Mickey, since this was supposed to be your second film, did waiting for it while you made other movies change it in any way?
Mickey Keating: Sure, but what it always comes down to is I don’t necessarily believe that you write one draft of a movie and that’s the movie that you should film. A lot of times things like this that are not told conventionally need time to grow and gel. We could have made “Carnage Park” back after my first film, but it would have been different. For whatever reason, the timing and everything [else] came together. Film, I truly believe, is a very organic process. You can put time stamps on what you’re doing, but ultimately there’s no real math behind it. I feel fortunate in having made other movies and not just been stagnant between those two films, but it’s really hard to say what “Carnage Park” would have been like two or three years ago.
What was it like filming as much of this as you did inside a car?
Mickey Keating: It was all real and the cinematographer Mac [Fisken], was also the camera operator. By the end of it, he was so nauseous looking through the eyepiece the whole time, but we had a trailer and one of the stunt drivers from “Fast and the Furious” — the getaway car scene — although we have no “Fast and Furious”-esque car stunts in the film. What you don’t see is me crouched in the back, sweating and trying to listen to the audio.
Ashley Bell: It was actually so much fun [because] it’s forbidden territory to look in to the camera One day, Mickey’s like, “Yeah, go right down the barrel.” And I was like, “What? This is so awesome!” That’s the excitement of working with a director like Mickey. He’s seen every single film that has ever been made, especially horror films and knows the rules and how to break all of them, then when we’re on set you’re experimenting with things. The first scene for Vivian is one of the scariest things that anybody could ever go through in their life — figuring out how it’s going to play when you’re chained to a dead body — and the fear only ramps up from there. Getting a chance to play those scenes, at times looking directly in to the camera is just like, “Let’s go play.”
This really is a film that embraces some genre conventions, but since it’s a mash up of different genres, it feels original. Is it interesting to find those intersections?
Mickey Keating: It all goes back to “Psycho” for me in a way. That really starts out as a crime movie, not horror. A girl steals a whole bunch of money and takes off and you see what happens. That was always the intention [with “Carnage Park”] because I’m just such a film fan that any opportunity I can get to tell a story in a different way, off of a movie that’s inspired me, I always try to go that route. I want my films to be celebrations of the fact that they’re movies.
What it was like shooting in the desert?
Ashley Bell: It was absolutely insane. There were rattlesnakes on set. We were attacked by bees. Everybody got sunstroke — everybody was beautifully tanned after the film. Also you’re preparing to do the work and everything like that, then you show up and the terrain is totally rugged. But what’s so compelling [about the film] is since it’s set in broad daylight, Vivian is completely exposed. The killer could be absolutely anywhere, so you’re playing up against that landscape and once you’re placed in the middle of it, it all just comes to life.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Mickey Keating: The day that it started storming in the middle of the desert was really strange. We were like, “Alright, of anything that could happen while were out there, it’s not going to rain. At least we know that.” But it did. It rained a lot and it was really, really strange and surreal. It was pretty early in the shoot and we didn’t have many cover sets at all [since] most of the movie takes place outside. What was so great is there was no sugarcoating the fact that this movie is what it is and everyone was very on board for that. Pat [Healy] had to wear pounds of military uniforms and that metal mask, and it was horrible, but it was great.
Mickey Keating: You’d have to ask our effects guy Jaremy [Aiello], who has a very storied history working in the effects world with KNB. Interestingly enough, the blood dries almost in real time during the shoot because it was so windy and so hot that you splatter it on window and within 30 seconds, it would bake. It was definitely some sort of sugar and I don’t know what the chunks were, but especially in daylight on film, fake blood looks like fake blood and [Jaremy] did a great job with that.
Ashley Bell: It’s like a fine wine. There are different ages and textures of blood.
Mickey Keating: And taste.
Ashley, you must be familiar with this now?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, I should ask my therapist about why I’m totally comfortable being covered in fake blood.
This seems like a film where a lot of the tone really came together in post-production, with the sound design, piecing together the fragmented narrative and getting that acidic color scheme. Did you give everyone an idea going in what this would turn out like?
Mickey Keating: We shot this movie in 16 days, so to go in and not have all the bases covered would have been stupid and with a bit of game plan, you can break your own rules. I storyboard and write bigger sound cues into the script. When we first met [with actors], we played the music that I was intending on using in the film, so there is a definite effort there. Then in post you can feel where the script doesn’t work — often the script is just the jumping off point and whatever you capture and whatever it becomes isn’t necessarily always in the finished product [because] I think a big mistake is when you just try to shoehorn dialogue or a plot point into the movie. And I’ve got a brilliant sound designer named Sean Duffy, who really builds that world. When I hand him the edit of the film, I equate it to [being] almost like a sketch and he turns it in to a painting.
The 1960s Vietnamese pop songs are a particularly evocative touch. How did those come in?
Ashley Bell: So epic.
Mickey Keating: I’ve always wanted to do that and I think that it represents the psyche of the characters. It was a nightmare to get the rights to them, but a lot of that stuff was written during the Vietnam War, with that turmoil, so I knew if we could use that music it would add just another level. Anyone can do a movie set in America in the ’70s and use an awesome soundtrack, but I wanted to try something different.
Ashley Bell: Oh my God.
Mickey Keating: She didn’t leave me.
Is it interesting to be building this company of actors you keep returning to?
Mickey Keating: I have such an admiration for the art of acting that when I meet somebody like Ashley who I get to just marvel at, it’s really exciting to be able to say, “Alright, we did this in this movie. Let’s try something let’s try something crazy or different [in another]” and with all actors that I love working with, in the same way that I collaborate with the same cinematographer and the same editor and the same sound designer, when you build that level of trust, it really opens the door for a lot of experimentation and a lot of boundary pushing to see how far you can pursue your art. In my ideal world, I’ll use the same actors forever.
“Carnage Park” opens in New York at the IFC Center and will be available on VOD on July 1st. It opens on July 8th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7.