In Darby and the Dead, after suffering a near-death experience as a young girl, Darby Harper gains the ability to see dead people and spends her time counselling lonely spirits. When Capri, the Queen Bee of the school's most exclusive clique, dies in a freak hair straightening accident, her upcoming "Sweet 17" is (obviously) cancelled.
Capri, however, pleads with Darby from the other side to intervene and convince Capri’s friends to proceed with the party as planned. In order to appease the wrath of the undead diva, Darby must emerge from her self-imposed exile and reinvent herself - which along the way allows her to find new joy back in the land of the living.
The movie is directed by Silas Howard (This Is Us, Transparent), and Darby and the Dead marks his first studio feature. Talking to us last month, the filmmaker explained why the project was far from the soul-crushing experience he worried it might be and reveals just how much fun it was to tell this quirky high school supernatural comedy.
We also hear from Silas on getting to play around with some old-school practical effects, the uniqueness of having an actor on set who no one is supposed to see, and the challenges of putting together a stellar cast led by Riele Downs, Auil'i Cravalho, Asher Angel, and Chosen Jacobs.
Check out our full chat with the Darby and the Dead director in the player below!
I was really surprised this movie wasn’t based on a book or anything along those lines, but you’re obviously drawing on a really fantastic screenplay. I’m guessing reading that was what drew you to the project?
Yeah, absolutely, and thank you for saying those kind words about the film. The original script came from this wonderful writer, Wenonah [Wilms], and then I was developing it with the producers for a year or so and we had a couple of different writers, but Becca Greene ended up being the one who brought it home off Wenonah’s great premise. It was fun to also find our way into the story and it’s such a great premise and oddness. I love an odd approach to things that are more common or classic storytelling where you get to mess with the tropes.
I feel like there could have been a version of this movie that was much, much darker, but would it have still appealed to you as a filmmaker had it been more horror than supernatural comedy?
I’m not a big horror fan [Laughs]. I did an editing job on horror movies and it was torture for me to watch them. I love the metaphor of the supernatural and the powers we get from painful situations we’ve survived. Comedy is my favourite, especially gallows humour. We need more humour with difficult things and we certainly need platforms to talk about death and loss because everybody goes through it and it can be very isolating. Hopefully, this is funny and can help people realise, ‘Oh yeah, I can talk about things and connect.’
You’ve got a great young cast in this movie, but was finding the right actors for the role a big challenge or did you know early on who you wanted to play these characters?
I definitely had ideas. I wanted them to be close to the age of high school experience. I think it’s important for authentic casting to actually have that. Really, the cast just presented themselves. We had great casting directors in South Africa and in the U.S., but once we saw the people, it was so clear who was the right person. It was a little bit effortless that way, and we had the full support of the studio to have an inclusive cast which is not always easy because of a system that’s not always had roles for inclusive casting. It was a lot of support all around. These kids have been working and they’re all professional. They brought everything to it, and Tony Danza and Wayne Knight were really fun to work with. They had very little dialogue on the page, but brought so much heart and character. The kids really loved their role, in particular, and Derek Luke, who plays Darby’s dad, brought so much as well. It’s a true ensemble in that way.
When you’re making a high school movie like this one, is it tough to avoid the trappings and cliches we’re used to seeing from that setting or, as the world has changed, did that actually become quite easy?
It was absolutely [a priority]. It takes a lot of thought to cast well, and to cast against the typical…casting. Again, I had a lot of support to overthink everything and a lot of support with the cast to help them make the rules their own. I think that was great because we don’t do that enough and don’t listen to the actors, especially with authentic casting, by asking, ‘Does this feel right? How can we make it more specific and therefore more universal?’ It takes a lot of thought and listening as well as trust. I love that the cool guy, the jock, cries a lot and has a lot of feelings. Alex, the nerd, is actually really cool and ahead of his time. It was fun to play with those and Asher Angel and I talked a lot about James being a cool guy with feelings and not afraid to show them.
What was the biggest challenge of directing Riele and Auli’i in those moments where the rest of the cast is having to ignore the fact Capri is haunting Darby?
We had to remind people that they can’t see her! I won’t give too much away, but we made all these rules, and then we had to follow them! Sometimes it was frustrating going, ‘Oh, she can’t move this thing. Can she move hair?’ All of these weird rules, but it was fun, in particular, when Darby goes to James and Capri is there and she’s seeing James, her boyfriend, when he can’t see her. The ways they were interacting were really fun, and to have Riele and Asher just look at each other while Auli’i moves around the room…it presented a lot of fun comedic moments, for sure.
When Capri goes into poltergeist mode, it felt like a lot of that was done with practical effects; how much did you enjoy toying around with that side of things?
We did use rigging and stuff that was really fun and really simple. The only thing that had a lot of visual effects was the transition when we show people going from one side to the other. It was a lot of in-camera stuff which is fun, especially if you want physical comedy. Even her just falling was simple green screen and mimicking the motion. One thing that was funny is when Riele walks through Auli’i. We had to do it where she walks up to her, stands, and then goes around behind her, and carries on. It was a weird, experimental theatre moment, but in-camera stuff is fun!
It doesn’t feel like movies such as Darby and the Dead come around often enough, but do you see this as a property with franchise potential? You could go so many different places after that ending…
Yeah, it would be fun to have a Darby and the Dead sequel, for sure! It seems like there’s potential for that. I didn’t think of it like that, but it definitely felt like it had an open ending. Actually, the original script did too, so that was always the design of it, and that would be awesome.
And looking to the future, would something like a Marvel project be of interest to you as a filmmaker?
You know, I think I would be fine with that. I’ve done three independent features prior to this one. This is my first studio film, and I was prepared to have my soul crushed. My soul was not crushed actually, and it was a really amazing experience with 20th Century, Hulu, and the executives I had there, Sarah and Steve, were phenomenal as were the producers. Yeah, I think I’ve made friends with big budget…I wouldn’t mind. It would always have to be character. I’m not good if I don’t connect to the character, and that’s not even me saying I’m too good for it; it’s just that I won’t be a good director. I love character. It’s fun to play with supernatural stuff as a director, so send [Marvel] my way, c’mon!
Darby and the Dead premieres on Hulu on December 2.