I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Dreams indeed have guided actor-turned-director Carlson Young to where she is today. In a career that spans over a decade, the Fort Worth-native appeared in more than 30 films, television shows, and shorts, including Scream: The TV Series and Netflix’s Emily in Paris.
Ms. Young makes her feature directorial debut with The Blazing World, which is set to premiere this weekend at the virtual Sundance Film Festival.
Based on her 2018 short film of the same name (available to view on Amazon Prime Video), The Blazing World is a psychological horror film that follows a young woman, Margaret Winter (Young), as she navigates the psychedelic waters of her earliest trauma.
Udo Kier, who was recently seen in the 2019 Cannes Jury Prize-winning film Bacurau, portrays Lained, a malicious ruler of a surreal world. The film also stars Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw, and it uses the horror genre to tap into grief and trauma.
Ahead of her virtual premiere on Sunday evening, Fresh Fiction spoke with Ms. Young about how her nightmares shaped the film’s story and how the North Texas art scene gave her the creative tools to take her movie to Sundance. Read the transcribed conversation and see how you can catch her feature directorial debut below.
Preston Barta: The Blazing World started as a short film. The seed of the idea is there, but it really has blossomed into a whole new nightmare. Did these themes haunt you so much that you had to take the material into a different realm?
Carlson Young: “Haunted, to say the least. It was a long journey, taking it from its short film stage to its feature iteration. It required a lot of intense self-reflection and figuring out what I was trying to say. The short film was based on a series of recurring dreams I was having, and it would take years to dissect and excavate those dreams. Ultimately, it was a journey towards forgiveness and acceptance and reframing childhood trauma for this character.”
How far did you get into trying to dissect those dreams? Did you discover a source, or does it stem from your own fascination with art and surrealist cinema?
“I’m very fascinated with surrealist cinema. I had been watching many Ingmar Bergman films, which all sort of touch on the human condition and psyche in this really specific and poignant way. I knew that I wanted to unpack a coming of age story, but the fantasy world would reflect trauma. The more I gathered psychoeducation about where trauma is stored in the brain and how it manifests itself into adulthood in really harmful ways, the easier it was for me to flesh out the story and what it was that was bothering this character and keeping her in such a state of depression. So, I wrote the feature script with a really dear friend named Pierce Brown, a wonderful sci-fi fantasy writer. He was very instrumental in extracting the meaning of those dreams for me and sewing together the thematics of the story.”
It’s interesting what you can get out of a film that uses horror or supernaturalism to articulate or illustrate feelings instead of a drama that may be more direct.
“It’s something that I love and care for deeply about—the horror genre. In the therapy world, they say, ‘Tell me what you’re afraid of, and I’ll tell you what you’ve been through.’ Just the idea that naming the fear is sometimes the most powerful thing that we can do. I wanted to personify some of those feelings.”
So, how would you say this film has shaped or unshaped your reality?
“I had to fight tooth and nail to get the film made. And then a global pandemic came along. We shot the film in August. It was a really tumultuous time, and pretty much everything was against this movie being born. At times, it felt like I was giving birth to a baby in the woods with no medical attention. But I made it happen. I’m not the first filmmaker to say this, but I don’t feel like the same person I was six months ago. I feel weathered but in a good way. No movie is easy to make. Anything that gets made is something of a miracle. So, I’m just grateful that we were able to pull it off.”
Something that stuck out to me while watching the film is how you maintain tension. Even when there isn’t action, particular looks and music make it feel like this unstoppable force. What would you say is the secret to creating a marriage among style, form, and content as a storyteller?
“I think that you have to understand the material so deeply to be able to thread those three things together. I don’t know if there’s a secret sauce. But if I understand the deeper meaning of something, I can do those things all day long. So, for me, it’s just an entry point into the material.”
“I watch a lot of movies. I try to watch as many films as I possibly can. I essentially live on the Criterion Channel to learn from the best of the best and just watch incredible filmmakers and see their careful attention to detail and how they delicately handle tension, tone, and style. All of these things are really delicate things, and when they’re handled with great care, it can produce something interesting.”
Would you say that it is essential to understand every aspect of your film? There’s nothing in the film you wouldn’t dangle out there if you didn’t fully comprehend it? Because there are specific images here where I’m like, “Ooh, that’s really left of center. I wonder what the deeper meaning of that is.”
“Sure, sure. Would you mind sharing what? I’m more interested in, as a challenge for myself, if I could try to explain it.”
How about the pink fluid that comes out of the mouth? It appears in both your feature-length film and the short, but they affect you differently.
“Yes. Yeah, they do. When I recall memory, I am very sensitive to smell, sound, and color. And the initial trauma, the girls are wearing pink dresses. And, in my [messed up] mind, I took that pink dress and liquidated it to make it something that [Kier’s character] feeds on. He feeds on the innocence of that particular memory. And then, obviously, the lightning bugs, their bodies are filled with the pink fluid. It’s a bit abstract, but that’s how I thread it together in my mind, but it’s completely open for many different interpretations.”
I would love to know what it was like to develop the visual language with cinematographer Shane F. Kelly (A Scanner Darkly, Boyhood). I have followed his career ever since he started working with Richard Linklater, and he has such a way of pulling out the poetry in everyday things.
“Yes. He has such a naturalistic and understated, and gorgeous cinematography style. I was excited to pair that with this kind of psychedelic color scape that I had been dreaming up. I think that it was an amazing marriage, in a sense, because his sensibility and mine are, in some ways, different, but it really lent itself to something lovely that happened on the screen. So, it was amazing to work with him, and I, too, have been such a fan of his for a long time. It was a dream come true to work with him.”
Last we spoke (at South by Southwest 2014 for the premiere of Premature), you talked about growing up in Fort Worth. How has the North Texas art scene influenced you as a filmmaker?
“It’s nice even to go back to Fort Worth. Now it’s developed so much. I think it’s quiet, but a unique, really amazing art scene. Fort Worth has the Modern Art Museum, and it was a big fixture that was inspiring for me growing up. And I think the community is conducive to creativity and supportive of the arts and great theater scene. All of that has been really instrumental in me reflecting on all of those things. I am very grateful for having grown up there.”
The Blazing World will be screening indoors at the Texas Theatre on Sunday, January 31, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through thetexastheatre.com. Or, if you would like to watch the film in the comfort of your own home for the same price, you can buy tickets through tickets.festival.sundance.org.
A trailer of the original 2018 short film: