Normally the first event of the year that brings together much of the filmmaking world, 2021’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival was quite a different one. Taking place online rather than in person for the first time in the festival’s decade-spanning history, this change paved the way for more films to get wider exposure than ever before, propelling hidden gems to the forefront of the screen and bringing light to many incredible debuts. One of the films to benefit from this exposure, Scream actress-turned-director Carlson Young’s The Blazing World has been called a “visionary fever dream”.
Many have already praised Young’s ability to take on multiple roles in such an ambitious project (apart from starring in it, she asserts herself as feature writer and director for the first time in her career). Inspired by Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 work of the same name, Young’s film is all her own. A young woman goes through an Alice in Wonderland-esque trip to save her long-dead sister at her family’s hollow estate. By traveling through a portal into another dimension, she comes face to face with personal demons (literally) and the closure she’s needed all along. We have said that she’ll surely become “a powerful voice in independent filmmaking for years to come”. With an incredibly unique background and an unconventional journey to these achievements, we recently spoke to Young about The Blazing World. Touching on her career, influences in Horror, and much more, read on for our exclusive interview with Carlson Young!
What inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Carlson Young: I have always been profoundly moved by film. Everybody gravitates towards art that speaks to them, whether that’s painting, music, or film. But for me, I’ve always been really interested in the idea of [using] images to say things, even instead of words, so I’ve always gravitated towards it. I’ve obviously come up as an actor, but I’ve always had a really deep desire to express myself as a director and as an artist that way.
As previously mentioned, you’ve risen in the industry primarily as an actor, having roles on shows like Scream and Emily in Paris. What led you to pursue writing and directing at this point in your career?
Carlson Young: I always had the idea in my head that if I would get to a certain place as an actor, then people would take me seriously as a director. But I don’t necessarily know if that’s the case anymore (laughs). So I had to get serious about why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I want to do what I want to do, and what I want to say as an artist. All of the acting roles that I’ve had have just been at the mercy of whatever door somebody else will open for me, or how they see me. So as a filmmaker, I have a lot more to say than [as an actress] in a show like Emily in Paris (laughs). I mean, I loved that experience of Emily in Paris. It was very fun, but that is not me as an artist. So I just had to jump off this cliff.
Regarding The Blazing World, it was first seen as a short under the same name. What birthed the idea for the short, and how did you go about making such an ambitious piece as your first major project?
Carlson Young: Just from its inception, I was writing a paper at school on Margaret Cavendish and reading her novel, and having these weird recurring dreams about this black hole in a field, and the light was kind of this particular way. It was really vivid, and I started having this dream enough to where I was like “Okay, I need to write this into a short”. So I wrote it into a short, and then had the outline for the feature. I got the good advice to make it into a short first because I knew that I wanted to direct it, and I knew that no one would probably let me direct it unless I had good proof of concept. The short was fortunate enough to premiere at Sundance in 2018. From there, there were two years of just refining the script with my co-writer and trying to rally the troops around the project – finding the right team to support this because like you said, it’s really out there and ambitious. With any kind of project, you’re always grossly underestimating how much work, blood, sweat, and tears it’s actually going to take. In this case, I had to really fight for it. All of my blood, sweat, and tears had to go into this to push it to the next level.
This was also one of the first films to be shot during the pandemic, so I’m sure that came with a whole other set of challenges. How did you adapt to shooting in the pandemic and how else was the production affected?
Carlson Young: Well, we went into pre-production at the beginning of March and then a week later, the world shut down… didn’t see that one coming! (laughs). Films are always challenging to make, but a global pandemic was not on my radar of things that could happen to us. We pressed pause for a few weeks, and I cracked open the script. I reworked and rewrote a couple of sequences to take us out of the public and into a more contained environment. We realized that there’s never any more than four people in a house and with a limited crew, we might be able to safely pull this off. So we came up with a really intense plan over the next couple of months, and we started shooting on August 1. We were trial and error-ing a lot of things to a certain degree, but we all lived in a quarantine camp outside of Austin and Dripping Springs, and our location was right across from where we were all living, with nobody coming in or out. We had limited resources with a limited crew, which I didn’t write the script for that, so it was very much the [epitome] of “necessity is the mother of invention” for this movie.
How did your background as an actor and experiences on past projects help you in the making of this film?
Carlson Young: I think the best experience that anybody can get is on-set. I’ve been on a lot of different productions as an actor and have always observed and figured out the inner workings of who is doing what, what is my responsibility, what is the function of every single crew member? Onset experiences are just invaluable and it’s what gave me the confidence and clarity to be able to do that. You don’t know until you try. I tried with the short. And I thought, “You know what, I can do this, and I think I can do it at a bigger scale”. I mean, I just love it. Film sets are just like a little ecosystem, and so for me, it was just a dream come true.
Throughout The Blazing World, a wide range of styles and influences pop from the screen. What films, filmmakers, genres, or artists influenced you during the production and to what extent are they seen in the final cut?
Carlson Young: Obviously, 70s horror and [Dario] Argento are big influences for me, I love that style. In terms of the Technicolor aspect, I was really interested in correlating the color to the chakra that she’s moving through. The red is the root chakra, and she’s got a lot of problems with the root chakra and the home, so I wanted to make each color really mean something. I obviously have tons of influences here in this film, but I wanted them to mean something real. With the green hallway and the red orb, the green is the heart chakra and the red is [her] touching the root of her problem, which is the familial trauma.
There’s a lot of details that I was really fascinated by and wanted to amp up at the same time, like The Shining and Kubrick and a few Guillermo del Toro nods, and fantasy – well, I think those filmmakers are perfect (laughs). I don’t want to reference something unless it’s a f*cking perfect film. So I’m trying to put my own DNA on that stuff, and the details are there if people want to pick up on them. I was fascinated with the idea of the water pouring out of the door ala the blood pouring out from the elevator in The Shining, but in this space, it’s the water because she’s being cleansed with. So with every influence that I took, I wanted to press it harder
So what first drew you to exploring this suurealist blend of genre?
Carlson Young: I love surrealist horror. I’m the number one fan of that stuff. I wanted the first thing I directed to be a mission statement, and more than anything else, [show that] this is what I’m about, this is what I love, and this is what speaks to me on a cellular level. I have my own sh*t to bring to that. I was really interested in how with horror films, every horror film is about trauma. So how was I going to make this one different? I learned a lot about the psychology of trauma and the way that it’s stored in your brain. I did a lot of healing therapy myself and just tried to understand as much as I possibly could – the psychology of every single moment.
You also recently had the chance to direct a music video for Peel’s song Catch and Release, and I found The Blazing World to have those many visionary qualities that are appropriate for the modern music video aesthetic. Did your time making this film influence how you ended up developing that music video?
Carlson Young: That’s so interesting that you said that, as I shot that on my iPhone back in April when we were still putting together a plan of how we were going to shoot this. We shot The Blazing World in August, and I shot that video in April. I had written out a whole treatment for it, and we were going to shoot it pre-pandemic. Obviously, when everything went to hell, there was no way to do that anymore. So I was like, “You know what? Maybe let’s just do it on my iPhone. I can try to treat it and let’s just see what happens?” It’s funny, as the two worlds really do meld together. I can’t say that I necessarily planned that. When my husband played me that song. I was super inspired and thought it was so romantic, and I knew that I wanted to use it in the film. But yeah, I think a lot of stylistic things poured over into that space as I was storyboarding The Blazing World while I was shooting that.
In the production design, there is a lot of very creative world-building present everywhere. How far did you go in your collaboration with the production designer?
Carlson Young: There was a lot of collaboration with my production designer. I’m such a bad drawer (laughs), but I would sketch out what I was thinking and then he would bring it to life. So I would be saying “Okay, table here, chair here or fireplace here” you know? I made a little map of what essentially the inside of her head looks like, and we went from there. It was a very collaborative process.
So what’s next for your career? Do you have any upcoming projects either in the acting or in the directing realm that you can tell us about?
Carlson Young: I do have my next script written that I do hope to do next, although I’m open right now and just trying to see what happens, what comes to me. I don’t want to be too locked in with anything. But I do have my script that I’m really excited about called Femina Nox, it’s about a middle school girl and is psychedelic horror as well, so I think that’s going to be really fun and I’m excited to do that.
That sounds great! We’ll be eagerly anticipating that one. Do you ever plan to go back to tackling any projects where you’re just acting and not creatively involved behind-the-scenes?
Carlson Young: I’m happy to, but I definitely want to be selective and do things I love. I love comedy, you know, so if something comes at me where I chuckle reading the script, I would be super open to that! But I don’t really want to do anything where I’m not creatively inspired anymore.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who are trying to get their ambitious projects made?
Carlson Young: My advice would be to persevere. It takes a lot of endurance and a lot of time to get your baby up and walking around. It takes a village too, so you just have to find your tribe and find the people who are going to support you and your vision and also respect it. Because once you find that niche of people who support you creatively, it’s just invaluable. But most importantly, don’t take no for an answer and don’t give up!