Whenever you’re dealing with ghosts on screen, there are rules that must be followed. Each project has its own means of handling paranormal activity, and what spirits can or can’t do. And in the case of “Darby and the Dead,” director Silas Howard admits that it was hard following the rules he and his own team created.
“Darby and the Dead,” now streaming on Hulu, follows Darby Harper (Riele Downs) as she navigates through her teenage years, all while running a side hustle helping ghosts. Thanks to a near-death experience as a kid, Darby can not only see dead people, but communicate with them, so she assists them in taking care of their unfinished business so they can move on to the great beyond.
Unfortunately, a freak accident at school results in the death of Darby’s former best friend and current popular mean girl Capri Donahue (Auli’i Cravalho), which means Darby now has to reluctantly help her frenemy knock out her unfinished business. And it’s very reluctantly.
The only reason Darby agrees to help is because Capri quickly figures out that she can use her ghostly powers to draw a lot of attention to Darby, in ways that the latter can’t easily explain off. (This includes a moment at the end of the film, when Capri terrorizes her own party guests by making a ouija board fly around the room and deliver messages).
But, like we said, there are rules. Capri can’t actually touch anything, nor can she see herself in the mirror, among other things. And according to Silas Howard, remembering what she could and couldn’t do became a bit of a headache.
“It was a tricky balance. Like, we made up these rules, and then we were haunted by them, pun intended,” Howard joked with TheWrap. “It was annoying because, like, saying that she couldn’t move things, it was hard to move things!”
That being said, Howard and Cravalho did have fun figuring out how Capri could work around those rules to wreak havoc.
“When there’s the bathroom scene, you know, it was really fun because I was like, ‘Oh, you’re just finding these powers. There’s a little joy in the fact that you know how to do this,’” he explained. “And there’s also like, you know, it’s like, how do you move something with your energy? And so just finding that like, hand flip or whatever, it was really fun to find the physicality.”
In the end, Howard brought in a movement coach to help figure things out, which he says made all the difference and allowed him to keep the rules, but still make the story character-based.
“What does unbridled teenage rage look like, you know what I mean? And sort of, you know, playing around with that,” Howard said. “And then when you know she’s manipulating Riele, like. how do we capture that for Darby. But it was tricky to think about.”
He added, “I think just the rules of the world became a little tricky to follow. I’m not a good rule follower, even when I make my own rules, turns out.”
Of course, just as hard as figuring out the balance of paranormal activity in the movie was figuring out the many fourth wall breaks. Because, in this film, Riele Downs’ lead character of Darby speaks directly to the audience. According to Howard, the audience is meant to be her true best friend — the person she doesn’t put up any front with.
“We all have that person that like, we feel our smartest [with], and they get us the most,” Howard said. “So that was the audience’s relationship to Darby, so that she could have this swagger and this kind of vulnerability that she couldn’t have with anybody else. Like, you know, she turned to us and be really excited. And then she’d front to Capri like, ‘Oh, I feel like I had to force a smile.’ And so I love that.”
But, Howard says he was initially “worried” about making sure the fourth wall breaks were used effectively, and “overthought it a lot.” Fortunately, Downs was able to handle those moments expertly.
“My concerns about breaking the fourth wall and it being too much were alleviated as soon as Riele talked to the camera because she brought a whole different person. She brought all these different aspects of Darby.”
Between balancing the performances, and the rules, and the actual visual effects — Howard added that figuring out the perfect way for ghosts to cross over was particularly hard — “Darby and the Dead” was like nothing else Howard has ever directed before.
“Darby and the Dead” is now streaming on Hulu.