Sundance 2019: Carlen May-Mann talks The Rat

Isabel Shill and Collin Kelly-Sordelet appear in The Rat by Carlen May-Mann, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Writer-director Carlen May-Mann spoke with Solzy at the Movies ahead of her new short film, The Rat, premiering during the Sundance Film Festival.

Carlen May-Mann, director of The Rat, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Carlen May-Mann, director of The Rat, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Danni Lin.

Congrats on the world premiere of The Rat during Sundance!  How excited are you to bring your short film to the mountain?

Carlen May-Mann:  I’m beyond excited to be bringing THE RAT to Sundance! I think I’ve finally stopped waking up every morning convinced that it was all a dream — it really is a culmination of everything I’ve been working towards for the past few years and it’s truly an honor to be part of such an important festival. It’s also an incredible opportunity for my wonderful cast and crew, many of whom will be joining me in Park City. I can’t wait for people to see this movie!

How did you come up with the idea for the script?

Carlen May-Mann:  This film came into existence as a loose proof of concept for a feature, entitled STRAWBERRY SUMMER, that I’ve been developing for the past few years alongside producer Beck Kitsis (co-writer on STRAWBERRY). I was encouraged by several successful filmmakers in my network to make a short that would express the themes and style of the feature, as well as my ethos as a writer and director. However, I was never really interested in just making a short version of that film or distilling it down to a few scenes — I wanted what I created to stand on its own, to exist as a complete work to be judged on its own merits.

So, given this groundwork, I knew that I needed to work within the horror genre, and to answer the question of: what horrifies me in my real life, and what would that fear look like in a horror film? I found a lot of inspiration in the genre itself. The imagery of haunted houses throughout film history is rich with visual detail and thematic resonance and I found myself writing from the point of view of a young woman trapped in such a house, creeping down the stairs, growing increasingly terrified of the terrors that she believes await her. However, the things we expect to see in a horror film are not the things that terrorize us in real life. With the ending of THE RAT I wanted to express how real fear relies on a violation of trust, of autonomy, of our faith in the status quo, and how this sort of violation will always have tragic ramifications.

How did the cast come together?

Carlen May-Mann:  We were lucky enough to work with spectacular casting director Kate Geller, whose credits are include JOHN WICK, OBVIOUS CHILD, DON’T THINK TWICE…the list goes on and on. Casting a film with only two major roles meant that getting the right actors was essential, as they would carry the film on their shoulders. The images I had in my head were romantic leads of the 1980s — I sent Kate images of young Ione Skye, Diane Lane, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe. Working with her broad network of actors working in New York, we were so lucky to find our two stars, Isabel Shill and Collin Kelly-Sordelet. With both of them, I felt in my gut when first watching their reels that they were the right choices — something just clicked.

I couldn’t have asked for a better cast — both Izzy and Collin went above and beyond what I asked, never complaining as they were locked in an actual haunted house overnight (Izzy embodying the deepest of fears with incredible grace), or as they were eaten alive by mosquitoes on the streets of the Bronx. I’m so grateful to both of them and to Kate for bringing them to me.

I got a real sense of horror in viewing the film but not in the sense of a typical horror film.  I found this film to be horrifying in other ways.  Is this what you were going for in the film?

Carlen May-Mann:  One hundred percent! My intention was to take on the well-tread iconography and conventions of the horror film and twist them to tell a story that both embraces and evades the expectations of the genre.

Throughout the history of cinema, the horror genre has been used as a subversive tool, allowing filmmakers to address social issues and progressive themes without fear of legal or cultural censorship. This is what drew me to horror in the first place, both as a viewer and a creator. However, studying the genre has made me all too aware of its flaws. Far too often, horror films and filmmakers have exploited women’s bodies and minds (both on and off screen) for the sake of shock value and entertainment. I wanted to use horror to examine this sort of exploitation, and the twisted ways in which men often view women’s terror.

Who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?

Carlen May-Mann:  I have been influenced and inspired by many different cinematic eras and traditions. I often turn to Val Lewton and his highly impressionistic horror films, to the dark and nihilistic romanticism of film noir, to the American New Wave, to New German Cinema, to teen romantic comedies of the 90s, to the most recent wave of art horror films. I always return to Robert Altman — 3 Women is the film that convinced me I needed to write and direct. I adore Claire Denis, who I believe is unsurpassable when it comes to the perfect use of a pop song to make a scene unforgettable. I look to the surreal and frightening dreaminess of David Lynch, the brutality and shockingly ambiguous endings of Yorgos Lanthimos, the decadence and heartache of New Queer Cinema filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki, the lavish humanism of Pedro Almodovar, the addictive campiness of John Waters. I look to filmmakers who understand the pain and beauty of the human experience, and who aren’t afraid to let their films utterly drip with emotion.

Outside of the premiering the film, is there anything that you’re looking forward to doing during Sundance?

Carlen May-Mann:  I can’t wait to see as many movies as possible! There are so many incredible films at the festival this year, and I wish I could see each and every one. I’m also really looking forward to meeting so many new people who, although from many different walks of life, share my passions and have worked so hard to get to this point.

In addition to The Rat, you’re also working on Strawberry Summer.  What can you tell us about this project?

Carlen May-Mann:  STRAWBERRY SUMMER is a horror feature about a young girl’s coming of age, as she struggles with the intrusive and increasingly violent attention of older men. Beck and I have been working on this script for several years now. With the support of Cinereach and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and with several incredibly talented crew members already signed on, we’re hoping to go into pre-production very soon. I believe in this project with all my heart, and hope that it will give viewers a much-needed look into the deep and often troubled psyches of teenage girls, as well as the ways in which the world is often cruel and unwelcoming to them.

Carlen May-Mann’s new short film, The Rat, screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Shorts Program 4.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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