Actress Carlson Young refers to The Blazing World, her feature-length directorial debut which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, as a “mission statement for me in terms of what I personally love in cinema”. Haunting, hypnotic and sometimes even horrific, The Blazing World proudly wears its influences on its sleeves, paying tribute to everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the films of Tarsem Singh and much more. “I was definitely inspired by a lot things,” reveals Young. “I kind of wanted to dive back into ‘70s giallo horror and the technicolor horror films of the 70s, and then also a little bit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and just that classic surrealism I wanted to see in movies.”
Despite the wide range of films and other forms of media that influenced Young’s approach to the material, The Blazing World is still a boldly original, wholly unique experience that will undoubtedly cement the filmmaker’s status as an exciting new voice in the industry. With a bright, gorgeous colour palette and picture-perfect cinematography not unlike the works of Sofia Coppola, The Blazing World, at first glance, may seem like an exercise in aesthetics but practically pulsing underneath its carefully constructed surface is a tragic, oftentimes frightening study of grief and depression filtered through a horror lens. “I’ve always found the horror genre to be really poignant and thematically gut-wrenching,” reveals Young. “So it was a no-brainer for me to explore the emotionality of the script and this character through that specific angle. I’ve always wanted to make films that have that magical, sort of surrealist quality.”
The Blazing World centres on Margaret (Carlson), a young woman who is still reeling from the tragic circumstances that led to her twin sister’s untimely death. Aimless, despondent and borderline self-destructive, Margaret spends her days combing over the works of Dr. Cruz (Liz Mikel), a “spiritual doctor” who may very well be a con artist, in the hopes of accessing the spiritual realm that she thinks her sister’s soul may still be trapped in. A trip back home to the lush countryside that her family lives in offers Margaret a chance to revisit her past, and she finds herself diving headfirst into a world filled with painful memories that is ruled by a demonic entity known as Lained (Udo Kier). As Margaret struggles to emerge from the confines of this world that she may have possibly dreamt up herself, she soon comes to realise that the salvation she so desperately sought may have been inside of her all along.
While The Blazing World is structured like a surreal fairytale, with Margaret embarking on a mission to retrieve four distinct keys that she believes will lead her to her sister, it is, underneath all of that, a deep dive into the psyche of a woman struggling to live with depression and a look at how grief can mercilessly consume a person from the inside-out. The Blazing World joins the influx of modern horror movies, such as Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, that have attempted to dissect the human psyche through a more surreal, oftentimes supernatural lens. “In therapy, they say, ‘Tell me what you are afraid of and I’ll tell you what you’ve been through,’” says Young when asked why she thinks more and more filmmakers are choosing to address stories of mental health in such a way. “So horror themes really do go hand-in-hand with mental health, and I think that’s really interesting.”
The Blazing World is based on Young’s short film of the same name, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. Although certain scenes, including an unnerving nightmare sequence that features Lained visiting Margaret during the night, were lifted directly from the short, the basic storyline and structure underwent somewhat of a major overhaul, with Young ageing up her lead character and removing some of the other characters entirely. “It was always the plan [to make The Blazing World into a feature film],” reveals Young. “I got some good advice somewhere along the way to make the idea into a short film first so I did that and then, the story ended up naturally progressing after Sundance 2018.” Young says that after the short film’s festival run, she teamed up with New York Times best-selling author Pierce Brown for a “fairly intense script development process.” “There wasn’t anything that changed structurally about the script,” she explains. “It was just subtle changes that that happened over the course of two years. [The short film led to] very profound changes so I’m really grateful for the way that the process has evolved.”
While The Blazing World made its Sundance debut on January 31, Young reveals that they originally shot the film mere months ago, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had a seamless and safe shoot,” says Young. “But we shot dead center of the pandemic and it was just a lot of months of prep and production. Just making sure that first and foremost, we could shoot the film safely.” Filming in such circumstances led to a number of script changes, which, Young says, ended up strengthening the story in the long run. “I actually had to crack open the script, kind of go in and rewrite some things to take us out of the public, out of the world and make it more contained,” she explains. “I actually think that this necessary adjustment lent itself to the claustrophobic energy of the film.”
The Blazing World features an impressive group of performers, all who turn in layered and nuanced performances that successfully blend in with the surreal elements of the film, while also grounding the source material with some much-needed brevity. “I’m forever grateful for them,” gushes Young over her cast, which included Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney and Udo Kier, who she specifically wrote the role of Lained for. “When we got the call from Udo’s manager that he loved the script and he wanted to do it, that was just a Hallelujah moment,” reveals Young. “I was so excited. Dermot and Vinessa came into the fold pretty organically, but once I pictured them as [Margaret’s parents] Tom and Alice, there was no going back. I was really, really just excited to see Dermot do a role like this because he is such a fabulous actor and I think that you really get to see that here in this film. The same goes for Vinessa, who I am such a fan of because of Eyes Wide Shut. I just got to hear the most amazing Stanley Kubrick stories on set [from her].”
The film also includes a mini-reunion of sorts for Young and her co-star from the Scream TV series, John Karna, who plays Margaret’s childhood best friend and potential love interest. “John was actually my roommate as I wrote a good portion of the script,” reveals Carlon. “He lived with my husband and I in a little town house in Silver Lake. He’s one of my dearest friends and I’m also a huge fan of him as an actor so it was a no-brainer that he would be my character’s best friend and kind of her ex in a lot of ways because he represents a lot of things that she’s trying to run away from. We met first on a film called Premature when I was like 20 years old and he was a baby. We were babies and then four years later, we ended up doing Scream together just by total chance. So this is our third thing to work on together and I hope we get to work together more.”
Aside from working on her feature-length directorial debut, 2020 also included a much-talked-about appearance from Young in one of the year’s biggest cultural phenomena, Netflix’s Emily in Paris. “I did not expect that at all,” says Young of the reception to the show, which was one of the top ten most watched streaming shows when it first premiered. “I don’t think you ever really expect anything like that. You just never know what’s going to resonate with people and because, you know, everyone was all holed up in their homes, they needed a little escape to Paris.” Up next for Young is Femina Nox, another project she has written and also plans to direct. “It’s a 2001 middle school-set horror / thriller with fantasy and surrealism sprinkled in there too,” she reveals. “It’s very much in the same spirit as The Blazing World and is meant to be kind of a twin to it. It’ll be really fun.” Until then, she is basking in the satisfaction and relief of finally putting out a project that’s been years in the making. “It feels really good to finally put it out into the world,” she says. “We’re all really proud of it.”
by Ahmad W.
Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favourite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.