Interview: Director Maggie Levin Talks INTO THE DARK: MY VALENTINE, Empowering Victims of Abuse, and Social Media
Love sucks in Blumhouse’s Into the Dark Valentine’s Day themed installment, My Valentine, which addresses important issues like empowerment of victims of abuse and the effects of social media. This incredibly relevant film features a remarkable performance from Glow’s Britt Baron as Valentine Fawkes, a singer/songwriter who is confronted by her former abusive boyfriend and manager, Royal, played sinisterly by Benedict Samuel. Royal has stolen Valentine’s music and created a new artist named Trezzure (Anna Lore), who looks exactly like Valentine. Valentine is forced to deal with her abuser and fight for her life, while rediscovering herself in the process.
My Valentine is the debut feature film from amazing writer/director Maggie Levin and was executive produced by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who wrote and directed Sinister. Levin also wrote and directed the short film Diva, which is also about a pop star struggling with stardom, as well as the Sci-Fi/Comedy TV series Miss 2059. Levin has a background in directing music videos, which is showcased in neon lit, pop music video segments in My Valentine. The film has a darkly fun vibe and catchy songs, reveals Royal’s true bloody intentions, and presents difficult issues like rediscovering yourself after being a victim of abuse and the toxic effects of social media. There’s even a cameo by Pooka. My Valentine is captivating, emotionally charged, and painfully personal, and I think it’s one of the best installments of Into the Dark yet. Levin is an astonishingly talented, rockstar writer and director to watch and you can check out more about her at her website maggielevin.com.
Dread Central had the absolute pleasure of speaking with director Maggie Levin about the creative process of writing My Valentine, the insanely talented cast, the dangerous effects of social media, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Into the Dark: My Valentine premieres on Hulu Friday, February 7th.
Dread Central: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today, Maggie! I absolutely love My Valentine and I think it’s one of the best installments of Into the Dark yet.
Maggie Levin: Thank you so much! It’s so exciting. You are one of the very first people who isn’t one of my dear friends or isn’t working on the movie, who has seen it, and that I’ve heard a reaction from. So, that’s thrilling to me to hear that you enjoyed it.
DC: Valentine Fawkes is such a clever name for Britt Baron’s character and the title My Valentine is so fitting, once you realize what the story is about. Why did you choose Valentine’s Day and how did your story get selected by Blumhouse for Into the Dark?
ML: Through my producers, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, I was introduced to the Blumhouse television team, to actually talk about an entirely different script, which was a time travel, time-looping, science fiction, romance, post-apocalyptic movie. So, we were talking about that project and it was looking like it could be a good fit for their February Into the Dark slot, and it would have been for Groundhog Day [laughs].
What’s actually cool about the Into the Dark project for Blumhouse is they’re pulling filmmakers and projects from all over and it’s very filmmaker driven, and it all comes together under this umbrella, which I think is just really cool. So, we were talking about this other project and they sent me a number of the episodes to watch. I watched Culture Shock and Down, and I’m Just Fucking With You, which was for April Fool’s in 2019. When I saw I’m Just Fucking With You, my whole self lit up, because this is exactly the kind of thing that kind of calls on the filmmaking skills I’ve been acquiring over the course of my career so far. It had this kind of aggressive, run and gun, almost music video feel and there’s touches of that in I’m Just Fucking With You when I first saw the potential in that. I had a couple of topics that I already wanted to explore, so kind of the confluence of knowing that there was this February opening, having these romantic themes that I already wanted to talk about, and then seeing what was possible in the format all kind of came together into this one idea that I went back to them with.
I said, “Hey, maybe instead of doing this Sci-Fi movie that I already have a script for [laughs], which will have to be rebroken and converted into the format, what about this other idea that would be suitable for the same month, but a different holiday, and I think it could be something that would really sing in this format?” Pun absolutely intended [laughs]. I’m really fortunate that, not only were they open to it, but sort of from the get-go, very excited about it and we all dug in together to figure out how it would work.
DC: You mentioned your executive producers, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. I’m a huge fan of their work. How did they end up coming onboard?
ML: Scott and Cargill are obviously longtime collaborators, who are working on a number of projects, both as individual creatives and then as producers. I was introduced to Scott through an actress friend and then he had read some of my work and took a particular interest in this one script, which he then brought to Cargill, and we started developing that together. And that’s sort of the path that led us all the way to here, through that development relationship. They’re still attached to that project if it ever lands somewhere else, which I think it may.
The two of them are just incredible, not just collaborators, but champions of other filmmakers. The projects that I know they are developing as producers are all in the horror genre space, but they are from such a diverse swath of creators and different perspectives. In a time when we need powerful people to champion filmmakers, people of color and female filmmakers, I have found the two of them to be just incredible, put their money where their mouth is kind of people.
DC: I know Britt Baron from Glow, and she is absolutely incredible in My Valentine. I also thought Benedict Samuel was fantastic and terrifyingly unhinged. His performance kind of gave me Skeet Ulrich vibes from Scream.
ML: Yes! Oh My God. I’ve never thought about that, but you’re so correct [laughs]! That was one shot where I’ve always called it his Christian Slater moment, but I actually am now rethinking it and I’m like, “I don’t think it’s Christian Slater. I think it’s Skeet Ulrich.” It’s that looking up from underneath his eyebrows at you. That sinister kind of chaotic feel that he has.
DC: Did you have any specific actors in mind when you wrote the script, or did you go through the regular casting process?
ML: I think with any film project, if it turns out well, it is because the whole team had the same movie in mind and also a series of miracles occurred [laughs]. You just need a little bit of that flash of magic or outside spirit to make everything come together the way it’s supposed to, I believe. I really felt that in terms of this cast. The whole process was very quick, so when I talk early stages, it’s the months that we were talking about the idea. Because the months it was getting written were right after that and then we were shooting.
So, when I started writing, I had seen Glow and I also was familiar with Britt’s work, and then I was personally familiar with the work of this other actress, Anna Lore. When I was looking at a script that was centered around two characters who looked uncannily similar, I didn’t write it to their voices specifically, but I definitely wrote it with the hope that both girls would be interested in the project and available, particularly Britt. In the first season, what she does with her character on Glow, I felt was just so sublime. Then when I sat down with her and talked to her about this project, she’s just such a wonderful person. She brought so much strength and power to this character, who for a good portion of the movie is barely speaking. She’s just responding to this re-traumatizing, re-triggering experience of having to encounter her abuser again.
Really, it’s remarkable what she did. Those were the first couple of days that we were shooting and she was mostly just reacting, and I knew from the get-go when we were starting to get into it, I was just like, “This is going to be a really incredible thing to witness.” Truly every performance in the movie, all of the people brought their A game, and then some. I think you’re supposed to get tired of watching your own movie [laughs], but I never grow tired of watching their performances, because I think all of them, Anna Akana, Sachin Bhatt, everybody brought something beautiful and really grounded to the movie, which exists in this very fantastical, music video space. If it didn’t have those really human performances in it, I think it would get a little like, “Oh, we’re just doing crazy for crazy sake.” But those performers really keep it personal and they keep it beautifully emotional the whole time.
DC: You address some really important issues in My Valentine in a way that feels personal and authentic and I think it’s extremely well-written. Why did you want to explore survivors of abuse and the journey of finding yourself with this story?
ML: Thank you. It is personal. It’s something that I’ve been really close to myself. This particular cycle of abuse and being locked in a toxic dynamic with somebody is something that I’ve witnessed in the lives of the women who are closest to me. I think that we are in this cultural moment where we are unearthing these sort of dark patterns that we have let go on for years and years, because we haven’t been able to recognize them. When you are in that dynamic personally or when you are very close to it, it becomes so difficult to see reality.
To step outside of it and to have the strength to remove yourself from the situation; and I really wanted to talk about and demonstrate what it is like to fall into the maelstrom of a person who is so charming, so dynamic, and so kind of all over the place, that they manage to keep you in their vortex. And even if you are really smart and really powerful, it becomes almost impossible to break away, and that process of breaking away is really painful. The reason why I wanted to do the therapy podcast and discuss all that stuff is because the process of recovery, in it and out of it, is so intense and I think just a vital thing to be talking about right now.
DC: I think it’s important that you show that it is possible to remove yourself from a toxic relationship, and that’s the part that really got to me when Britt’s character finally found herself. I’m sure there are women out there who think it isn’t possible, but it is, and you emphasize that with this movie.
ML: Thank you. That is really meaningful to me. That’s where I’m hoping it will hit people. Yes, it is a fun and occasionally over the top movie, but it really is still fundamentally a story about a person’s journey towards empowerment and reclaiming themselves. It’s about learning to reconnect with your strength after you’ve had it deliberately shattered by somebody else.
DC: You’ve directed music videos, which explains why the music video segments work so well. The vocals are amazing and I’m kind of in love with the song “The Knife.” How did you decide you wanted to use music and vocals by Dresage?
ML: Thank you. Her artist name is Dresage, but her name is Keeley Bumford. Who is the MVP of this movie? I think I have to give it to Keeley aka Dresage. When I stepped into this process, I had no idea I was going to wind up working with her on it. It all happened really quickly. I knew her socially and she was the vocal director of a stage production of Rocky Horror that I had done. She has this incredible voice and I knew her to be a really great songwriter, and she had done some things in film and television. When I really got into the process of working on this, I felt that it was really important that the songs be composed and produced by a woman artist. I’m really blessed, not only that Keeley said yes, but that much like the actors in this movie, she gave it completely her all.
We would talk about the emotional structure of what the songs needed to cover. For instance, “The Knife” is about starting a relationship when you’re scared to dive all the way in, but you can feel yourself falling headfirst. She took that basic concept, and a couple of basic artist references I gave her of what I kind of thought it should sound like, and crafted that into something that is not only completely, cleverly referential to the film, it includes the thematic element of the murder weapon [laughs], and all these other fun little things, but she also made this song that feels like a radio hit. It feels like the song that they would be fighting over, which is a feat, to have been able to pull that off so well [laughs]. The premise of the movie really hangs on your ability to buy into this idea of Valentine being this remarkable artist, who has been robbed of her talents. I think Keeley’s work, especially with the opening song, which is called “Parts of Me,” really helps you buy into that. Britt’s performance combined with that sound is like, “Oh yeah, this woman is an unbelievable performer and what a songwriter.”
DC: My Valentine is very modern and relevant, and I love the snapchat-y shots with emojis, hearts, and stars. It also adds some dark humor to the story which breaks the tension of the seriousness of the subject matter. I think you do such a great job showing the good and the bad that comes from social media. What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?
ML: That’s a really great question. If there is a lesson to be learned from this movie, or from any online community encounter, it is the importance of remembering that there’s a human on the other end of the keyboard. There’s a person with a lived experience, but you might not completely understand. So, developing a purely reactive opinion based on the little piece of the story that you’re seeing on Twitter or on Youtube, is probably not necessary, not the best idea [laughs]. I also think that we live in an age where that disconnect allows us to go with our first reaction, which is not always our best reaction. I’ve done it, too. I’ve seen a headline and gone, “This person is cancelled.”
It’s a dangerous habit that I think we all have gotten into of basing our opinions of people off one tiny, little blip that goes through our feed. I think that the tendency of people to get together and dogpile before going into a deeper understanding of the person or the story they’re dogpiling on is dangerous. It’s got a dark side and a light side, right? The light side is that a lot of people who have been taking advantage of other people or doing horrible things unchecked; the internet police have gotten a lot of those people and taken them down in a way that I think is really positive. But the flip side is that we have a little bit of a mob mentality towards everything nowadays. It can really feel like the internet is the whole world [laughs]. You stare into the Eye of Sauron that is your phone, and you think, “This is very meaningful.” But if you put it down for four or five hours, you go, “Oh, it’s really not [laughs].” The actual human connection with the people around me and in front of me is way more important and valuable than that.
DC: I know My Valentine is your debut feature, but would you like to make more horror movies, and can you tell me what you’re working on next?
ML: Yes. I love genre film in general, so I’m really looking forward to doing more work in the horror and Sci-Fi genre space. I think I also want to continue to tell stories that are about women. That’s important to me and I want to do everything. I also want to continue my relationship with music and musicals and Rock and Roll, so I’m hoping to continue in all directions. Whether that means I’ll be busting out horror musical after horror musical, I don’t know [laughs]. I think on the horizon is a little bit of everything, because all of those areas are meaningful to me.
A lot of things I can’t talk about yet, because they’re not done deals [laughs]. But coming up in the future, I am doing a few more music videos that are also horror-based music videos. And I have that feature that I originally talked about, which is in development, that Sci-Fi, apocalyptic thing that led me to My Valentine in the first place. Then I have another horror feature about three generations of women who are haunted by the same imaginary friend when they’re little girls. So those are the three things that I’m working on right now.
DC: I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me today!
ML: Likewise, and I’m beyond touched that you said the things you said about the film. It fills my heart up that it is hitting all of those places for you, because that is what I tried to do. You never know until you let it out into the world if it’s going to do what you intended.