The loss of a loving parent is perhaps grief at its highest form. The sheer enormity of despair and its weight becomes crushing tp to the psyche.
Director Erin Coates found a metaphor for the transformative nature of our grieving process with Dark Water, a gothic tale of familial trauma explored through the lense of an ominous deep-sea environment. When a grieving woman’s quaint suburban home begins to transform into a vast ocean, the viewer discovers the depths of her loss reflected in her psychological state.
Ahead of the films premiere at this week’s Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Coates discusses the inspiration behind her surreal film and the challenges of transformative loss and underwater shooting.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Dark Water is one of the most unique horror concepts I’ve seen at this festival. What was your inspiration for the premise?
Erin Coates: Thanks, glad you find it unique. The co-director Anna Nazzari and I live in Western Australia, which has truly amazing marine ecosystems, so the simple answer is that these are our inspiration. My dad was a professional shell diver and I grew up with a deep fascination for the ocean. But also huge respect, knowing all the gruesome details of what can go wrong for humans underwater! Anna and I are both drawn to Australian Gothic cinema, and in particular the subgenre of eco-horror, in which nature and the landscape become a source of existential threat to the non-indigenous characters. We wanted to forge an off-shoot of this, which we call ‘Australian Oceanic Gothic’ and to focus on underwater spaces as the source of uncanny horror. Dark Water is the third film in a series that explores this concept. In our vision for Dark Water, we wanted to merge a suffocating domestic interior with a watery submerged space filled with strange, abject lifeforms. Sounds simple, hey…
With water being one of the driving forces for this plot, what were the directorial challenges you had with shooting scenes?
Oh man, where do I start?! I guess we love challenges, because filming underwater creates one of the most difficult shooting environments you could ever get. However, it also generates incredible possibilities for visual storytelling, lighting and cinematography. The two biggest challenges were our team structure; Anna and I are both artists – we make all our own props, sets and practical effects, and we are co-writers/directors/producers. We really had too many hats on and it was pretty nutso at times. I think a more conventional film team structure could have been better in retrospect! The other hardest thing was submerging the film set in a diver training pool. We underestimated how much weight we’d need to sink it. There was a moment when the set tipped, some of the weights slid off before they were secured, and the whole set started launching itself out of the water like a giant iceberg. That surreal image is etched in my brain forever.
As the story progressed, you can make metaphorical connections between the vastness of the ocean and the unknown depths of the main character’s psychological state. However, the environmental perspective adds an interesting twist. Would it be right to see the destructive psychological “flooding” as additional social commentary on our destructive acts that are causing climate change?
Yes, definitely. The central character, Gemini, is grieving a great loss and also learning things about her own past, her mother’s past too. There is a strong narrative of loss and transformation, which broadly connects with our own anxieties (and actual observations) of marine habitat loss and climate change. The submerged space Gemini is slowly drawn into is a metaphor for her own psychological state and a kind of drilling down into the past. It also relates to women’s bodies, birth and death. Water is a source of life and origin, and our own lives begin in sacs of fluid. It is rich in metaphor and also works so well visually for creating all kinds of slimy effects, deep sea critters and body horror.
Without spoiling, the chilling final images have a strong gothic feel to them. Did you always have those images as the finale or did they manifest as the story progressed?
No actually, we had an alternative ending that was more optimistic! I think we were trying to be more inspirational and hopeful, but it just wasn’t working and we had to embrace our true dark, horror-filled proclivities. We re-shot the ending and then knew this was how it always needed to be. There is actually quite a lot of ambiguity in this ending, so all is not lost … just irreversibly changed.
Where can the readers find your work and what’s your next project(s)?
People can check out plenty of my past screen-based works on my website: www.erincoates.net I work more in the visual arts than in film, and my current project is a video art piece I’m filming in the river in my city, Perth, for an upcoming exhibition. I’ve been doing a lot of freediving and shooting just with props and one other person – it’s quite freeing to shift back to a looser, more abstract (and cheaper!) form after how intense Dark Water was to make, but I’m sure the pull of complex, practical-effect-filled short horror filmmaking will strike again.
Dark Water premiers on Day 3 of the Atlanta Horror Film Festival during Short Block #6 – Keeping it surReal. Tickets are still available at https://filmfreeway.com/atlantahorrorfest/tickets.