“Dark Moon,” the skillful and captivating debut short from writer-director Katie Mathews, was born from a weekend with her father when he was in the early stages of early-onset dementia.
“After a day of errands we came home to find a disoriented woman on the street in front of our house, in need of help,” she told MovieMaker. “My father was quick to offer aid while I was more skeptical, more guarded. That night stayed with me and honestly, haunted me: what could my father see through the compassionate lens of his own condition that I could not? How powerful was my desire to keep him safe and how tightly would I try to control our universe regardless of how fruitless it would be in keeping him well?”
The film, which is wrapping up a strong festival run, played this past weekend at the Montclair Film Festival, not far from the northern New Jersey suburbs where the film is set. It lightly fictionalizes Mathews’ experience to offer a more complex depiction of dementia and Alzheimer’s than we often see on screen.
Rather than treating the story’s father, Jack (Reed Birney), with mournful solemnity, or keeping him at a respectful distance, it treats him as a proud, good-hearted person who wants to enjoy life and do the right thing, despite his struggle. He refuses to go down easy.
“I had seen so much media about dementia and Alzheimer’s that was so sad, with mostly depictions of a person who was very old and at the end of their journey with the disease. I wanted to explore a different stage where someone is actively fighting against losing their autonomy and dignity,” Mathews said.
She also embraced the northern New Jersey setting, where cozy diners and mom-and-pop businesses give way to open roads and dark woods. After a stressful day of trying to keep her dad in line on their errands, daughter Billie (Marin Ireland) arrives at the intersection of suburban comfort and dangerous wilds when a possibly drunk woman (Renata Friedman) seeks their help along the road. The daughter wonders if it’s a trap. Nothing is spelled out, and audiences get to think for themselves.
“Cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry and I were inspired by David Lynch, Gregory Crewdson, and even David Hopper to imagine a suburban world from day to night,” Mathews says.
She attracted her stellar actors in part with help from one of her producers, Nick Mills, who read and loved an early draft of the script. He brought in Friedman, whose recent roles include Hulu’s The Patient and Prime Video’s The Terminal List, as well as his Birney, a friend whose recent roles include Succession and The Menu. Mills had performed with him on Broadway in The Humans. Birney and Ireland had also performed together on Broadway, in Blasted.
“I can’t stress enough the talent, care, and flexibility all of our actors brought to this project. They dealt with overnights, cold weather, and limited resources with grace, and brought so much passion for making something meaningful to set,” Mathews said.
The setting provided challenges that add to the chilly atmospherics of the film.
“I loved the idea of the landscape of northern New Jersey ‘bedroom communities’ where you can hear the commuter trains in the distance throughout the night. To me the concept of these towns were built for another time, when the mostly male breadwinners would take the trains into the city each day for work. The fading nature of this landscape seemed like a perfect backdrop and metaphor for Reed’s character Jack, a man in the midst of his own decline. However, achieving this vision meant filming outside, at night, in freezing February weather,” says Mathews. “During load-in our first day we lost hours due to a freak storm, and on Day 2 we lost time to something called a white squall.”
The ubiquity of New Jersey diners might make it seem like it would be easy to shoot in one — but no.
“I was dead set on a Jersey diner for one of our first scenes. But given the 24-hour nature of New Jersey diners, none would let us shut them down for a morning. After door-knocking every diner in the area, we ultimately convinced a Chinese restaurant in an old diner space to let us film before they opened,” Mathews said.
“Like any film, the hurdles are how to match the creative energies with the practical ones, of budget and time,” adds producer Michael Izquierdo. “But this film was a pleasure – to be able to support our director with her clear vision, with a story that was so personal and meaningful is a true gift. Telling stories that matter is all you can really hope for.”
The film’s grounded storytelling may result, in part, from Mathews’ background in documentary film.
“I knew ‘Dark Moon’ was a story I wanted to tell but I also knew it shouldn’t be a documentary because I could not gain consent ethically from my father to be on screen as his memory and mind was changing. I also wanted to create a world and push the story further in terms of the ending and what the film could say,” she says.
The festival run for ‘Dark Moon’ included screenings at the Sun Valley, Newport Beach, and Sarasota film festivals. Mathews and her producers hope the film will receive distribution from and online platform or streamer, and they are also in talks with an educational distributor “so that this film can make its way into hospitals, support groups, schools, et cetera where it can have an impact on families, caregivers, and others who are struggling with the same things are characters deal with in the film.”
“The more eyes, the better, I say! Both for being able to share the excellent work of the team, but most importantly to be able to share the meaning of the film to those that have been, or who are going through similar experiences,” says Izquierdo.
Mathews is also interested in a feature version of “Dark Moon,: and in continuing to tell other narrative stories in film and TV.
“Prior to my work in documentary,” says Mathews, I came of age acting and writing and in these ways, ‘Dark Moon’ has been a homecoming and a healing.”
Main image: Reed Birney in “Dark Moon.”