Low-key lighting casts shadows upon its characters. A story of deception and murder where the closer one gets to the truth the more dangerous it gets. A femme fatale leads the protagonist through a world of moral ambiguity, only to bring him to his demise. These are some of the things normally associated with film noir. If you keep all that and then add in a couple of singing vixens, a lushly ornate visual palate and a slew of original blues songs from the likes of Chaka Khan and Etta James, you’ve got director Rachel Samuels’ new film noir musical fantasy, Dark Streets.
With her third feature, Samuels has entered unknown territory, creating a cinematic style, while based in the 1930s and structured after classic film noirs, is still an innovative original from start to finish. The story centers upon a New Orleans nightclub owner, Chaz (played by “Mad Men”’s Gabriel Mann), who finds himself caught in the middle of a string of murders somehow linked to his father’s suicide. As Chaz receives new information regarding the murders, he gets deeper and deeper into a world darker than he could have ever expected. Likewise, Samuels takes the audience on a ride that gets more and more disorienting, bringing us further into its Dark Streets.
MM recently got the chance to talk with Samuels about her approach to making Dark Streets, how she balanced the various genres in the movie and the importance of the blues.
Dougla Polisin (MM): It has been eight years since you directed your last feature movie. What have you been up to since then and what drew you to making Dark Streets?
Rachel Samuals (RS): I had a five-year gap between features—The Suicide Club came out in 2000 and I first started working on Dark Streets in 2005. Between directing those films, I wrote two screenplays and created and directed two television pilots for VH1, one of which went into series development but was later canceled. So I was quite busy between films—but as much as I enjoy television and screenwriting, directing features is definitely my first love. My background is as a visual artist and creating cinematic images for the big screen is really at the heart of what drew me to directing. And there’s nothing like a musical to give you free reign to create a fantastical visual world! When the producers of Dark Streets approached me with this project, I jumped at the chance.
MM: The movie was originally a musical play before you signed on to direct. Did this affect the way you approached making the movie? What changes were made to the original script that showed up in your shooting script?
RS: Dark Streets began as a musical play called The City Club, written by our producer Glenn Stewart. It focused very much on these wonderful, rich blues songs, which were woven together with brief dialogue scenes. These same great original songs remain central to the film (in addition to new songs written later), but the characters and storyline were expanded for the film version. In adapting Glenn’s play, our screenwriter Wallace King was affected by events in the U.S. at the time. The Enron scandal and the blackouts in California were the inspiration for new elements added to the storyline and the ongoing mistrust of those in power helped contribute to the sense of paranoia.
However, the music remained absolutely central to the film, just as it was in The City Club, and this did greatly affect the way I approached it. My previous work such as The Suicide Club had been much more about classical narrative storytelling. By its nature of being a film where music was the driving force, Dark Streets was a bit more abstract and less driven by narrative. I saw this as an opportunity to really stretch as a visual artist, and to work on that side of my skill set as a director.
MM: The movie is said to be a “film noir musical fantasy,” which is an interesting classification for a movie. Was the mix of genres intentional from the start? Was it difficult to blend these genres together and what did you do to balance all of them?
RS: The mix of genres was intentional from the start and I see them as being interconnected. Dark Streets explores a particular mood and atmosphere: The surreal dream state of film noir. The blues music that permeates and shapes the film shares that fatalistic mood, while at the same time providing its own fresh angle on it. My goal was to explore the classic noir themes of disorientation and moral ambiguity, but without the classic visual austerity; instead, to see noir inhabit a visually lush, sensual world filled with music and dance. I wanted to create an original take on noir, and I’d never seen it handled in this way.
MM: From set work to camerawork, how did you go about getting the 1930s feel in Dark Streets?
RS: During prep, I made a series of collages as the “Look Bible” for the film, which included paintings by Gustav Klimt, art deco architecture and design detailing and stills from Busby Berkeley, classic noir films and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. These different images meshed together visually for me, with a richness of detail and a maximalist aesthetic that I think Dark Streets succeeded in achieving. We didn’t go with a realistic, historical 1930s period look but rather created a retro ’30s fantasy world that is more of a dream-state version—one which includes guys with mohawks and other anachronistic touches.
To enhance the idea of film noir as bad dream, the film was photographed entirely using swing and shift lenses, which has never before been attempted on a full-length feature. The focal plane of the camera lens can be tilted and moved, to create a gradient of focus and image distortions. This technique is especially difficult to use when the camera is moving, as it does continuously in Dark Streets. The dreamy, surreal photography which resulted contributed tremendously to the film’s look and mood.
Dark Streets was shot entirely on location in downtown Los Angeles, utilizing the city’s art deco architecture. The majority of the 29-day shoot took place at the historic Tower Theater, a former movie palace hidden behind the taco stands and merchant stalls of Broadway. Other downtown locations included City Hall, the Alexander Hotel, and the 3rd Street Bridge, all of which date back to the ‘20s and ‘30s. On our budget, we couldn’t build any sets—all we could do was find these great gems of locations, then transform them with period furniture and props. My previous film was also a period piece with an even smaller budget—so I’d learned a lot of lessons on how to pull this off. The main lesson is, it’s all about location, location, location. I spent many months scouting to find the perfect locations and they’re extremely important to the look of the film.
MM: The movie’s use of blues music makes it stand out amongst other musicals. In what ways did the music shape the way you made Dark Streets?
RS: I don’t think there has been a blues musical before, which is surprising! It’s such amazing music, with so much depth and soulfulness. And we’re so lucky to have some of the greatest living blues artists singing original songs for the film, including Etta James, Natalie Cole, Aaron Neville, Dr. John and Solomon Burke, as well as B.B. King playing on the score. Their performances are incredible and the whole experience of Dark Streets really centers around the music, which helps tell the story and deepens the emotional experience.
MM: This being your third feature, does the directing get any easier? What do you have planned next?
RS: I’ve always found directing to be a joyful process, maybe because I’m one of those people who thrives under pressure. I have a much harder time when I’m not working.
My first film, which I directed for Roger Corman, was an action film including a boat chase, a helicopter chase, car chases and gun battles—which I filmed in 18 days, never having made a film before. And I spent the whole time happy as a clam, within total mayhem. On Dark Streets we had to film multiple dance sequences (each of which would have taken weeks in a big Hollywood production) on a single day. Which meant that I was setting up three complex moving cameras simultaneously—one on a crane, one on a dolly, one handheld—to save time. It was really quite mad, but I found it exhilarating, each day to figure out how to achieve these really ambitious goals but to do it at warp speed.
I do feel like with each film under your belt your skill set expands and is refined, so in that sense directing does get easier.
In terms of what to do next, I’ve been thinking about how I’d love to do a science fiction project. Dark Streets whetted my appetite for creating a unique visual world and science fiction can provide the ultimate opportunity for that. I’d also be very excited to do another music or dance driven film. I have a number of ideas and scripts in development; we’ll see what gets traction. But I do know that I can’t wait to bring the visual skills I honed on this film to a new project with a great story and characters—and try to take it all to the next level.
For more information visit http://darkstreetsmovie.com.