When you think of that special someone, your valentine, the one who owns your heart, it’s safe to assume those thoughts are sweetened by love, support, and comfort. It should be that the significant other in your narrative plays out like a hero rather than a villain, right? The purpose of storytelling, especially that of film, is conversely multifaceted. Some use it as a medium to escape the world, others use it to channel truth. Maggie Levin’s episode of Blumhouse and Hulu’s Into The Dark: My Valentine, is the holiday horror anthology installment meant to celebrate hearts and romance, just not in the way you may assume.
Levin takes her love-gone-bad story to unique levels, but ultimately keeps it grounded in a very scary reality. My Valentine is the first, of the many incredible Into The Dark episodes, that sang to me as an individual. The writer and director was kind enough to share her experience making My Valentine with me and the conversation is just as rewarding and meaningful as the film itself.
“…every single episode of Into the Dark is it’s own little miracle. My Valentine is no exception…”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare on Film Street: I’ve been covering Into The Dark since it started. All of the episodes are great. I love how topical and well-made they are. I know how long it actually takes to make an episode and that just blows me away.
Maggie Levin: It’s crazy, right?
NOFS: I’d never imagine that anything could be done that in that little amount of time, especially with what is produced. I’m sure Blumhouse has a lot to do with it, but you all are rock stars.
ML: It’s a real testament to everybody who works on every episode, what they’re able to pull off. I think every single episode of Into the Dark is it’s own little miracle. My Valentine is no exception. I’m so proud to have been able to make it with that team in particular, because everyone just worked their asses off and I think it paid off.
NOFS: It certainly did. My Valentine was one of the most meaningful. They all have meaning to them, but this one for me personally, really struck a chord because I’ve been there. I know other girls who’ve been there. Even if it’s not exactly the same narrative, we’ve all experienced that. It’s super relatable. I literally felt myself being moved by it.
ML: That’s so incredible to hear. Thank you so much. That’s really powerful. When you step into these territories, as storytellers, that are really delicate and dangerous it’s frightening because they are so personal to so many people. I know that I’ve had a lot of fear throughout this process that I was overstepping or that the episode should carry specific trigger warnings. That is not actually a thing that I, as a filmmaker, have any control over. That’s on the studio side.
Taking a look at it after the rush of going through writing it really fast, filming it really fast, and then just suddenly having it done and being ready to put out, I think I barely had time to grapple with the ethics or the potential impact of it. To hear that it’s meaningful or in any way cathartic or important for anyone who watches it, that’s not just a relief, but just tremendously powerful for me to hear. Thank you so much.
NOFS: Absolutely. That’s the word I used to describe it. It is cathartic in the most frustrating and the most relieving way. It’s hard to see those emotions play out. It’s strange to think “Oh, that was me. I’ve acted that way or someone has acted that way towards me” but then to see Valentine’s comeuppance was cathartic. I think that’s why we all love film so much, we’re moved by it.
ML: You can slay the dragon. You don’t actually have to personally murder someone.
NOFS: Leave it to the movies! I like that you showed all the different sides of a love triangle that don’t necessarily get justice on screen. It’s always kind of one-sided or two-sided, but you went through all the angles, even including Valentine’s friend, Julie. That’s what a relationship is. It effects everybody. That’s brilliant.
ML: Thank you so much. There is the perspective of alienation from your community when you’re in an abusive dynamic or with somebody who exerts a lot of control over your life, so that thing of having one final ally is really the last line of defense between you and the abuser. It’s something that I’ve seen, it’s something that I’ve done. It’s a brutal reality that I’ve played with in a very heightened music video-like world. I’m glad that it’s making an impact. It means a lot.
“There’s a degree of Prince and David Bowie in everything I’ve ever done. I was a giant The Rocky Horror Picture Show nerd as a child, and, honestly, into my adulthood.”
NOFS: Now, how did you come to tell this story? How did you get involved with Into The Dark and selecting My Valentine?
ML: It all happened very quickly. I was working with Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill on another script of mine that I was attached to direct, a science-fiction script, and they brought me in to Blumhouse, who they made Sinister with and have a long-standing professional relationship with. I met with the team over there and they felt that there might be a place for that script in the Into the Dark series. As we talked about it and really talked about the model, the timeframe, and the style that really works for them in the series I went home and watched a couple of episodes, particularly taking notice of I’m Just Fucking With You, which was back in April 2019.
There was something to that contained, aggressive, very pop-style of filmmaking that I saw and and felt an immediate kindred connection to. I was like, “I know how to do this” from my experience in digital filmmaking, in music videos, and in the commercial stuff, making stuff for the social media world. Knowing that they had this slot to fill for February 2020, I went back to them and said, “Hey, what if instead of doing this sci-fi piece for Groundhog’s Day, which is going to be very sparse and very challenging and very difficult to film in this timeframe, we do something that is tailor-made for your series for Valentine’s Day? It talks to contemporary romantic issues and works in a hemisphere that I’m fascinated by, which is the plight of the pop star.” We combined all those things in a blender and My Valentine came out.
NOFS: Aside from the timeline, was there anything else challenging, especially with the emotion put into your episode? Was there anything else that you found difficult about making My Valentine?
ML: Of course, there were challenges along the way, mostly to do with the speed of making it, but I was really very fortunate in that the producers, all of the key crew, and the cast, once we onboarded them, everyone who was top-line involved in making it really understood the movie that we were trying to make from the get-go. My executive producer at Into the Dark, Alex Koehne, and I in the very quick pre-production process got very specific about the target style that we wanted to hit. That was our true north. Then when Ana M. Amortegui, the cinematographer, came in with a color scheme, that matched really where I wanted to head with it. All of these beautiful visual ideas really supported that. Then Eve McCarney, the production designer, came in and knew exactly what we’re talking about.
Everyone really saw the same movie from the get-go, which is what made it possible. I think the clarity of vision came through so strongly because it does work in a bunch of different areas. It’s dramatic, it’s comedic, it’s super gory, it’s very aggressively related to social media. It also has a kind of high-camp-trashy edge to it that is so a part of who I am as a human being. In order to traverse all of those different landscapes, we really needed the team to all see the same film and it’s truly luck that we all did.
NOFS: I love that there’s such variety, yet everybody was in unison. The cinematography and the color palette was delicious.
ML: Ana is a beast. Her commitment to the quality of every frame in that movie was unrelenting and I love her for it. She did a good job.
“This is all about leaning into a real life area of fear and torture and trauma. The thing that I’m finding is it’s resonating with people on a level that I think is important.”
NOFS: I also liked the animation bits a lot!
ML: Thank you. The credit is due to Andrew Wesman. When we were in the edit and searching for even more ways to deliver on the promise of the visual premise, we had these split-screen sequences that we had planned out. Normally with a movie that works in such a highly stylized area, you’d have like a year to plan and storyboard and think about all the different visual languages you’re going to use. We just had to get it in post, take a look at it, and go, “What else can we do?” That’s how the language of the halos and the crowns and all of that came about.
NOFS: It was a perfect way to incorporate social media. Now, you’re officially a feature film director, which is so incredible, are there any other directors or writers or artists that inspire your filmmaking or that particularly inspired My Valentine?
ML: The list of inspiration is long and a lot of it is really connected to the music world. There’s a degree of Prince and David Bowie in everything I’ve ever done. I was a giant The Rocky Horror Picture Show nerd as a child, and, honestly, into my adulthood. There’s a little piece of Rocky in almost everything I’ve ever done, My Valentine included. I think the key cinematic influences, the references that we talked about most frequently, were Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Green Room, Romeo + Juliet, Cam, and Assassination Nation. Visually, it’s such an interesting movie. The blood in that movie, it’s an unprecedented amount of blood. I love it. It’s very Gwar. We get pinged a lot or looking like that sequence from Blade Runner 2049. It was actually an accident that it all looked close to that exact cut. Once we put those blue wigs on the girls, it pretty much looks like that one shot, doesn’t it?
NOFS: I didn’t think of that at all.
ML: Cool, I’m glad. Then we get understandably a lot of comparisons to the Miley Cyrus episode of Black Mirror and I think that’s an apt connection.
NOFS: Sure, it’s a relatable topic right now. I like that My Valentine is more realistic than that, though.
ML: This is all about leaning into a real life area of fear and torture and trauma. The thing that I’m finding is it’s resonating with people on a level that I think is important. We’re starting to have this discussion widely as a culture: looking at how we are in relationships and what is acceptable and unacceptable. I think there are behaviors that we’ve just kind of written off as, “This person’s quirky” or “They’re really in love”, but when you turn just a bit in the other direction and really see it for what it is, it’s really very dark.
NOFS: It’s a hidden horror of our culture. Now we have filmmakers bringing it to light in a relatable way. Even I feel more comfortable talking about my own negative relationship experiences. I’m thankfully far from being a Sidney Prescott or a pop star, but it is real stuff that should be discussed.
ML: Looking back at Scream through a 2020 lens, her relationship with Billy is so much more upsetting. My skin is crawling as we speak. Not to get too lofty, but American culture is sort of wrapped in this Disney princess culture with all of these tropes of how love should be. Point directly at the ultimate kind of love is a “trauma bond”. Being obsessed with each other is the right way to love somebody. I think that kind of broken understanding of how a relationship should be leads to a lot of really severe violence and darkness that’s able to live under the cover of “These are two people who really love each other.” That’s my theory.
“I think [our] broken understanding of how a relationship should be leads to a lot of really severe violence and darkness…”
Maggie Levin’s debut feature, My Valentine, is currently streaming on Hulu. What do you think of February’s bittersweet Into The Dark episode, My Valentine? What does Maggie Levin’s film make you think of modern day relationship tropes? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!