Director Silas Howard Talks ‘Darby and the Dead’

Image via Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios

Earlier this month, Hulu premiered Darby and the Dead, a supernatural teen comedy directed by acclaimed trans filmmaker Silas Howard.

Starring some of the most experienced young actors in Hollywood including Riele Downs, Auli’i Cravalho, Asher Angel, and Chosen Jacobs, the film follows high schooler Darby Harper, who suffers a near-death experience as a young girl and gains the ability to see dead people. As a result, she becomes introverted and shut off from her high school peers and prefers to spend time counseling lonely spirits who have unfinished business on earth.

However, everything changes when Capri, the school’s Queen Bee, unexpectedly dies in a freak hair straightening accident. Darby is then forced to emerge from her self-imposed exile and start living again.

Silas, who is well-known for his 2001 debut feature film By Hook or by Crook and has worked on projects such as Dickinson, Transparent, and A League of Their Own, took some time to talk more about Darby and the Dead, collaborating with a Gen Z cast, the film’s significant themes with Instinct.

Hi, Silas! Thank you for taking some time to chat with me about Darby and the Dead. How did the concept for this project come to fruition, and why did you want to be involved with it?

It was brought to me several years ago by the producers and we developed it together for a while, then we pitched it to Hulu and 20th Century. Wenonah Wilms wrote a brilliant script, and Becca Green just brought the whole thing home. We got into production relatively quickly after that, and it was a project I just couldn’t pass up.

Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from Darby and the Dead?

Just the fact that we can kind of bond over our difficulties, and that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and push ourselves. Kind of flip all the ideas of what’s popular and what’s in all the cliques. Shake them up. I hope audiences can find the connection that we can get out of the difficult times.

Is this your first time working with a Gen Z cast and directing something that’s geared towards a teen audience?

No, I’ve actually worked with this age range quite a bit. Maybe not quite Gen Z, but shows like Dickinson, and there’s been several projects that I’ve worked on with a young cast. I love this generation. I feel like they are mainstreaming the politics that my young 90s self was reaching for and trying to build in the world around us. They’re great.

Have you encountered any major challenges while working on a project geared towards teens?

No, I think because they’re so smart. What I love to do is not talk down to them. They’re so sophisticated and they have so much on their shoulders. They have too much information and a lot to deal with. I call it a teen movie, but it really is just a movie that I think anybody of any age would be able to get something from. Certainly, chuckle and laugh along the way.

Image via Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios

I thought Riele Downs did a fantastic job playing Darby. What do you think made her perfect for the leading role?

By her own admission, she’s a bit of an introvert, so that kind of awkwardness really played well. I also just love the different personalities that she could bring directly to camera, which was like, we as the audience were her best friends. We were like the friends she could be the funniest with, the smartest with, and then playing it cool in the room. Then as she got popular, she got a little less cool, which made her more awkward and vulnerable. I just love that kind of backwards journey.

Some cast members have stated that Darby and the Dead is like a modern day Clueless. Can you touch on that for our readers?

Yeah, it was really fun because I grew up watching those movies, and as a trans person, I never saw myself reflected, but I connected to these stories. I think it’s great to see the world around us reflected in these iconic movies and be able to sort of flip around some of the concepts that they had, but also get to have those iconic archetypes. We all love an icon. We all love a fierce mean girl, and that connects to the transformation journey that Darby takes.

This is also a film where the male roles are supporting roles to the females. How significant is that?

It’s pretty significant! There’s romance, but it’s not the point of the story. The forefront is the friendship, this young female friendship, and I also love that James, played by Asher Angel, is the jock/cool kid who has a lot of feelings and is not afraid to show them. Chosen Jacobs plays Alex, who is the outsider/nerd, but he’s very cool and liberated from what people think about him. I think it’s awesome.

You have always been an advocate for visibility and awareness in your work. What are some prevalent themes of representation in the film we should look out for?

You know, we thought about this a lot. Once the roles were cast, the actors and I went through and really made the characters their own and sort of expanded that. It didn’t feel like colorblind casting. It felt like color awareness, and like with Piper, Nicole Maines’ character, her character was queer in the film, but Nicole and I got to talk about whether her character was out as trans. We’re in the girl’s locker room and she’s like, well, it’s a little hard to resist not saying something here. That’s when she came up with a really great moment, when the best friend asked for a tampon and she’s on her phone, and she’s just like, you know, still trans, and that’s the only option of it. Also, just all the roles. Derek Luke playing the dad as a very compassionate, emotionally available single dad is rare. I hope everything is very well thought out, but not obvious.

Is there a moment in the film that you are most excited for audiences to see?

Oh, boy, it’s hard (laughs). I’m like a parent, so I love it all. The cheerleading sequences were pretty fun, and I like the old-fashioned physical comedy. Yeah, I just love it all.

Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you’d like to mention or plug?

There’s nothing that is ready for announcing yet, but I definitely have some on the backburner!

Image via Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios

Stay up-to-date and connect with Howard by following him on Instagram @silash. Darby and the Dead is now available to stream on Hulu.

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