Interview: The New “Final Girl” – Dana Melanie on Acting, Ambition & Running Around Barefoot in the Woods
Rising star Dana Melanie talks to Top 10 Films about new horror film Treehouse, the excitement of taking on her first lead role, and her ambitions for the future…
In 1978, a small independent horror film changed the lives of its writer-director John Carpenter and its star Jamie Lee Curtis. Halloween revolutionised the horror genre, creating in its wake the conventions that would become known as the modern slasher. One of those genre tropes was the “final girl”, a nubile, virginal character, whose fragility and moral virtue became the opposing power of “good” against the antagonist’s seemingly impenetrable “evil”. Fast-forward three decades and we have another independent horror making its own waves with a director and female star destined for bigger things.
Michael Bartlett’s breathlessly paced thriller Treehouse was produced on a shoestring from a script by Alex Child and Miles Harrington. Star Dana Melanie plays Elizabeth, a young girl drawn into a real life nightmare when her brother is kidnapped. Trying to save his life, she is forced to go into hiding in the nearby woodland. There, she is joined by fellow teenager Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) after he comes to her aid and the two must draw on each other’s strength to stay alive.
Alongside a smartly constructed screenplay that patiently builds suspense without relying on cheap, artificial jump shocks and a director whose fittingly old-fashioned love of the genre shines through every frame, Dana Melanie stands out as the star of the show. Her interpretation of Elizabeth draws from an inner strength, formed from a familial bond that brings out immeasurable courage in the face of absolute danger. She modestly credits the success of the character to the writers, saying Elizabeth “was all there on paper, I just brought her to life”. But that ignores the genuine emotional and physical anguish she brings to Elizabeth’s plight, as well as the logistical challenge of running around barefoot in the woods!
She laughs when I raise the issue. “Okay, yes, let’s talk about the feet. That was one of the first questions I had for [the director] Michael. ‘How am I going to run in the woods barefoot!?’ That’s where our FX guy, Mike Strain, came in. He made these incredible fake feet to make it look like I was barefoot but still protected. As soon as I landed in Missouri [where the film was shot] I went straight to his house so he could make the mould. I couldn’t feel a thing in those bad boys. Except the cold. Those things sucked in the cold air like a vacuum. There were multiple pairs of big fuzzy socks on standby.”
Melanie auditioned for the role on tape before enduring an anxious wait to hear whether or not she’d got the role. She remembers being in her manager’s office when the audition came through and could immediately see herself as the character. Her eagerness to land the lead role, her first in a feature film, made the wait even more tortuous. “But then I got the call and cried like a baby,” she says.
Testament to the unsettling nature of Treehouse, Melanie admits she made the mistake of reading the script before going to bed – “it gave me anxiety,” she recalls. However, she was particularly drawn to Elizabeth’s determination and mental fortitude. “I find that I gravitate towards strong characters with guts. Maybe it’s because I like to think I would act the same way if put into the same situations.”
Eager to become an actress from an early age, the Californian native experienced her first real taste of the industry when she skipped the first quarter of senior year in high school to join an ensemble cast in comedy Chloe and Keith’s Wedding. A few small roles followed before Treehouse which she says was an amazing experience.
“Michael had an eye for what he wanted from the start. It was great watching him work with our DP, Chris Campbell, he really knocked it out of the park. Michael was very freeing when it came to performance. If something didn’t feel right we talked about it. It just worked. Off set, [fellow actor] J. Michael was like an older brother I loved to bug. On set, he was a breeze to work with. That goes for all the crew. It was a really talented bunch. You don’t realise how much detail goes into every little action.”
Prior to shooting, Melanie was advised to watch Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, an adaptation of Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, because of the film’s suggestive approach to building tension and fear. The other film suggested by the director was the excellent Winter’s Bone as Treehouse was shot in many of the same areas in Missouri’s Ozarks.
However, despite Melanie’s inexperience in feature film, the director was confident enough in her abilities to give her plenty of freedom within the role. “I don’t like rehearsals. Michael knew that. I think it pulls away from natural instincts. He trusted me. We worked on technical stuff like the accent and certain key moments but once we were on set he let me do my thing,” she explains. “We put blood, sweat, and tears into the making of this film and to see it finished was absolutely beautiful. I was so proud.”
Bartlett was clearly impressed with his discovery. He told Top 10 Films, “Dana did not put a note wrong in the entire film and responded magnificently to direction. One day, when she is a big movie star and I am just some fat, old guy bragging about his glory days, I can at least tell my grandkids I discovered her.”
Treehouse is just the start for Melanie with 2015 set to be big year for the actress. Hollywood, by writer-director Davidson Cole, in which she plays a high-class call girl (“my most challenging role yet”) and drama Clarity are both set to be released next year. Meanwhile Melanie is also in the final draft stages of her own film The Sanguero, which she wrote alongside her mother. The film will hopefully enter production in 2015.
With so many strings to her bow, where does she see her career going? “First and foremost, I am an actor. However, I am completely open to whatever else the future has in store for me. I have a creative soul that constantly needs feeding. Acting will always be my number one, but I don’t plan on being a one trick pony. In addition to writing, maybe one day I’ll go into producing? Sometimes my mind wanders to directing, but that’s such a different creature in and of itself! Who knows? There is so much to learn and so much to do… but for now I’m just enjoying the rush of being an actress.”
Written by Daniel Stephens
Treehouse is available NOW in the UK. The DVD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk. The film makes its theatrical debut in the USA in November.