A great gem from this year's Fantastic Fest (and Sundance) is the new release from Blumhouse, Sweetheart. Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself a castaway on an island, and then we find out the island is maybe not as deserted as it seems. I was not only incredibly lucky to get to see this at Fantastic Fest this year but also to speak to writer-director J.D. Dillard.
We got down to the most important things first: the difference in the atmosphere between Park City and Austin– Dillard feels that Fantastic Fest definitely feels more like a party. "People wearing luchador masks in your movie are a definite vibe– one that I'm into."
And given that the awesome folks at Fantastic Fest and the Alamo Drafthouse let us take over the upstairs karaoke rooms at The Highball as our press area, we had to find out: what is J.D.'s go-to karaoke song? "I have two, actually." The first is Will Smith's "Wild Wild West" which he admits with "a half a drink… and I can summon the words from some ungodly place." The second is Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway," which is a classic to so many people and so much fun to sing. Getting off the beaten path back to movies, we agreed while "Wild Wild West" is a bop of a song, that is not the best movie. J.D.'s mind went elsewhere, wondering in a post-Instagram world of Will Smith (which he greatly respects and loves, by the way), but what would it be like if Will Smith still made a song for every movie he did? What would a Gemini Man song sound like? We agreed– we demand a Gemini Man song.
With the truly important bits over, we got into the film Sweetheart itself.
Please note that from here out, we discuss some plot elements that might be considered spoilers for the film itself. We, in fact, discussed whether it was appropriate to give people any information on the film or just tell them to see it. If you're the type who likes to go into movies with no information, stop now, go watch Sweetheart, and come back and read the rest of this. Ok? Ok.
Dillard told the story of how the genesis for the story started with a trip to Virginia Beach for a wedding, and standing on the shore and "the scariest thing I thought I could possibly see would be something staring back at me." So, the idea of someone on a deserted island, and seeing those eyes in the ocean. It is, in my opinion, a truly frightening shot and one of the most effective in a film full of great moments like this.
The film does such a great job of building tension and, in classic monster movie fashion, giving us only a slow reveal of the monster. JD pointed to Alien as a major inspiration, but even more to watching behind the scenes of how Alien was made.
And like Alien and its protagonist Ripley, Sweetheart and Jenn have an important message. (Again, spoilers) Halfway through the film, after she's already tangled with the creature some, Jenn's boyfriend and friend also wash ashore in a liferaft. And as Jenn tells them they have to get off the island, they dismiss her, especially with boyfriend Lucas dismissing her while calling her "sweetheart."
I was blunt: is this a movie about people, especially white men, not listening to the lived experience of women of color, especially black women? "To be perfectly honest, that is what it became… We wound up in a place where this story sits hand in hand with this real experience of a lot of women that I know."
It was always going to be important for JD to center this film on Jenn as a black woman. "When does the black girl ever get to kill the monster?" he asked rhetorically. This is, in my opinion, one of the things that makes the film work so well: this representation, especially using a great actress like Kiersey Clemons, is as inspired as putting Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. And instead of surrounding her with the crew of the Nostromo, we get her boyfriend wondering if she's just crazy as she sharpens every stick she can get her hands on.
He continued with one of my favorite things I've heard a filmmaker say in the past year: "My paramount north star in everything that I make is that the people who normally don't get to do the cool things get to do the cool things. If I had a back tattoo that is what it what it would say."
Of course, a monster movie's message is nothing if the underlying thrills and creature design don't work themselves. Dillard credits a partnership with Neville Page, whose experience in creature design was clutch in making the monster, who they nicknamed "Charlie" on set. "It was always going to be a man in a suit," explained Dillard, saying that would make for it feeling more real, and they they wanted to "make it look like it lived there."
Their creative process for creating the monster was diffuse and collaborative. "Here are some cool eyes, and here's some ribs, here's something cool from Instagram. . ." And then Page's experience took their ideas and created a cohesive whole, explaining all of the various pieces of anatomy that a creature like that should have to make it look like it could be something real.
The results are spectacular, with something that is definitely amphibian, with hints of like a bio-luminescent great white shark. It all comes back to the original conceit– to those eyes.
The music also plays a huge part in building the tension of the film. For the first 23 minutes, the film is almost silent. No music. Little dialogue. As Dillard put it, they really had to lean on the sound design to push tension. "We needed to make a soundtrack out of the island."
Then, after the creature reveal, we get this great throwback score. It's very synth, a bit of a Carpenter vibe to it (my opinion, not Dillard's), and wholly effective. The introduction of the music plays a double role in the film as well, as it signals the end of the first act where we're wondering "What is going on with this island?" to a transition that, in Dillard's words "The music and where we reveal the creature are where we declare what the movie is."
It's incredibly effective, and where prior to that moment, the film could've gone in a dozen different directions. It's one of my more favorite things about the choices in the film, and one of Dillard's too. "My favorite thing in movies — and this is often underutilized… is that period where "the thing" can be anything. The possibilities are kind of endless." I agree. That "liminal space" (my words, not his) between the past and the future where everything is sort of possible: that's a cinematic sweet spot. And it's one Sweetheart plays up beautifully. And the movie definitely kicks into a higher gear at that point. JD offered the metaphor, "It's like your Charmander is evolving into a Charizard. Yes, it's a monster movie." (Yes, nerds, he recognized he skipped Charmeleon. Calm down.)
As for what he has next up his sleeve, here's hoping we get Dillard behind a camera again soon, as he promises, "The north star doesn't change. Just trying to put new faces into the stories I love again and again and again and again." We'll watch them if you make them.
Check out Sweetheart available on VOD and streaming on October 22, 2019.