In J.D. Dillard’s follow up film to Sleight, he takes on the creature feature genre with SWEETHEART. The film, which stars Kiersey Clemons in a career-defining role, centers around a woman named Jenn who finds herself stranded on a desolate island after her boat crashes. As she tries to survive the elements, she quickly realizes she is not the only one on the island, as she must defend herself against a malevolent force that comes out each night in search of prey. During Fantastic Fest, I had the opportunity to chat with co-writer/director J.D. Dillard about the inspiration for the film, the importance of having a woman of color in the lead role, and the use of practical and visual effects in helping with bringing the creature to life.
Not only did you direct SWEETHEART, but you also co-wrote it with Alex Hyner. Can you talk a little bit about how the story came to be.
J.D. Dillard: I’m slowly realizing how different the process is on everything, movie to movie, story to story; because sometimes the story hits you with a full swell and sometimes it’s a character. In SWEETHEART, literally the first thing was the flare shot. I haven’t actually entered a movie by way of essentially a frame. I was at a wedding in Virginia Beach with some friends and some alcohol and decided to go hang out at the water for awhile. With the help of some inebriation while looking out at the water by myself, I thought the scariest thing possible would be if something stood up and looked at me. So we started with that. Clearly we knew a light revealing creature in the water sounded like a horror movie and if we were going to do a horror movie, I wanted to do a horror movie with a black woman as the lead. We started building it and giving it protein and meaning and finding points of view that meant something to us.
Whenever I’ve talked with directors about shooting a film in water they have always told me how terrible it is. Is that your experience as well?
J.D. Dillard: It’s horrible, it’s terrible. It’s that weird thing where we had enough money to get shit done but we were still an independent film. We couldn’t afford big tank bays on a stage. With the exception of our close-ups of actors, all the water is shot in real open water, which was very stressful. The shots where we are really beneath and the camera is looking up, that is in the ocean 100 yards off the coast. That I would like to never do again (laughs). I don’t want to do open underwater again but I would so shoot a Mad Max on the high seas, that sounds fun!
One of my favorite aspects of the film was the building of the tension early on, especially in regards to what the creature was. Was the creation of the monster all practical?
J.D. Dillard: One of the very early things [we wanted] was to make a practical creature feature film, specifically like a man-in-suit creature. That honestly dictated our design because we knew we wanted to put a performer in a suit. The rule, pretty much, is the creature as it appears is practical, unless it is swimming. Neville Page designed our creature and WETA built the creature and the ironic thing is, even though we had an amphibious creature, since it was 200-pounds of foam latex, the creature can’t get wet. It’s very funny to be making a water-based creature movie and the creature not being able to get wet (laughs). When [Jenn] is being chased on the beach, obviously it’s hard to move your performer that quickly, so CG would help us close that gap. The very end scenes are all practical creature, but if it is swimming it’s entirely CG. The goal was always to get our money’s worth with this incredible suit that we had. In the end, it was a blend of practical suit, with some animatronics that at times were flourished by visual effects.
I can’t praise Kiersey Clemons enough, she was absolutely phenomenal in this film and really carried the entire weight of the movie. Can you talk a bit about casting her for the role of Jenn?
J.D. Dillard: Kiersey was all of our first choice once we knew we wanted the film to have a woman of color. I’ve known her work from Dope as well as some episodes of TV she’s been in and I really liked her presence. The goal, always, with casting Jenn was that I never wanted the [character] to feel like an ex-Navy or former survivalist doctor who arrives on the island and uses their skill sets to survive. It’s way more interesting to see an every-day woman arrive and Kiersey innately has that quality. She’s an incredible actor who doesn’t have this big performative quality, she just feels human and it’s one of my favorite things about her work. The other side of that is I wanted to make sure that watching her struggle through this, which should be a struggle, isn’t funny. We so regularly talked about Jenn’s skillset which is no deeper than what is on shows like Naked & Afraid, so that was her skillset, but she’s intelligent and she’ll figure it out.
SWEETHEART is now available on Digital and On Demand. For more on the film, check out our review here.