Arriving on digital and on demand tomorrow is Sweetheart, the latest project from filmmaker J.D. Dillard (Sleight). A thrilling tale of survival horror, the story is centered around a young woman named Jenn (Kersey Clemons) who washes up on a shore on a remote island, not knowing where she is and unsure of just how she’ll be able to get back to civilization. As she acclimates to her new surroundings, Jenn quickly realizes she’s not alone, as there’s a monstrous creature that keeps appearing at night, forcing her to find a way to fight against this unknown threat before it gets the better of her.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with J.D., and he talked about the simple beginnings of Sweetheart and what inspired the project initially. Dillard also discussed what made Clemons perfect for the challenging role and how they both pushed themselves during production on the film, and more.
Look for Sweetheart on all digital providers this Tuesday, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Great job on the film, J.D. I was sorry that I missed it at Sundance, so I was glad to catch up with it now. It feels so very different than what you did with Sleight and from everything that’s going on in horror these days. How did this all come together?
J.D. Dillard: Well, first, thank you. It's kind of continually funny to me how different the beginning stages of anything are as they’re forming. Sleight was obviously a much more holistic approach, where I wanted to tell a story about this character that's going through these things and dealing with the consequences of his abilities. I had so much of it at the top, where with Sweetheart quite literally started with the flare gun scene.
It was a moment that came to mind first and very unglamorously. I was at a wedding in Virginia Beach and had been drinking with my friends. And as the wedding was over, we all milled down to the water. As I was standing there looking out to the moonlit ocean, just sort of with the assistance of some inebriation, thought how scary it would be if something stood up in that water and looked back at me. I immediately texted my friends Alex [Hyner] and Alex [Theurer], who I ended up co-writing this with, and we started there. Obviously a moment is not enough to sustain a movie, but we knew we wanted to build towards that, and we needed to give a protein, and purpose, and a character and all of that. But the flare scene was my initial way in.
With Sleight, you were filming around Los Angeles, but with this, the story is tied to a very specific location that you have to make sure it's away from everything. Can you talk about that? Because everyone's like, "Oh, well, you're just shooting on a beach. It seems so easy." But I don't think that's easy whatsoever, especially in this day and age where everything feels like it's so overdeveloped. The location is so integral, too, where it almost becomes another character in this film as well.
J.D. Dillard: That was one thing that we've talked about from the very beginning. We knew that the island was going to be one of the co-stars, and honestly, it was going to be the first way that we would deploy our quote/unquote production value. So, we just started to cast a wide net to see where we could shoot that would have this natural beauty, but also has some proximity to some type of infrastructure. We narrowed it down to a couple of places, and at the end, it really came down to Panama or Fiji. We ended up in Fiji just because it's very close to New Zealand and Australia, and they had a reputation of having great crews. WETA, who ended up building our suit, was just a two-hour plane ride away.
We all lived on one island, the main island there, and then commuted 30 minutes every day to a smaller island called Bounty Island, which was like a backpackers' resort. In a weird way, it had just enough infrastructure to support us in that there were bungalows and a big kitchen that we used. We took all of the backpackers' bungalows and turned those into production offices and trailers, so it ended up being the perfect place for us. It's not as small as we made it feel, but it's still small enough to walk the circumference in 20 minutes. It is definitely a dot in the middle of the ocean, but we worked a little bit to make it feel even more so.
Let’s talk about Kiersey, because I thought she was fantastic. With her performance, at least half of the movie there's very minimal dialogue, so you're really following the drama on her face, which I thought was really incredible as well. Can you talk about putting her in this role and then working with her?
J.D. Dillard: I knew that I wanted to center our film on a black woman. There's certainly a deficit in black women leading movies like this. And again, as soon as that decision was made, Kiersey was the very first name in my head. What was going to be crucial about her character was that I didn't want this movie to feel like you’re watching an ex-Navy Seal or a doctor washing ashore and she just happens to have the perfect skill set to survive. I wanted it to be an everywoman.
But what Kiersey could do, just because of how natural she is and how just innately relatable she is, she could struggle through this movie without it being a joke. I think that's a really fine line to walk. When she guts the fish for the first time, it's an absolute mess. But we don't look down on her in that process. It actually feels like, "Okay, if I had a barely sharp rock and a fish and I had to scale it and cook it, I would probably do just as bad of a job."
So, maintaining that quality in the film was really important, and just because of her personality and how she carries herself, that made Kiersey a natural fit for this role. Then, the process itself was, at times, not very dissimilar from how things normally work on set. But then, at the same time, there were moments where it could not have felt more different. It felt more like we were making a documentary because in a traditional sense, it was just Kiersey and I. We didn't have to have a blocking rehearsal. We didn't have to do all of these pieces that are normally part of the process. It's like, "I need you to try to open a coconut and neither of us know how to do that, so I'm just going to roll and we'll see how it goes." There was a lot of physical discovery and how to survive in this environment.
You mentioned having WETA involved to create your monster, and the monster is really awesome. Did you just approach WETA with specific ideas that led the design process, or did you just let them do their thing?
J.D. Dillard: I had known Neville [Page] at WETA through my days of working at Bad Robot. Neville is so unbelievable at not just the art itself, but also in viewing it with such a reality-based approach to its biology, and then presenting those things to you. It's so extreme. He's pointing to things on the creature with their proper scientific names and this thing does not even exist.
Then, when we got to a happy place there, we knew that we were shooting in Fiji, that’s when we shared it with WETA and asked them to build it. So, we basically brought them a design, and they started the process of making the suit into a reality. Certain design elements had to shift to just fit a person, so it became a back and forth with all three parties to find the best version of the creature that can actually be a character on set. All that said, the funny irony of it all is with the creature being a 200-pound foam latex suit, it actually could not get wet, which is a pretty intense consideration to have to deal with when it comes to having an aquatic monster.
So, we never used the full suit when we were properly in the water or on the shoreline just because if Andrew [Crawford] were to fall in that water, the 200-pound foam latex suit becomes a 400-pound foam latex suit, because it's a giant sponge. That's obviously where we deployed a little bit of help from visual effects to get us to where we needed to be, and give it a digital flourish.