Recently, the indie vampire drama My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To screened as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival lineup, and it’s headed to select theaters and VOD this Friday, June 25th, courtesy of Dark Sky Films. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jonathan Cuartas, My Heart stars Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, and Owen Campbell as siblings who must go to great lengths in order to take care of each other, including finding potential victims to keep the youngest sibling’s appetite for blood satiated.
Last week, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Fugit about his involvement in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, and he discussed the initial appeal of taking on the role of big brother Dwight in the project, his experiences collaborating with Cuartas and his fellow co-stars, and more.
Thanks so much for taking time to speak with me today, Patrick. Coming into this project, when you were looking at this character, was there something about Dwight that spoke to you and you realized this was somebody you wanted to take on and explore for this film?
Patrick Fugit: Well, there is an aspect of the ensemble to it, and so the contribution of Dwight's role and energy to the tone of the family is very exciting to me reading that. I would always joke with John. I was like, "We have a fantasy load out here. We have the vampire, and then we have the older sister who's like a banshee, and then we have the brother who's like a flesh golem." So we basically have this list of evils from the fantasy world. But I really liked the dynamic of the family. Dwight himself is a very interesting character. He's like a person I wouldn't necessarily like, but he's a character I'm really fascinated by, and I really enjoyed getting into his emotional state and his mindset and his physicality and all of that.
I think it's so interesting. He has a fairly pathetic tone, like he knows what he's doing is wrong. He knows that Thomas is sick and that what they're doing isn't necessarily helping him very much. Yet, he cannot really actually stand up to his sister, and I love the way Ingrid played Jessie. Ingrid's physicality on camera with Mikey's cinematography makes her look so slender and diminished next to Dwight. I had a big beard at the time, and my hair is shaggy, and I had a belly. My arms were a little bigger, too. So Dwight is this hulking six-foot-one person that's able to go pick up grown men and bring them back to the house to harvest them for blood. Yet, he cannot stand up to the power that is Jessie. The emotional and cerebral presence that is Ingrid's performance is just too overpowering for him, and that's a really interesting dynamic, a really interesting thing that stood out to me from the very beginning, to immerse myself in that whole power dynamic with Ingrid, and to experience Dwight's loneliness and really get into that. It was, for sure, a big draw.
What really struck me first is as much as this is this ode to this family, it really is about loneliness and not feeling like you're part of the world at large. When you guys were coming together to do this film, did Jonathan give you guys a lot of time to work on the family dynamic, and then how did you use that to catapult how your characters are functioning in the outside world? I just thought it was a very interesting dichotomy at play in this story.
Patrick Fugit: We didn't really have a lot of lead time. Another actress was set to play Jessie and had to pull out of the project, and then Ingrid came in last minute. We all got into Salt Lake City, which is where we filmed, and we all got set up with our lodging, and we just went for it. I think we had a day or two to put costumes on, and I had just barely met Ingrid and barely met Owen. We were off to a running start, but everybody, the three of us, I think, were so familiar with family ties and family interactions, and they're such great actors that it really made it easy to just jump into that relationship for all of us.
We would discuss it a lot on set while Mikey was setting up the camera and getting the lights ready. What was great about the writing is that it made everything self-evident. It wasn't like we had to really fill in a lot of gaps. We had material there that as long as we just made it natural and stayed out of the way, the material itself does a lot of that work for us.
I'm curious—how much did that house help you get immersed in this story? It just felt like this place that's out of time and out of sync with the rest of the world, and I thought it was a really interesting way to visualize where these characters are, in terms of how they relate to everything else that's going on around them.
Patrick Fugit: Oh, yeah. That house is a typical Salt Lake City architecture from either the early 20th century or mid-20th century. Some of the layouts here at Salt Lake are so random. These houses can feel very claustrophobic or there are anomalous rooms and placements of things where it really doesn't make a lot of sense. Whoever built them, they're just weird and everything creaks. Like the basements, where you have to tuck your head down to get into the basement. There's all sorts of weird quirks about the architecture here, and I think that really lent itself to this story, where you have this really oppressive feeling of the inescapable house, and Mikey, man, in creating a lighting setup and camera angles, that really power-assisted and really added to it.
So going in there for rehearsal was one thing. It's just an old, rickety Salt Lake City house. But as soon as we started lighting and dressing and blocking, it really felt lived in. But it also felt like it's such a small place for it to be this family's entire world, especially Thomas'. But that's what it is, and so that's what the decoration showcased. Even with Dwight's posture. I wanted it to look like Dwight was always carrying something heavy and that his body just couldn't handle the weight. It's like the house, the relationships, Dwight himself. It all went into that, that aspect that you're talking about.
You know, we did a lot of laughing at Dwight in this because he’s just so in over his head all the time. There’s a moment when Dwight is about to go do this really immoral, evil thing and knows that it's so wrong, so he has to take this moment and really work himself up into doing it, and then fails anyway. He's that kind of guy. I would spend a lot of time, at Dwight's expense, laughing, which made me feel a little bad, but also, it's just so outrageous.
In terms of working with Jonathan, when I was looking up details for the movie, I was shocked that this is his first feature. To me, when you're looking at the horror genre, the earmark of a great horror movie is when you take out the genre elements and you still have a great story at the center of it all. And I think this is a movie that very much falls into that category. He did such a great job here. Did you enjoy working with him?
Patrick Fugit: I did. And that was one of the things that resonated with me the first time I read the script. I was like, "This is an awesome vampire story, but it's ignoring that it's a vampire story." It's really this character drama, and it's a very good character drama because there are so many universal relationship concepts going on, and they are an interesting and intriguing drive to the film. I care about how these relationships are going to play out, and that is very smart of John to write it that way, because like you said, you can like vampire movies or not. It doesn't really matter. As long as you enjoy watching human interaction, as long as you enjoy seeing these power dynamics play out and exploring the darker side of relationships and morals and that sort of thing, this story is very interesting to watch.
Then, in terms of it being John's first feature, him and his brother, Mike, who did the cinematography, are students of filmmaking. Not only like do they love watching and commenting on film, but they love the process of making film, and that is super important. Obviously, it seems self-evident, like, "Hey, everybody who gets into filmmaking loves the craft of filmmaking, but not everybody pays much attention to it." I have definitely been a part of first-time feature directing productions that went very poorly. The directors were very ill-prepared and had not been paying attention to the craft of filmmaking and we paid for it on the film. The films turned out less than we expected, and they were very arduous to make and that sort of thing.
I've also been very fortunate to work with some very high-level and experienced filmmakers, too. And to be honest, working with John and Mike was a lot like that. They care so much about the craft of filmmaking that they had everything planned beforehand. They had all of the camera setups and shot lists prepared before we even got to set or before we even started rehearsal, and that is hugely beneficial. You would think that that would just be par for the course in terms of filmmaking. But like I said, I've been part of some films that didn't have shot lists together and we're improvising on the day. "Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to film the scene?" Mikey and John, they had it planned out. They knew the language they wanted to speak with the shots and the lighting and the tone. The utter lack of any camera moves in the whole film is a pretty amazing stylistic choice, especially for two first-time filmmakers, but it was not like working with first-time filmmakers. This project was a bunch of people who are passionate and practiced in the craft, and they came together to make a film.
Well, Patrick, I really appreciate you taking time today to speak with me, and I also just wanted to say I was a really big fan of what you guys did on Outcast. I really loved that show, and I was bummed we didn’t get more from that world and those characters, because I thought you and everyone who worked on it did a fantastic job.
Patrick Fugit: Thank you. I had a good time working on that show. That was another weird horror genre type thing that was really interesting to make. I got to really care about those characters, and I was really looking forward to seeing where everything was going to go, so I feel robbed as an audience member that we didn’t get to do more. As an actor, it was great to work on because it was a consistent job, but it was pretty hard and arduous work. So after two seasons, I was like, "Yeah. Okay. I could be done with this. I could take a break from doing this." But as an audience member, I was like, "Hold the phone. We're going to end it like that?" Like, "Come on. Where did it go?" I wanted to see where the story went after that second season.
But I loved working on it and had such great relationships with everyone on it, including Madeleine [McGraw], who played my daughter. I’m still great friends with her parents, too.