J.D. Dillard Explains How He Created a Most Epic Creature Shot in 'Sweetheart' [Fantastic Fest]

We chat with the filmmaker about how one haunting image propelled him to make his meaty creature feature.

Sweetheart
Blumhouse

If you’re going to make a monster movie, then you better bring one gnarly beast to the silver screen. Many creatures have crawled before our eyes, and we think we’ve seen ’em all. That’s not to say we’re full and crave no more. Once a subscriber to Famous Monsters of Filmland, always a subscriber. Bring on the meanest of possible cretins, but we’ll sit cross-armed in our seats until the filmmaker proves himself a serious contender in this particular realm. If your brute can’t stand tall next to the Gill-man then GTFO.

Late one evening, J.D. Dillard experienced a vision on a beach, and the image infected everything going forward. He had to achieve that shot. He had to find a film for that shot. Sweetheart is the resulting movie, born out of a desire to find a narrative worthy enough of the terrifying silhouette he imagined rising from the ocean. The film was one of my favorites out of Sundance; achieving the demands of a creature feature while also speaking harshly towards our toxic culture.

I spoke to Dillard in the lobby of the South Congress Hotel in Austin the day after the film screened to an enthusiastic Fantastic Fest crowd. We had a long conversation regarding his initial seaside apparition, and how he went about stuffing protein into the script to support the vision. Being haunted is an anxious existence, and the act of realizing one particular shot worked as a kind of exorcism for the director. To dive this deep into the process requires some spoilery conversation, so the timid viewer should be warned, but I’ve probably already infuriated you with all this creature feature talk. Oh well. It’s worth it for this chat.

Here is our conversation in full:

What separates your films from other comic book movies or monster movies is that the genre acts secondary to the character. The monster is almost a side note to the film.

If you see that, that’s all I need to be doing. Yeah. That’s it.

Were you philosophically approaching Sweetheart as a monster movie?

No.

What’s the impetus?

I mean, for all of these things, the first step is always different. For Slight, I had so many more pieces off the bat. I was just like, “Okay, I want a magic movie about a kid with crime.” Cool. Okay, that’s half the movie suddenly. With Sweetheart, the very first idea was the flare shot.

Oh my God. Yes.

Alex [Hyner] and Alex [Theurer], my co-writers on this, we went around, and it was like, “Okay, well, let’s make a movie that works with a flare shot.” And then, of course, you put protein in, you put muscle in, and you put a little bit of fat, we tried to keep this movie very slender, and you start building it that way.

I think as soon as I identified, “Okay, well, clearly the flare scene is a horror movie,” I then went, “You know what? There aren’t a lot of black women leading horror movies. Okay, how about that? You know what? I’ve also seen all these other horror movies where the rules are so confusing and complicated. How about a horror movie with a black lead with the flare shot that has no exposition.” So we started piecing it together that way, kind of abstractly, to give us at least a structure to build a house around. But, yeah, I mean, it started with the flare shot and it started with there being hardly any black women leading horror movies.

So the flare shot …

Yes.

Where does that come from then? Are you in the shower one day and BAM?

It is so non-glamorous. I was in Virginia Beach at a wedding.

Oh man, I’m from Virginia. My Dad’s from Norfolk.

No way. I was born in Norfolk.

How did I not know that?

Yeah. I mean, I’m from Philadelphia, but I was born in Norfolk. My dad was in the Navy.

Of course. I’m a Navy kid too.

There you go. Hey, shout out to the Navy, then. [Laughter]

Small world.

So, I was at a Navy wedding, and there had been drinking, and we found our way back down by the beach and everything’s closed, of course, because it’s November. It’s dark, I’m with a couple of my friends, and again, it’s after the wedding, so there’d been drinking, and I was just staring out at the ocean, beautifully moonlit. I just thought, “Oh, man, the scariest thing ever would be if something stood up and looked at me.” And then I immediately reached for my phone, texted my friends Alex and Alex back on the West Coast. I was like, “Maybe there’s something where this shot is like the thing.” And that was where we jumped off from. So yeah, that is as simple and nondramatic as it was. That’s where it started.

So then, the protein, the meat of the story. You wanted an African-American female lead. Check. The film is called Sweetheart. You’re speaking to a cultural shift. Was that just the logical hook for the film?

The movie had a very big sort of shift maybe halfway through our post-process, and that story became a lot clearer. Leading up to that, we were still playing with the very known portion of like, this is a woman who is not believed about the trauma she’s experiencing. So, that was always in its DNA. And obviously, a story I could only kind of tell with Kiersey Clemons‘ help. Then I was in a very crazy motorcycle accident, of which very peculiarly today is my two year anniversary.

Oh. Damn. Happy Anniversary? You’re alive.

Yeah. Happy Not Dead Anniversary. [Laughter] It’s my second birthday. I went back and saw the movie and didn’t recognize it. The hills I was willing to die on, I was like, “I don’t know why I was willing to die on this hill, but not that hill.” Watching it for the first time in four months, because that’s about how long we went down, so much more had happened out in the world and the social conversation had evolved. By no means was it ever my goal to ride the wave of the conversation, but it became clear very quickly, This is the truth of what she’s dealing with. So there became a focusing element, I think, as I came back to the film after the accident, to make that story clear.

One of the biggest changes was the letter at the end of the movie. That was not there in the first version of the film. And we just felt like, “Look, if she’s going to go fight Charlie,” which is what we colloquially call the creature, “we should really know what’s in her heart.” And for me at least, that really helps charge the final fight. It’s just giving her basically an opportunity to say, “This is my story.”

So, back to that flare shot and the monster. You can clearly see a love of other movies in your movie. What’s baked into your approach to that flare shot and that creature?

On Slight, I had a tone reel and was like, great, there’s some Top Boy in here, there’s some of this… I knew very specifically, even visually, things that were influencing me. Sweetheart was a little more vague. We watched Alien with behind-the-scenes stuff a lot. We watched Kon-Tiki. Obviously, we watched Cast Away, just to more get ideas of like, okay, well, what does good nighttime look like on movies that take place in the tropics? What is the sound design of being 15 feet away from the water versus in the forest on an island?” So the inspiration was definitely looser and kind of more collage-y. There was never a ripomatic for Sweetheart in the way that I kind of did for Slight.

From the beginning, I always knew what I wanted it to look like. The jump from beautiful days to terrifying nights. I knew that the days had to just be stunning and technicolor and almost postcard-y to create this dissonance, to head into night, where the place that we’d been looking at all day that’s wonderful is suddenly the worst. So, yeah, there were definitely elements and just framing and all of that that I talked a great deal about with [cinematograpeher Stefan Duscio], obviously. But yeah, from an inspiration standpoint it came together so differently than Slight.

Why do you think that was?

That’s a very good question. With Slight, I was telling a story kind of about me so I plugged into it very differently. Whereas Sweetheart felt like I was telling Jenn’s story, and even just that subtle shift definitely has implications in the process somehow. I’ve only made two movies, so I’m still trying to figure out how the hell this works. But I feel like I had to honor Jenn in telling that story, wherein Slight I was kind of, in a weird way, channeling my whole childhood into an experience. I think the engine will hopefully yield an okay movie, and the engine was definitely different on both films.

With Slight, you had a lot of freedom to bend or subvert comic book cinema. Any twist on convention was going to feel fresh and radical. Audiences still love the genre, but they’re ready for something other than Marvel and DC.

Yeah.

Image Comics, we’re ready.

Yeah. [Laughter]

But with monster movies, we’ve experienced a helluva lot more variety.

I agree. Absolutely.

There’s more pressure to deliver on that twist.

On Sweetheart, I had already made a movie, so this thing was going to be easy. And then the existential anxiety of failing on your sophomore effort sinks in. There’s definitely more money involved, and all of that comes into your head. And again, the weird thing is that none of it’s real. None of it’s real. And similarly, the stress on Slight was like, “This is my shot.” I’m starting to realize, in a way, there will always be that element to everything. There will be that thing that makes this experience today the scariest thing you’ve ever done. And then it’s over and you’re like, “None of that meant anything.”

The most naive thing I did on Sweetheart was just the assumption that the second movie will be easier. By no means was the show plagued with problems. It wasn’t bad at all. Going into it thinking that you knocked your first movie out of the park, then you’re good. It’s like, no, no. This is a lifetime of developing a process. There were things that I did on Sweetheart that I think I did better on Slight, and there are things that I did on Sweetheart better than Slight. It’s just a humbling thing to — again — go into everything knowing there’s plenty to learn, you’re still finding it. And hopefully, the goal is just to do it better than last time.

Well, I just spoke to Takashi Miike and he’s made almost 100 films. He still doesn’t know how an audience is going to react to his movies.

Hey, and that is so, so nice to hear.

Stress is essential to the creative process. 

Totally.

And you certainly picked one helluva environment to make a movie.

Well, that is the other piece. Unrelated to all of it, one thing that has changed forever is when I realized that all I had to do was write “Ext: Island” and I could move to Fiji. It has definitely shifted fundamentally how I write, because you look at the calendar and you’re like, “Okay, well, this movie could go in this time of year,” like, “Ext: Summer.” Yeah. I mean, they’re definitely is a degree of write where you want to go. It’s hard not to be inspired by your island survival movie when you are looking at the natural beauty of Fiji. I mean, you point your camera in any direction and you’re like, “This is the production value.” I mean, other than, obviously, the creature. Blue waters and infinite horizon. It’s postcard-y for a reason.

But you could have shot Sweetheart differently. It could have been set-based, leaned heavier into a B-movie vibe.

We could have, but I think the discomfort in shooting in a tropical environment reads on screen, and it’s good that it does.

So, that other bit of production value — the creature.

Yes.

The silhouette shot.

Yes.

You have to have a great silhouette, or the shot means nothing.

It was the first part of the conversation in design, knowing that that was going to be how we were doing it. Every movie has its moment where you’re like, “Oh, we’re making the movie now.” I think on Slight it was starting to get designs on his implant. You’re like, “Okay, cool. The thing that was in my head that I purposely left agnostic so I could see a design is here.” And on Sweetheart, obviously, starting to see creature designs, we split that in half. Neville Page did the design and then Weta New Zealand actually built the suit. We had to kind of work out the balance of like, “Okay, well, some design things have to now be adjusted because we are properly putting a performer in the suit. So the waist can be that thin here, or the legs can’t be that wide here,” and you kind of find a balance.

From the beginning, we knew we wanted it to be a biped because we wanted a man-in-suit creature movie. So it just became this really fun, fluid process with Neville like, “Let’s start with 12 designs.” It’s like, “Okay, well, I like the feet on this, the head on that, the arms on this.” And then now there are four designs, and it’s like, “Okay, let’s look at this one, but let’s steal these eyes, that, that, that.” Months later you have Charlie, and you’re like, “Cool. Never thought I would see the thing, but here he is.”

How do you know when you finally have Charlie? You’re putting all these things together, but when does it finally click? I feel like you could design that thing for the rest of your life if you wanted to.

Oh, you absolutely could. But for me at least, and Neville is such a pro with this, as he’s designing this in 3D, when we get to a certain point in the process, instead of just showing the model, he will present the design in a stance. And for me, that’s the part where you’re like, okay, now that I see it in the predatory stance, not just arms up, like wireframe model vibes, once you see it crouched or swimming very quickly — that’s the shot. That being said, the practicality of there being a timeline of when we need to send the model in to get sculpted by Weta obviously dictates some of that. I think we’re done now, but, yeah, I mean, with Neville, I never felt like, “Man, if we only had one more week, I would’ve done this.” He is just such an exceptional artist. We got there and we had the time that we needed to then have it manufactured.

I mean, Weta’s work recently, especially on the lower-budget films like Sweetheart and I Am Mother, it’s insane. Their work stands next to anything in the MCU.

Totally.

Obviously, you can’t do everything practically. There’s a balance and there’s a blend, but the blend’s important. The blend is everything for me.

And that’s what we realized quickly. We were like, okay, well, looking at the suit, let’s now break down properly where the creature exists in the film. What do we actually need for each of those moments? One thing that helped us a lot, too, was having a fully practical suit but adding life with the help of visual effects. In the eyes on a couple of shots, or very subtly sort of adjusting what we’re shooting practically for the camera. That to me is such a great blend because you clearly have the real presence of something there, but it’s doing something you know a suit can’t do and is articulating in a way that you know the suit cannot. So we do have a bunch of moments where we kind of have a blend.

And then, obviously, it’s a 200-pound foam latex suit, so it can’t swim. It can’t gymnastically leap down on the ground and leap into the water, so there were moments when we fully needed help from our visual effects departments. But the blend, I think that’s where the money is. When you know it’s there and you can see the actor reacting to it, you can see the way that it catches light in that uncanny way where we always just know what is visual effect and what’s not when it comes to living, breathing things. Like the tongue shouldn’t be moving. I think that keeps it fun.

So you start with the flare shot. That’s where the film was birthed. Then you go to shoot that shot. What was it like to finally execute that moment?

So, that is a shot that we shot all of the elements for and then built it in its pieces with visual effects. So the sort of irony of our creature is, again, the creature can’t get wet because foam latex is, essentially, a giant sponge. So if Andrew [Crawford], our performer, were to fall in the water, he would go from 200 pounds to 400 pounds and probably drown. So we did a number of things. We took a boat out onto the water, basically put a road flare at the end of like a 20-foot pole, and we would, again and again, just lower it. That gave us all the information we needed for how the light was reacting at that distance scattered across the water. We then put Charlie on land into the same thing with a flare just going behind him. So for the longest time in the edit, the temp was a comp of those things. We removed the boat, we put Charlie on land, pushed him back, and we had the flare work that way.

And then as it finally, finally, finally, finally was it, we replaced that with a CG silhouette, pushed it a little further back, we knew the timing worked, and then could just tidy and clean up all the little pieces. The piece that’s hard about it practically is that we realized that the flare was coming down, just because it’s the way light works. It’s hard to keep the creature in absolute darkness as it’s approaching. And that shot only works if you only see Charlie the second that it crosses his back. So for it to work the way that I’d always dreamed of, it was going to need to be a visual effect. But it was nice to at least come into a process with all our puzzle pieces and know how this should look.

And even when we were standing on the beach shooting the element of just the flare behind Charlie, we were like, “It’s a scary silhouette. It’s a super terrifying silhouette.”

And you’ve now seen it with several audiences, and it always works.

In watching the movie a number of times, there are certain rhythms that you start to sense. One of my favorite things about watching a movie with an audience is there’s always a handful of people that are like, “Fuck,” and then start laughing. But also the way that the movie is constructed, there’s no music in the film until that moment. So there’s this little gap, this breath, where you hear the like, “Oh, fuck,” and then the music starts and you can’t hear how anybody’s reacting anymore. But that did happen on Thursday night. Yeah, one dude was like laughing, cackling, and then the music cut him off.

I mean, when I saw that at Sundance, I laughed because it was so damn perfect.

Oh, wonderful.

When you walk into that movie, you want that shot. You want that monster.

The struggle always in editorial was the race to that moment. Leading up to that, there are a lot of little Easter eggs, like, “Could it be this kind of movie or that kind of movie? Oh, and the psychotic pills are in the bag.” You just have these little things. And again, I could go on a long diatribe about it, and I will spare you, but I think one of the under-utilized moments in all movies is that little bit of time in the first act where the movie has not declared to you what it is. In that space is where our imaginations as audience members, they are so tuned in, and that’s part of the thrill of watching. You’re like, “Ooh …” You’re coming up with theories. It’s basically the show Lost within every movie where you’re like, “Is this time travel or is it…” But you want to be playing that game. Because once you declare what it is, it’s harder to undo it.

Sure.

It’s harder to pivot. It certainly can be done. But I love keeping people in that space for a bit. This is actually kind of what we were doing. In Sweetheart, what I love is that as we declare that it’s a creature movie, we also get to declare what the music language is, which is a throw back-y, synth heavy thing. You very quickly realize, “Oh, cool, we’re watching this kind of movie.” But bring all of that up to speed at the same time.

Is this where you want to live as a filmmaker? Jumping from genres, blending genres.

In that way, not to be annoying, I am kind of agnostic to genre. Again, I’m always trying to let people who normally don’t get to do the cool things in these movies get to do the cool things, and that’s my North Star more than any component of a genre. So as long as I get to do that, I don’t care if it’s people of color in spaceships or fighting dragons.

I want to see your dragon movie.

Hey, look, trust me, and this is a whole other conversation, but if I could make like a Red Guard meets Dragonborn/Elder Scrolls thing? Game over. That would be such a dream. We need more black people with swords. Come on. Come on! Come on! We don’t get that. So yeah, in that way I don’t care, but I do want to find really character-forward ways to tell muscular genre stories. That’s the dream.

Well, J.D., let’s end it on that. Muscular genre movies, more of them.

Let’s do that. Yeah. Can we watch those?


Sweetheart will be available on Digital HD on October 22nd.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.