Film Interview 2021
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
The award-winning My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the feature debut from director Jonathan Cuartas starring Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, and Owen Campbell. Following siblings Dwight (Fugit) and Jessie (Schram) who put all their energy into keeping their little brother Thomas (Campbell) alive. But he craves human blood.
Hi Jonathan, thanks for talking to The New Current, have these Covid times offered you any new creative opportunities?
Yes, and no. I was convinced I would write at least two scripts during the pandemic, but that never happened. It was a tough year and my creativity took a hit. However, I finally have a new script in the works. It's a possession film set in 80s Miami, following a Colombian immigrant. I'm about two drafts in, starting to pitch it here and there. I suppose I used this strange time as a way to reflect on my debut feature, and how I can grow as a filmmaker.
Congratulations on having a digital release of My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To, how does it feel to be releasing your film digitally later this month?
Thank you! It feels surreal, to be honest. It has been quite the year, having a film tour through the festival circuit during a global pandemic. Sadly, I wasn't able to engage with audiences as much as I would have wanted to. I'm looking forward to connecting with more audiences, whether that's in-person, or virtually. I think this year has really shifted the landscape of the film industry. I've made so many connections via social media. Most of the friendships I've formed have been online. Although a packed theatre is still my preferred method of exhibition, I'm grateful to be able to share the film in any way. Getting a distribution company to support a film is definitely hard. I'm so thankful that Lightbulb Film Distribution is supporting the film and giving it a chance to be seen in the UK.
The reaction to My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To has been amazing, did you expect you would get such an incredible response to your film?
I didn't know what to expect! This is my first feature film, so I've never experienced this amount of press. I'm really happy people are reacting to it more positively than negatively. Even the negative reviews acknowledge some of the film's strengths. For me, it's all about starting a conversation. I've reached out to bloggers and podcasters who didn't really enjoy the film, just to have a conversation about it. I think that's what filmmakers should aim to do, anyway. As a filmmaker, I have my own point of view, and it isn't always right. Art is subjective, and it's an invitation for discourse.
Of all the awards you've won for this feature you picked up the Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation at Sitges 2020, what does it mean for you to win this award?
It means so much to me. I looked up all the previous winners, and I can't believe I got the award. I don't feel worthy! I mean, Dogtooth, was one of the biggest inspirations on my film. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a monumental film (also about vampires) and I think Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the best filmmakers working today. Not to mention Julia Ducournau's phenomenal debut, RAW. Also, the amount of talent nominated in 2020 was just astounding. I feel very lucky, and very humbled. I think I submitted all my short films to Sitges and none of them ever got accepted. This is all a dream-come-true, really.
"I've done the stoic characters and muted world thing, so now I want to dig into something a little more kinetic. I also wanna explore my Colombian heritage and culture."
You have an incredible cast, how did you go about casting My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To?
Owen Campbell was my first choice for Thomas. I thought he would portray the character so well, and he certainly did. My producer reached out to Owen's agent and there was a bit of back-and-forth (producorial business), but I still remember our first Skype call. I was advised to play it cool and not get too excited, but I decided to be honest and tell Owen how much of a big fan I was. I first saw him in Super Dark Times and thought he was such a good actor. I think he responded well to my honesty, and was immediately down to join the project. Funny enough, he had come across the project before we had ever reached out. I think he saw the look-book online or something.
As far as casting Patrick Fugit, that was a lucky chain of events. Our producer Kenny Riches happens to be childhood friends with Patrick, and so Kenny sent him the script without revealing any plot details. Kenny didn't even tell Patrick the genre, so Patrick went into the read without any expectations. He read the first few pages and thought, "Okay, this is about a man who picks up a homeless guy and gives him a ride." Then out of nowhere, WHAM! The man cracks the homeless guy in the head with a baseball bat, and then the man and his sister are draining the homeless guy's blood in the kitchen. Patrick thought it was hilarious, the way the story switched gears so intensely within the first five pages. He thought it was cool how the story switched between horror and drama elements from scene to scene, and he was excited to portray the hulking mess that is Dwight.
Ingrid Sophie Schram was a true blessing. She was the last person we cast, probably two weeks before shooting. We had someone else signed on to play Jessie, but they had to back out. I had like five different video calls per day with potential Jessie's, but for some reason, nothing was working out. I was freaking out! Without the perfect Jessie, I don't think we could have even filmed. Thankfully, we found Ingrid, and she responded really well to the script. We had a call at midnight. I was at a Walmart buying wardrobe for the film, and she asked me a bunch of questions, about story, character and even production logistics. She practically signed on right away. I'm so grateful she trusted me and the production enough to sign on so spontaneously. I don't think anyone else could have done as excellent a job as Ingrid did in portraying Jessie. She's such a hard character to nail down.
What influenced your screenplay?
In 2016, my grandmother passed away after some time in hospice. My dad is the youngest of ten siblings, so needless to say, we have a huge family. This brings forth a lot of tension when trying to decide what's best for a loved one at such a sensitive time. We knew she wasn't gonna get better, and at some point we had to let her go. I noticed how some family members formed alliances, and opinions varied. It was a very tense few weeks, but I also noticed the love that bonded us. We all share the same blood, at the end of the day. This was an experience I wanted to write about, and I gravitate toward horror storytelling. I thought family codependency and sacrifice worked very well with the vampire sub-genre. So I used this archetype as a vehicle to speak about my experience.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently on this feature?
It's hard to pin down exactly what I would do differently, but I think I've gained some perspective for future projects. I do know I want my next project to be scarier, and a little quicker in terms of pacing. I really enjoy films like RAW, so character-driven, yet simultaneously charged with so much energy. This energy is something I want to implement in my next film. I've done the stoic characters and muted world thing, so now I want to dig into something a little more kinetic. I also wanna explore my Colombian heritage and culture. I want to tell stories with Colombian and Colombian-American characters. Most of the dialog in my next film is in Spanish. I think it's important to get specific.
Finally, what do you want people to take away from this film?
I love hearing from audiences about which character they empathize with. I think it says a lot about the person. The film is extreme, and set in a different reality where vampires exist, but I think the characters are still relatable. Some people think Jessie is a cold-blooded killer who deserves to die, while other people think she's the glue holding her family together. It's interesting to hear all these different opinions. Like I mentioned before, what gets me most excited is having a conversation. If nothing else, I just want to engage with the audience.