Suggesting influential but critically unheralded films like A WATCHER IN THE WOODS and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL gives a glimpse into an empty life, one desperate to be filled. The film never judges Adele, allowing the audience to do that or not do that according to their own prejudices, but it is hard not to feel compassion for a young woman, thrown into near servitude to an aunt who won’t even meet with her face to face, instead communicating through task lists. Calvo also toys around with the trappings of the haunting genre, allowing the aunt’s non-appearance play more like a ghost in the house than a character. As Adele’s continual disregard for her duties piles up, and she accidentally breaks some of her aunt’s creepy kitsch around the house, her charge’s condition worsens, and the shadows of genre threaten to overwhelm the film. Still, at its core, this is not a ghost story, it’s a film about young love and self-realization. It’s a film about embracing your own identity, even if it is to the detriment of another.
Calvo hangs his story on two arresting performances, Erin Wihelmi’s mousy but desperate Adele, and Quinn Shephard’s lascivious temptress Beth. Adele stalks the beautiful and alluring Beth who quickly turns the tables on her by making her her new best friend and overwhelming her with attention, the attention that she craves but then sucks her into unfamiliar territory. Shephard plays Beth with a subtle toying quality, showing Adele the sun and then shutting the door on her… and then leaving it open a crack. She’s like that crazy ex-girlfriend that you just can’t quit. Wihelmi fills Adele with quiet despondency, she’s stuck in a situation she cannot control and needs someone to value her for her. You can’t help but love her.
I had a chance to sit down with the two lead actresses and writer/director A.D. Calvo at the film’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest.
A.D. Calvo: The first thought was Mario Bava, strangely enough. One of the reasons I got involved with Mike Ryan, our producer, was because he makes these very naturalistic, character-driven films that are minimally plotted. I had been doing a lot of plotted stuff and I didn’t like plot. Then I saw Martin Scorsese talking about his work and he said when he looks back on his career, the films that feel most timeless and most connected are the character driven ones. Like Taxi Driver – because character driven stuff is very timeless. Human nature doesn’t change over time, but plot and little devices of what’s cool – these things will become fads and those come and go. That’s how I got involved with Mike and I had been working towards wanting to do a character-driven horror film. But ironically it was Mario Bava’s DROP OF WATER that was the first inspiration, a very simple concept about a girl that takes a ring from a corpse and the corpse haunts her.
BEARS: The film is set ‘vaguely’ in the 80’s although there is one scene where we see Reagan on TV so if we could pinpoint that speech…
A.D. Calvo: It’s actually 1979, that was a debate.
BEARS: Oh was that the debate? I figured if we did the research and figured out what that was on screen, we would be able to pinpoint it.
Erin Wihelmi: I loved the line about how, when Adele says, “that man’s evil,” because it sets you up for where she is mentally, but also in that time period. It’s interesting because now we’re in a similar situation. It was an interesting period to place the story because you have so many shifts going on in the world at the time.
Quinn Shephard: The time period aligns with the things that the characters are going through. I think for me, with Beth, she didn’t grow up in the ’70s, she grew up in . . . all times. She always is female, and she always attaches herself to females.
Shephard: Oh, wow. I think just with each generation there’s more freedom for women. Because she would have been there for all of it— for all of the oppression that women had seen in history— that I think the clothes are fun, its more open. She would have loved the ‘60s too, the beginning of the revolution. But she adapts. She adapts to each environment. She becomes “That Girl” of each environment.
Calvo: Yeah she’s kind of anachronistic, and she can adapt to each time period. To me, I like the period because there’s the subtext of stealing, and the slow little moral things you do that can take you down to a bad place. I see the Reagan election, to me personally, my political view point, as that was a time when America’s middle class started to be forgotten. It was the beginning of Big Business, Big Pharma, there’s a lot of references to drug use and pharmaceuticals in the film. The period’s kind of significant from the point of view that I think those Reagan years set us up for some bad things. You have that line in the bar, about how you can do…
Shephard: …a bad thing for a good reason.
Calvo: And I think that’s what happens with people. I don’t think anyone starts out bad. It’s just little things.
BEARS: It’s funny because Adele doesn’t turn on her aunt right away. It’s just little steps of deceit. But they’re. They’re selfish, little steps, but not undeserved. Like, ‘I’m just going to borrow five dollars. I’m going to get paid.’
Calvo: And I think it’s the same with politicians, or anybody, that ends up in a really bad place. Each time you transgress, it becomes a little easier to do it again. You get desensitized to those transgressions and evil is timeless – Beth’s character is that devil’s advocate.
Shephard: Evil is timeless.
Calvo: We used a lens, an angenieux lens from the ‘70s. Which was an un-coded lens that creates these really nice flares when light hits it. Typically, newer lenses are very sharp. They give this new HD— you see everything in perfect detail. These older lenses were created in a time when we didn’t have as much resolution. So I think that helps add to the look.
BEARS: Why did you want that – to add to the mystery?
Calvo: I love the look of those ’70s horror films. I’m not a fan of overly lit films. I don’t like hair light or a lot of stylized light in the background. One thing I loved about Ryan’s work [Ryan Parker, cinematographer] was that he had a very naturalistic approach. I’m hoping you don’t see a lot of lighting in the film. It’s more lyrical if you let it lose focus, buzz, and that kind of thing. We worked a lot with dark and light. I mean Quinn and Erin are dressed in dark and light, good and evil.
BEARS: Was this intentional? Was this ordered outfits for today?
Wihelmi: Oh yeah, we had planned this.
Calvo: So there’s the whole good and evil aspect. In the lighting, there’s a lot of silhouette shots where there’s brightness and shadow. We tried to introduce that into the film as well.
BEARS: I loved that even though that was obvious, they still felt like completely full and nuanced characters. The entire film is based around their relationship. How did you build that relationship on set?
Shephard: We were able to to ease into it. We got to more of the intense scenes later in the shoot.There was a lot of experimenting on set, between the dynamic because there’s so much symbolism in the character’s relationship as well. It was important to humanize the characters and not to reduce them to metaphors. Approaching my character was a lot about finding her humanity in her relationship with Adele. The way she really felt about her and is there— and not to reveal anything— but is there jealousy there? Is there kind of a sadness or is it purely mal intention? It was interesting because you have such a tender quality and working with you, it brought out the more softer side of that.
Wihelmi: And the opposite of that. I think Adele’s character is so drawn to the sort of passionate side of Beth. She’s such a lonely girl, so when this someone comes into her life that’s excited to see her every day, is excited to be around her every day – there’s never been someone like that in her life before.
BEARS: You did such a great job of not playing just the emotion at the start of the film, of just being sad and lonely. I really felt Adele had a strong intention as to what she wanted to do with her life and she was just not able to do it. So talk a little bit about your approach to starting the character of on her journey, because she starts in a very different place from where she ends.
BEARS: Quinn when you were doing this role, you get to be sort of alluring and mysterious and as we get to know you, through the film, you’re much more direct. You’re teasing us, just like you’re teasing her. You’re pulling her into the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Shephard: Yeah, what I mentioned before about finding her goals and finding her weaknesses, and to make Beth a real, human character, it was really interesting for me to experiment how much she was befriending, seducing, or scaring Adele at different times. She’s such a goal-oriented character that a lot of times, the scenes would be about what was working and what just had worked. In the script again, mapping it out, mapping out the arc. I broke it down into the different stages where in the beginning, it was about impressing Adele with seeming very worldly, and having nice clothes, and being fun, being like, ‘oh, I have a great life!’ And then it became a lot more intimate in the lake house scenes where it was really about reaching out to her emotionally. I think that brings a sensuality to it but it wasn’t overtly like, ‘oh, I’m just trying to seduce you.’ I think there was something really tender in some of the scenes we shot in the graveyard and everything. But underneath it, there was almost a resentment and anger because of the nature of their doomed relationship. For one second, she’s very warm and very vulnerable and the next second, she’s really cold and angry. I played with instead of seeing it as a way I’m manipulating Adele, also seeing it as a way Beth is maybe fighting some of her own emotions. A little bit.
BEARS: So there’s some very intense, sexual scenes in this film that I have to assume are pretty difficult to film.
Calvo: You know it’s funny, but we watched THE HANDMAIDEN yesterday—
BEARS: There was no scissoring in this film! Yeah, I was watching that film and there were things on that screen that I had never seen on a screen.
Calvo: Well, I had seen BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR and that came close, but HANDMAIDEN definitely put it into another game. So I think having seen that, ours is pretty mild. But yeah, it’s all there in a less explicit visual way and I like that. We’re at a genre festival but it’s less about exploitation— and these films are all about exploitation, a lot of them. I don’t have anything against that. But I like that it’s a little bit classier. You think of movies like ROSEMARY’S BABY and I think those films, to this day, just don’t have that exploitive feel to them. Its more subdued.
BEARS: I feel like their interaction is much more about exploration than exploitation. Like helping Adele discover herself.
Calvo: Totally. Yes.
BEARS: So how did you guys approach the performances in those scenes?
Shephard: It was really easy.
Wilhelmi: We just made out a lot.
SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL world premiered at Fantastic Fest and next plays Sitges in October. For more information on the film, check out the website.