The Director of Horror Film Sweetheart on Breaking the Rules of Genre

Kiersey Clemons stars in Sweetheart, the second film from director JD Dillard.
Photo: Blumhouse

Standing drunk on a beach, looking out at the ocean, filmmaker JD Dillard suddenly had the idea for his next movie.

“I went to a wedding in Virginia Beach and there had been some drinking,” Dilliard told io9 at Fantastic Fest last month. “I was down at the beach for a little bit, just looking out to the water had the very peculiar, and partially drunken, thought that the scariest possible thing ever would be something standing up and looking at me.”

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The thought inspired one of the key moments in Sweetheart, Dillard’s second film which is available on digital and on-demand today. It stars Kiersey Clemons as Jenn, a young woman who somehow finds herself stranded on a deserted island. Then, as you can tell by Dillard’s initial idea, Jenn quickly realizes she isn’t alone.

On its own, the idea obviously sounds very familiar. You’ve seen that movie. You’ve seen that TV show. But Sweetheart distinguishes itself from movies like Cast Away or TV shows like Lost in a number of key ways.

“At that time, [I was] having a violent overreaction to exposition,” Dillard said. “So much genre is just laden with tomes and books of rules. And we’re like ‘Okay, let’s think about a genre experience where there’s none of that. There’s just none, none, none of that. So the movie being spartan was definitely an early thought.”

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Dillard and his lead actress on location in Fiji where the film was shot.
Photo: Blumhouse

As Sweetheart begins, we know nothing about Jenn. It’s just her, on an island, walking around and looking for stuff. Not only was this Dillard’s “middle finger to exposition” but, hopefully, it puts audiences in a very unique mindset.

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“I think one of the most underutilized parts in the story is that moment in the first act [when] the movie hasn’t committed to you what it is,” Dillard said. “When the movie could truly be anything. There’s a very specific thrill when you’re trying to put the pieces together. And, within Sweetheart, there are little nuggets, little pieces of evidence that could send us in two different stories.”

No matter which path the film took, the one constant was Dillard was always set on having a black woman as the lead. “My crusade for the rest of my life is letting people who don’t normally get to do the cool things in a movie get to do the cool things. Which is a roundabout way of representation,” he said. “Knowing that yeah, okay, I’m gonna put a black woman at the lead. My sisters love horror movies, weirdly, more than I do, considering I just made one. But they don’t have many...the list is short of black women killing the creature.”

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Clemons, either admiring the location or about to be scared shitless, in Sweetheart.
Photo: Blumhouse

So the pieces were set. Filming would take place on location in Fiji and Blumhouse, which was about to release Dillard’s first film Sleight, was producing. As the story tightened though, the idea of information, an idea Dillard was so against at the start, began to become increasingly important. How much information could they reveal? What would that information mean?

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“We say we’re not a movie about exposition but we have to deploy it and tried to take those steps carefully,” he said. “Not have too much, but not have too little that [it] feels super, obnoxiously vague.” In the end, Dillard admitted “Other than the creature, the other big battle is exposition,” which is both figurative and, surprisingly, literal too.

Another battle, albeit it a less crucial one, was the film’s title. Sweetheart wasn’t always “Sweetheart.” In fact, for most of the production, there wasn’t a title at all. It was just called “Island” as a place holder. But, at a certain point, a single word in the script, delivered in just the right way by just the right person at just the right time, began to stand out as the only way to go.

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“I love the idea we could obscure the expectation of what this was about by just not calling it like ‘Alone’ or ‘Not Alone’ or ‘Deep’ or whatever. Insert generic horror title here,” Dillard said. “And when we realized that the movie was about being believed, about Jenn trying to break out of this understanding that other people have about who she is, we realized very quickly that Sweetheart was there [in the script] and accidentally this term of containment.”

Speaking of containment though, despite stellar reviews from its Sundance Film Festival debut and recent Fantastic Fest run, Blumhouse and Universal Pictures, are not giving Sweetheart a theatrical release. The news that broke mere hours before Dillard and io9 sat down together last month.

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Dillard on location in Fiji.
Photo: Blumhouse

“We made this movie wanting it to be in theaters,” Dillard said. “That said, for me, with my North Star always being putting faces that I haven’t seen in the movies that I love, access becomes the most important piece. So knowing that there will be so little resistance to access is important to me and knowing that everybody is able to see it and they can see it immediately and quickly and just because the math is there [that] more people will get to see it...”

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Dillard talks a bit more, then pauses and changes course.

“Look, I got to make a movie and that’s the most important piece for me,” he said. “And the movie is finished and is available but seeing it with an audience last night [at Fantastic Fest] you’re like ‘Well, hey the [shot I imagined on that beach in 2017] looks nice 40-feet-wide. [laughs] And you would hope more people get that opportunity. But I don’t say that with savage disappointment or anything. It kind of is what it is. But I’m glad people are going to be able to see it.”

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And see Sweetheart, you absolutely, positively, should. It is now available on-demand and for digital download.


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About the author

Germain Lussier

Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo