There was such a society-wide claustrophobic feeling that people might’ve been like, ‘I can’t watch this right now! I’m in my own house with my own problems!’
How far would you go to keep a loved one alive? How much of yourself could you possibly sacrifice? Jonathan Cuartas’ feature-length debut, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, is a symbolic horror/family drama that takes a clinical approach to telling a vampire story. Here, bloodthirst is an existential leech sucking the joy and hope out of caregivers tasked with keeping the chronically ill alive, where the toll of co-dependency has no end in sight—except in death.
In Cuartas’ world, vampirism is not in itself monstrous in ways we are familiar with. In painting the vampiric equation as an incurable, destructive disease that threatens to take an entire family down with it, fangs and other concomitants of the subgenre are conspicuously absent. But there’s still enough on-screen evidence to suggest that Thomas (Owen Campbell) is a modern-day bloodsucker. For one thing, he subsists on a never-ending supply of human blood that his older brother, Dwight (Patrick), reluctantly collects for him. To meet that end, Dwight is a nightcrawler who spends his time hunting day laborers, the homeless, and other indigent persons living on the margins as a means to borrow more time and keep Thomas alive. Performing breadwinning duties in this three-person household is older sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), a diner waitress, who commandeers these gruesome operations, which has clearly become second nature to her, with an iron fist. All steely, Jessie has clearly lost pieces of her humanity somewhere down the line. Meanwhile, Dwight, torn as he is between the exigent demands of his family—by any objective standard, he has become a serial killer—and the pangs of his growing conscience, has visibly grown weary of this lifestyle. He’s buckling and desperately clinging to every bit of hope he has left. With the dawning realization that, despite their best efforts they won’t ultimately save Thomas, Jessie’s control over Dwight begins to waver. This is when things begin to really spiral.
In a stellar, underplayed performance, Fugit brings an incredible sadness to this role, putting Dwight in a cloud with stooped shoulders and an almost mumbled speech. Bearing all that trauma in his physical presence, his Dwight emerges from a fog, under the yoke of a bizarre home life.
Next, Fugit will star opposite Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons in HBO Max’s limited series Love and Death: the true story of housewife Candy Montgomery’s murder of Betty Gore in 1980.
Anthem reached out to Fugit for a conversation during this year’s Tribeca Festival.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To hits select theaters and VOD on June 25.
Patrick, I was getting worried about you.
I’m so sorry, man. I was down at my family’s storage in my hometown on the west side of Salt Lake City and going through crazy old photos and stuff and totally lost track of time.
I have nowhere to be. Did you find some good stuff in there?
I found my mom’s baby journal. There are journal entries that she wrote from when I was 20 months old, which is how old my son is right now.
That must be such a trip to go through.
It was a pretty big trip. So my dad and I went out there to sift through all this stuff and there are these gems, you know? Amazing to go through. But it was 105 degrees down there when I left.
That would for sure kill Thomas.
[laughs] I’m like, “This is cool, but it’s dusty and hot. I just want to get back into some air-conditioning.” I just took so long being in that nostalgic place. I’m driving home like, “Oh my god! I have a Zoom call!” Terrible. I’m so sorry. I hate being late!
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To be completely honest, you were the main draw for me going into this movie. The story and the genre mash-up were certainly alluring, too, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t sure how much of this would skew into horror or family drama. What were your first impressions, and was this pitched to you as an idea or did you receive a full screenplay?
It was a screenplay. Jon [Cuartas] had worked with [producer] Kenny Riches and myself on another film that Kenny wrote and directed [A Name Without a Place] and Jon was [the assistant editor] on that. I remember getting along with him and his brother [Michael Cuartas, cinematographer on My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To], talking about films we liked. I was like, “These guys have good taste.” Before we made this one, Kenny sent me Jon’s script. He said, “I’ve been working on this script with Jon and we would like you to play Dwight. Take a look.” That’s all he told me about it. I was like, “The title’s kind of long, guys.” [laughs] When I read it, the first scene where Dwight takes the guy to the house and hits him with a bat completely caught me off guard because I had no idea what this script was even about. And then he takes the guy inside, cuts him open, and harvests his blood. I was like, “What the fuck, first of all, is wrong with Jon? What is going on in this movie?” Then as it unfolded I was like, “This is pretty brilliant.” I got really excited because there are aspects of horror that I like. I’ve worked on some horror. I worked on a horror TV show [Outcast] for a couple seasons. And this was so different. It was such a character study. It was such a relationship-driven thing that has to do with vampirism. I found it really, really interesting. I loved how subtle it was. I loved that there was never an exploration of how the family encountered the vampirism. Was he bitten initially? What happened to him? I like that it didn’t go into that. It’s sort of vague and it’s not really about that. It’s about how they’re living with it now, you know? I thought it was super well done.
Dwight does irredeemable things, which is why I thought you were so well cast. Because with a character like this, I think there needs to be an overriding likability factor with him for it to work. You’re a very likable actor so we still root for Dwight. Did you take a liking to him immediately or were there perhaps conflicted feelings?
I really liked Dwight. I think he’s sort of tragic and pathetic, and he doesn’t have what it takes to exist in the world—or stand up to his sister. Him and Jess are bad people. Dwight is too meek and submissive and weak to stop doing what he’s doing. He does care, but he’s so in over his head. He’s so damaged by what he’s been doing because he knows it’s wrong. He’s like this flesh golem, going out and gathering blood for the family. It’s a pretty cool character. But I wouldn’t like him as a person. He’s a very immersive and interesting personality, but he’s not somebody I would hang around in real life. [laughs] I really love the way Jon wrote him and I really loved playing him. It was very interesting to immerse myself in that sort of physicality and mindset each day.
I enjoyed being with him in that quietude and loneliness where you’re empathizing with his situation, but also not letting him off the hook for anything. And as you said, I, too, liked the lack of exposition having to do with where their parents are or how Thomas got to be the way he is. But are these things you discuss with Jon on the margins of the screenplay anyway?
We did a little bit, you know? Jon had several backstories. There was something about the father killing the mother. You’ll have to ask Jon because there are like three versions that I heard, and they’re all Jon’s style of fucked up. It’s kind of better that they’re not in the movie. I like that stuff, but what’s most important is, why does Dwight feel obligated? It is a certain amount of Jessie’s manipulation and her power over people, but it is also a certain amount of brotherly love and obligation. That was the focus. It’s an interesting thing, no matter what the backstory is.
The magical thing about working in this genre is that there are rules we are privy to already so you start making associations and interpretations without a guiding hand. For instance, I became fascinated with the possibility that, if vampires don’t age, Thomas might actually be older than Dwight and Jessie, which makes their dynamic so much creepier in my eyes.
Yeah! I think Thomas could be so much older than them. But I don’t think we ever played that. We always played Thomas as the baby brother. Owen [Campbell] would be able to speak more to this, but I really liked how childlike Thomas was. Even if Thomas was several years older than he appeared, he was still turned at a young age that he has no experience with the world. He was very immature emotionally and socially. It’s so interesting the way Owen was playing that. One of the things that I liked doing as well in playing with Owen, which we asked Jon about and he kind of gave us the go ahead for, was: any time Thomas asks Dwight to do something, he makes eye contact. It’s that old myth: when vampires make eye contact with you, they will hypnotize you and you’re basically under their thrall at that point. You’ll do whatever they tell you to do. So Owen and I planned all these different beats where he would look into my eyes and ask me to take him outside or ask me for some more blood or whatever it is. Whether Thomas knows that’s a vampire thing or not, he just knows that, “When I look into Dwight’s eyes and I ask for something, I get it.” When he’s drinking Dwight’s blood off the floor and gets bloodthirsty, he looks into my eyes and asks, “Is this your blood?” Dwight is paralyzed. He’s enthralled. He’s terrified. He knows this is a bad situation, but he can’t move because Thomas got him eye-locked. Then that led into one of my favorite moments on set, which is when Thomas asks Dwight to open the window, which means that’s going to kill him and he knows it. It’s the one time he asks Dwight to do something in the film without looking into his eyes so it’s a genuine two-person request. It’s two people making the decision for the first time. I really enjoyed playing those moments with Owen.
That’s so interesting. It gives you a different vantage point into Dwight if he was in fact captivated by these looks that would render him helpless. I read some reviews after watching the film and noticed that quite a few people had interpreted this as an addiction story as well, concerning a family of enablers. I wonder if Jon engineered for that possibility.
I think that’s part of the reason why Jon kept everything so simple in terms of the lore. Also, it’s the fact that Thomas doesn’t know any of that lore. Vampires know they can hypnotize people. They know that they can’t go into a house unless they’re invited in. They know they don’t have a reflection. But those are myths that Thomas doesn’t know so it’s never really pointed out or focused on. It’s just a fact that he has this need and it’s unhealthy and it affects the world around him in a negative way. The two siblings are literally sacrificing people to keep this need fulfilled—just barely. Whether the filter is vampirism or addiction or some type of abusive hold over people, it’s still a universal relationship concept that I certainly know I’ve been a part of and experienced or seen in my life or in the lives of people I know. That’s what resonates so deeply, in the way they wrote the thing. Because if you just write in the vampire stuff, how’s it gonna differentiate itself from all the other vampire things? It’s the truth and resonance that needs to be there.
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There’s this mirror image to the film—a story of three siblings—on the other side of the camera. What was it like working with three brothers on set? It’s a unique opportunity.
Oh yeah. Mikey and Jon, and it’s actually their dad—Rodrigo [Cuartas, production designer].
Oh, I was mistaken.
But Rodrigo is a strapping, youthful man who looks like he could be their brother. [laughs] He is so proud of his boys, man. He’s so supportive, so proud. He was there on set the whole time and did some awesome work. Primarily, of course, Jon and Mikey together was awesome because they have a shared cinematic taste, which informs their cinematic language the way they story-tell. It was all very prepared, very planned. And they’re first-time feature filmmakers. They’ve done some great short films, but it was their first time jumping in on a feature where they have a budget, a cast, and a production structure. That can go a lot of different ways. I’ve seen it be done very well like the way that Jon and Mike did it. I’ve also been on sets with first-time directors that were total nightmares. Creatively, this was very rewarding. It was very rewarding for me to be a part of and very fun to watch them work—especially young guys who are out on their first big go at it.
So you did watch Kuru, the short this is expanded from. Does that boost your confidence?
Yeah, it’s like tracking the universals of relationships. There are also universals of storytelling and universals of cinematography, and how you use blocking and acting to convey the story and to convey what’s going on. People who pay attention to those skills and that process are able to tell resonant or intriguing stories with very little time and very little resources, which is what they were doing with short films. Kenny sent me the short films and I watched them after I read the script. When I read the script I was like, “I’m good to go. This is dope.” And when I watched the shorts I was like, “This is awesome. The movie is also going to look beautiful. It’s going to be very still and suffocating and immersive and expressive.” So all of that comes through in those short films.
You filmed this in Salt Lake City, which is where you live now and you’re also originally from there. You don’t hear about movies shooting out there too often. How did you manage that?
Kenny grew up here. I grew up here. Couple of our producers are from here. We’re all pretty tight friends since high school. Jon and Mike, I think, are from Florida and that’s where they’re primarily living right now. I think it was just easier logistically to film it in Salt Lake City. I think Jon also liked the feeling of the place—the surrounding mountains and the properties around here. You more often see sprawling Los Angeles or peripheral New York-type neighborhoods in horror. You’ll see very rural middle America in movies like The Strangers. Utah provides a contrasting vertical form. I don’t know if this was Jon and Mikey’s intention, but there’s something about the road that Dwight uses to go get humans for blood in this steep canyon where there’s no alternate road. He can’t ever turn off the road that he’s going. It’s just sheer mountain faces that go up into infinity. He can’t stop and try to crawl out of this path he’s on. Then, eventually, when he does get to a split in the freeway, he’s held by Jessie’s invisible force anyways. I really liked all that stuff.
Now people will get to see all of that in theaters. This movie was actually supposed to world premiere at Tribeca last year. I wonder if this movie hits you differently now than it did a year ago when the pandemic was very bad. I wonder if I might have gotten more caught up in the feelings of isolation and being trapped as the characters are in the movie had I watched it then. Whereas now, with the COVID restrictions largely lifted, I’m more struck by the film’s ending. When Dwight opens the window, it’s sad, but it also means freedom.
I think that’s a great point. The film is coming out on digital and in theaters, which is pretty awesome. I did not know that would be the case last year and I really wanted people to go see it in the theater. Obviously, I want people to be safe when they do that, but the immersive experience in that room with the screen and the sound, we all know that’s very different to watching it even on a really nice, very big TV, which is probably not the case for most people anyway. When we missed out on Tribeca last year it felt like, “We’re going to Tribeca! Nevermind! There’s a pandemic, I guess! What happens with the film now?” It was a bit of a bummer. Tribeca is a big deal and I was very happy that the film got in. I was very proud. I was very proud of Jon and Mikey and my friends. And you’re right: there was such a society-wide claustrophobic feeling that people might’ve been like, “I can’t watch this right now! I’m in my own house with my own problems! I can’t go outside! I’m gonna fucking watch something else!” We all had a very similar isolated experience, like as a family. It’s trauma that we share. It’s a crazy thing to think about.