Alice Waddington on PARADISE HILLS and DISCO INFERNO – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas interviews

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Dazzling with an artistry that straddles a deep love of the past with a slick high-tech future, the feature debut Paradise Hills from Spanish filmmaker Alice Waddington is as fearless politically as it is stylistically. With a superstar cast featuring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Eiza González, and cult film icon Milla Jovovich, Paradise Hills is a masterclass in how feminism and femininity can coexist in profoundly engaging, meaningful ways.

Premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and recently receiving US release in cinemas and video-on-demand, Paradise Hills is set in an opulent reform school for high society’s misfit young ladies. Here, Jovovich’s smiling-yet-sadistic character The Duchess rules with an immaculately manicured iron fist. Resisting an arranged marriage, Uma’s (Emma Roberts) awakens to find herself drugged and trapped in an institution that looks anything like the traditional prison, but despite the luxurious surroundings. Undergoing a forced regime including a physical makeover and a strictly controlled diet, Uma and her new friends Yu (Awkwafina), Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and Amarna (Eiza González) discover their suspicions about their oppressive environment hide a truth more disturbing than they could have ever imagined.

For the many who were fortunate enough to see Waddington’s 2015 short film Disco Inferno when it took the international festival circuit by storm, the much-anticipated feature debut more than delivered on the promise of another sensorially provocative film that falls under the umbrella of the feminist baroque. Combining a lush neo-Victorian aesthetic with Paradise Hills’ broader dystopian narrative framework, Waddington has made the transition from acclaimed short to ground-breaking feature debut with a confidence and originality rarely seen.

Alice kindly took the time to speak to me as we reflected on the circumstances leading towards Paradise Hills, and what lies ahead.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: I know that many who were first introduced to your work as a filmmaker through Paradise Hills there’s almost a blanket, shared experience of them needing to pause to catch their breath just at how unique and strong your creative vision is; by 2019 standards, it’s really quite unlike anything else that we might see in a feature film with big-name movie stars. Was there a particular moment in your life that you knew you had a calling towards the visual arts? 

Alice Waddington: I believe it might have been when I was twelve or thirteen. My parents are a psychologist and a teacher from Spanish families who had one connection in the film industry: a DOP they shared a flat back in university with. They are big science fiction and fantasy fans – which meant a strong emotional connection for us. My dad hosted a film club, my mom played Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange for me when I was about fourteen years old. They always taught me about the power of imagination and encouraged me to dream big.

But… I could never afford to go to film school. The financial crisis hit Spain right when I began looking for work, too. In 2015, while I was working two retail and one advertising gig to make rent, I also began designing the visual treatment and first six pieces of conceptual art for Paradise Hills with screenwriter Sofía Cuenca. It would become my first feature film, after making one short and a few ads. We took the pitch to Austin’s Fantastic Fest. We won second best feature project of the market, and best directing. It was also there that I met Guillermo del Toro, who introduced me to my manager and agent. They then pitched me to Adrián Guerra and Núria Valls at Sitges, where Disco Inferno was in the New Visions section.

I brought Nacho Vigalondo into the project, whom I have known for seven years. Adrián and Núria suggested Brian DeLeeuw, writer of Daniel isn’t Real.

I really wanted to create something addressing the use that my 12- or 13-year-old cousins made of their social networks. I felt that we had put in their hands a window to the world that insisted they would never be beautiful, or popular enough – perfect, really. As if adults were recycling high school pressures… and then validating them.

Heller-Nicholas: I was fortunate enough to discover your work many years ago now through your 2015 short, Disco Inferno. Even then – and more so with Paradise Hills – I was almost thrown off my chair by how much visual energy is in your work and your skills as someone who really knows how images can impact us. I understand that your background is in advertising and more commercial art, and I’d love to hear what you learned from that experience that you could bring to your creative practice as a filmmaker?

Waddington: I absolutely remember your kind words about Disco Inferno back in the day, which meant a ton, as a very first-time director too. 

Let me tell you something – Disco would never had existed had I not been working in advertising. Its inception was having only forty-five cents of a euro to go back home, while the Madrid tube costs one and a half. The lady at the ticketing office had let me sneak in so many times, that one day she just couldn’t make an exception anymore. 

It was just shy of nine, and I walked all the way back home from Madrid’s Ciudad Lineal to Barrio Malasaña. It must have been close to an hour twenty, dragging my feet under the rain. And while I was crossing the bougiest neighborhoods and their embassies, I encountered this party attended by masked guests. It seemed quite pagan to me, and together with Nacho playing Georges Franju’s Judex for me, I guess it really sparked something! 

The ending of the short, which takes place in hell, is an homage to Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert… and it was shot in the actual advertising office where I used to work at (laughs).

Heller-Nicholas: Disco Inferno really took the world by storm, and it travelled extraordinarily well internationally. Did you expect when you made it that it would speak to audiences around the world the way that it did?

Waddington: Thank you! It did go to some seventy international film festivals, which was utterly bonkers. I’ve had the privilege of always feeling loved and respected by producers because of precisely that. Film festivals are hugely important for female creators, especially during a time in which programmers are consciously re-defining what it means to ‘be an auteur’.

And filmmakers such as Alma Har’el, Lulu Wang, Chinonye Chukwu, Minhal Baig, et al., are answering the call with such gusto. It’s just a pleasure to see them bloom and triumph… after so many years of struggle and effort.  

Horror and indie audiences really are the best in the world, and it was surreal to see Disco Inferno and then Paradise Hills play to sold out crowds in the fest circuit.

Heller-Nicholas: I can’t imagine how big the jump from making a short film to making a feature was, and I’m curious about your personal experience of doing so. Was there anything that you’d assumed would be a challenge that proved not to really be one and – likewise – were there elements of making a feature that you did not think would prove so difficult?

Waddington: I still remember how Guillermo del Toro, right after we met at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago, said “Nothing in this life can prepare you for the physical and mental effort that making a first feature film entails”. Truer words… (laughs)

There were two big, self-evident challenges – the first one was language. Because I was born in the Basque Country, we learn French, Basque and Spanish almost by default. 

Spanish is my first, and English was about fourth when we began prepping for the project – my parents don’t really speak it, although my mum understands – and sort of became my second in the process, which was neat.

The other adventure was working with people who had been on sets since before I was born. Milla, Emma, Eiza, all had been working since childhood. It would have been really silly to believe that I had anything to teach them! 

Opening your heart and being honest about your ignorance just really helped me.

Heller-Nicholas: Getting into the heart of Paradise Hills, I was really interested to see that while the story was yours, the screenplay itself was co-written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw. I like both of their work a lot – Vigalondo as a filmmaker in his own right, of course, and DeLeeuw as both a novelist and a screenwriter I discovered through the films of Adam Egypt Mortimer. Both of their work interests me because it shares a very unique critique of patriarchy coming from male writers and filmmakers, which makes it such a perfect fit for what you were doing with Paradise Hills. Can you tell me more about this process of collaboration, what lead you to them, and why you decided to trust them with your idea?

Waddington: Thank you for highlighting the fact that both Brian and Nacho have written feminist characters before. The process implied four people: Sofía Cuenca and me – who wrote the screen story – and then our two peers, who developed it. 

There are a few men in the Spanish film industry who are in a position of power that’s just relevant enough to be able to help up and coming women – or, at the very least, to be their eyes and ears. I had done one short film, so bringing a known sci-fi filmmaker such as Nacho into the screenwriting process made him become my voice. A distinct voice that, without him, I might never have been allowed to showcase in a debut feature.

Now that I have decision-making power, I am happy to be collaborating for my next film, Scarlet, with Kristen SaBerre: an extraordinary African-American screenwriter from New Orleans, who would be the sole credited writer.

Heller-Nicholas: The core of Paradise Hills for me personally was very much one about how the institutionalization of gender roles and the pressure that comes with it can really have a serious impact on our identity and sense of self.  What drew you to telling a story like this in this particular style? I admired greatly how the film was both aggressively feminist and feminine, which I think is something many filmmakers and storytellers have some anxiety about mixing…

Waddington: To me it’s important for feature films to be able to start an interclassist dialogue. Meaning that even if they are weird as hell, they should be alluring and accessible to people without a previous cinematic education.

Handing or passing on a genre to young women is not something that is going to make every audience member happy. But I’ve made the feature I would have loved to see as a nerdy twelve-year-old who adored Lord of the Rings or The Neverending Story but could never see herself in those narratives. And I have tried to make it accessible.

With that said, it is a feminist film. Equality between men and women is an important version of the future to me. I also believe that you cannot speak about the history of imposed female submission without talking about the current beauty industry. I just felt like my cousins had this window to the world in their hands that was perpetually telling them how they would never be beautiful or popular enough – perfect enough, at the end of the day.

But it’d be naive to make a current all-female film without addressing mental health, for example – Awkwafina’s character suffers from generalized anxiety – or more importantly, without contrasting majority world versus privileged feminism, which hopefully happens in the third act! 

Heller-Nicholas: Continuing this focus on collaboration, for an artist with such a strongly defined vision (both in theme and in style), I was happily surprised to see that the production designer was Laia Colet who did such beautiful work on Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution a few years back also, as well as Alberto Valcárcel’s incredible costume design that grants Paradise Hills so much of its distinctive look. I am fascinated to hear how you approach collaboration more broadly; how do you find collaborators, and how do you know when it will click as successfully as it has in both Paradise Hills and Disco Inferno?

Waddington: I love Laia – she’s the most genuinely hilarious, insanely resourceful Spanish production designer. She can take a parking lot, dress it up with a patch of grass and a hand-painted background and make it into a futuristic cell, the first-ever interior we see within the Residence as Uma wakes up there. 

Same about Alberto, who recycled references from Donkey Skin and The Young Girls of Rochefort. He would always say “fashion is a symptom of the sickness of the moment we’re living in”. It was good for our design process to be a melting pot: the Duchess used 18th-century corsets and wide-brimmed hats. But then, the guests at our ballroom also wear post-punk headdresses! We reference Cecil Beaton’s My Fair Lady, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, but also the aesthetics of 80s music videos (Grace Jones, Gazebo) and even video games (Final Fantasy XIII, Dragon Age II). I knew our collaboration would be successful once we started exchanging ideas like these at light-speed, you know?

More than sixty percent of our team heads were women. It was important to us to empower ourselves both in front of and behind the camera, for a process that was really about the female gaze. All collaborators understood the film was for young women but had elaborate visuals… that a film looking arthouse did not mean it had to be for people over, say, twenty years of age. That was the starting point of our conversations. 

Heller-Nicholas: In terms of casting, I don’t think Paradise Hills could have been any stronger.  How much involvement did you have with the key cast of Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Eiza Gonzalez, Danielle Macdonald, and Milla Jovovich in particular? It’s a really diverse cast in a number of ways; was this a conscious decision, or is this more a case of being a natural instinct to step away from Hollywood’s conservative past?

Waddington: Thank you! Our actresses are just so wonderful.

A few years ago, I remember speaking to white colleagues who would say “Well, I would rather not specify the race or ethnicity of a character when writing a script. Whoever’s the best actor should get the role.”

And I would retort – “No, you need to concrete it, because we’ve been taught that whiteness is the default.” And the earlier on that you figure out what specific person of color your character is, the more naturally you can work that into the very heart of the story. And if it’s hand-stitched in there, it’ll be impossible to remove from its’ core.’

We need to actively fight unconscious bias, because most of us have grown up really surrounded by Eurocentric standards. But! I do want to think that imagination is limitless. That it has the potential to change the way we understand the many shapes and colors that beauty comes in.

Heller-Nicholas: I’m a little bit sceptical when film critics talk about ‘influences’ like it’s something that is easy to spot, like a jigsaw puzzle to solve, when I know it is usually much more complicated than that when it comes to how the creative mind works. That being said, I do sense a shared sensibility in your films with Georges Franju, whom I know you are an admirer of. So this is a two part question really; can you tell me how you ‘process’ your influences, and secondly, what do you think you share with filmmakers like Franju (or what would you like to share with them?!)

Waddington: I indeed loved the idea of taking media that was not current in the sense of race or gender such as Logan’s Run, and repurposing it to become friendly and inclusive towards women of color, for example. All through feminine references such as Daughters of the Dust or your fellow rebellious Aussies from Picnic at Hanging Rock.

What I love about Franju is how much of a pioneer of female superheroes he is, and the vaudevillian way in which he does it. A bit like more widely recognized masters such as Federico Fellini, he asks you to suspend your disbelief by almost grabbing you by the lapels, if that makes sense. Films like Red Nights or Juliet of the Spirits ask you to check any cynicism at the door and really just follow the characters until the end without asking yourself too many questions!

That idea really connects with magical realism, which I guess my Spanish heritage automatically relates to?

Heller-Nicholas: I understand you are currently working on your forthcoming feature film Scarlet – I realise there is a lot that must be kept under wraps for now, but is there anything you can tell us about it? How do you think in general terms it connects to your past films?

Waddington: Yes! Scarlet is produced by Roxie Rodríguez (Before Midnight) and Michael Costigan (Girl, Interrupted, Brokeback Mountain), and written by the incredible and previously mentioned New Orleans screenwriter Kristen SaBerre.

The other show is the TV adaptation of a stunning fantasy book series that will hopefully be announced before the end of the year.

What they both have in common with previous work is how they are about women stuck in some fantastical, reasonably bonkers worldbuilding. 

Only in these cases the main characters would be women of color!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paradise Hills is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for November 1, 2019.

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