Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Visionary filmmaker Alice Waddington blends the fantastical with the feminine in her feature-length directorial debut, PARADISE HILLS. This gorgeously entertaining and entrancing sci-fi-tinged thriller tells the story of Uma (Emma Roberts), a cantankerous teen who wakes up on a remote island in a mysterious center for holistic and sustained healing. The facility is run by a slippery headmistress, The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose treatments to reform rebellious young women runs in extremes. Uma must band together with the other patients Amarna (Eiza González), Yu (Awkwafina) and Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) to make their escape.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the affable auteur about everything from the film’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND style qualities, to its allegorical sentiments about the female identity, to the incredible detail to its design.
Why did you feel the need to make this movie – and why now?
It’s really an homage to my 12, 13, and 14-year-old self that loves THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but could never really see herself in those narratives. I chose to insert myself into them. The relevance to it, not just in movements like #MeToo, is more tied to my experiences as a woman in the world – and a creative woman in the world. The film was conceived in two years before the #MeToo movement started. It’s a movement that’s really important, but it’s more about the wheel, or desire to make women feel they have more of a presence in the fantastical, or general, universes. I thought we could use more representation in genre storytelling.
It was also my way of flipping the narrative of the princesses in need of saving and letting females be at the front and center of the story so those princesses could save themselves.
The film has such beautiful aesthetics where it’s hard to look away. Were those derived from thematic cues in the narrative?
That’s such an interesting question. Indeed the visual bursts of the film is to weave the creative process of it, meaning that Nacho Vigalondo, Brian DeLeeuw and I writing it, sometimes we would reach out to each other to find out some visual ideas to transform into narrative forms and vice versa. For example, they would ask me for a specific brainwashing scene in the style of the Ludvico Technique from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I would devise a space that would look like a church and insert the concept of the rocking horse that was also a kind of chair like the one that holds Alex down in order for him to be influenced.
Obviously a great part of the film’s span is to take visual nods that would be considered absolute feminine abstracts, like Audrey Hepburn films like FUNNY FACE, or even BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, and turn those Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments into something twisted and rotten.
Was this symbolism and motif of roses something that was originally in the script?
The rose is the national American flower. It was important that the symbolism of purity, specifically white roses was woven throughout the narrative. Also the fact that these girls are wearing white nightgowns that can make them look like white flowers as well. The change from the white of the innocence of that, to the red is kind of related to the passage of their teenage years to womanhood. It’s linked to the loss of innocence, to the loss of childhood. Because the women of the story are so infantilized and that’s part of the narrative, I just wanted to reflect upon that a little bit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that painting the roses red from ALICE IN WONDERLAND is related with that loss of the girls’ innocence.
There’s a lot of profundity here about the female identity and how we’re forced to fit into societal norms. It also seems to be a celebration of femininity in all forms. Was that a challenge to highlight that sentiment without it being too oppressive or obvious?
This is really a feminist film and, because I need to qualify that to mean the equality between men and women. My point was to say you can make a feminist film and have it homage more than just feminine aesthetics in the sense that there’s more than one way to be a woman. That was also the intention in the casting – the stereotypes you can find in female reformatory-type film can be reduced because there’s so much to tell especially in a fantastical story. But I was trying to have an inclusive cast that represented different female issues – different women that escaped that notion of perfection as far as the idea of what’s socially acceptable for a woman. All of this is packaged in a film that’s meant to be very entertaining and to let yourself go and enjoy it. But it’s not incompatible to make a feminist film that has a femme aesthetic. It’s not incompatible to make an entertaining film that has themes that are a bit deeper. It’s not incompatible to gear this towards teenagers, because they’re incredibly intelligent and receptive to everything going on in the world today.
It occurred to me that all these women you cast have some form of music experience.
Was that something you were conscious of when bringing them together?
That’s so interesting. It’s something I never thought about actually. There’s something interesting in every one of them. Perhaps the most striking thing regarding this is how Eiza’s personal background, as far as her work goes, is so similar to Amarna’s. She told me a few times that one of the things that drew her to the character was that it was a form of therapy. She had fought her entire life to pursue roles, album themes, lyrics and styles in the realm of what her production company wanted her to do. The other part of this film is that it’s about personal freedom and not letting your social interest define who you want to be or become and eventually you find the person who will appreciate who you truly are. It’s quite literally about finding your voice. So I guess it’s only natural that these women have all used their voice professionally to express themselves.
The score and soundtrack spans different genres. How did you form this kind of sonic identity?
Our composer Lucas Vidal used a lot of nods to mid-century music. We did start with more obscure, hard sounds, but we soon enough realized the first two acts of the film really had to become these inviting world. That’s where the exotica references come in. That’s the name of the genre. It’s our reinterpretations of 1940’s pollinations and native islander music, which was a very popular genre. We used references from that and collaborated with a Hawaiian group that makes revival music from an original point of view. He also composed themes in collaboration with the sound designer, which is not usual, but our sound designer Oriol Tarragó, who worked on DEVIL’S BACKBONE and the most recent JURASSIC WORLD, wanted to include some of the sound elements in there – and vice versa. The third act was geared toward more fantasy and horror and the soundscape was highly important.
The island itself has different landscapes (bamboo, rose garden, cliff side, forest) and the center’s look is also a mashup of styles (romantic, modern, antique, glass, concrete, 60’s). How did you go about working with your cinematographer, production and costume designer to make a cohesive blend out of those textural elements?
It was all very connected in a beautiful way. As far as production design, we had references go from retro-futuristic 1960’s and 1970’s, modernist nods, art nouveau, middle eastern, 14th Century and 15th Century references. We took all of those ingredients and mixed them together. The challenge with this from Laia Colet’s production design standpoint was to create a new world from scratch that was present in our real world – a few decades into our future. She has a very female team. Actually more than 60% of our team heads were female. They had to reconcile a very masculine, hard science fiction references like LOGAN’S RUN, or THE PRISONER with very soft, feminine historical ones like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, or DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST. The film was shot between the Canary Islands and Barcelona.
The visual work was complemented by Alberto Valcárcel’s costume design. He comes from a background of opera and ballet. When he was younger, he took classes to learn how costumes would fit people in movement. [Here] He was using elements from movies like MY FAIR LADY, but also using pulling from modern video games and science-fantasy, or 1980’s videos by Grace Jones. The whole idea of female oppression and repression – the use of corsetry, the one reference is from the 15th Century, cages and even cages are well-represented in the film, from the shoulders of the girls’ uniforms, to the individual cages that the girls have lunch and dinner in.
For the cinematography, the main challenge for Josu Inchaustegui was to be able to work with very extreme light sources and play them in a way where it’s natural. We had references there from Frederic Edwin Church, to sea paintings from the Flemish school of painting, to Disney films, to German impressionism. A little bit of everything – a millennial melting pot.
PARADISE HILLS opens on October 25 and on digital and on demand on November 1st.