Written by Sam Vargas

When it comes to filmmaking, it can be difficult to craft stories that resonate with a wide audience. Luckily for filmmakers in the horror landscape, the concept of fear transcends culture and language. 

Director Jonathan Cuartas’ first feature-length film My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To took the prominent horror trope of vampirism and used it to create a story about the complicated nature of familial responsibility and personal sacrifice. The film acted as an exploration into his family’s experience with codependent relationships following his grandmother’s time in Hospice care. Cuartas recently sat down to discuss the importance of family, his complex relationship with horror, and going back to his Latinx roots.

S: You mention how you took inspiration from experiences with your own family, specifically with your grandma in Hospice, and I also saw that you mentioned wanting Guierrmo Del Toro to see the film as a Latinx filmmaker: How do you think coming from a Latinx family has impacted the end result of the film?

J: I think – particularly with my family being Colombian – family kind of dictated everything for us. Especially in my immediate family – my parents and my two brothers – we’re so close knit, even today. I think that being around family and loving my family drives me because that’s my identity. What makes it more fun is when I get to tell these stories with them, too. Instead of just being inspired by them, I got to shoot the film with my brother as the cinematographer and had my dad work as the production designer. It’s just really comfortable and fun.

S: It’s got to be great having such close knit relationships with people that are already in the industry, especially when starting out.

J: Yeah, it’s a tough industry. When you have people that are talented, but that you can also trust with your life, that’s very monumental. I know that my brother’s always going to be there for me in-and-out of film, and it just feels like I can trust him with anything. I can show him any script or ask him any question, and he’ll always be there. It’s almost like working with another director. We’re just best friends, it’s like we operate with one brain.

S: Do you think it was a big jump to take this very personal story and put a horror spin on it for you and your family?

J: Honestly, not a lot of my family has seen the film yet. I think they’re just proud in general, like whenever my mom sees anything about it she just cries. It’s probably just over the fact that we made it, it probably could’ve been sh*t and she’d still cry. I know it resonates with my dad because when he tells his siblings about it, he always mentions how it relates back to our family. He’ll explain how it has to do with our family dynamic, and how it was such a strange and tumultuous time with my grandmother. But it’s nice that that’s what unifies us. Even though my family doesn’t like horror movies and they certainly don’t like arthouse movies, the film still has the backbone that connects back to family.

S: You mentioned your family doesn’t like horror, does that mean you were the black sheep in terms of film preference? Have you always been drawn to that side of filmmaking?

J: Not really, I mean I used to be so scared of horror movies when I was younger. I didn’t really grow up watching all the classics. It’s a little embarrassing to admit but I just saw Alien (1979) this year. I think my inspiration is more shaped by storytelling itself. I was always drawing and creating, so there was almost like this urgency to tell stories regardless of the medium. Now that my fears have matured and I’m more afraid of death and existential questions, I think [horror] is a way to explore these ideas. It’s more fun, too. If I was going to just tell a literal story about Hospice, I think it would be more bleak than my film. Peppering the story with a subgenre – like vampirism – makes it a little more fun and more digestible when talking about tragic subjects.

S: Now that you’ve worked within these tropes, do you expect to pursue similar styles of [horror] filmmaking moving forward?

J: Yeah, I think a drama-horror fusion is where I feel comfortable. I definitely want to push my heritage and my culture a little bit more. I was inspired by an event that happened recently, so my next film deals with Colombian immigrants. It’s almost all in Spanish, but it’s still working within the confines of horror. In this case it’s using possession, but it’s using possession to talk about assimilation and the horrors of coming to America. So, I’m still inspired by my family, but this time I want to really have the representation on-screen. I want to have Colombian actors and be true to the language.

S: Do you have any thoughts on the current representation of Latinx people in the horror genre? A lot of critics cite misrepresentation and poor stereotypes based off of mythos and indeginous culture.

J: There’s certainly a lot of that, but now I’m a horror fan and find myself watching a lot of international horror films. I love Raw (2017) and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) and We Are What We Are (2013) – which was a big inspiration for my film. I think [international horror] is really expanding because you’ve got films like Tiger’s Are Not Afraid (2017), which feels so specific to the culture it’s talking about, but it’s still scary and still heartwarming for any audience. That’s the stuff that I aspire to do – being truthful to your culture, but also sharing something personal is something that always resonates with people. I think horror’s in a good place right now in terms of style. It seems like there’s a renaissance of these character-driven horror movies. That’s what I really respond to as a filmmaker.

S: And speaking of character-driven films, the performances [in your film] from the main cast were so good and so compelling. How was working and directing with the cast?

J: It was just really fun. They’re all just so humble, like Patrick is just the nicest guy and is so funny. He’s been in so many movies with directors that have so much more experience than I do, so I was very receptive. It was my first movie, so I did this with the whole crew – I just trusted them. My brother and I were very deliberate with our visuals, and I think that calls to a certain kind of performance. Patrick speaks to that in some interviews where he talks about how being locked into this tight frame allows him to sink into this performance. It was a lot of push-and-pull with the cast. Owen is very imaginative. We got really into his physicality and tried to workshop that. It was fun to really play on set and sculpt these characters because we didn’t have any rehearsal time.

S: Did you expect to get such a good reception following the release?

J: It was certainly a surprise, but we were always hoping for it. It’s been weird since we’ve had multiple releases due to COVID-19. We’ve had a delayed festival run and everything has been virtual, so I’ve been trying my hardest to just stay connected through Twitter and Letterbox. Now that it’s out, it’s relieving to see it padding up and that people like it, so we’re very happy.

S: What should people be looking out for from you?

J: I’m currently writing the script for my next film, and I hope to shoot next year. I’m just going back to my roots and my parents’ roots. I’d like to make a film about Miami, which is where I was born and raised. But it’s always just about what we can do differently, and I’ve never really seen horror done in Miami. I think there’s a lot of space for these stories about immigrants and assimilation and specific cultures, but even more so in the [horror] genre space. I don’t see a lot of integration with those things, so I want to be very specific to culture moving forward. 

Read Sam Vargas’ review of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.

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