Interview | Director Michael Mohan on making Immaculate and working with Sydney Sweeney

michael mohan sydney sweeney
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We chat to director Michael Mohan about his new religious horror film, Immaculate, starring Sydney Sweeney. 

I’m speaking to director Michael Mohan a day after his new film Immaculate’s premiere. The film screened for keen audiences at the South By Southwest film festival earlier in the week as well, and Mohan is riding the high. 

“I’m on cloud nine right now,” he tells me over Zoom, visibly excited. 

Immaculate follows Sydney Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia who leaves America for a remote convent in Italy. Not long after she arrives, Cecilia finds herself pregnant – despite being a virgin – and the convent’s priests and fellow nuns begin to mould her into a saint. 

Our chat, which you can find below, is spoiler-free. We do talk about some injury details, but nothing that wouldn’t have been evident from the film’s spooky trailer

I know that Sydney [Sweeney] brought this specific project to you. But were you already interested in directing a horror film? 

Absolutely, I love horror films. As I’ve grown as a director, I just want to challenge myself. And with horror, the cinematic language is so different from that of a traditional drama or anything else. You have to be really deliberate with how you’re placing the camera, how you’re building the tension, and how you’re releasing that tension. I looked at it as a way to learn more skills and flex more muscles, to try and just challenge myself.

I’ve sat in audiences where my [previous] films have played and this is so much more fun. You’re literally seeing people jump in their chairs, you’re hearing people scream, and then you’re hearing their friends making fun of them for screaming. The fact that I was the puppet master who made that happen is just so fun. 

sydney sweeney immaculate
Credit: Black Bear

What’s your favourite horror film?

My favourite horror film is actually Funny Games, the Michael Haneke movie. 

The original?

The original. What I love about it is that you’re watching it and there’s that moment in the middle of the movie, when he picks up the remote, and you’re just like, ‘what?!’ 

At that moment, I just felt like whoever made this movie is not adhering to the rules of society, they do not have my best intentions in mind and I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. I’m terrified of the characters, but I’m also terrified of the filmmaker. It’s the most visceral response I’ve ever had in a theatre.

What did you find particularly terrifying about the Immaculate script?

The thing I was first terrified about was that Sydney was making this movie whether I was going to get involved or not. I didn’t want to miss out. I have so much respect for her, [but] I’m not just going to say yes to directing a movie if I don’t feel like I can bring something to it to elevate it. 

When I got to the middle [of the script], there’s a reveal and it took me completely by surprise. And as someone who writes scripts with twist endings, it takes a lot to impress me, but I did have notes. I love what this movie represents. I love every horror movie, I go see them all. I see the bad ones, I see the good ones. Bad is not even a term that I would use to describe a horror movie, because you have fun with it. That’s the barometer and sometimes the best joy that I have in a theatre is watching something that’s been critically slammed. 

But what I loved about this one is that it’s not supernatural. She’s not doing battle with a creature made out of ones and zeros at the end of this movie. It’s all practical, it’s visceral, it’s bloody, it’s disturbing. And when I came to her, I said, there’s a couple changes I want to make to the script, but we have to keep the brutality. And to our credit, and to the producers and their financiers’ credit, they were game for us to push the envelope a little bit.

immaculate sydney sweeney lighter
Credit: Black Bear

You particularly wanted to do more like a popcorny, jump-scar-y horror, right? We’ve had a lot of these “elevated horror films” like Hereditary, The Babadook etc. Great films, but very different films. Why this approach?

I was hoping that it appeals to both. I don’t want to knock elevated horror, I love those movies, too. I have such respect for them, but movies are too fucking long. I have two kids. When I go out on a date, I’m hiring a babysitter, it’s a big financial decision. I would love to have the time to go out to eat afterwards and talk about the movie. One of the things I talked with Sydney about was, let’s make this short. We didn’t have a whole lot of time, she had to go off to shoot Anyone But You afterwards. If we make the film under 90 minutes, we can put more scares in the movie, we can actually utilise our resources in that way. 

First and foremost, I wanted it to be a rollercoaster ride, I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be the kind of film that I want to see when I go to the movies and see a horror movie. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t look aesthetically beautiful. That doesn’t mean that the music can’t be a cut above, the music’s really beautiful and really specific [in Immaculate]. Like The Exorcist, right? The scene with the crucifix [is] one of the most disturbing things ever committed to film, yet The Exorcist is regarded as a classy movie. To me, there’s this really interesting balance between something that’s really lurid and really elegant. And I was trying to find that line in-between. 

That’s always been the problem with horror films, hasn’t it? The whole thing about elevated horror is, you’re setting this small group of horror films apart from all these other horror films. And a lot of reviews for horror films criticise the amount of jumpscares, but I love them!

That’s also what Sydney wanted. One of the things we agreed on was we wanted this to have the traditional jumpscares. When I was a teenager, going to see Scream in the theatre, those jumpscares were awesome! It’s fun to scream, it’s fun to make fun of your friends for screaming. 

I [also] wanted gore. I didn’t want gore just to have gore, I wanted the kills to feel very real. If you’re going to fall four storeys from a building and land on your face on a cobblestone street, of course your skull is going to be poking out of your face. It isn’t like movie deaths, these deaths feel real. The third thing is that overarching sense of dread. She’s pregnant, she doesn’t know why, she can’t escape. That terror is just baked in and simmering underneath the whole story. So I feel like, why settle? Why just do one? People are paying money to see this and taking time out of their day, give them everything!

michael mohan immaculate
Credit: Black Bear

Sydney is also a producer in this. What was your collaboration like from that perspective? 

Sydney has her finger on the pulse of what people want. Look at Anyone But You! This rom-com [comes] out of nowhere, and it’s fun, it’s a good time out. For me, it’s important as a director to surround yourself with producers who are reminding you of the fact that audiences are going to come out to see this, so let’s deliver. It was a joy working with her. 

One of the things that people don’t know about Sydney is that she loves the crew. She has deep respect for every person on set. Back when we made a show called Everything Sucks! for Netflix, she was 19 years old, and she would stay after we wrapped. She would shadow the first AC (assistant camera) and try to learn about lenses, she would sit with the sound mixer and ask him questions about which microphones he was using. 

I’ve seen her literally grow as an actor, as a person, and into the person that she is today, which is just incredibly smart, and thoughtful. Whether it’s a producer or an actor or whatever, that’s what I want. That’s what I want out of my crew. I just want to surround myself with good people, and have a great working environment. Life is short and making movies is very stressful. But if you’re leading with love, then it makes it all the better.

You’ve done an erotic thriller, you’ve done a TV show, now a horror film. What are you going to challenge yourself with next?

I’m fielding a few different things right now. I do have to say that sitting in a theatre, watching an audience react to this is just… it’s the funnest thing in my life. I just want to make as many films as I can before I die and I want them to be as bold as the story will allow. I feel like I have to top this. So whatever form that takes, I’m here for it. I want to challenge myself to make something even more visceral next time.

Immaculate is in cinemas 22nd March. 

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