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Fantasia 2021: An Interview With Writer/Director Edoardo Vitaletti About The Last Thing Mary Saw

As feature debuts go, The Last Thing Mary Saw is a remarkable piece of work. It is a period horror/drama set in a small religious community in Southold, New York, 1843; and its world premiere has just been screened at Fantasia International Film Festival. I had the pleasure of discussing the film with writer and director Edoardo Vitaletti recently, which—as interviews often do—made the film even more interesting.

After breaking the ice with a little Zoom anecdote or two, I asked Edoardo to tell me a little about his career and making the jump from short films to this, his first feature. “I definitely didn’t think about it too much—which can be a mistake—but it also makes it easier to make that leap. I think when you’re making a movie, the challenges you’re facing are always the same to some degree: you have to tell a story, and you have to tell a story well; you have to have good characters, and chemistry between them in their performances and all that. It just balloons a bit with the money and the structure, making it more difficult. People have asked me about that who are thinking about it themselves and I tend to say ‘don’t overthink it,’ because I learned most of what was necessary to be learned while I was doing it. It was daunting and kind of exciting, but there isn’t really a way to learn it without doing it. You have a hundred scenes: OK, I’m going to do five every day and that’s going to be fine. If the budget is daunting, you say OK, I’m working with great producers who I can trust to keep their eyes on that. The support system also grows with the scope of the movie.”

Edoardo’s short films had apparently been made in the USA and Italy, and I asked how his experiences in both countries differed. “I grew up in Italy,” said Edoardo, “so my first shorts were made there. And it’s hard for me to understand where the line is drawn because those were early works and therefore the experience was fairly immature; then working in the US, I worked in college and with more professional crews. But there is a certain flavor of storytelling for people who grew up in Europe with European cinema. We are people who are used to being exposed to different languages; in Italy, we had people speaking French, for example, just a couple of hours away. So different cultures are within easier reach for us and there is more to pull from. In terms of the shooting process, it’s no different: just as daunting and just as beautiful. It’s funny because I’ve been working in the US for six years at this point, and there’s such a lingo on film sets so that I don’t know how to say certain things in Italian anymore; like ‘action’ and ‘cut’ are fine, but there are nit-picky terms too that I’d have to learn if I went back to working in Italy.”

We pondered how a film like The Last Thing Mary Saw—clearly set in the USA—would serve a worldwide audience. “I hope my story would be understood universally in its intentions. It’s the kind of thing that could have happened in any place, though I accept there is a certain specificity to the architecture, the costuming, the folklore, and the religious fervor that kind of belongs in the North East of the US around that time period. But for me, a lot of the visual inspirations were quite painterly and from Europe, so I’m sure they’d translate well in other places.”

There’s plenty of food for thought in the film as well, and I asked Edoardo if there was a message (about religion, or tolerance, perhaps) that he hoped his audience would take away from The Last Thing Mary Saw. “Yeah, I think it’s easy to draw an anti-religious message from the movie. My experience with growing up as a Catholic in Italy fed into the film: as you grow up, you understand the contradictions and frustration that come with it. For me, having that culture of Catholicism and philosophy of a God who loves everyone; well they just didn’t feel truthful in terms of how people behave towards individuals who won’t fit their criteria: ‘God loves you but he doesn’t love you so much if you get divorced. God loves you but not only if you’re straight.’ I think the message should be that: religion is very confused about what ‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ mean because they preach it but they don’t walk the walk. My desire was to expose that.”

Edoardo Vitaletti, writer/director of The Last Thing Mary Saw
Edoardo Vitaletti, writer/director of The Last Thing Mary Saw, courtesy of Strike Media

From there, we talked about the film’s family as a microcosm of those issues. “The family in the film is so set in their ways. The parents and grandparents sit on a higher ground and don’t bother to look down. They don’t consider that their maid and guard are actually intelligent, resourceful people: they’re in a serving class. But they’re cunning and able to make plans in secret, and I love that: it highlights the family’s naiveté as they look down on people and presume they are simply right about everything, and that’s where their downfall comes from. Mary [Stefanie Scott] wants to branch out from the family, but interestingly Eleanor (the maid who she has the relationship with) [played by Isabelle Fuhrman] is more resourceful and Mary’s journey is having learned to be more resourceful herself, while accepting her servant’s intelligence, in order to step out from her own family. Eleanor has the insight to know it won’t be so easy: running away is another version of living a life in hiding.”

With such carefully thought out characters in an archaic setting, I had to ask Edoardo (who wrote as well as directing it) where the story for The Last Thing Mary Saw had come from. “I think mostly I was studying a lot of Scandinavian art and observing paintings from the nineteenth century, a lot of still lives and female subjects, palatial houses and funeral scenes; and some of those themes started coming up in my visuals. I found myself wondering what was going on behind those paintings, what the subjects were thinking about, especially in the dark and austere settings. The religious air of my own upbringing fed into it of course, and some of the problems and issues I’ve seen around me as I grew up.”

Having thought I’d seen glimpses of Hereditary in Edoardo’s film, I asked if there were films he could identify as influences. “Hereditary is a movie I really like, though I wasn’t aware of thinking about it when I made Mary. The scene of the matriarchal imposition in that movie is done so tastefully, so sure, it must have had some effect on the way I was writing the story. I tend not to watch too many movies when I’m preparing a movie: it’s too easy to be seduced by greatness. If you watch The Witch, for example, it’s easy to think oh they do that so well, why don’t I do that, and just start typing without realizing. So there are a lot of movies I admire, but I couldn’t say that any of them inspired my movie, because they’re just so good. It’s hard to explain: I can’t necessarily identify what inspired me but there’s no doubt it wouldn’t have existed without seeing films like The Witch or Hereditary of course. There’s no such thing as complete originality and we’re always having conversations with those who came before us, but if you can keep that conversation at a distance, I think that helps, because those movies are so brilliant and they achieve things so flawlessly that it’s easy to get seduced.”

The topic of Hereditary gave me another question, with its infamous explanatory narration towards the end: how does a writer decide how much to spell out or how much to let the audience figure out for themselves? “For me, everything that can be told without saying it should absolutely be told that way. In this particular movie, I went out on a limb to achieve that so much. Sometimes in the edit, you realize you have to reel back in a bit; there are some lines in the movie that were added in. I think the process of writing has to be very ambitious, knowing that you never stop writing the movie, but you finish writing it in the edit. There’s so much communication that happens when we’re not saying anything and I wanted to preserve that until it breaks and I have to fix it. It’s a painful philosophy, maybe, because sometimes it does catch me.”

There were several elements that I was curious about, wondering whether they were made up for the film or if they came from an existing mythology or culture; a finger that appeared black in a couple of scenes, for example, and a book of stories. I asked Edoardo whether he made these up or if he drew them from cultural research. “I think the black finger is the one thing that I can say I invented the most because I can’t remember being inspired by anything particular there: that was definitely completely made up. The stories in the book were inspired by things I’d come across elsewhere, like in Greek mythology, unofficial Christian folklore, and Bible stories, and I did a bit of a mash-up with existing familiar iconography. They are heavily inspired by that, but the stories themselves are original.”

Something I particularly admired was the music, in combination with the sound design. I asked Edoardo how he (with the composer, Keegan DeWitt) went about choosing a music style that didn’t strictly belong in the time period concerned. “He was so good because we talked about music in horror movies that can often be really overpowering, but we wanted to leave a lot of the moments for sound design to deal with: I wanted to be able to feel the house when we were there. What was important was the decision about introducing some elements of modernity to the score; but more than that, every instrument was being played, every piece of music you hear is played in a studio, rather than made up digitally. There’s a lot of artistry in that of course, but it would have taken the audience out of that setting for sure, so we found it really important. One thing Keegan told me—taught me, actually—was that so many movies do things tonally, which makes them creepy, but he wanted to do things that live inside the character and are taken from their subconscious: why are they feeling this way? Why are we telling this story? So because of that, we let the music come from the drama, rather than from the horror and playing actual instruments, which makes it a little rough sometimes. He blew my mind and I was really lucky to have him.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made life very different, and everyone’s approach to the working conditions has been different; so, as with many interviews over the last twelve months, I asked Edoardo what it had been like getting The Last Thing Mary Saw ready for release at this time. “It was tough. We finished shooting right before the pandemic, so I consider myself one of the lucky ones. The post-production process was slowed down a lot: my editor and I ended up editing the whole movie at his apartment, so it was stressful for him working and sleeping in the same place. It was a little frustrating screening the film for notes: it’s a little rough and doesn’t look great yet and the sound is rough, but you want to be able to screen it rather than sending it to people who will watch it on their devices. And some of the notes we got were helpful, but others would say ‘oh I can’t really see it,’ but of course, it’s a rough cut; that would have been so much easier in a screening room. So it was hard to benefit from that crucial part of that process. And it was stressful! Always locked inside when you edit, you go out and you’re locked inside again. It was emotionally tough, but having something that was shot right before the lockdown…I’m lucky. The silver linings are important for sure and I’m happy that I can share the film with people now.”

I wrapped up the conversation by asking Edoardo what his next project was to be. “I’ve been working with one particular story with my production team, but I can’t share too many details on that just yet. I’m probably going to be working in another period space, but maybe not horror this time. And hopefully soon I’ll be able to share some more.”

The Last Thing Mary Saw has had its world premiere virtually on August 15th as part of the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival, which kicked off August 5th as a hybrid event with in-person screenings in Montreal, Quebec, and the virtual slate geo-locked to Canada. Following Fantasia, the film will have its UK premiere on August 28th at FrightFest in London. Shudder will release the film, which is written and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti, in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand in early 2022.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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