Cuartas: My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To (2020) | Tribeca 2021
Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, and Owen Campbell in 'My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To; (2020) | courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival 2021

Director Jonathan Cuartas on America’s Marginalized in ‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’

Director Jonathan Cuartas talks with PopMatters about his debut feature film My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, which looks at victims America doesn’t care about.

My Heart Can't Beat UnlessYou Tell It To
Jonathan Cuartas
Dark Sky Films
June 2021 | Tribeca

In director Jonathan Curatas’ drama, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To (2020), Dwight (Patrick Fugit) begins to long for a different life. He escapes the family home and seeks human connection with a call girl, but returns to help his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), look after their younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), who’s a vampire. Jessie is determined to preserve their family unit. The close-knit bond between the siblings weakens as Dwight’s resolve to prey upon and murder vulnerable victims wavers.

Cuartas’ feature debut has narrative shades of his 2017 short film, Kuru, reimagining the crippled cannibalistic brother for a vampire. His other shorts include the claustrophobic apartment set horror, The Pallor (2013), the abduction motor home set horror, The Horse and the Stag (2018), as well as Twelve Traditions (2015), about an alcoholic man’s paranoia that he’s the next victim of a notorious murderer.

Speaking with PopMatters at the Tribeca Film Festival, Cuartas talks about discarding the traditional roles of the protagonist and antagonist, the deterioration of family in the struggle to let go of a loved one, and his desire to acknowledge the victims of American society.

Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

I was embedded with the artistic gene by my dad. He came [to the US] from Colombia in the ’80s and he wanted to pursue architecture. He did a lot of drawing and painting. My parents would take my brother and me to the movies all the time. We’d go three times a week. I still remember being sat in the front row, watching Flipper (Shapiro, 1996).

The film itself didn’t make such an impression, it was the experience of being in the cinema, sitting and watching the big screen. From there it translated to drawing. I used to draw comics and then that changed into rudimentary storyboards. 

In high school, I did creative writing and my brother [Michael Cuartas], the DP [Director of Photography], was more into music. He found out there was a film school in a community college in Miami. He’s a few years older than me, and I followed him into the programme. From there, we’ve never looked back. 

We try to understand films through critique, but there’s an emotional side to the experience that words cannot express. I recall reading a quote, which I’ve never been able to find again, that said if you try to explain why you love a piece of music it destroys the reason you love it because it’s a feeling. 

That’s the way I approach filmmaking too. Some people ask why I shoot like this, why I don’t explain things, or why I don’t shoot academy ratio. There’s always a reason, it’s deliberate, but you don’t want to strip it down too much because then you take away the feelings. It’s like an instinct, it’s the way that you feel when you sit in a theatre and look at the light coming from the projector. It’s the same instinct that gets you going when you’re trying to make decisions on how to make a film. 

My brother and I approach [film] the same way, where we don’t question our tastes, or our intention, we just go with our gut. It feels more natural that way. Sometimes you don’t have to over-explain the reasons why. You just do it for the love of it. 

This relates to the moral ambiguity of the story, in which you neither condone nor condemn the characters. Their decisions are motivated not by malice, but by a love for family. You place viewers in a difficult position, provoking contradictory feelings. We can’t easily strip these back to reach a tidy moral conclusion.

I wanted to treat every character as their own person. It wasn’t about who’s the antagonist or who’s the protagonist, because we don’t want the sex worker, the immigrant, or the homeless man to be killed. We don’t know who to root for because the siblings are murderers, but their motivation is for family and love.

I like this weird area we’re in, where everyone’s an anti-hero. They’re antagonists, but they’re also protagonists because you’re following their perspective.

I didn’t want to judge any of them and that falls in line with the way that we shoot. We keep a distance, and it’s more voyeuristic and observational because we’re not trying to place judgement on the situation. It is what it is, this is what they have to do–whether people feel sympathy for the sister, or for the immigrant, or for the younger brother. It’s interesting to spend time reading everyone’s take online, or talking to people and seeing who they sympathised with, because it says a lot about them. 

Maybe it’s a question of the morality. Some people think this is an immoral situation, but it’s a horror film. Whether it’s character driven and a little slower, it’s a family drama, but it’s also a horror film. When you present immorality you’re just trying to talk about it. It’s not that the filmmaker themselves condones the behaviour, it’s just a way of commenting on how immigrants are treated in the US, how our sex workers are pushed to the fringes of society and are judged. It’s the way I like to explore things and maybe go a little further with the metaphor, but you’re still talking about relevant situations. 

The vampire is positioned as weak, dependent on his older siblings. His vulnerability also stems from economic and social needs. If genre cinema reflects the social angst of the time it’s made, your film references the struggle to survive in a world with an expanding wealth gap. Is the film a reflection of the troubles of American society and the wider world?

I went more personal than social, trying to comment on the victims of society, about the way that immigrants are treated, and yes, there’s difference of classes. This is a low wage family, and they’re also living on the edge of society. They’re also a white family preying on minorities. You don’t want to root for them in doing that, but we as a society assume that these people will not be missed. It’s something that’s embedded in American society, that maybe these immigrants don’t deserve to live compared to someone who’s a citizen here. 

I’m not an immigrant, but my parents are immigrants and even if it’s a subplot, I wanted to speak to those themes. It came purely from a personal standpoint. It was more of a conversation about hospice care and the way we treat someone who we love who’s dying. We know they’re not going to get better, but you keep holding on, and it becomes a co-dependent thing between families. It can be unhealthy because you have to accept the death of a loved one, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It deteriorates the relationships around the family.

My original intention was to explore two siblings specifically who deal with a loved one, and they have polar opposite morals and ideas about what should be done. 

Each of the characters add a layer to the story. Thomas is a naïve child, Jessie represents the horror of self-preservation, and Dwight is the conscience, opening up the moral conversation. 

They all want the same thing: their own form of friendship or intimacy. Jessie just wants to be with her brothers and Dwight goes out into the world. He’s trying to find a connection to anybody, even someone who doesn’t speak the same language. He just wants company. Thomas is yearning for a friend because he’s socially repressed. He can’t go out, but he always hears these kids outside. They all want the same thing, they just have different ways of going about it, or they have impediments that don’t allow them to reach these goals. 

It’s interesting that they’re presented with the same dilemma, because the surface problem is, “What’s the next quota of blood?” The dilemma is the only solution, which is to let Thomas rest. If not, it’s cyclical and it’ll keep happening because the thirst will never go away. They’re all presented with the same problem, but they have different ideas and ways of going about confronting it. 

We create characters that have needs, hopes, and dreams, and we often deny the characters what they want. Our entertainment is the profit of their misery. Could we argue that the act of storytelling and its reception, is beholden to cruelty?

Cinema is all about conflict. How far can you push a character? The audience is living vicariously through their conflict and struggle. Sometimes there are no easy answers. When do we let go of somebody we love? The questions are rhetorical, and the cruelty lingers even after you’ve experienced the film, but it’s such a vivid experience. 

As a cinema lover, the visuals, the sounds, and the performances are the best way to become engrossed. They’re the best way to also take in these ideas that are hard to deal with, like death and social structure, and all of the significant things happening in society. 

It’s cruel, but the way it’s presented feels like it’s the opposite. It’s all art at the end of the day, so it’s just a beautiful way of translating and funnelling cruelty through the medium of filmmaking. You can end up with a result that is beautifully crafted, even if it’s about very bleak ideas or subjects.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To is a simple and self-contained story whose complexity emerges out of emotion. There are beats in which you emphasise ideas and meaning, but they’re subtle, guiding the audience and not preaching. Do you trust the audience to bring their emotional knowledge, thoughts, and feelings to read deeper into the film, and create meaning? 

This was my first feature, and shooting over the span of twenty days, you start to get comfortable with how much you’re shooting because what you shoot is what you present. I would think, ‘Maybe we don’t need to show this shot or this part of the story.’ You can omit certain things and ask questions early on, then thirty minutes later give an answer. It’s this suspension and withholding of information that I respond to. 

It’s interesting that audiences can put the pieces together themselves, but at the same time I like to give concrete answers. I want the plot and the surface level to be clear. He’s a vampire and he needs blood, and we make that clear in the first four minutes. I want the ambiguity too. Are they doing the right thing? 

It breaks down to taste. I watch a lot of European films and Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Alfredson, 2008) is a big influence. It does the same where the mythological and archetypal vampire is put aside because since Bram Stoker, those tropes have become classic. You don’t have to waste time explaining. 

I wanted to explain this microcosm in which they live, the rituals they’ve created, like monthly Christmas, or piano karaoke games. I was more interested in the characters and the rituals that they’ve created because one of them is a vampire. 

You just go with your gut and you trust that the audience will put it together. You put in some moments that are a little more accelerated, a little action, a little humour, but those are still suggested. It’s interesting to see what people laugh at or gasp at in different screenings, or reading reviews. It’s about trusting the audience. 

Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?

It always does, and even when I’ve made shorts. You’re building bonds with new people. It was a small crew on this film that felt like a summer camp. You do mature and when you watch the film, even two years later, you think, ‘Maybe I’d have spoken about these things differently.’ 

It’s the world around you that’s changing, and that affects the way you perceive things. The pandemic is a very specific example, but now that I’ve been through a quarantine, and this family is living in quarantine, I have different ideas about it. Maybe it’s heavier than it would have been if there was no Covid. 

As things change around you and you start to reinterpret what you’ve discussed, I’ll take this reinterpretation and put it into my next film. It’s taking what you learn–not just from a craft point of view, but as a person–and then translating that into your next work.