Run Sweetheart Run Director Shana Feste Understands The Importance Of Art As Catharsis [Exclusive Interview]

When "Run Sweetheart Run" premiered at 2020's Sundance Film Festival, it made a splash for its terrifying and unique take on post-#MeToo America. Not only was it a scathing look at how dangerously misogyny can be wielded by abusive men, but despite the high-level concept, it felt deeply personal. That was intentional, as co-writer and director Shana Feste revealed in 2020 that the film was partially based on her own experience with assault.

So how does a director turn a traumatic event into a high-speed popcorn flick? We sat down with Feste for a candid and enlightening interview about the real-world horrors of "Run Sweetheart Run" and how making the film was a cathartic and exhilarating experience.

'I'm glad it's turned into something that is really fun and enjoyable and wild'

You've previously talked about how personal this movie is for you and how it was partially inspired by your own experience. I just want to say that I hope you're in a much better place now with that.

Thank you for saying that, and yes, I am. I think you definitely need some distance before you can really tackle some of the themes that I did in this film as a survivor. But yeah, it is also incredibly cathartic to be able to write about it from a place where I knew I was okay and to actually turn it into something very popcorn and thrilling and a fun ride. One of the oddest comments that I get is, "Oh my God, the film was so much fun." And you're thinking, "Wow, the origin was so not fun," but I'm glad it's turned into something that is really fun and enjoyable and wild.

'Society is telling us not to trust our own instincts as women'

Something else that I thought was really interesting in this movie is the idea of the safe space as a weapon, as demonstrated in a key scene between Cherie (Ella Balinska) and her boss, James (Clark Gregg). Why do you think this was important for that to be in the film, and what does its inclusion say?

I think for women, I think that fear is so real and we're so used to being gaslit or not believed or said that we're hysterical. So many of those everyday experiences, whether you're walking home alone and you feel a guy walking by you and you're like, "I shouldn't be rude and cross the street, but I'm genuinely scared, so what should I do?" That constant feeling of, "Everybody's telling me that I'm absolutely fine, but I don't feel fine, and I need to listen to that because I really feel scared."

Literally, society is telling us not to trust our own instincts as women — that we are fine or we're making a bigger deal out of it, or "Oh, he's hitting you because he has a crush on you" when you're little. "He actually just likes you." All these things to actually belittle the way that we are actually feeling. I think that's one of the most terrifying feelings, is when you think you're in a safe space and it turns out that you're not.

After my attack, I went to the police and I basically had fought for myself. I fought my attacker off successfully and I was not raped, but they let him out two hours later. He was my neighbor, and I looked at him and I said, "How is he out right now?" And they said, "Well, he didn't rape you." And I said, "But that was his intent, to rape me." And they said, "Well, he didn't, though, so we couldn't hold him that long. He got out on bail." And I'm thinking, the law, even in the safest places by police, I still was scared. Because I was like, "There are laws in place where even you can't protect me."

'What do we have to do to get people to change?'

I feel like that's a major thing in the film and a very poignant comment on how abuse like this is normalized. They say that the law is going to take care of it, but is it really?

I mean, you would get more time served on a drug charge than if you attack a woman. That's incredibly frightening. The police took three hours to come after I called 911. When I screaming on the street, so many people turned away from me, and I know there's a bystander effect. I know that's real, because I lived through it and experienced it, and so many people turn away from Cherie after she's victimized.

Even with all the different elements at play, I feel like that was one of the scarier parts of the film.

It's such a common experience for women, and a lot of people have said, "Oh, well, that's too obvious." Or "it's too loud." Or "it's too in your face."

What do we have to do to get people to change? Because we can't whisper. We can't say it politely. We can't say, "Excuse me, this is happening." Nothing is working. We have to yell at this point. We have to scream, right? I have to make as bold and operatic film as possible to feel like I'm actually being heard. And even now, I'm sure some people will still dismiss the film and be like, "Oh, that was crazy. That was an alternate reality she created, or "She took an easy shot." I'm sure I'll get some of that as well.

'I thought of all the John Carpenter horror films'

Were there any movies in particular that you felt inspired by when creating this hyper-stylized world?

Yeah. I mean, I think I've obviously thought of "Run Lola Run" a ton. I'm a kid of the '80s, so I thought of all the John Carpenter horror films. I think that really influenced our score by ROB. It was an '80s theme score. The color palette was also really extreme, and the color palette in itself has meaning to me. That was how I could really tell the theme as clearly as possible, with Cherie more surrounded in circles and Ethan with more squares and rectangular shape. Ethan was green and Cherie was pink and reclaiming the red color. 

There's some magical realism even in the color palette of the film. When Cherie walks into a church in the film, she thinks it's a safe space. There's red lights and it's all shining down on her, and then as soon as Ethan enters and the camera kind of turns upside down, the lights change to green, which happens a ton of times in the film. I don't know if anybody notices it or feels it, but I wanted it to contribute to this feeling of just constantly being unsettled by his presence.

I noticed the lighting but I didn't necessarily notice the shapes. That was something that just clicked in me like, "Yeah, you're right. There were a lot of squares and angles around Ethan. That were interesting."

And Shohreh [Aghdashloo's character, her haven, is all circles. And in Cherie's place at the beginning of the film, her apartment, is all circles. So her safe spaces were really that shape. Then, obviously, places like the jail that ends up turning on her are incredibly linear and boxed in.

And cramped, as well.

Yes, with a lot of flat space.

I feel like the use of space in this film is interesting, especially when you get to a pivotal character's headquarters. That is very open, like Cherie could really move around in it. Whereas other parts of the film, like the restaurant or the alleyways or the cars, they're all very closed in.

They're boxing her in, especially in the beginning, on her first date. And in the HR office, it's all very flat space, dead-on rectangular shots. Yes, and [that character's] space is almost all red and Cherie can move and finally breathe, hopefully allowing the audience to breathe as well.

"Run Sweetheart Run" is now streaming on Prime Video.

If you or a loved one have experienced domestic and/or sexual assault, help is available. Visit the websites for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and/or RAINN for additional resources.