'Paradise Hills' Director Alice Waddington On Her Sci-Fi Fairy Tale, Filming In Unique Places, The Film's Incredible Costumes, And More [Interview]

Spanish filmmaker Alice Waddington has movies in her blood. When her father was in college, he ran a film club at his university where he played banned French and English movies during the Franco dictatorship, which is where he met a friend who eventually went on to become a director of photography in films and commercials. Alice started working as that friend's assistant when she was 16, before ultimately moving on to become a photographer, costume designer, and a director, making her feature debut with a new sci-fi/fantasy movie called Paradise Hills.

The film was my favorite of the movies I caught at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and since it opens in theaters this Friday, I sat down with Waddington to talk about the film's fairy tale imagery and immersive locations, Waddington's visual style, how Guillermo del Toro inadvertently helped get it made, and much more.

[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]

Congratulations on the movie. I saw it at Sundance and really loved it, and before the premiere there, you spoke about how this movie was a tribute to your 14-year-old self. Can you talk a little more about that?

Of course. From the bottom of my heart, the film is for my 12-, 13-, 14-year-old self. What I've mentioned is that I did it for this nerdy version of myself in high school who loved Lord of the Rings and NeverEnding Story but couldn't see herself in those narratives, perhaps. So I essentially just wanted to create that space, that story, for me and then later on for my friends. An inclusive space where I could also rescue princess and fell dragons and the like. (laughs)

You have a story credit on this, but you didn't write the screenplay. Was that your decision? Were you busy prepping other aspects of the film at the time?

I was very busy working retail to survive when we were writing the film. (laughs) The story is that in 2015, we wrapped my first short film, Disco Inferno, and then I started writing with Sofia Cuenca, who wrote the original treatment for Shrew's Nest, and we started writing a roughly 40-page treatment that was quite different from the finished version. I took it to Fantastic Fest that very year, and I pitched it at the Fantastic market. We won second-best pitch prior to the market, I won best director there [for the short film Legs], and the fairy tale aspect of that was that I met Guillermo del Toro who was there for Crimson Peak. He introduced me to his manager, his agent, and they introduced me to my producers at Nostromo Pictures in Barcelona at Sitges that very year. So that was a full circle moment.

They loved the treatment that I brought them, but Sofia Cuenca had family issues and needed to step away, so I brought Nacho Vigalondo onto the project as a way of helping me in a certain sense – for inspiring the short back in the day. Nacho was the first person to play me Judex by Georges Franju, the [1963] film that inspired the short, so I wrote him into the film. I knew he would be like my eyes and my ears and representing my vision without me being proficient in screenwriting yet and then [producers] Núria [Valls] and Adrián [Guerra] brought Brian DeLeeuw on board, and Brian has Daniel Isn't Real on the festival circuit, which was at Sitges at well. We've shared many festivals, which has been really fun.

There are so many classic fairy tale shout-outs peppered throughout this movie. How did you choose which specific bits of imagery to include in that regard?

What I love about fairy tales is that we think we know them, so they're pretty easy to subvert. What was important to me was that we had this first and second act that was very familiar, warm, and inviting, so then we could flip the story on its head with a few twists that, without spoilers, happen in the third act. The story gets darker, and I always joked that it's kind of an Orwellian dystopia but for kids, because it's meant to be for teenagers, boys and girls. So that notion of this very beautiful, bright, open, airy place, when you lean off of it, you find something that's quite dark and menacing to the protagonists' lives.

Some references: I took a lot of inspiration from Spanish northern mythology, especially mythology related to the origin of the world. Particularly Basque mythology. There's a figure there called Mari, which is essentially the female origin of the world. It's the notion of the connectedness of nature, and when we sort of play with her, it's like playing with Mother Nature – you don't know what's going to happen. You can't control her, you can't put her in a box. And then Spanish mythology is really rich in magical thinking in the same way that Hispanic and Latin mythology is. But cinematographically, I was more interested in the way that Jacques Demy, for example, reinterprets fairy tales, like in Donkey Skin. That was a reference, and also [Jean] Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast was another interesting reference for us, because it's very feminist in its approach, but at the same time, it's very dark and creepy and it influenced female-centric psychological thrillers later on, such as Repulsion. I love Jacques Demy in general – who doesn't? – but what I love about Donkey Skin is the way that he takes female-centric perspective and makes an entertaining film with it but at the same time one that is very consciously empowering.

The locations in this movie are incredible. I know it was shot in Barcelona, but did you rent someone's mansion? How did that work?

We shot in Barcelona and the Canary Islands, because obviously I'm Spanish. My mother is from Barcelona. One of the main challenges of the film was to use real locations to create a new world basically from scratch, and also under a restrained budget, because we're under $9 million. That can seem like a lot, but when you consider the films we're up against, we are definitely in the small leagues. Production design had this huge challenge of combining these styles that are modernist, which is a specifically art nouveau style that exists in Catalonia. Gaudi, for example. So modernist, different brands of retro-futurism, especially 1960s, 1970s, because we have a lot of influences from horror/sci-fi like The Prisoner or Logan's Run.

And then also a brutalist style. We shot in two houses belonging to classical brutalist architects of the time, and these are places where no one has ever shot before, so that was really fascinating to be allowed in there. They're really like palaces, in a certain sense. The story has this Gothic vibe in which the location is one of the protagonists as well, but this is both palace and jail. The concept of the gilded cage is all over the film. We were talking about brutalist palaces, and we also shot in desacralized churches in the Canary Islands to a parking lot in Gran Canaria, where we would later park the trucks because we needed to economize. (laughs)

Was it all on location, or was any of it in a soundstage?

It's really funny, because the locations are so offbeat and weird – in a special way, hopefully – some spectators assume that some of the things that were shot in real locations were digitally generated. There's only two digital locations in the film, which is the villain's mansion, which opens the feature. That was all thanks to our wonderful digital VFX designers, Lamppost, a production facility in Barcelona. And then all the master shots that are taken from the sea, the day or night shots of the island. Those are digital. But all the other locations? They're real. There are maybe three or four digital extensions, like a matte painting, like they did in Blade Runner.

I know this is your debut feature, but you've done shorts and have a lot of experience behind a camera. What was your visual approach to this movie? Did you storyboard everything going into it?

(laughs) Storyboarding everything, that's a director's dream, right? When I saw Mad Max: Fury Road and that process, I was like, "Man, I'm jealous of this. Three years to storyboard an entire feature." I love that film. Anyway, what we did was, I storyboarded some sequences that, visually speaking, were really complex. The opening ballroom scene was logistically quite complex and it featured quite a few character interactions, so it was important to me that it was visually established in a proper way. Also the scene in which Uma wakes up [on the island], just the emotional beats that were relevant to the story but also had this elaborate visual component that was a manner of storytelling. The first moment in which Uma runs off wild, when she arrives there. I wanted to be very clear in preproduction meetings the way that I wanted to visually introduce the residence. Point of view narration is very important to me, and I always want to introduce the emotional beats of the story from the eyes of the protagonist as much as I can.

When I'm walking through a bookstore, sometimes I roll my eyes when a section is labeled "Science Fiction Fantasy," because most of the time the stories there are either one or the other, but rarely both. Your movie actually is both, though, because it balances the fairy tale aspects with things like flying cars and hologram projections. Can you talk about mixing the science fiction and fantasy genres in this story?

Interesting question. I can tell you like the film. (laughs) Thank you. I've never been asked this before. Let me think. (pauses) I guess from a visual standpoint and because it's a film for teenagers, the film does have a very millennial intention of not being quote-unquote "prejudiced" about what genders or styles to mix. We were talking earlier about the teenage Orwellian element of the dystopia, and I have cousins who are my age, and I can tell that we as adults have put in their heads this vision of the world that's telling them they're never going to be beautiful enough, popular enough, perfect enough at the end of the day. That, I felt, was the digital dystopian element of the story, or the technological, science fiction element. Just me, as sort of an adult at 29, just telling them that even I feel insecure when I log into my image-based social networks. Telling them they don't have to change for other people, they have to find friends who will love them for who they actually truly are.

But at the same time, I wanted to pay homage to my love for high fantasy. High fantasy really saved my life when I was younger. I would escape to these worlds and it would be a manner of reassuring myself, soothing myself, that there was something else. And if it didn't exist, then you could at least create it – that there were people who, in the past, wanted to escape to those planets or universes. So I didn't want to let go of my emotional education, because my parents were cinephiles when they were younger. My mom's favorite film is Metropolis, and she played me Blade Runner for the first time when I was 14. The first time we watched A Clockwork Orange, it was together and we discussed it. We watched a Lars Von Trier film when I was 17 and we talked about it. So I kind of had to tell my own refugee in high fantasy story, how I escaped that loneliness by thinking about those different things.

As someone who just made your debut feature, what's your outlook on the state of the film industry as it stands today? Is that something you think about?

I feel like the theatrical experience is an extremely important component of the way that we have, even nostalgically, grown up with film. It's this cathartic experience in which, in the dark, you let go of either negative or positive emotions that you want to let out. It's a very beautiful experience – collective, in the dark, non-judgmental, something we shouldn't lose. With that said (laughs), I am working on my next film with Netflix. It's called Scarlet, and it's with Michael Costigan, who produced Brokeback Mountain, Girl Interrupted, and Stoker. It really feels like making an independent film in the 1970s, more than a current studio feature in the present.

That's what I find interesting about the process: how I believe that the next Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver is going to come out of that system, because there is a sense of freedom that's really empowering for writer/directors and also for actors, as well, because they're really well-treated by those platforms. And the fact that they're making a space for queer voices, making a space for people of color, for women directors. It's all extremely important, and a labor that someone has to do. My heart is split in that sense. I wish I had a definite answer, but it's ever-changing in that sense.

Is there anything important or interesting that you think I should know that we didn't cover already?

Wardrobe! We didn't talk about wardrobe, and it's an important component to the film. Our costume designer, Alberto Valcárcel, who I think deserves an award for his work in this film, he was working under such constrained budget conditions. They handmade up to 200 costumes by themselves. Of course, when you have costumes in several different stages of degradation, you have to make copies upon copies upon copies. But in any case, the wonderful thing about this Spanish man that I adore is that he comes from a background of ballet and opera, so we had the same sort of bizarre, Baroque, oddball references that we delighted in sharing. The costume design references range from My Fair Lady to Picnic at Hanging Rock to Daughters of the Dust, but they also include everything from colonial knots in the wardrobe of the villain, the Duchess, to steampunk references in the opening ballroom scene. And in that millennial space we were talking about earlier, references to current video games such as Final Fantasy or '80s videos like Grace Jones's.

There's everything in there from 14th century to 19th century corsetry, but the most important part is how it translates notions of female repression, and nods to female mental institutions of the 1950s and the 1960s. That sort of breathless – literally breathless, because of the corsetry (laughs) – but that breathless, repressed, closed-off female world and what the escape from it is like as well. Without spoiling much, there are some action scenes at the ending. You get to see them saving themselves and ripping up their own beautiful gowns and jumping into action scenes.

I thought a lot about the prison break element when watching the movie for the second time, but I hadn't considered the female mental institutions as a reference before. That's interesting.

Yeah, I was watching a lot of female prison films, even Female Prisoner itself, the 1970s saga. We did watch a lot of those films.


Paradise Hills is out in limited theaters today, and will be available On Demand and digitally on November 1, 2019.