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Exclusive Interview: “RUN SWEETHEART RUN” director Shana Feste and producer Effie T. Brown

Wednesday, November 2, 2022 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Now available exclusively on Prime Video, RUN SWEETHEART RUN is a horror film about one woman’s fight to survive in the face of ever-more-terrifying odds. It was a personal project for director/co-writer Shana Feste, who joined producer Effie T. Brown to speak with RUE MORGUE about the movie following its screening at last month’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

RUN SWEETHEART RUN, scripted by Feste, Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell, stars Ella Balinska as Cherie, a single mom working in a law firm who agrees to a dinner date with a wealthy client, Ethan (Pilou Asbaek). At first, all goes well, and Cherie even becomes attracted to Ethan–before he suddenly turns on her, sending her running through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles to escape him. But safety proves near-impossible to find as Ethan’s influence, and allies, are revealed to be more pervasive and otherworldly than Cherie could have ever expected. Feste had previously helmed non-genre fare like THE GREATEST, COUNTRY STRONG and BOUNDARIES before Blumhouse offered the chance to make her first venture into scarier waters, and she took the opportunity to make a frightening drama that confronts the patriarchy…and was partially inspired by a controversy involving one of her own movies.

How did the tweets about BOUNDARIES help influence the making of RUN SWEETHEART RUN?

SHANA FESTE: That definitely contributed to why I needed to make this film, and to the anger behind so much of my writing. I made a sweet, lovely movie called BOUNDARIES, about an animal rescuer. Peter Fonda, who’s incredible, happened to be in it for about five minutes of screen time, and while we were promoting the film with Sony, he wrote an off-color tweet about Trump and his son Barron. It was a heated time, a heated moment, and Peter felt very strongly political about that, so he tweeted something about Barron needing to be in a cage.

We were at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in the middle of doing press, and we suddenly got whisked away. All the press ended, and death threats came in–I got death threats, the head of Sony got death threats, Sony Pictures Classics got death threats. Then Donald Trump Jr. tweeted to his mass following, “Boycott BOUNDARIES, the movie.” Peter’s in it for five minutes, and it was a story about animal rescuing, something I’m incredibly passionate about. It was a story about my father, and it was years and years of hard work. And in the span of four hours, my film was boycotted and theaters were talking about not showing it. People on-line were rating it zero out of five stars even though they hadn’t seen it; it was days before the release, and it was flooded with negative reviews. That was so infuriating to me, that these irresponsible tweets by two men had taken this movie hostage, and my career and my life’s work. I was so angered and frustrated by that, and it was one of the reasons I sat down and wrote RUN SWEETHEART RUN.

Even though the movie has these deep roots in reality, it also goes into some very wild supernatural places. What led to the decision to take the story there?

FESTE: Well, that’s how scary the patriarchy is for me, you know? It is not one person that you defeat; it grows and it spreads and it gets more and more powerful, and it’s from the unlikeliest of sources. Right now, women don’t have control of our bodies, and we did when we made this film. It’s not improving, it’s not getting better, so as a filmmaker, even though I’ve been trained not to be loud, I wanted to be really loud. I wanted the film to be operatic, and that was purposeful.

Both your leads are incredibly strong, and play very well off each other. How did you find the right people for these roles, who also have such a great clash of personalities?

FESTE: They’re an odd pair, definitely, Ella and Pilou. Even in real life, Pilou is Danish and Ella is a cool London kid. I feel like sometimes with horror films, people don’t respect the performances as much as they should, because they’re thinking, “Oh, anybody can be scared.” But really, the nuance that you have to bring to make that authentic and be truly terrified… I mean, their arcs here–the beginning of the movie is almost like a romcom, and then the middle of the movie is a thriller and the end is horror. They’re really taking these huge swings, and trying to make them as cohesive as possible, with just their ability.

I don’t show a lot of the violence on camera, and I had to play it on the actors’ faces, so they had to deliver those performances. And when Cherie is witnessing Ethan’s true form, I knew I didn’t need to shoot it, because everything Ella did with her face, with her acting alone–I was terrified. He was scarier in my mind than anything we could have created. It was like the ROSEMARY’S BABY rule: The baby is much scarier in your head than anything they could have shown. And anything we could have shot, I think would have almost felt silly.

Can you both talk about the challenges of shooting out on the LA streets at night?

BROWN: [Laughs] Well, this movie is a bit of a homage and a love letter to LA. For anyone who has ever lived there, it is a beautiful and lovely place, but by the same token, it can also be really dark, gritty and grimy, and unsafe, especially if you’re a woman. There are a lot of dark corners, and under that pretty, there’s sometimes a real viciousness. I mean, I live in Echo Park and I love it, but shooting there… Some of the challenging part involved the locations we weren’t able to get. Remember we were going to shoot in the LA River, and that didn’t work out for myriad reasons?

FESTE: Yeah, we wanted to film in the LA River, and then we all realized that we would get sepsis if we did [laughs]. At some of the locations, we were looking for needles on the ground before Ella ran down the alley! It was visceral and real shooting there, and that actually contributed to the terror of the film. I’m all about guerrilla filmmaking; most people are not, but I get in trouble quite a bit. And I think Los Angeles is a character in RUN SWEETHEART RUN. I was born and raised there, and I love Los Angeles, but it has provided me with some of my most terrifying nights.

The release version of RUN SWEETHEART RUN is different from the cut that premiered at Sundance, so can you talk about some of the changes?

FESTE: We premiered the film at Sundance in 2020, and then it got waylaid by the pandemic. Universal was originally supposed to release it, and then Amazon took on the film, thank God, and allowed us to go back in. Because the world had changed, it was not the same one we were living in, and we got to change the movie with it. I was introduced to Effie, and we opened up a writers’ room of three Black writers who were incredibly talented, and we looked at some of the scenes and said, “How can we do better here? How can we make this film feel more authentic to Cherie’s experience?”

BROWN: A lot of what we did was giving characters a bit more context, and more complication. Like for example, the ex-boyfriend [Trey, played by Dayo Okeniyi], giving a bit more depth and weight to his story. We didn’t do anything too hardcore; we truly were making changes to amplify the vision. What we were able to do was be more additive, which I thought was a better way to go. For example, the women in the house who come to Cherie’s aid; there was a very different scene there before, and the one we were able to add amplified Shana’s voice and vision of these women saving themselves, or at least trying to.

FESTE: The HR scene was a completely new one that had not been in the movie at all. That was important to talk about the why: Why Cherie, what did she do? Everybody has been like, “Should I even bother going to HR, is anything ever going to change?” But Cherie needed to have more agency in the film, and I think that scene shows that. Going back into the film, even though it was scary as a director–because you want to be protective of your vision and your words–was a process that made me a better filmmaker. And it’s a process I hope other filmmakers follow.

In the three years since you shot RUN SWEETHEART RUN, there’s been a real surge of women making horror movies, so has that been gratifying to see?

BROWN: I’m very happy that there are a lot more women directors, but I will also say this: How many of those directors feature a woman of color? How many of them are commenting on what’s going on in real life, with the woman winning at the end? This is not to take away from them, but I think that the story we’ve told is very different. It’s told through a different lens that I don’t really get to see very often.

FESTE: I have to say, we did have the support of two huge players, Blumhouse and Amazon, getting behind this movie. Not every female director is as lucky to have that kind of support.

What have been the most interesting reactions so far from audiences who have seen RUN SWEETHEART RUN?

BROWN: I love the reactions to the menstrual blood. That has been the most interesting, that people are like, “Oh wow, her period saved her life!” You know, normalizing and demystifying the period. And the thing that totally warms our hearts is the reaction to the mama pit bull, which to me is like, “Females in all forms!” That’s what I love, and people got that, and I was very happy about that.

FESTE: I’m always surprised when people are like, “That was so much fun!” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m so glad that my trauma, all of our blood and trauma was just a joyride for you!” [Laughs] But really, that’s what we set out to do; I didn’t want to make a preachy, teachable film, you know? The goal is to entertain, and to take you on this crazy ride that’s unexpected and different. And then yes, when you get home at the end of the day, I hope you think about what it’s like to be a woman, and to be a woman of color. But ultimately, our goal as filmmakers was to create a movie that’s fun to eat popcorn to, and to scare you.

Now that you’ve done your first horror film, do you have plans to explore the genre further?

FESTE: Absolutely, yes. I think it has allowed me to have a real style in my filmmaking that I’ve never really explored. I’ve always wanted to work in the genre; I went to Sundance with a film I directed called THE GREATEST, and the second script I wrote out of that was genre, and then it was, “Oh, let’s give it to these five male directors; this is a very muscular film.” And I was like, “Oh, I get the code word, guys! It’s not hard to crack, but thanks.” And now, I say thank God for Blumhouse, but I was able to say, “No, I’m directing this, it’s genre, I want to do this,” and I was able to have that opportunity. Before, I feel like people saw me as telling love stories or YA stories, and that’s kind of where they wanted to see me in my career. So this is a good departure for me, and one I want to continue, for sure.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.