We got the opportunity to speak to Kevin Sluder (one half of Los Angeles based Sunshine Boy Productions’ award winning team along with his wife, Jennifer), Heartless tells the story of an overlooked corporate associate Shelby (Stacy Snyder) who struggles to complete a marketing presentation while a horrible secret tortures her conscience. With Heartless, Kevin wanted to make a film that paid homage to The Tell-Tale Heart and American Psycho with a troubled narrator that people could relate to. The film features Stacy Snyder (Shelby Lattimore), Joanna Sotomura (Clare McKaskill), Matt Mercer (Deano Ross), Blaine Vedros (Brandt Childress), Ron Morehouse (Tripp Flynn), Melody Melendez (Admin).
I found Heartless to be a highly enjoyable, bloody funny and well acted short film which was a refreshing update of the Tell Tale Heart. Horror fans will adore this film and it really delivers on gore, violence and thrills. In our interview we discuss, Poe, American Psycho, Me Too, sexism in the workplace and beating hearts among other topics. I hope you enjoy!
Bianca Garner: Hi there, thanks for joining me today for this interview. I want to get to know about yourselves, and how you came up with inspiration for your short film Heartless. I want to just say that Heartless was the bloodiest, craziest films I’ve seen for a long time and I really enjoyed it.
Kevin: Oh thank you. That’s great to hear, I’m glad to hear that! I am Kevin. I’m a writer, producer and director. Our latest film is called Heartless with a modern-day take of Edgar Allan Poe’s the Tell Tale Heart.
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer, Kevin’s wife. I do marketing and whatever you need for the film…I did little bit of production design, and the costume design on Heartless. And basically gave whatever support was needed.
B: Oh that’s great, so you’re basically a double act!
K: The dynamic duo (laughs), you can call us that from now on! You can edit that out, that was lame.
B: I’m keeping that (laughs). So what was the inspiration for the film. You mentioned Edgar Allan Poe, but was there anything else? And what was your decision to set it in the co-operate world?
K: So I was on a film set helping out some friends on a film they were filming, listening to the main actress discussing Tell Tale Heart with the sound guy so I joined in the conversation as that’s my favourite pieces by Poe. And on the way home, for whatever reason I just couldn’t stop thinking about the story and discussing it with Jen. And then I thought of the first shot of Heartless with the same actress as I worked on a previous project and I wanted to work with her again. I could just picture her in a business suit standing in front of the mirror kind of like how the narrator of Tell Tale Heart did. I thought up what kind of job she had, and decided on marketing. I came up with the world of the office she worked in and what would lead her to recall what she had done. It came into the kind of ‘American Psycho’ style guys sat around a table being mean to her and throwing her into fits of disarray. It was a gradual process but it was always going to be a female protagonist, I couldn’t remember that being done in a Tell Tale Heart retelling. Also it’s always been a period piece (I don’t do period pieces) so setting it in a modern atmosphere felt like the right thing for me to do. So all these elements led to it becoming the film it did.
B: The story certainly seems relevant what with Times Up, the issue with the wage gap and of course Me Too, was that intentional or did it sort of just come about? Is it just pure coincidence?
K: It’s kind of halfway in between, when I thought of the guys in the office we had just gone through the 2016 election, so I had seen all these women coming out in response to that regarding how they had been mistreated in the workplace. Jen is a powerful woman but she’s had to deal with the ‘old boy network’ and she’s been asked to smile several times, so it was a combination of these things I had observed and read. I have been in a co-operate atmosphere too and I have overheard the ‘locker room’ talk so I could reference that. I wrote Heartless in March and April 2017, filmed in June so the Harvey Weinstein story had broken yet, so maybe it was coincidence or maybe I was just on the front part of it observing all the stories that had broken in 2016.
B: Watching the film, I could sort of justify the character’s actions and I even cheered when she got her own back!
K: Yeah, the main character of Tell Tale Heart is quite a tricky character, so for Heartless I did want the audience to feel sorry for our character. Male or female, everyone can relate as we’ve all been belittled, been talked down to, or mistreated. I wanted to keep it with those universal tones to get some empathy for what Shelby is going through not necessarily sympathy but at least empathy.
B: There’s quite a lot of dark comedy in the film for example when Shelby stuffs the muffin in the man’s mouth and stabs another in the eye with a pen. Did you want there to be comedy or was that accidental at all? The comedy really helps balance the film’s tone as the story is quite graphic.
K: The Tell Tale Heart is quite graphic, I didn’t realise this until I read it again, the narrator chops the victim up and puts him under the floorboards, and for some reason he’s really proud of it. His action in the story is so planned out, but for our character I wanted her actions to be more spontaneous. I wanted the dark humour to lead to her recalling these memories, so that’s where we could get graphic. When the two worlds collide I didn’t want the bloodshed and violence planned, so I wanted her to react with whatever she had available. It got kind of funny, as we tried to figure out what item could do the most harm!
J: Who knew that muffins and pens could be so dangerous (laughs).
B: Well, they do say that the pen is mightier than the sword, so your film proves that for sure!
K: That’ll be our tag line, we’ll use that from now on!
B: So, could you talk us through the casting process?
K: We were quite fortunate as they’re all friends of ours, and I had worked with most of them before on other projects. There was only one I had worked with before but I did know her. The first one to discuss would be Stacy Snyder, who was in a short film called Feeding Time which Jen and I had been the executive producers on, so I knew her work and thought she would be really great for Shelby and she was the first person I reached out to. Matt [the guy who asks Shelby to smile], is one of my best friend’s so I asked him to be involved and he was great playing that role of a douche bag. He’s also the editor on the film, and I just really wanted to work with him. I had worked with Blaine on Mainland, and Ron we had met before [he plays the ‘pen guy’]. For the co-worker who meets her unfortunate death, we cast Joanna who had worked with Matt on a previous film and I met with her at the premier for that film. I thought she had a great presence, I thought she could be convincing as Shelby’s boss, someone who Shelby was jealous of and would want to be like. I though Joanna really embodied that. Talk about an actress that goes there, she was lying in blood for hours and she was willing to go all the way out there.
B: Talk to me about the special effects because they look as good and incredibly realistic as anything you would see in a big budget horror film?
K: We were very lucky to have on board Josh and Sierra Russell, they are really renowned for the realistic aspect of the blood and special effects that they do. I had worked with them on Feeding Time, and I saw them do the special effects for that film and saw just how good they were. Their process was really good to watch on set. They were spot on every single time. It was such an advantage as a filmmaker as we didn’t have to do retakes. They’re the best in the business in my opinion.
J: They work on CSI, and they have recently done the effects on The Ritual, and Mind’s Eye. When Kevin went to meet them, he asked whether they could do a beating heart, and they replied ”We can do a beating heart, no problem!”
K: Yeah, I thought we were going to have to use CGI, but Josh was like ”Dude, we can do a beating heart. What kind of heart do you need.” And they delivered what we see on-screen. They made the axe too, and weathered it down so it looks old and used on the screen. I was very fortunate to work with them.
B: Who were your inspirations for the film, you’ve spoken about Poe but were there any films or directors who inspired you?
K: As this was my first film, I watched a range of films for inspiration. I watched American Psycho which we discussed earlier, but I also watched Cape Fear directed by Martin Scorsese. I watched Black Swan by Darren Aaronsky as well. On my shooting list I wanted to do Dutch angles like Cape Fear and mirror shots like in Black Swan, but when it came to the actual shoot I didn’t really use any of them. There was a definite [Brian] De Palma influence, with the blood drenched girl (like in Carrie), but also in the way we shot the guys looking down on Shelby with those angles, that was definitely a kind of De Palma style. The overall amount of blood is a Sam Rami kind of influence. American Psycho was the big influence, in terms of the script, and the costume design. Jen found the outfits to make Matt look like Bale in American Psycho, Grant to look like Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and then Ron in the Jared Letto outfit from American Psycho. I guess Carrie was an underneath influence for the character of Shelby, as the kind of the outsider.
B: What has been the general reaction to your film, especially regarding the reaction at festivals?
K: We’ve played at quite a few festivals and we have more coming up. I’m surprised by the positive reactions we have had to the film, a week or so before shooting and just going through the pre-production and I remember talking Ross (the stunt co-ordinator) and being ”I don’t know how people are going to take this film”. He was like ”No dude, I think people are going to dig it. I think people are going to enjoy it and laugh.” So, it was cool to get his perspective. We have had quite a few really great reviews and I appreciate those and I’m glad people are enjoying the film. On the whole, I feel it’s played really well with audiences and I couldn’t be happier.
J: We’ve been accepted into 24 film festivals now, I believe and we’ve been nominated for several different awards. We’ve just played at Indianapolis where we’ve been nominated for best director and best short there. We’ve got more festivals coming up in September, October and November that we are looking forward to, and we are hoping to attend as many as we are able to.
B: So what’s next for you, have you got anything planned? Perhaps a follow-up to Heartless?
K: I’m actually working on an outline for a feature-length version of Heartless, there’s so much story and action that happens in the short film, so the challenge now is how to keep it exciting and expand on the story and still keep horror fans interested. I’ve just finished another horror feature so I am organising the budget for that, so I can see whether I can move forward with that and direct it.
B: So you’re sticking with horror?
K: Oh yeah, it’s driving my engine at the moment. I’m sticking with horror for the time being, that’s for sure.
A massive thank you for Kevin and Jennifer for taking the time to talk to us and do follow Heartless online www.HeartlessMovie.com on Facebook @HeartlessHorrorMovie on Twitter @HeartlessMovie_ and on Instagram @heartless_movie