The Movie Waffler Waffling With Director Justin Robert Vinall | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With Director Justin Robert Vinall

As the unsettling short This Pretty Face debuts at the Seattle Short Film Festival, we caught up with writer/director Justin Robert Vindall about make up, horror influences and our obsession with the way we look.

Interview by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Hi Justin and congratulations on This Pretty Face premiering at the Seattle Shorts Film Festival. At The Movie Waffler we really enjoyed your film, finding it ‘weird, creepy and original’. I wonder if you could begin by introducing our readers to the short, and talk a little about the genesis of This Pretty Face?

Thank you! Weird is definitely what we were aiming for. This Pretty Face opens on a young woman, Sofie, who wakes up in the middle of a small pond in an unknown location where she meets a doll dressed figure, Caroline. She eventually learns that she has entered a type of purgatory where High Beauty is selected to live and be the example of what a beautiful person should aspire to be. The idea for the film came from a short time where female celebrities were taking action by showing themselves without makeup. Kate Winslet did this and stuck out to me and I had always wanted to touch on a subject that has barely seen any action in terms of beauty standards being the forefront theme of the film.

Whilst being strikingly idiosyncratic with the gaudy lighting, isolated setting and destabilising atmosphere, This Pretty Face also clearly has its roots in horror. Where do you picture This Pretty Face fitting in with the horror genre, and could you elaborate on a few of your influences when developing the film?

I’ve found that the Horror Genre is something I’ve been drawn to as a filmmaker and that you can place themes directly into the action, say for like David Cronnenberg’s The Fly and the study of AIDS being a factor in that film. I’d personally place my film in Psychological Horror; the biggest influence for This Pretty Face would be The Twilight Zone, in particular two episodes - Eye of the Beholder and Number 12 Looks Just like You. Other influences come from Rosemary’s Baby and Under the Skin, both riddled in tension building, dreadful atmosphere. Recently, I saw a film by one of my favourite filmmakers, Nicolas Wending Refn, The Neon Demon, which focuses on very similar ideas of beauty, so it’s good to see more women in film and that this theme is becoming more and more a topic of discussion.

The film focusses upon the attainment of a particular type of beauty, where nothing less than an artificial perfection will do (watching again last night, I was struck by the scene where Cadence Whittle checks her manicure and, noticing one nail is chipped, desperately applies more varnish - a painstaking detail!) Is This Pretty Face making a general point about our unrealistic and punishing expectations of what beauty should be? This is a time-honoured theme, but seems especially pertinent today in this age of selfies and Instagram accounts. Furthermore, speaking of how people look, Cadence is obviously striking but in the film her face is transformed into a smiling rictus, almost this nightmarish parody of glamour: it is quite an achievement. How did you, Cadence and DoP Kirsten Zeller go about creating this effect?

Yes, the film takes note of how we treat our body and looks. We are so obsessed about the way we look and the way we are dressed and I wanted to really keep pushing that within Cadence’s character. With Cadence she is absolutely beautiful and we wanted to make her beauty almost be horrifying in a simple way. I had Cadence study the way a Barbie doll acts, like her stiff movements, the frozen gaze and that locked smile. Originally the shot was going to be her reflection in the window where we push into her face. We couldn’t achieve that but wanted to still have a moment where we leave the film on her, leaving this kind of impending doom. When it came down to her intense smile we did take after take trying different ways of approaching it. We did a take where she felt like a machine, we had one where she screamed, we did a very big expression with the smile. It came down to my relationship with Cadence, where we just played with each other in the scene and just kept experimenting until we both felt it was perfect.

The emotional gear changes in This Pretty Face are quite profound, shifting across a spectrum that begins in terror and leads to eventual heartbreak. Could you talk about how you as a director approached navigating such a range of sensations within the film’s short running time?

At the end of the day I wanted it to be a very human film, a very relatable film about wanting to be admired and loved. I felt that while in the first half of the film we are with Sophie in this confusion and bizarre world we are left to understand Cadence’s frustrations and heartbreak. A lot of horror films can build up character well but too have a moment where you can feel the pain that a character is going through. I personally think it says wonders about what the film is about and makes you care deeper for the character. I knew the dinner scene was going to be the longest; Cadence delivers a magnificent performance during that scene. I wanted her to feel out the beats of it and give it her all; she wanted to do the scene justice as it is a very important moment not only for her character but for the audience to fully grasp the struggle that is human beauty and rejection.

This week, This Pretty Face will premiere at the Seattle Shorts Film Festival alongside many other fantastic independent shorts. But if you could programme This Pretty Face between two pre-existing films of your choice, feature length or otherwise, what would they be and why?

Oh man, that’s difficult. I think Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes without a Face because there are similar ideas of obsession and beauty within that piece and you get a tremendous and haunting performance from Edith Scob. The other would probably be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. They’re both so different but they both have a certain similar chaos to them. In particular the family dinner at the end and the characterisation of Leatherface. Also it’s a fantastic horror film that delivers in frights.