All of the preliminary films to be featured on Welcome to the Blumhouse make strong impressions, but Nocturne has such a heavy voice and sense of style. It tells a haunting story about sibling rivalry, cutthroat competition, and the loss of identity that feels reminiscent of works like Black Swan or the artistic backdrop of Suspiria. Zu Quirke, Nocturne’s writer and director, opens up on the dangers of ambition, East Asian cinema’s influence on the film’s look, and what aspects of the story pulled from her own life.
This is your feature film and I think it’s such a strong debut. What were you looking to communicate in your first project of this size?
Zu Quirke: I’m not sure if there was anything specific to the fact that it’s my first feature, but there are certainly things that I wanted to talk about. The fundamental question at the heart of the film is the theme of sacrifice for the arts, particularly in how young people are taught the arts. This is reiterated a few times, especially at the end. I grew up playing classical music from the ages of 4 to 18, but when I was 18 I decided to not go into it. One of the driving reasons for that is that I realized that I had none of the talent nor the discipline to truly make it in that industry. I think in many ways Juliet is faced with this same question at the start of the movie. She’s given her childhood and her life to music. She really hasn’t done anything else with her life. She has by necessity sacrificed all of that time and all of those years, which you only get once.
Juliet progressively realizes that it’s not going to be worth it and that she’s not going to be what she always dreamed of being in her fantasies. She has a choice between accepting this, moving on, and forging a fulfilling career, or clinging to this fantasy, and she chooses the latter. I guess the film is mostly about the fallout of that decision. I think most of us eventually choose the other route–we choose to find our worth in other things in order to help us to mature into adults. However, Juliet refuses.
It’s also just so effective to juxtapose all of this fear and anxiety with this beautiful piano music. Did that dichotomy seem important to you?)
Zu Quirke: Yeah, it was important to me that the school wasn’t purely piano music. One of the major dichotomies of the movie is that you’ve got these young kids who are listening to rap, house, and electronic music in their spare time, but they’re spending their days on something totally different. It’s this blend of the old and the new and I wanted to reflect that in the score. We’ve got this electronic score that plays against the classical background.
The sound design in general is another area of the movie that’s really abrasive and effective. Talk about what the desired effect was in this area?
Zu Quirke: It’s funny because the sound design was all done remotely because of COVID. So it was an abnormal process, but I think a phenomenal job was done with it all. It’s very standard in a lot of places, but we also embraced a lot of silence in the movie. I like silence. I think it’s good for suspense and I definitely prefer it to a soundtrack that tells you how to feel all the time.
The dynamic between these two sisters is also really refreshing and powerful, especially when they’re at odds with each other. Why did you want to explore this story through the intimacy of a sibling rivalry?
Zu Quirke: On a purely narrative level Vivian serves a very important function. She’s like a second self to Juliet. She’s a mirror of Juliet, but instead of reflecting all of her failures she reflects all of the successes that Juliet wants in her life. I think all of this is exacerbated by the fact that they are sisters. This is where the personal comes in. When you have exactly the same upbringing, parents, chances, and the same blood as someone, yet they somehow outshine you, I think that exacerbates a sense of injustice. For Juliet, that’s exactly how she feels. It’s unjust that she’s not getting what she deserves, yet V is getting all of the success. The sibling rivalry, as a result, was a very important core to the movie. A human representation of Juliet’s internal struggle.
In a world where Juliet is a bit more mature and understands that music doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all, I think the two could find some kind of mutual support for each other. V does try to support Juliet in her own way throughout the movie, but Juliet is unable to accept that. She feels too robbed.
They both give such good performances, but Sydney Sweeney is such a rising star and she really stands out as Juliet. What did she help bring to this role?
Zu Quirke: Sydney is incredible. For me, it was important that Juliet not feel like the typical teenager that you see in movies—particularly American high school movies because at the end of the day this is a high school film—and that it was clear to see just how much this girl has given. She’s such an outsider, psychologically, from the rest of her crowd, which in itself is so self-selective. Sydney brings a level of weirdness and maladjustment for Juliet that just works so beautifully and it’s significantly different than the other characters that she’s played before. She’s a very serious character here. She’s not worried about boys, partying, or any of the standard tropes of a high school drama. She wants success and she’s driven towards that. I think Sydney really brings that out.
There are so many incredible and trippy visuals throughout this film, especially the final shot. Talk a little on the film’s look and production design, and what kind of aesthetic you were after here?
Zu Quirke: So one of the early decisions is that the school that they’re at shouldn’t feel like a fussy old school. I wanted it to feel jagged, unwelcoming, and rigorous. So we specifically looked for modern architecture and the place we found in the end has a lot of cinderblocks and is almost prison-like in nature. That was a very conscious decision that we made rather than going down the route of this old classical heritage music school. I don’t believe that’s how much of these schools are designed and I wanted to reflect the rigidity of their lives, which are dominated by practice.
In terms of cinematography, our director of photography, Carmen Cabana, was phenomenal. We both have a love for East Asian cinema, so we both drew a lot from Japanese and Korean cinema in particular when putting together the visuals. A lot of psychological horror in general and even a bunch of Bergman in our look book. We had this Bible of images that we put together and consulted through it all. Carmen was wonderful.
It’s so funny you say that about the school because I also got a bit of a Suspiria vibe from the film and that’s very much the same in how the school’s architecture is a reflection of the film’s energy. That kind of school couldn’t be more different than this one though.
Zu Quirke: We also played with the palette a little bit. You may have noticed that in a lot of the everyday scenes have a very cold palette. It’s a very aggressively blue palette, but then we really mix that up with the dream sequences or anything that touches on the supernatural. We used a lot of saturated color, especially towards the end of the movie.
In many ways this film is an allegory for taking control of one’s life, but obviously there can be a dark side to that level of agency. Talk a little bit about what Nocturne is trying to say on this subject.
Zu Quirke: I think that’s an interesting read. Juliet wants control, but it’s at the expense of what’s best for her. I talked before about learning to mature and take life at face value rather than try to mold that life. I think that’s what ambition is. It’s an attempt to mold one’s life to a particular pattern. We’re particularly prone to it when we’re teenagers because we don’t know anything but patterns at that point. It’s part of growing up to learn that life throws curveballs and you have to kind of roll with them.
Lastly, Halloween is coming up and everyone should clearly watch Nocturne, but what’s one other horror film that you love and think that people should check out this holiday?
Zu Quirke: I’ve pushed this film a lot, but everyone should watch Perfect Blue, which is a film that Nocturne pulls from a great deal. It’s kind of a masterwork of Japanese cinema.
It’s so good! I don’t think enough people realize that Black Swan pulls from it so heavily, right down to direct shots.
Zu Quirke: I think Nocturne will get a lot of comparisons to Black Swan, which is fair, but it’s really a case of similar source material.
Welcome to the Blumhouse’s Nocturne premieres on Amazon Prime on October 13.