Worshipping Sydney Sweeney as a Scream Queen in a Nunsploitation Stunner: Michael Mohan Chats 'Immaculate'

"The initial vision was just to make something that would hopefully traumatise people. We wanted to really go hard. But we wanted to do it smartly."
Sarah Ward
April 02, 2024

Starring Sydney Sweeney as a virginal American nun in Italy whose new life as a bride of Christ finds her in the family way, Immaculate is the kind of movie that horror fans pray for. In the realm of religious-themed frightfests, which is as packed as Catholic mass at Easter or Christmas, the nunsploitation flick is as unholy as cinema gets. It's eerie and unsettling from the outset, when a fellow sister (Simona Tabasco, giving the film not one but two The White Lotus alumni) tries to escape the My Lady of Sorrows convent, only to be chased by cloaked figures, then buried alive. It ripples with unease from the moment that Sweeney's Cecilia arrives from the US to leering comments. From there, Immaculate spans everything from controlling priests and envious nuns through to winding catacombs, secret laboratories and a crucifixion nail (yes, from that crucifixion). Then there's the unforgettable ending.

Immaculate is the type of film that Michael Mohan prays for, too. Chatting with Concrete Playground about directing one of the horror movies of 2024 — and being asked to by Euphoria's Sweeney, who he previously helmed on TV series Everything Sucks! and erotic thriller The Voyeurs — he calls the feature's final two minutes the highlight of his career. "It's such a visceral experience, and the way that people sort of slowly catch on to what's happening in the audience is just so fun to discover," he advises. "Really, the last two minutes are my favourite part of the movie. My favourite thing I've ever directed is the last two minutes of this movie, and it's just something to behold."

For Mohan, all hail the reaction that Immaculate is garnering as well, starting with the response when it premiered at SXSW 2024 (the US version, not the Australian fest) in March. "It's made it so that I can't watch the movie with any other crowds, because it was like a drug," he jokes. "To a filmmaker, the experience of watching the movie at SXSW was like the cinematic equivalent of heroin — just because people were screaming, people were yelling, people were making fun of each other for screaming, people were standing up and cheering. It is everything a filmmaker could ever want out of an audience reaction. It was amazing."

Immaculate almost didn't happen, however. The tale behind the flick making it to the screen takes almost as wild a ride as the picture itself. It was a decade back, before she was in everything-everywhere-all-at-once mode — this is her third movie since December 2023 to reach cinemas, slotting in alongside Anyone But You and Madame Web — that Sweeney initially auditioned for the picture. Now, she's a producer on it, handpicking both the script as her ideal horror effort, plus Mohan to guide it. A text asking "interested in directing a horror film?" is how she started bringing the filmmaker onboard. Barely 18 months later, Immaculate has moviegoers worshipping.

Mohan's path to here doesn't just involve getting Sweeney in front of his lens, then turning her into a helluva scream queen. Short films — both writing and directing them — began gracing his resume in 2003. 2010 coming-of-age comedy One Too Many Mornings marked his first feature, followed by Alison Brie (Apples Never Fall)- and Lizzy Caplan (Fatal Attraction)-led rom-com Save the Date. After that came the 90s-set Everything Sucks!, which he co-created, but it only lasted one season. If it wasn't for that show, though, he mightn't have crossed paths with Sweeney. Call it divine intervention? Notably, Mohan wasn't new to the picture's Catholicism, growing up in it ("I grew up super Catholic, so it was in my bones. I was the leader of the youth group. I'm since a lapsed Catholic," he tells us.)

With Immaculate now in Australian and New Zealand cinemas, we chatted with Mohan about that first text message about the movie, working with Sweeney as a producer as well as a star, his initial vision for the film, taking inspiration from 70s horror and the feature's take on religion. Also part of our conversation: Sweeney's versatility, how to get the perfect movie scream — of which she contributes plenty — and the picture's unshakeable imagery, plus more.

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On Receiving a Text from Sydney Sweeney Asking "Interested in Directing a Horror Film?"

"I was just scared because I needed to love the script. I want to make as many movies with her as I can, but I also need to feel like I can bring myself to it and that I'll elevate it. So thankfully when I read the script, I realised there's so much potential here, there are twists and turns that I did not see coming.

When I pitched my ideas for where I wanted to take the story to Sydney, she was thankfully very receptive. Even though we didn't have a whole lot of time to massage the script, we just went for it.

She sent me the script in August of 2022, and I was then on the ground in Rome basically three months later prepping the movie."

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On Working with Sydney Sweeney Not Just as an Actor, But as One of Immaculate's Producers

"It's interesting. At the start, I took an approach like I was a director for hire, to some degree; however, my stipulation in doing the film is that I wanted her to buy into what my vision of the film was.

So I put together a lookbook, like as if I wasn't her friend. And I was like 'here, this is what I would do if I didn't know you. This is what I would do if I were trying to win this job'. And the imagery that I sent her and the things that she responded to were exactly in line with how she saw the movie, too. So going into it, we were both on the same page.

At the same time, she's the producer, I'm the director, so we had a push and pull in terms of in terms of what we were doing creatively. Anytime I came to her with a new idea, her first response was always like 'but is it scary? Because it needs to be scary'.

Luckily our dynamic is such in that my approach to anything in terms of creative is that if you have the same end goal in mind, there's no right or wrong in the journey going there — there's only who feels the most passionate about something. So if you get into a creative disagreement, if it's something that really matters, I can say to her 'this matters to me more than it matters to you' and she can go 'okay' and let go.

For instance, there was a scene I cut out of the movie. She was like 'I really want you to put that scene back in'. And I was like 'I really don't think it needs it'. She was like 'no, this is important. This is important to me'. I'm able to look at her and go 'this is more important to her than it is to me, I'm putting it back in the movie' — and that's how you have such a great give and take in terms of collaboration, where it doesn't feel like there's too many cooks in the kitchen."

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On Mohan's Initial Vision for Immaculate

"The initial vision was just to make something that would hopefully traumatise people. We wanted to really go hard. But we wanted to do it smartly.

When the film starts, it kind of feels like a traditional horror movie. Yeah, there are all of these horrific images, there are these great jump-scares and it's bumping along, but then it starts to get a little bit more disturbing. 

Then it starts to get a little bit more disturbing, until at the end of the movie you're seeing something that is actually a lot more similar to French extremist horror than The Conjuring. And so to be able to craft that arc for the audience, where they feel more and more in peril as they're watching the film, was part of the design."

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On the Importance of Sydney Sweeney's Versatility in Taking Audiences on the Film's Journey

"I love when a movie takes a character from point A to point Z. So, to start her off as this sort of meek and quiet, mild-mannered nun, into what becomes like this insane feral creature covered in blood, screaming at the top of her lungs — that's just dramatics. That's just creating a wider arc.

And it's very easy for me to conceive of such a wide arc when I know that the person playing it will be able to knock it out of the park. Sydney's ability to go to completely unhinged places is her superpower as an actor. It is incredible to see because I don't know how she does it. And so for me as a director,  just my job is to make sure she stays out of her head, and to gently nudge her this way or that way to shape the performance and find the deeper levels.

But it's a like driving a Rolls-Royce when you're directing her — she takes direction perfectly. And we just have this history. It's just really easy for the two of us to work together."

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On Making a Movie That Feels Like a Blend of Both 70s-Era Horror and Contemporary Horror

"That's just what I watch. If you look at my Letterboxd, it's a balance of absolute trash and The Criterion Collection — and I think this film is perfectly in the middle.

I just love the horror films of the early 70s. I think that there's something a little bit more fearless about them. If you look at The Exorcist — I mean, everybody has talked about The Exorcist until the end of time, because that scene where she has the crucifix and she's stabbing herself and she's bloody, it is so disturbing. Yet that is a mainstream film. That was a studio movie. And it's almost more scary, the fact that it's really well-photographed, than seeing the grimy independent version of that.

So to me, it's bringing that level of elegance, coupled with the lurid — that's just where my voice happens to live."

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On Immaculate's Unholy Imagery

"Similar to Sydney, my cinematographer [Elisha Christian, The Night House] and I have worked together forever. He was my roommate senior year of college. And so something that we're always trying to do is bring a sense of beauty to everything we do, whether it's a horror or whether it's an erotic thriller, or some of the earlier comedies that we were working on.

I'm just a huge fan of his work. I love what Elisha has done. Here, it goes back to what I was talking about with The Exorcist — when you take something that is absolutely horrific and you film it with a formalism and a beauty, that's a type of cinema that I feel like is lacking.

And so for us to be able to do that, it's really just our natural voice is how we shot this film. All of our inspiration poured into it in a way, and this is how it turned out.

Also, the name of the movie is Immaculate, and so we wanted to have it immaculate — and so it could also just be as simple as that."

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On How to Get the Perfect Horror-Movie Scream

"Every actor is different. I can tell you that for Simona, at the beginning of the film, Simona Tabasco, there's a scream that she has to let out — and she brought me aside and she was like 'I'm scared of screaming'.

So I was like 'okay, come with me'. We went out into the middle of the field and I was like 'I'm just going to scream with you'. And so I just started screaming, and then she started screaming. And then I started screaming back at her, and then she started screaming back at me, and you lose your inhibitions with it. 

I think that's the most important part, just making sure that the actors aren't self-censoring themselves. Because when you scream, it's an unnatural thing, especially if you're not actually in pain. So it's just all about letting go, and allowing allowing them to let go.

Then in the case of Sydney, she's got a set of pipes and she uses them."

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On Finding Inspiration in the Production's Italian Location — and in Giallo

"With religion, I was trying to bring that sense of majesty to it and that sense of power, because this is a movie that doesn't have a whole lot of backstory for the characters. I wanted to keep it to a tight 88 minutes, and I needed the audience to understand from her perspective why she was so swept up in this world.

So we were able to do that visually by finding these locations that were absolutely majestic. At the same time, I'm in Italy making a horror film. The responsible thing to do is to at least honour the elders that came before me. So I did watch a ton of giallo films, not to bite off the aesthetic in the way that like Edgar Wright did in Last Night in Soho, but more to have a little bit of a deeper understanding of some of the more-nuanced aspects of the genre.

So, for instance, there's this great film What Have You Done to to Solange?. What I love about that film is how they visually capture the patriarchal dynamics between the men and the women. So there's a scene in ours that's an interrogation scene where Sydney's at one end of the table, and she's framed with the flames behind her, almost like she's coming from hell. Then the men are on the other side of the table, and they're all standing, looking down on her. And you see that throughout the course of the film, this playing with heights.

The same with in the ceremony at the beginning, she is kneeling in front of the men who are towering above her. And then at the end of the movie, obviously those paradigms are completely shifted, when she gets the upper hand and she is the one who's the powerful one in the frame. So some of that comes from those giallos that are a little bit more naturalistic.

Additionally, there's this great film called The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, and I listened to the score of that film non-stop. I loved it. It helped put me in the vibe of that type of cinema, and I loved it so much that I actually used a cue from that in a key montage about half an hour into the film as well."

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On Why the Combination of Religion and Horror Keeps Appealing to Audiences

"I think especially in Catholicism, it's so dark. Part of the ceremony of a mass is eating the body of Jesus, and it's not a representation — it's the literal body, it's transforming when you pop it in your mouth. 

It's wild that that's what we believe. It's wild that we take a sip of wine and believe it to be his blood. So Catholicism is metal, and so it lends itself to horror just very, very naturally."

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Immaculate released in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, March 21. Read our review.

Images: Fabia Lavino, courtesy of NEON.

Published on April 02, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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