sydney sweeney immaculate

(This article contains spoilers for the film Immaculate.)

NEON’s convent-set Immaculate is shaping up to be a perfect storm of horror hype: a dangerous, controversial premise; a SXSW premiere that had all corners of the industry buzzing; rave reviews mixed with a somewhat predictable bit of conservative blowback (which NEON promptly put on the posters); and a star/producer guaranteed to push the film past horror’s often insular walls. 

In fact, Sydney Sweeney’s ten-year relationship with Immaculate is a fun bit of lore that’s being wisely leaned on by the film’s marketing: after auditioning for the project in 2014, the actress chased down the rights to Andrew Lobel’s screenplay when that version failed to come together, and brought it to her collaborator, director Michael Mohan (The Voyeurs) as her first film as a producer. To state the obvious: an actress auditioning for a failed project, then resurrecting and willing that project into existence a decade later, is not how Hollywood tends to work.   

“As a writer, you deal with rejection. It’s a big part of the career. Most of the spec material you write doesn’t get sold. Most of the movies you write don’t get made,” says Lobel. “And screenwriters don’t get phone calls from well-known actors who are excited about a script of theirs from 2014.” Even so, Lobel kept his expectations in check. “You develop a kind of armor against the realities of the business. And I’ve been doing this long enough to know that. So when Sydney reached out, it was a really hard moment to process because you feel extremely excited and you also feel like, ‘well, this is absolutely going to come crashing down. There’s no way this is going to work.’ And that’s kind of heartbreaking in a way, because it’s hard to enjoy things when you have this level of anxiety. We were in production on this movie and there was a part of me that thought, ‘…but this isn’t really going to happen.’” 

Standing on location in Rome, it finally sank in. “I looked around and I saw the art on the wall, and I remember I was talking to the costume department, and they were just very proudly showing me the stuff they had done. And I pulled out my phone and I texted my wife and said, ‘I think they’re going to make this movie.’ And it was really a magical moment.” 

Scanning the filmographies of the film’s writer and director, it’s evident that these aren’t the expected gorehounds to be delivering a boundary-pushing horror film about a Catholic nun who becomes inexplicably pregnant, and is forced by her male superiors to carry the pregnancy to term. Aside from The Voyeurs (his previous collaboration with Sweeney), Mohan’s feature CV consists mostly of romantic comedies and coming-of-age films. Perhaps as a result, Immaculate harkens back to a period of filmmaking when working directors not primarily known for horror pivoted to the genre, with fantastic results. (Which is not to say Mohan doesn’t know his genre; fans of vintage Italian horror will recognize the film’s central location, as well as a music cue from Bruno Nicolai’s score for The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.)

But Lobel thinks Mohan’s particular pedigree is a big reason for the film’s effectiveness. “I think this is an example of the miracle, if you will, of collaboration. Mike comes from a really classic filmmaking background, and is a cinephile in a way that I’m not. I’m more of a genre head; you get me coming in with influences like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. I sat Mike down and made him watch Martyrs; he sat me down and took me back to film school. And I think this kind of yin/yang blend is what you get in the film.”

Indeed, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a film as measured that eventually takes the chaotic turns Immaculate does in its third act. The effect is not unlike the first two acts of Rosemary’s Baby spliced together with the finale of Ready or Not, and the experience is singular. But director Mohan claims the alchemy was mostly the result of circumstance. “We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot. The script was ultimately only about 85 pages, so we didn’t have a whole lot to experiment with. Sydney had to get to Australia to shoot Anyone but You two days after we wrapped. And while for Andrew it was an 18-year process, for me, I was sent the script, and then three months later, I’m on the ground in Rome,” he says.

“And so we just had to operate off of our instincts, which is why I think the film kind of turned out to be kind of this otherworldly thing. We just had to do the thing. We were finding locations as we went; even the catacombs. That was a discovery, and we were like, ‘this is where the climax should take place. Let’s embrace this and just run with it.’”

One early change from the script Sweeney auditioned for in 2014: all the nun stuff. 

“It wasn’t conceived as a nun movie,” Mohan says. “Originally, Cecelia was a high school student, and, though I think Sydney can do anything, I just didn’t think audiences would buy her as a high school virgin.” Lobel worked with Mohan and Sweeney on revising the story to take place at a convent for elderly Catholic nuns in the Italian countryside, turning Sweeney’s character into a postulant nun on her first assignment away from home. While Sydney Sweeney as a nun might equally strain credulity, Mohan knew his actress’ strengths, as evidenced in the final product. “Sydney can do quiet really well, just as much as she can do crazy,” he enthuses.

Moving the story to a creepy Catholic church also added a level of moviegoer expectation – religious horror usually comes with a somewhat overused bag of tricks – that the filmmakers wisely (and gleefully) subvert. “Our film isn’t supernatural,” Mohan says. “And the key reveal that Andrew came up with of what is actually going on at the convent was something that was just like, you couldn’t fuck with that. And that’s not in any movie like this.”

That reveal – that Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) has been experimenting on nuns and impregnating them with recovered DNA from the spike used to nail Jesus Christ to the cross – upends everything we thought the movie was doing, and places it in the middle of a very timely conversation that has very little to do with spirituality, and very much to do with institutions claiming authority over a woman’s body. But lest anyone think this is a case of liberal Hollywood tuning up on organized religion, Mohan notes that it comes from a very real place. 

“I grew up super Catholic. I was the leader of the youth group. It was the kind of thing where we took heavy metal records and burned them because we were worried there might be Satanic lyrics in them,” the director says. “We would stand around a candle, aka, ‘the light of the Holy Spirit,’ and sing ballads and then start praising God verbally. It was almost speaking in tongues. And I felt the power of whatever that was, whether it’s real or whether it’s just the power of suggestion, or the cognitive behavioral manipulation that happens within a group of people that are all made to feel guilt and then absolve themselves of guilt.”

Mohan recalls the day that all ended, and who drove that decision. “I was a teenager sitting in mass with my family, and the priest was talking about how being a good Catholic means that you’re pro-life. And my mom, who was like this meek, mild-mannered woman, turned to all of us – my sister, my dad, me – and said, ‘we’re leaving.’ I grew up in a small town; you can’t hide. So we all stood up and walked out in the middle of his sermon, and of course, everybody in the town saw us do it.” 

The experience stuck with him, and clearly went on to inform this film. “I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve made a film with a message in it, because it’s a rollercoaster ride, first and foremost. But I also think that something that anybody who’s Catholic has to deal with is reconciling our own feelings towards what the church’s beliefs are versus what our beliefs are, and being able to pick and choose what we do and don’t believe within that structure.”

That formative moment is not the only way in which Mohan’s mom has influenced his film. 

“She has Alzheimer’s now,” the director shares. “So it was kind of great to be able to put a lot of that in the movie. Cecelia works at this senior center for nuns with dementia, and that’s drawing on a lot of the things that I’m now dealing with.”

Ultimately, it sounds as if anyone who loves Immaculate has Mohan’s mom to thank for it. “She also helped me formulate my love of movies,” he adds. “She was the one who took me to see Pulp Fiction in the theater, probably before I was old enough to see it. She was the one who, when she and my dad rented Boogie Nights, came to me and said, ‘we know you want to be a director. This is a movie you need to see.’ And she was – she IS – just so cool.”

For all its extreme, gnarly moments, one thing the Immaculate team refused to give to audience members is a good look at just what exactly it was that Sweeney’s Cecelia gives birth to at the end of the film. In an ending that will break Sweeney stans on Tik Tok and church groups alike, Cecelia stares into the camera, bears down, and drops a live progeny of some kind. Just what is birthed is a question the film leaves up to the viewer. But something was made for the scene… and filmed. 

“On the day, we built a puppet that could have been interpreted any number of ways. Earlier in the film you saw the jars with fetal remains that she walked past. And so, imagine an evolved version of that,” Mohan says. “It looked incredibly realistic. We spent a shit-ton of money on this thing, because our financiers gave us one stipulation. They said, ‘we support you with this ending, but if it doesn’t work, cover your ass. Help us make sure that we have an ending.’ So we did shoot it, but we never intended to use it. ”

Mohan is glad the… thing is not shown. “Ultimately, what’s really important for me is that you can debate: is it a demon baby or is it a dying, genetic aberration that wouldn’t have survived and she’s putting it out of its misery? Or is it both? But if you don’t show it, then that baby could actually represent something larger as an idea. To me, that’s the more interesting version of the ending. But if you see it, then suddenly it becomes literal. It becomes not as scary as what’s in your mind, and the metaphorical implications just disintegrate.”

And though the film – which is, at the end of the day, about a forced birth by a religious institution laying claim to a woman’s body – is already getting its share of blowback from certain conservative corners of the internet, Mohan is unbothered. “I don’t think of it as a problem. I think it’s a necessary conversation, and if a film can inspire that conversation, then we’ve done our job. But I also want to be really clear: I want that conversation to be started by the audience. I don’t want them to look at us and go ‘Look at those social justice warriors!’” Mohan seems more invested in having Immaculate carry out horror’s other important mission: scarring people for life. “We made a horror movie that’s fucked up and crazy. We smuggled gonzo horror into a mainstream package,” he says enthusiastically. “The fact that kids in suburban multiplexes get to witness this ending is just fucking insane to me.” 

Lobel concurs: “Imagine being some undergrad student who’s a fan of Sydney Sweeney. And this movie comes out and you think, ‘Oh, cool. This looks like a fun time. Euphoria was dope. Let’s go see this movie. How bad can it be?’ And then you’re sitting in the theater, you’re 86 minutes in, and you’re turning to your friend, and hopefully you say, ‘WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?!’ I want to give that to this audience.”

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