In Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney stars as Sister Cecilia, a young nun who is relocated to a centuries-old Italian convent only to find herself inexplicably with child. While she's worshipped by those around her as a modern-day Virgin Mary, Cecilia gradually begins to suspect that her pregnancy may not be the miracle that everyone else believes it to be. The film, the latest entry in the religious horror subgenre known as "nunsploitation," was also produced by Sweeney, who personally brought the project to director Michael Mohan.

"I'm honored that Sydney chooses me to make her most f****d up movies," the filmmaker laughs.

The two first met in 2017 when Sweeney was cast in Mohan's short-lived Netflix series, Everything Sucks! and reunited a few years later on the 2021 erotic thriller, The Voyeurs. In the seven years that Mohan has known the actress, her star power has risen considerably. "As a collaborator, it's really nice working with someone who is so talented and who believes in me," he says. "

When she approached me with the script for Immaculate, it was like, 'I better knock this way out of the park for her because she's going to be putting so much into this.' I knew I was going to have to put in just as much — if not more," Mohan explains. "As a director, it's great when you have a creative partner like Sydney, who doesn't ever want to hold back, either."

Together, they've made a movie that "goes hard," as Mohan puts it, boasting more than its fair share of bloody surprises. For the first-time horror director, the joy of making Immaculate was perfecting the art of the scare. As Mohan tells A.frame. "That interplay of tension and release is just so fun to play with."

Sydney Sweeney and director Michael Mohan on the set of 'Immaculate.'

A.frame: You've worked with Sydney Sweeney three times now. How has your collaboration evolved over the years?

It hasn't, really. When you're an actor like Sydney who is constantly going out on a limb and constantly going to these extreme places, you want to feel like you have a safety net there to catch you. When you have a team like I do in my cinematographer, Elisha Christian, whose work is just so beautiful, and my editor, Christian Masini, who always makes very tasteful choices and is so diligent about making sure that all of the best stuff ends up in the movie, I think she knows that she's in good hands. It's the combination of everyone that is what really allows us to thrive. It's not just the relationship between me and Sydney. It's the relationship that our whole team has together.

Beyond working with Sydney Sweeney again, what was it about this project that appealed to you?

I like how it kind of lulls you into a sense of safety at the beginning. That's not to say it takes a while to be scary. It's still a horror movie from beginning to end, but it starts out as a kind of traditional horror movie, and then it gets progressively more and more f****d up. We wanted to make the audience feel like they're a frog in a pot of boiling water. Thankfully, you get to jump out of the pot when the credits roll — but not before then. If someone calls the film gory, that's great, but I mostly just tried to make the violence seem as realistic as possible. So if, say, a woman falls onto a cobblestone street from four stories up, you're going to see her skull after that. That's what would happen, and the film's script gave me the chance to embrace that.

At the same time, there was this sense of dread in it that was rooted in the idea of a woman who is pregnant and doesn't know why. That's not a fear that she can run from. The movie doesn't and can't end in a climax where she's battling a computer-generated creature. She has to battle something far more intense, and that's what I felt separated the film from a lot of other horror movies. That's what made me really excited about taking it on.

Were you a fan of horror before Sydney Sweeney brought you Immaculate?

Oh, yeah! I was actually working on a horror script before I started working on Immaculate. So, when she came to me with it, I was like, "Oh, this is really awesome. I get to actually do this," because this is a horror movie that goes hard.

As a horror fan, did you come to Immaculate with any specific homages you wanted to make or tropes you want to play with?

I think it's always just about serving the character and, if you can, honoring their journey. There's a sequence in the film that is set in these underground catacombs, and we actually found those. They were totally real, and it was only after we found them that we were like, "This is where we're going to shoot this sequence." There were bones that we could pick up in the dirt that would dissolve in our hands. It was terrifying, but as a director, I was immediately excited to do a POV shot traveling through that. To me, there's nothing scarier than a simple POV shot, because then you're literally in the moment. That was the only hyper-specific thing that I was thinking about ahead of time, though. Everything else was just in service of Sydney's character.


The movie takes a lot of risks in terms of both narrative and tone. What was the hardest part to get right?

I have to tell you, one thing I realized is that the simpler the jump scare, the harder it is to do. That's something I didn't have personal experience with before making this film. You can study a million horror films and break them down all you want, but it's not until you're on set actually doing it that you really realize how tedious putting that kind of thing together is. The hardest one to pull off in the film was — to avoid spoilers — what I'll call the "scissors jump scare." That moment took a lot of work. We reshot it and even did it a second time, because when we cut it together the first time, the timing was off.

What I realized is that, in the future, I have to make sure to give myself a lot of options in the edit, because you never know how far you can actually extend things. You never know how short something needs to be. It's not until you're in the editing room and you've seen how the film plays up to a specific point that you know how far you can pull the elastic band before it breaks each time. It all just comes down to shooting lots of coverage, lots of options, and really giving yourself the ability to formulate the timing of a single moment in the edit. Nothing is scary on the set of a horror film. It's always just, "Turn on the light and now act scared!" It's all very, very technical.

Speaking of editing, the film's sound design really amplifies the gothic atmosphere. What was it like creating that in post?

I had Bryan Parker as my sound supervisor, and he worked on Get Out. I also had Christian Minkler mixing it, and he was nominated for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. I really had a dream team. All the door creaks that you hear in the film, though, were the actual creaks that were captured on set. There's a real specificity and age to the way they sound, and some of them are almost comically long. There's a moment where Sydney sneaks into the Cardinal's office, and the doors just creaked forever. We were like, "Should we trim this a little bit?" But the sound team was like, "No! We never get to do this! Let's put the whole thing in!" All those sounds were amazing.

The main location we shot at, Villa Parisi, is actually steeped in horror history. It's where Mario Bava shot Bay of Blood. If you go back and watch a lot of early Italian horror films, you'll see that they used the location all the time. It really felt like there was a legacy of horror just in the walls of the locations we were shooting in.


This is your first film to get a theatrical release of this magnitude. How does that feel for you as both a filmmaker and a lifelong fan of movies?

It feels amazing. I've been wanting this ever since I was five. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, which was a cultural wasteland at the time, seeing Back to the Future as a kid was the most exciting thing ever. I've always wanted to make movies that were released theatrically. I have nothing against the streamers, but when you make a film for a streamer, it comes out and you might watch it, but when you turn your TV off or you close your laptop, it doesn't feel like it really exists. With Immaculate, there's a physical DCP that's being sent to 1,000 screens. There are physical posters. There are billboards. It's the first time I actually feel like I've made a film that's going to be seen and people are going to talk about it.

Neon is doing so much for the film, because the studio believes in it. I'm very grateful to Netflix and Amazon for supporting me in the past with Everything Sucks! and The Voyeurs, and of course, everything ends up on streaming anyways. Sometimes when you go straight to streaming, though, it doesn't feel like you've made a movie. It feels like you've made a thumbnail lost in a sea of thumbnails. Immaculate has been on a whole other level. Neon cares so much about creating an experience for the audience and making it so that, when people walk into the theater, they're already excited to see the film. It's been amazing. I could cry right now just talking about it.

By Alex Welch


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