Alice Waddington jumped onto the film scene and festival circuit in 2015 with their thematically and visually bold short film Disco Inferno. The filmmaker continues in this vein with their equally stylish yet sinister feature debut Paradise Hills. Starring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina and Milla Jovovich, the film introduces viewers to a class and beauty-obsessed futuristic world in which young women who do not meet society’s mold are sent away to a charm school of sorts to be rehabilitated – whether they like it or not.
The film had its premiere at Sundance back in January, is currently available to rent or purchase online, and is also now playing in theatres in select cities in the US. SQ caught up with Waddington about the film’s luscious costume and set design, its starry female cast, audience reactions, and the importance of reclaiming and diversifying genre cinema.
SQ: Paradise Hills is very much a fantasy film, and, unlike many made today, not an adaptation but an original concept. How did it develop it and why were you drawn to this genre specifically?
AW: I could never afford to go to film school. My parents, a psychologist and a teacher from rural-background Spanish families, have only one connection in the film industry: a DOP they shared a flat with at university. What they are is cinephiles – my dad had a teenage film club, my mom played Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange for me when I was about fourteen. They always taught me about the power of imagination and encouraged me to dream big.
And so I did. However, the financial crisis hit Spain right when I began looking for work. In 2015, while I was working two retail jobs and an advertising gig to make rent, I also began designing the visual treatment and first six pieces of conceptual art for Paradise Hills with screenwriter Sofía Cuenca. It would become my first feature film, after making one short and a few ads. We took the pitch to Austin’s Fantastic Fest. We won second best feature project of the market, and best directing. It was also there that I met Guillermo del Toro, who introduced me to my manager and agent. They then pitched me to Adrián Guerra and Núria Valls at Sitges, where Disco Inferno was in the New Visions section.
I brought Nacho Vigalondo into the project, whom I have known for seven years. Adrián and Núria suggested Brian DeLeeuw, writer of Daniel Isn’t Real. I really wanted to create something addressing how my 12 or 13 year-old cousins made use of social networks. I felt that we had put in their hands a window to the world that insisted they would never be beautiful, or popular enough. As if adults were recycling high school pressures, and then validating them.
You‘ve previously said that, growing up, you felt that the science fiction and fantasy stories you enjoyed were about and catered towards boys. What do you think the power of taking these previously male dominated stories and diversifying them is?
I indeed loved the idea of taking media that was problematic in the sense of race or gender, such as Logan’s Run, and re-appropiating it to become friendly and inclusive towards women of colour specifically. Yes, I loved The NeverEnding Story or Lord of the Rings, but was unable to see myself in them. When I had no friends, these were my escape, and even though I was quite male-presenting back then, I wanted to find me, and later on my group of friends, in these films.
On that note, the film prominently features a queer story-line also. Why was that something you and the writers felt was important to include and explore?
I am a queer person, specifically genderqueer. I’m twenty-nine, but in some ways, I realise that I still have a ton of figuring out to do. Binaries are a tricky thing, because I don’t fit into any of them. I was assigned female at birth, and now mostly present as femme, but you could see it as a manner of drag. There’s more queer people in my family; including an intersex relative. So I have never really felt alone. But the bullying I suffered in school did not help me feel like I could freely develop that identity.
What I’m getting at is how sometimes it’s not about how often we’ve seen a story on screen before, but about who are you handing it to if you get to redo it. And some princesses just want to rescue other princesses.
You’ve spoken about how you want this film to find an audience with teen girls. Have you had an opportunity at festivals, screenings or through social media to speak to any girls or young women who’ve seen it? If so, what has been their reaction?
Oh, I do for sure, and love this question, too. Because even though I adore working with actors or designing the look of a feature, talking to audiences is one of my absolute favourite parts of the process. And we are now able to share the film at Sundance for screenings of 500 people at a time, at Fantasia for 600, at Sitges for 1200. Meaning that afterwards we always get some friends and family who want to chat about it!
We have had young women who want to discuss feeling seen in science fiction and fantasy. Parents who want to express concern for having tried to direct their children’s path towards what they wanted, instead of what the kids wished for themselves. It’s quite beautiful.
World building is such an essential part of fantasy stories, and Paradise Hills is no exception. The costumes and set pieces in this film are lavish, feminine and futuristic. Can you talk about how you and your crew created this reality and some of its inspiration and influence?
We wanted to make Alberto Valcárcel’s costumes part of our sets, just like our references such as Donkey Skin or The Young Girls of Rochefort. Alberto would always say, “Their fashion is a symptom of the sickness of the moment we’re living in.” It was good for our design process to be a melting pot of centuries: the Duchess used 18th-century corsets and wide-brimmed hats. But why couldn’t guests at our ballroom wear after-punk headdresses?
We reference Cecil Beaton’s My Fair Lady or Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast or The Draughtsman’s Contract –b ut we also recycled the aesthetics of 80s music videos like Grace Jones or Gazebo, and even several video games such as Final Fantasy XIII and Dragon Age II. Designers like Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood or Iris van Herpen were also relevant to the process. Our residents wear these elaborate nightgowns inspired by Japanese Gothic and Sweet Lolita fashions, or Degas dancers and we heard “Who’d go to bed like that?” more times than we could count. I guess we would!
The motif of the golden cage and the references to female institutionalisation repeat themselves constantly. To again quote Alberto, “We made restrictive pieces that are totally unrealistic, with absurdly thin waists, in which they wouldn’t be able to do anything by themselves.”
The film has a diverse, and almost exclusively female cast and gives each young woman her own set of struggles, whether related to class, family expectations or societal pressure. How did you find actresses to fit these unique parts and what do you feel they brought to the role that wasn’t on the page?
I spent several weeks on friends’ couches in LA until Danielle McDonald, fresh off her Patti Cake$ Sundance success, said yes. She is a force of nature, and a stunning dramatic talent. What I didn’t know is how her action scenes make crews explode in applause! She always immerses herself in her characters. Chloe loves her body as it is, but her family does not allow her to feel safe in her own skin; so she uses her sense of humour as a shield.
Emma Roberts gave us wonderful momentum — the rest of the cast swirled around a “yes” that she defined as “an experiment.” She portrays a character who learns to understand conflict from the individual to the group, with so much charisma. Milla plays an unhinged villain in a self-conscious way, in what is one of my favourite roles of hers in the last couple of years. Her character is dependent on an insatiable standard, being a woman through which time has passed having been recognised only for her appearance.
Awkwafina’s role reads like all fun and games, then becomes dramatic. Paradise Hills was filmed after Crazy Rich Asians and before The Farewell. I hope they get all the awards! At first, Nora was kinda scared of the dramatic side of the role, but when we saw her on set we realised she had nothing to worry about— she’s a natural. Here, Yu overcomes her fears and her bravery just blooms. I connected to Eiza because of our respective Spanish/Hispanic heritages. She provided memorable moments to make her character complex in a way that was not in the script. Eiza was always game to use those spare fifteen minutes before lunch to get some extra reaction shots to amp up any chemistry needed.
Prior to working on Paradise Hills you made the well-received short film Disco Inferno. How did that experience prepare you to direct this movie?
Interesting— well, when I made Disco Inferno I wanted to showcase our skills for a variety of genres, you know? It was also my way of saying ‘I love and can do deadpan comedy, horror, musical or dance-based pieces, drama, fantasy…’ I feel like women’s skills are questioned enough as is, so that was my sorta way of trying to surpass that unconscious bias, for sure.I also know that the actresses fancied the short, as many mentioned it as inspiring to them.
Do you have any other future projects in the works at the moment?
Sure! I do have a feature, Scarlet, produced by Roxie Rodríguez and Michael Costigan written by the incredible New Orleans screenwriter Kristen SaBerre. The other show is the TV adaptation of an incredible fantasy book series that will hopefully be announced before the end of the year.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
by Jennifer Verzuh
Jennifer Verzuh is an LA based critic and writer who’s had her work published at Little White Lies, Girls on Top, Much Ado About Cinema, Starry Constellation Magazine and The Reel Honey. She’s worked at film festivals across the US and is currently involved in post-production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie & Nashville. You can contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org