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‘Immaculate’ Director Michael Mohan Had a Front Row Seat to the Rise of Sydney Sweeney

From eighth billing to bankable leading lady, Immaculate director Michael Mohan has played a key role in Sydney Sweeney’s rise to superstar status.

In 2017, Mohan helped cast Sweeney in the ‘90s coming-of-age series, Everything Sucks!, and while she was only billed eighth in the closing credits, her character played an integral part in the show’s central coming-out story. Mohan was certainly impressed by the Washington native’s acting ability, but it was her extracurricular efforts that indicated she was bound for great things, as she spent her downtime learning the ins and outs of production. Unfortunately, in April 2018, despite a passionate fanbase, Everything Sucks! became one of Netflix’s first of many more heartbreaking cancellations. However, within a matter of months, it opened the door for Sweeney to join the cast of HBO’s eventual hit, Euphoria.

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Before Sweeney would go on to restore the rom-com’s box office viability via 2023’s Anyone But You, Amazon Studios tasked Mohan with bringing the erotic thriller back to prominence by way of his pre-Everything Sucks! script called The Voyeurs. He then immediately thought of Sweeney for the lead role of Pippa, an aspiring optometrist who gets dangerously wrapped up in the sex lives of the married couple across the street. Mohan remains pleased with the result of his third feature film and second collaboration with Sweeney.

“I think the sex scenes in The Voyeurs are the best of this decade, and I’m immensely proud of them,” Mohan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Amazon doesn’t give me hard metrics, but on all the graphs that they did show us without numbers on them, we exceeded every single expectation they had for the film.”

After Mohan cast Sweeney twice, she returned the favor in 2022 by approaching him to direct the religious horror film, Immaculate. Sweeney had originally auditioned for the Andrew Lobel-written film in 2014, but when it never got off the ground, she later used her Euphoria cachet, post-season two, to acquire the rights and redevelop the project. The film chronicles Sister Cecilia’s (Sweeney) journey to a prestigious convent in the Italian countryside, and as she reckons with her tragic past, she mysteriously becomes pregnant without breaking her vow of chastity.

The Neon film, which opens in theaters on Friday, concludes with a bloodcurdling two-minute oner that Mohan and many early viewers (including yours truly) believe to be Sweeney’s finest moment on screen.

“When I pitched Sydney my idea for the ending, she was like, ‘Yeah, I want to go for that,’ and that’s when I knew it was going to work,” Mohan says. “It’s a pretty extreme ending, and I knew it was going to work if she was down to do it. The last two minutes of this movie are actually my proudest moment as a director, and it’s exactly how I pictured it.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR during South by Southwest, Mohan also offers his take on the increasingly bizarre discourse surrounding sex scenes in movies.

Well, let’s set the stage for how you arrived at Immaculate. You co-created Everything Sucks!, and at the time, according to the closing credits, Sydney Sweeney had eighth billing. So I’m sure you recognized she had talent, but you probably never imagined that she’d reach superstardom just a handful of years later, right? 

No, you can’t expect that, but when we were shooting Everything Sucks!, it went beyond her acting talent. She came in on her days off to sit with the First AC to learn and ask, “Why are you choosing this lens instead of that lens?” She would sit with the sound recordists and ask, “Why this mic instead of that mic? And how are you mixing all of this stuff?” She just had this real thirst for knowledge. She had respect for every member of the crew, and that’s something that helps me as a director. My job is to inspire everybody to do their best work, but when you have an actor like that by your side, it only helps the environment even more. So I knew she was destined for greatness, simply because she had not just the acting talent, but the personality, too.

Sydney Sweeney as Emaline and Peyton Kennedy as Kate in <em>Everything Sucks!</em>
Sydney Sweeney as Emaline and Peyton Kennedy as Kate in Everything Sucks!

I was grateful to that show because the ‘80s have been recreated so many times, and at that point, there wasn’t nearly as much attention given to the ‘90s. So, from the needle drops to details like Surge soda and Fruitopia, I thought you guys really nailed the late ‘90s period. Did it take you a minute to rebound off that heartbreaking cancellation? 

Yeah, we were really sad. It was tough, but I’ll always be grateful to Netflix for giving [co-creator] Ben [York Jones] and I our first shot. We had no experience in television aside from writing a couple of shows in development. So they let us go out there and make something, and I still get messages to this day from people all over the world who use Everything Sucks! as a tool to come out to their parents. They sit them down and show them the show, and then afterwards they say, “And by the way, the girl in this show is me. I’m dealing with the same emotions.” So it was a really sad cancellation, but at the same time, I’m so lucky. I’ve never been a part of a team that has created something that has had a real-life impact on people.

Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith star in The Voyeurs
Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith star in The Voyeurs

And what were the circumstances of your reunion with Sydney for 2021’s erotic thriller, The Voyeurs

So I wrote The Voyeurs before even making Everything Sucks!. I made a short film called Pink Grapefruit in 2014 that played here at South by Southwest in 2015, and I was trying to figure out a way to infuse genre into these relationship stories. So it was around that time that I just became obsessed with erotic thrillers because they were doing just that, and it just baffled me that they had ceased to exist. And when Amazon and I partnered on the project, I was trying to think of who might be right to play this part, and even though Sydney, at that point, hadn’t really been the lead of a feature film of this scale, I knew she would knock it out of the park. And as a man making a movie that is so sexually frank, I knew she would be a partner that I could talk to and that our dynamic would be fluid and easy. And I knew that would also help the crew understand that we were creating a very positive environment in which to make an edgy erotic thriller. So she was the natural first choice, and then she totally knocked it out of the park for me.

We’ll return to the erotic thriller in a few minutes … 

I can talk about it for hours, so be careful. (Laughs.)

So how does one go from a ‘90s coming-of-age high school story and a voyeuristic erotic thriller to a religious horror/nunsploitation film? 

Well, it happened because Syd hired me to direct this movie. Basically, after Euphoria season two came out, her fans were just clamoring for her to do a horror film, and she also had aspirations to produce. So she figured that [horror] would be the perfect opportunity to actually take that first step towards a producing career. So she partnered with her partner, Jonathan Davino, as well as David Bernad, the producer that she worked with on The White Lotus, and they scoured the town trying to find the perfect horror script for her to really give the fans what they wanted. And it was at that time that she recalled a script that she had read when she was 15 or 16 years old. She had auditioned for this movie, but it had fallen apart. And so she basically called the writer [Andrew Lobel] ten years later and was like, “I haven’t forgotten your script. The central conceit is so terrifying to me. Would you mind if I ran with it and tried to figure it out?” And that’s when she sent it to me.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate

Did she begin to gauge your interest in other potential projects while making The Voyeurs

We traded scripts here and there after Voyeurs, because we just really wanted to work together again, but I didn’t feel like I could bring something special to some of the earlier scripts that she sent me. So Immaculate was the first time where I read the script and was like, “Yes, I know how to do this. I know I can knock this out of park for her.” I also knew she had a really short window of time to do it in, and because of my background in independent film and then working on Everything Sucks! and whatnot, I knew how to navigate the complexity of having to build a plane as it’s taking off. And to be doing it with someone who really trusts my instincts was the only way that we would be able to make it work.

Of course, The Voyeurs was a step or two in this direction, but as I was watching Immaculate, I kept asking myself, “How is this the same director and DP [Elisha Christian] who made Everything Sucks?” Have you always been pretty adaptable when it comes to working in different genres? 

I don’t feel the need to be confined by genre. I just want to make bold films that people remember, and I think Sydney feels the same way. We don’t view making films that are a little bit more extreme as taking risks. To me, that’s what audiences want. So I’ve always wanted to make a horror movie, and this was a perfect opportunity. But there’s a challenge to horror, because you can’t just shoot it in your traditional way. Horror’s cinematic language, whether it’s a jump scare or a gross-out moment, you have to be really careful with how you structure those reveals. It’s not the same as shooting a comedy or a drama where you can just get coverage and then figure it out later. With horror, you have to design it and plan it out. So I was just really excited to embrace that challenge and for this to be what I think is going to be the first of many horror films, for sure.

But as my first horror film, I just love that it’s not supernatural. I love all The Nun movies that have come out and I see them opening night, but Immaculate isn’t one where she’s battling a computer-generated creature at the end of the movie. The evil is man, the evil is real, the evil is visceral and the evil is inescapable. So when I pitched Sydney my idea for the ending, she was like, “Yeah, I want to go for that,” and that’s when I knew it was going to work. It’s a pretty extreme ending, and I knew it was going to work if she was down to do it. The last two minutes of this movie are actually my proudest moment as a director, and it’s exactly how I pictured it.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate

Yeah, it’s a remarkable oner, and for my money, it’s also the most impressive scene of Sydney’s career. 

I think so, too.

Ignoring the context, what were the circumstances of that scene? How many takes? Any hidden stitches? 

[The ending in the movie] is take one. No cuts. Nothing. We did other takes and shot safeties, but it’s take one.

Did you save it for the end of production since it demanded a lot out of her? 

No, this is going to sound crazy, but that shit is easy for her. What she did in that last moment is not hard for her. She does all the work in preparing for it, and as an actor, how fun is it to be able to just really allow yourself to go all the way? When we were prepping, I showed her that great subway scene of Isabelle Adjani in Possession, just because I wanted to show her a frame of reference that there is no going over the top. She needed to go over the top of what over the top is, and that’s what’ll make everybody feel. That’ll give the audience that sense of catharsis that we were really hoping for in that moment.

Did you create a mood on the day with music or anything? 

One of the reasons why I think Sydney likes me as a director and why we work so well together is that I will adapt to whatever an actor’s process is. I’m not going to impose what I think will help an actor. And so for some actors, yeah, they want music on the day and every possible resource at their disposal. In the case of Alvaro [Morte, who plays Father Tedeschi], he told me that when he was working on Money Heist, his favorite director, before they called action, would say, “Concentration, situation, action.” And that extra ten-second buffer allowed them to leave the craziness of set and concentrate and realize where they are and then go. So once he told me that, I was like, “Okay, for every take on Alvaro, I’m going to do that.”

But Sydney doesn’t want that, and that’s fine. Her process is her own process, and so I’m going to respect that. And a big part of it, oftentimes, is just staying out of the way. She comes in and her first take is perfectly usable, and then I’ll have an idea to try to throw it off balance or something. And what I really appreciate is that she’ll always try it, even if I don’t know if my idea is going to work. And if she has an idea for something, I’ll never say, “No, let’s not do that. We need to move on.” If an actor wants to go somewhere, we have to do that, because it allows them to walk away from the scene feeling great about it and you never know what bizarre mannerism might end up taking a scene from a nine to a ten in the editing room. So the process between her and I is just very simple.

There are several moments that really go for it in terms of gore. When Sydney first approached you about this project, was that tone part of the original ambition? Or did everyone reach that decision later?

When Sydney first brought this project to me, we both admired the way Friedkin’s The Exorcist managed to blend a classically told story with profoundly disturbing imagery. That film strikes a remarkable balance, using its more graphic moments to enhance the story’s gravity rather than for shock value alone. So that became our guiding principle. Our aim wasn’t to saturate the film with gore, but to anchor it in a stark realism. For instance, a fall from a great height onto cobblestones would, in reality, result in exposing the person’s skull. So we diligently researched — consulting forensic photographs among other sources — to ensure that when we do present these moments, they’re as realistic as possible.

There’s quite a few recognizable names in the thank you section: Dakota Fanning, James Ponsoldt, Riley Stearns, Ben York Jones, BenDavid Grabinski, Max Winkler, Jonah Ray. Were they basically your note network? 

Yes, but with Dakota Fanning, I have no idea. That was David Bernad’s, so I can’t speak to her. But all the others were filmmakers that we showed rough cuts to, and they gave us feedback. They dropped by the editing room and saw it there. So I’m very blessed to have such a wealth of filmmakers I really admire and that I can call on to help keep me honest.

Returning to the erotic thriller subject, does the social media discourse surrounding sex scenes perplex you a great deal? Can you remotely make sense of it?

I’m not perplexed by it. Here’s what I think: I think people need to write articles that people click on, and writing about sex scenes does that. So I tend to be at the center of that conversation a lot of the time, and I’m here for it. I think the sex scenes in The Voyeurs are the best of this decade, and I’m immensely proud of them. But I’m also respectful. If people don’t want to watch cinema with sex in it, they can choose not to, but to me, it’s a necessary ingredient in the overall. No one should say that we shouldn’t have a certain kind of movie. Just don’t watch it if it’s not for you.

I’ve always appreciated the streamers because they tend to uphold the genres that the major studios no longer prioritize, be it the erotic thriller or the rom-com, which Sydney just brought back to theaters with great success. Do you still get the sense that they’re trying to fill that void with certain left-behind genres?

I actually don’t know. I know that when we brought The Voyeurs to Amazon, it was right at the beginning of their whole planned initiative of erotic thrillers. Amazon doesn’t give me hard metrics, but on all the graphs that they did show us without numbers on them, we exceeded every single expectation they had for the film. So I don’t know why they decided to not make any more. All those conversations happen behind closed doors, and I don’t know what goes into it.

Sydney Sweeney and Michael Mohan on the Set of Immaculate

Lasty, with all three of your collaborations being wildly different, a case could be made that genre-jumping should be your calling card with Sydney. Do the two of you intend to keep making these big left turns in the future?

We haven’t plotted it in that way. She’s very busy right now, and so if I’m going to bring her something, I want to feel like it’s something that would show a different side of her. I want to bring her something that challenges her and challenges me. And so whatever genre that’s in, that’s all that matters to me. In the last few films we’ve made, we’ve been able to riff on archetypes that already exist — like the archetype of a nun or the archetype of a young woman finding her way in a new city — and so for the next one, I want to find a character that’s a little bit more specific. That’s my hope.

Immaculate opens in theaters nationwide on March 22nd.

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