For his feature-length directorial debut, Edoardo Vitaletti created an occult horror film set in 1843. The Last Thing Mary Saw follows a young woman in love with her family’s housemaid, much to the dismay of her family. As the two women carry on their relationship, they are punished for their supposed transgressions. After the family matriarch dies suddenly, the tension and unease in the household reaches a boiling point. Tragedy then strikes the family, followed by accusations of witchcraft.
Vitaletti sat down with That Shelf to discuss The Last Thing Mary Saw and the religious and artistic inspirations that informed his story.
I understand you grew up in Italy and so, you must have grown up Catholic.
[Laughs] Yes, guilty.
The Last Thing Mary Saw looks at the problems of religious authority, particularly in the Catholic Church. How much did your relationship with religion influence the film?
All of it. [Laughs.] This movie, the story and me wanting to tell it, definitely came from a place of frustration. I was born there [Italy] and I lived there for 19 years, and then I moved here [United States]. I think when you step away from a place you can finally look at it. That place is not just a physical place–it’s a series of public school teachings, looking at a crucifix in the classroom, Sunday Mass, and sermons. A big part of their [Catholicism’s] religious message, the one that’s spoken about, is inclusivity. Like, “God loves you for who you are.” And then you realise that, in my opinion, as far as the culture around it, it’s not true because there’s an asterisk. If you’re straight, God loves you. If you don’t get divorced, God loves you. You start to realise, “Hold on a minute, how many people are actually suffering in the name of this so-called inclusive philosophy that doesn’t actually include everybody?” I was aware of it while growing up, but did not quite realise how it seeps through the cracks. It infuses every aspect of your day and your life. I wanted to tackle it and confront it.
So no spoilers, but my favourite scene in the film is the supper scene. It’s not just the suspense, but because there’s no dialogue. What influenced your decision to have the climax play out in silence?
The story is about, figuratively speaking, silencing people. And literally, the people speak in hushed tones, the girls [the film’s two main characters in a forbidden love affair] always hide away and have to be quiet. They develop their own language, which is made of books and slight movements. I wanted the climax bring the silence to a peak. Very carefully, me and the actors planned a nonverbal dance for the supper sequence, and it was so rewarding.
My favourite moments in movies are when nobody’s quite saying anything. We have the privilege of cinematography and acting and sound design when we make movies — that’s where the real conversations are happening.
We were showing the cut to people and people were like, “We didn’t realize that for 13 minutes, nobody said a word.” We’re doing our job then. [Laughs]. It’s working and we were super happy about it. Everybody took it as a fun challenge. It’s just a limitation and we’re gonna ride with it.
The sound design is so important to that scene — every creak from the floorboards and the clinking of the chinaware all add to the tension. Could you tell us a bit about finding the right sound mixers/editors/designers for your film?
I actually didn’t know who I was going to end up doing music with or sound design or sound mixing until we actually got into post-production. With my cinematographer [David Kruta], and with my actors, we blocked [that] scene very carefully. It was a lot of very quick shots and it’s the kind of scene that an actor shoots and, per their own admission, they’re like, “We don’t really know what this is.” They have no idea what [the scene] is going to look like because they get three seconds of a shot. But the planning was careful, and what I wanted to do was create this well blocked and well shot empty canvas that the sound could fill.
I offered [the sound mixers and editors] this movie being like, “Hey, there’s 15 minutes, it’s all sound design, and it’s your fucking show, it’s going to be all yours.” And whoever was going to come into it, I knew that they would be excited about it. There was definitely a lot of planning with cinematographer and actors, but for the sound, you just had to find the right people who could get excited by [the opportunity].
You mentioned the music — the score for the movie is amazing, too!
Yeah, Keegan DeWitt, who made the score, really taught me a lot. He told me that a lot of horror movies approach music tonally. Meaning it conveys a sense of “It’s scary” or “It’s a horror movie,” you know? But he just wanted [the music] to be character-driven, which sounded great to me. I think the reason why, for me, his music is beautiful is it doesn’t just fill space — I feel like I’m near them when I hear his music. And as a director, my heart…it just beats for that. He gave me a big, wonderful score.
Turning to your actors now, the film rests a lot on the chemistry between Mary and Eleanor. I know that Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman were friends prior to making the film and my understanding is that Stefanie was on board first. How did you go about finding the actress to play Eleanor? Do you cast the character you’ve envisioned, or is it more important to find an actress who works well with Stefanie?
I think it should be like a healthy combination of the two. I’ve always admired Isabelle for the type of actor that she is. When I was thinking about actors, I wanted to see people who worked well without saying lines. I needed good, quiet actors. I think any great actor is generally good at that, [like] Isabelle. When I found out about her relationship with Stefanie, it definitely made me even more convinced that she was the person to reach out to.
In my opinion, the figure of the director should be very humbled by the casting. I think you sort of decide 90% of what movie you’re going to have when you cast your movie. And I’m not a big believer in breaking down your actors and triggering their emotional, inner core to make them cry during a scene. I think that’s kind of BS. I’m picking two actors who I knew had chemistry before, who wanted to work with each other, and [that] made it much easier having two characters who only have each other in the context of the story.
Was there a particular reason you chose to focus on a lesbian relationship versus a gay male relationship? And do you think the movie would have played out any differently if it were two men instead of women?
There are socially imposed norms on women that we still see a lot nowadays, and even more so back in those days. It would have been different, especially when it comes to the housemaid character. If I picture the story with two men, they would have just had different roles within the context of the story for that reason.
It just kind of came out naturally. I always talk about the fact that a lot of the inspiration for the story was very painterly and very visual. I became enamoured with a lot of 1900s [era] paintings from Northern Europe. Especially this Danish painter, [Vilhelm] Hammershøi, who has a series of female subjects in homes and in sombre, stark houses. I felt emotionally attached to the idea of picking two female subjects to tell this story. And I do think that it gave me and my actors the chance to say something not just about the queerness of their relationship, but also the role that women have in society.
The fact that she is relegated to the role of a housemaid, the way that she is treated, the kneeling on the rice, there’s a certain power dynamic. These were very inspiring things for me and my actors to tackle, and they really enjoyed doing that. I think when it comes to societal roles, it is definitely very different to be a man in that family than it is to be a woman.
I love that you were inspired by paintings. Did you see a particular painting that inspired the story, or did you have the idea for the film and then sought out paintings to help with the visuals?
It’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg. I think I was looking at paintings that informed the story, and then when I came up with a story, I was looking at the paintings that informed the visuals. I always found that type of painterly style — very quiet, sombre, moody — to be very evocative. So I always wanted to shoot a movie that felt that way.
I’m a big fan of Northern European cinema, too, from the ‘60s. A lot of Bergman. It informed a lot of the visual research and the costumes and the blocking for the girls. That was part of it. How a woman would be taught to pose at that time, you know, shoulders up, hands always joined in almost like a sign of prayer. It was just interesting to tackle that.