WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Sweet Girl which are now available to streamed on Netflix.
Netflix’s Sweet Girl unites star and producer Jason Momoa with filmmaker Brian Andrew Mendoza, who makes his directorial debut with the film after working as a producer on projects like Frontier. The thriller revolves around the family man Ray Cooper (Jason Moma), who raises his daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) after his wife died of greed for profit from the pharmaceutical industry. Ray swears revenge and decides to lead the fight to those responsible for his wife’s death, with Rachel being drawn into an increasingly bloody conflict.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Mendoza shared why he chose this project as his directorial debut, praised the benefits of filming on location in Pittsburgh, and talked about the importance of focusing on the emotional aspects in the midst of badass action.
I love that the action in this film isn’t glamorous. It’s harsh and often claustrophobic. Was this what you always wanted to do with fight coordinator Jeremy Marinas when you staged these fights?
Brian Andrew Mendoza: Yes, Jeremy and [stunt coordinator] Jon Valera, we really wanted to make it [like that]. It matters because this character is a worker character. He’s not a Navy SEAL trained killer. He’s just that normal guy. We wanted the fights to feel like they were being fought by someone who’s just a normal guy who knows how to box. Every shot, like the elevator fight, ended up being claustrophobic [with that] simply built in. We wanted it to feel like it’s slapping you in the face a bit.
In addition to Jason’s rougher fights, I feel like this movie takes him to some of the most emotionally rough places we’ve seen of him in a while. What was it like to get him to this place and use handheld cameras to interfere and make those scenes and the cinematography more kinetic?
Barry Ackroyd who is amazing made the movie and he is a handheld operator and takes care of them himself. We really wanted the emotional scene in the hallway with the camera following him so that nothing felt like it was ever staged. We wanted it to feel off the shelf. Whenever we shot, we shot with three cameras, but never put the markers. The cameras, we ran a scene twice, looked at it and said, “Let’s move a camera so we can get this thing.”
It was a really organic process and in the end I thought it was good because personally I don’t like that shoulder-to-shoulder view of where you know where you’re going to be. I’ve always tried to position the camera so that you don’t know where it’s going to be next, and in doing so, in an emotional scene or an action scene, put in the areas where it just ran in your face and made you feel has to connect with the characters.
You previously worked with Jason on Frontier. How has the creative shorthand developed specifically for this project since then?
We are always drawn to human-motivated stories and the humanity in this story with the father and daughter is something that attracted us both and made us want to make this film. The shooting in Pittsburgh wasn’t easy, and Frontier wasn’t easy because you’re shooting in these cold areas. I think we focused on Sweet Girl on always putting those emotions and characters first and then looking at the action with the stunt team and how that action supports what the characters are doing. It’s always been our style, we haven’t really changed, except this time I shouted “Action” and “Cut”, I hadn’t done that yet.
What was about this project that you wanted to make your debut feature film directing?
It was secondary. One was the reveal: I was scared after reading it in the script because it’s something I thought worked or didn’t work. I love a good challenge and in hindsight I look back and say, “That was crazy for you to do this as your first film.”
That was part of it; but to be able to explore. I had a lot of fun with Bela and Jason exploring these characters and the loss of the wife and mother and finding them in a broken place and having those antagonists come up to them and work them through and work towards the reveal. Most of the revelations that happen in movies happen in the last five minutes, like The Usual Suspects. With that we could sit down with the character and spend twenty more minutes and get ourselves further exploring what we set up for it, and it does it all up and down together.
In terms of the ebb and flow of the tide, after about twenty minutes this movie just moves with that roller coaster ride. How was it to keep up that pace and intensity, especially when you work it all together and take Bela’s character with you on this ride?
I’m really glad you pointed this out because we were very aware that we didn’t want the film to drag on. We wanted this film to breathe in the opening because we also knew that you can only do that once in the film, we go and it goes on. That was just something we kept looking at how we could keep pushing this so that it got higher and higher. I always had the feeling that in this film the tension just continued until the end, the final battle.
As good as Jason is at this movie, I feel like he’s really a showcase for Bela.
Absolutely! I think it’s her story because after the subway he’s no longer part of the movie. It’s from a different perspective.
What was it like working with her on these scenes? The last time I saw her, she was in Dora the Explorer!
I think she just digested it and absorbed it, took it, and walked with it her way. She put on such a strong performance that I’m so proud of and so glad you commented on because I can’t wait for people to see her in this action and in the action and fight for her too. This is the first time she’s really doing action and at the end of the fountain fight she’s doing her own stunts. She came in on the weekends to do those stunts with us and it was a lot, but she knew the character and I think you need that from your actors. They sort of lead them where the story is going, but in the end, sometimes they have to understand these characters better than you do. I know that she really understood what Rachel was going through and that she was so dynamic.
You mentioned that you were a little scared about the big turn of the movie. How did you work through that?
There were different iterations. We really wanted it to be character driven and emotional with the audience and not trick them. We really wanted it to be part of the narrative and through the relationship with the FBI agent and the phone calls she has to build, so when we got there at that moment there was a foundation that was built so suddenly and it got it dramatic made to work.
You mentioned the logistical challenges of shooting in Pittsburgh, but you really showcase the city, including parts that I’ve never seen in the film before. How was it for the story to find locations during the location scouting?
The script was originally set in New York and we explored two locations, New York and Pittsburgh. The original idea was to use Pittsburgh for New York, but when I got to Pittsburgh I thought, “This is amazing!” It was my first time in Pittsburgh and I started doing research on the pharmaceutical companies there. Frankly, for Ray Cooper, there is no better working class town than Pittsburgh. We had to adapt it to Pittsburgh.
When we adapted it to Pittsburgh it was a lot of fun because we’ve been there and looked at all of these great places. When you think about a ballpark on the water with bridges next to the city center, a production designer couldn’t create something this beautiful. I was afraid I wouldn’t get the most out of Pittsburgh, I wanted to make sure people felt like this was Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh is a beautiful city.
Now that this movie is in the world, what do you look forward to most when you take Ray and Rachel on this emotional roller coaster ride?
I think that’s it. I really hope people enjoy it and are connected and invested in the characters because I always feel that the action will hit you even harder and be more fun when you are invested in the characters. When you get to the end of the movie, that really got you covered and was visceral [for] She. I find it an honor for someone to take the time to see something that takes two hours or so and they are really glad they took the time to sit down and look at it. I hope people think that way after seeing this.
If you take over the director’s chair for this, what statement did you want to make with this project?
As a filmmaker and just a lover of the cinema, I love action, but I’ve always focused on this, if there wasn’t any action in this movie, you would still be invested in the drama between characters. That’s the one thing that I really focused on in the movie, the characters and storylines they went through and the devastation of the family. I love character oriented stuff and I love the fact that this is wrapped in action and there’s a big level and so thrilling that this story allows us to show both of them, and you don’t see that very often. If there wasn’t a father-daughter family element, I don’t know if I would have.
The opening of this film is really heartbreaking. You give us just enough hope before you take it away from us.
I know it’s a pouch. We wanted to pick up on that emotional side of the film and, if we hopefully have you as viewers at this point in the film, we just have to keep you in that place.
How does working with Netflix as a partner shipping this thing around the world?
It’s crazy to think that this is accessible to a worldwide audience on the same day. It’s always a big shock to me, but it’s great. When I first sat here as a filmmaker, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to make such a great movie as a first film and believe in myself to make it and be a good creative partner, me think it’s great. You don’t see that anywhere else, and I don’t think I could direct this movie other than anywhere other than Netflix.
Directed and produced by Brian Andrew Mendoza, Sweet Girl will premiere on Netflix on August 20th.
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Sam Stone is a 10th level pop culture guru who lives just outside Washington DC and knows an unreasonable amount about the Beatles. You can follow him on Twitter @samstoneshow and ask him about Nintendo, Pop-Punk, and Star Trek.
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