[Fantasia Fest] Interview : The Last Thing Mary Saw writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti

Vitaletti discusses the research behind the folkloric horror tale, his views on feature vs. short film storytelling and the blessings of a curious cast.

The Last Thing Mary Saw is the debut feature film from writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti, who no doubt must be over the moon at the news that the film has already been acquired by Shudder, before its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.

Given how many good films can languish in distribution hell following their festival premiere – even with rave reviews – it’s testament to the storytelling and attention to detail shown by Vitaletti in this deeply unsettling period tale of religious fervor and folklore that it’s been scooped up so quickly.

Starring Rory Culkin, Isabelle Fuhrman, Judith Roberts, and Stefanie Scott, The Last Thing Mary Saw is a period occult drama set in an isolated farmhouse in the winter of 1843, where a young woman is under investigation following the mysterious death of her family’s matriarch. It soon becomes apparent that ageless forces are at play, from within and without.

The Last Thing Mary Saw will be available for viewing on August 15 and August 17 through Fantasia’s online streaming platform, which you can check out right here. We think it’s a great, chilling addition to this year’s Fantasia lineup – learn more about it below!

First of all, congratulations! I’ve just seen the news about Shudder acquiring The Last Thing Mary Saw.

Edoardo: Yeah, we’re super, super excited.

It must be great to put a movie out there and have people grab at it like that!

Edoardo: Yeah, for sure. I’ve been looking forward to having audiences see it for a couple of years at this point.

The Last Thing Mary Saw is your feature film debut as a director. You’ve dabbled in a bit of everything before this, from short films to VR shorts to commercials. Did you find the transition to tackling a feature film particularly daunting, or did your experimentation give you confidence?

Edoardo: I’ve always wanted to work in the feature-length format and in that space. When you want to do that, definitely doing short films and approaching that narrative style within a smaller, more restricted scope like a short would be is always very helpful. To be honest, I think a lot of it has to do with – there has to be some clarity inside your head so far as what you want to do. So many times, I see a lot of people who want to make features, and the short format is looked at as a kind of reparatory step to get there. But the truth is, they would rather make a feature right away. To that I say: why not try that, actually?

It didn’t feel as daunting to me as much as it just felt right. I had this story that was too big to unpack in fifteen or twenty minutes – not that I ever wanted to make a short film out of it, really. But it’s helpful so long as it’s helpful to you. So many times, I see short films that clearly deserve more time and are set up in a way that I would love to have to have more time to unpack story and characters. They feel like it’s a feature kind of squeezed into a short, in the same way that you sometime see shorts that are lengthened into features and they should’ve stayed shorts.

So, I think it’s about clarity. If this is a story that I want to tell in 85 minutes, let me just try and do that. I think it was actually very liberating to know that you have that much time. There’re different challenges when you’re making a feature versus a short, but to some degree I don’t think that the core challenges stay the same, creatively. You’re still trying to tell a story, and I think you have to be clear as to what you want to do and not necessarily consider shorts to be the necessary stepping stone. If you want to make shorts, it’s a great kind of school, but I found myself very comfortable switching into that because I just saw the story deserving the 89-minute length. It just kind of happened like that.

Mary (Stefanie Scott) and Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman)

That’s a refreshing perspective, because even as an audience member, I feel each story really should just be as long as that story needs to be. There’s no magic runtime or format that you can apply to every project. There are so many shorts I’ve seen where you’re left thinking “that really needed more time to breath”, or features where you’re left thinking “that was not enough story for 160 minutes”.

Edoardo: Yeah, and honestly, making a great short film is a skill that I can only look at from the outside. It’s amazing to me how some people are capable of telling such complete, lasting and impactful stories in such a short amount of time. I don’t think that my skillset necessarily applies to that quite as well, so I’m in total admiration of good short films.

But I also think that there’s an argument that you should be clear with yourself what the story is that you want to tell, and what the best format is for it. Then just go for it. The idea that you couldn’t make a feature because you haven’t made enough shorts, I just don’t believe in that.

When it came to the setting of The Last Thing Mary Saw, was that more informed by your own personal interest in that era, or were you more concerned with the characters and their relationships before settling on the setting itself?

Edoardo: I think to some degree the setting came slightly first.

My personal introduction to this world and to this story was that I started to think about a lot of paintings and Northern European, stark 19th-century painterly culture. A lot of Scandinavian artists, especially Danish and the Faroe Islands as well. That provided a certain imagery and emotional setting, even though those subjects are not, of course, from the US.

But something started brewing, and then the two characters eventually came to mind. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to explain why the two things went hand-in-hand. The mid 1800s in this area of the country were a time of great and crazy, obsessive religious resurgence. They used to call upstate New York or the greater New York state area ‘The Burned-over District’, because it was an area of the country that was so burning with religious fervour that it was burning over everything – figuratively speaking, of course.

The ideas for the visuals that provided lead to the setting, and then the characters took life. It made a lot of sense for them to be living in this world based on what they want, and based on how they try to achieve it and the obstacles that they have.

Certain circumstances that they get involved with and that they are put against are really part of a world that none of us have lived in. Even just being able to see at night, not being able to make noise in your heavy clothes, your house is creaking, all that stuff. I think it all kind of came together in that way.

One of the things that really stuck out to me in the film was the use of a lot of natural light, diffused through windows and curtains and lanterns at night. It goes a long way to establishing atmosphere and the setting itself.

Edoardo: What conveys a sense of the period for me is, what would the world look like through the eyes of people who lived at that time? That goes with “how could they see?”, “how could they keep the house warm?”, “how would they sit at tables, what chairs would they use?”. When it came to the lighting, the only source of light was during the day, and at night it was candles. We approached it that way, and I think we immersed ourselves better into the world because we were limiting ourselves to only being able to use a certain amount of light. I think that’s all conducive to a general immersive experience where we’re all struggling to see and lighting it that way. It brought this sense of the period alive more than maybe any other element in the visual storytelling.

Rory Culkin as ‘The Intruder’

It really does remind you of the difficulty of just existing at that time. Those are all the things we take for granted on a daily basis. There’s a line in the film that stands out to me, where the family’s guard says to one of the young women, “enjoy the light while we’ve still got it”. Obviously there’s some double-meaning to that, but…

Edoardo: Yeah, and there’s a lot of great journaling from that time period. When you’re doing some research, you get into very odd and very specific corners of the internet where you can find personal journals from the 1800s. It’s all daily habits. They revolved around things that our lives don’t revolve around – when the sun goes down, the day is over. Why? Because you can’t see, and because you have to start working the fields very early in the morning.

There’s a series of other reasons, and those little habits are really nice to bring up in a story like this because it gives a sense of the difficulty in living in that world. I mean, I couldn’t survive more than a week in that time [laughs]. I mean, we’re having this conversation on a computer. It sounds banal, but it’s a different world.

I really enjoyed the casting in the film – some very familiar faces from similar genre films, especially occult horror. When it came to casting, was that an angle you were leaning into, or was it more of a happy coincidence?

Edoardo: The experience that Stefanie, Isabelle, Rory and Judith had within the genre was helpful, of course, because the interesting thing about genre is that now there’s a certain appetite for genre movies that is a little different from what it used to be. Now, we’re after movies that don’t necessarily need to jump-scare you, and horror’s not necessarily associated with that concept anymore so much. The movies that are coming out in recent years are a little different, but there are still a lot of rules in the genre world. The rules and the limitations and schematics of genre, when respected and well-earned, make for a better horror movie – generally speaking. Having people who have dealt with those rules and types of stories was very helpful.

I remember when I was casting Isabelle and Stefanie, I was watching a lot of material from movies that were not in the genre space. They are just two terrific actors, as well as Rory and Judith. They’re just incredible actors. Stefanie and Isabelle knew each other before the film, too, and I believe it helped their performance. There’s chemistry.

It’s ultimately about how right they are for the part, and what they’ve done in the past, and there’s a lot of research that went into this. Work on the accents and the costumes, and I think I was working with actors who were very curious. They were asking a lot of distinct questions that I was asking myself, like “how would someone do this at this time in history?”, “how would someone speak”, and details about the costumes. I think having that curiosity was very important to me, and I was blessed to work with incredibly talented actors who were also so into all these little things that I was also into.

Of course, it must be great for the relationship to go beyond reciting the lines on the day and going home – especially if you’re trying to tell a story with a lot of emotion and historical detail.

You mentioned the environment of religious fervor in the region at the time, and the film is concerned with a lot of attempts to ‘correct’ behavior that was viewed as deviant, which ironically leads to some very cruel and evil acts being committed in the name of the greater good.

Edoardo: Yeah, there is a big contradiction that seeps through. My own relationship with religion, having grown up Catholic, is a very frustrating one at this point in my life. I think there’s a lot that is done in the guise of good and the guise of inclusivity, when instead it’s a very exclusive ideology where you are loved and accepted and appreciated – only if you fit in a certain box.

It is ultimately a guise, and I think in the making of this movie I wanted to expose that a little bit. This family is talking about ‘correcting’ people for the greater good, and that’s just a shortcut to hurt someone. That’s not what that is, but they’re talking about it as if it was.

And you can see that regret throughout the film as the family sees the toll that ‘correction’ begins to take. They’re told that this is what must be done if they want peace and happiness, but everyone is more miserable and scared than before.

Is there a follow-up project that you’re fostering right now, hoping to get the ball rolling on in the wake of The Last Thing Mary Saw?

Edoardo: Many of the people I worked with on this film on the producing end and I have been working on and developing a new film together that is in a similar space – a kind of dark, folkloric period piece that we’ve been developing and working on. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about it a bit more soon. There’s definitely stuff in the works, and I’ve loved being in this space and in this genre, even if the next one may not necessarily be a horror film. The folkloric aspect of it and the darkness are elements and themes that you will see again in the next movie.

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