Alexis Kendra and Rachel Alig in The Cleaning Lady
Alice, a lonely woman trying to break off a relationship with a married man, gets more than she bargained for when she enters into a self-serving friendship with her domestic help in Jon Knautz's The Cleaning Lady, part of this year's Frightfest selection. It's a film with a lot going on beneath the surface, full of sharp observations and with some nicely judged comedy alongside the horror. A few days before the première, I asked Jon how it developed.
"I’ve had the seed of this story in my head for about 15 years," he says. "I had always wanted to develop it but some other project would always end up bogging me down. About two years ago I pitched the idea to Alexis [Kendra, who co-wrote and stars as Alice] and she dug it. She started throwing in her own ideas and we ended up writing the script very quickly, probably the quickest we’ve ever churned something out. We passed the script to Jimmy Nelson and he was really into it. Everything moved pretty swiftly after that. It was a real honour to be able to take this script to the screen, otherwise it would have sat in my head for the rest of my life.
Time for Turkish coffee
I ask how important the characters' wealth and social class differences and the ways they misunderstood each other as a result was to him in creating that screenplay.
"It was important to me that Alice and Shelly were polar opposites in every way. Alice represents everything Shelly would have dreamed of having, but Shelly is someone who’s essentially lost interest in her own life and is vicariously living through others. I wanted a stark contrast between the two, especially the worlds they each live in.
"In general I tend to enjoy female protagonists in horror films more the men. However, I’m not trying to make any statements here about women exploiting other women – this just happens to be a story that focuses on two women, one who’s obsessed with the other. It could have been about two men but the flavour would have been different and that’s not what I wanted."
There are a lot of interesting ideas here around scarring, make-up and masks. How did he approach developing these themes?
Addicted to love
"Those kind of themes start to evolve as you develop a story. You start to make these connections as you move along and then you kind of run with it. For Shelly, make-up and facial structure is fascinating because she’s so embarrassed by her own face. So the idea of 'beauty' captivates her.
"In terms of technical challenges, our FX guy Kelton Ching had everything under control. He came well prepared for all make-up/prosthetic situations."
There's some great observational comedy in the film, including in the scenes at the addiction support group that Alice visits in an attempt to kick her habit of getting into hopeless relationships. Did he visit groups like that as part of the research?
"Alexis actually visited a couple of those groups for research. So I can’t take any credit for the dialogue in that scene; that was all her. She’s really great at pulling humour out of serious situations."
Was it different working with Alexis as an actor when she also worked on the script?
Looking for perfection
"Yes, it was a luxury. She knew exactly what to do because we had created the character together. It was definitely a bonus in this case.
"As the director I had 100% involvement with casting all roles. Rachel [Alig, who plays Shelly] played a small part in my last film, so it was a lot of fun to dive into a larger role with her. She had a lot to endure on this one with all that make-up. We both had a lot of fun experimenting with her character. Stelio [Savante, who plays Alice's married lover] was great too. He cares deeply about his performance and it really shows. The two us spent a lot of time discussing his character; he really brought some interesting aspects to the role."
Without giving too much away, which - for him - are the pivotal scenes in the film?
"There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Alice has to make a very difficult decision, which is definitely a pivotal moment. And so is the very last scene; it’s definitely one of my favourite endings I’ve done in a film.
"I enjoyed all aspects of filming this story. I had such a wonderful group of producers who really backed my vision and supported me every step of the way."
How does he feel about the film being selected for Frightfest?
"I’m honoured to be playing such a well-known genre festival. They were kind enough to play my last film, Goddess Of Love, as well, so it really feels like they’re fans of my team and I. I really think the Frightfest crowd will enjoy this film; this is the perfect festival to have out world première."
What's next for him as a filmmaker?
"I’m busy directing a true crime documentary, which has been such an interesting experience. I’ve also got a few horror scripts on the go. More on that as it develops…"
Watch this space.