Blood and Movies

For writer-director Jonathan Cuartas, family is at the very heart of his new film, My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To.

All my films are about family. My latest movie, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, is my first foray into feature films, but I made four short films before that, and they all have something to do with familial bonds too.

I was raised by my parents who came to Miami from Colombia in the ’80s, and my brothers and I were always taught to prioritize family. It’s part of the culture. Family comes first. I still remember all the parties we went to throughout my childhood. Salsa music was booming, and it became the music I grew up with. I always say I’m more connected to the culture of Colombia than to the country itself. I’ve only visited once, in 2009 (I’d love to return). My parents left and never really looked back.

Jonathan Cuartas and his brother Michael on set in 2016.

I feel most comfortable as a writer when I’m pulling from experiences I’ve had, or experiences my parents have had. I love drawing from the personal. I feel very connected to my stories that way. My form of research is interviewing my parents, really getting to know about their childhoods, adolescence and eventual immigration to the United States. In the case of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, I pulled from firsthand experience.

The film is about a vampire. Well, kind of. It’s about a family of three siblings living in what feels like perpetual seclusion, the older brother and sister (Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Sophie Schram) only leaving their claustrophobic house to find sustenance for their younger brother (Owen Campbell), who subsists on human blood. They bring home victims, drain their blood and feed their brother. He’s also allergic to sunlight. The vampiric tropes are present, but the film is more focused on the dynamics of these siblings. We see the unhinged equilibrium they try so hard to maintain. We witness the rituals they have created (karaoke sessions, monthly Christmases) to make this cyclical nightmare a little more bearable.

What the film is really about is taking care of an ailing loved one. I wanted to strip down the Bram Stoker Dracula story we’re all familiar with and treat vampirism as a sickness. A curse instead of a blessing. No magical powers. No transformation. No lust. No romance. Just thirst.

Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram and Owen Campbell in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.

The three-sibling concept of the movie derives from the fact that I am one of three siblings. However, the premise of this film stemmed from the death of my grandmother. She passed away in 2016 after some time in hospice. During this time, it was incredibly hard to determine what would be best for her. I witnessed the tensions that pulled my family apart. I should also mention, I have a huge family. My dad is the youngest of 10 siblings. This means a lot of opinions; a lot of clashing personalities. Alliances form. Relationships dismantle. Things can get awkward. We were all stuck in this relatively small house, with our loved one in the next room, flirting with death.

This sounds very bleak, and it certainly was, but I also noticed something else. We all pushed through it. We were all still bonded by blood, by the fact that we are a family, despite the hardships.

This experience stayed with me, and I had recurring nightmares about my grandmother and her house. So I started writing a screenplay about it. I tend to gravitate toward horror as my genre of choice. Why? I find it’s sometimes easier to digest bleak subjects if they’re wrapped in the tropes of a horror film. Something about the excitement of horror makes the exploration a little less daunting. I decided (with my collaborators, including my older brother Michael, who’s a D.P.), on the vampire myth as the appropriate subgenre for this exploration of codependency and sacrifice within families.

Jonathan Cuartas and his brother Michael on the set of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.

As Michael and I moved into the production phase of this, our first feature film, we made the decision to bring our father into the fold. He came onboard as our production designer.

Now, I have been working with Michael since before we even got into filmmaking. We shared jobs at a grocery store and at a restaurant. I think we operate as one brain. Michael very much feels like a co-director. I don’t like to make decisions without him. Our synchronicity on set is something I can’t work without. I don’t think I’ll ever work with another cinematographer.

This was the first time we collaborated with our dad on something so large. He had previously helped on a few of our short films, but never anything like this. He was up for the challenge, though.

When my dad came to this country, he wanted to pursue some form of art as a way to make a living. He’s really into architecture, and he’s an amazing painter. The problem was, he had to find something a bit more pragmatic, and more lucrative, to make ends meet for my brothers and I. He was the first person in our very large family to get a college degree. He even got a master’s degree and worked in business administration jobs for over two decades.

A young Jonathan Cuartas with his parents.

I feel like without his tireless work ethic, or my mother’s, I wouldn’t have had the privilege of pursuing a career in the arts. I consider myself very lucky, and as a first-generation American, I couldn’t be prouder of my parents and how much they were able to accomplish.

Needless to say, working with my dad was a fulfilling experience. Despite some initial disagreements, the three of us got along nicely, and had so much fun creating the world of our feature film.

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a filmmaker, but the storytelling gene was there from a very young age. Going to the movies was a pastime for our family. We would go at least two times a week. I still remember watching Flipper in the first row, taken aback by the projection and surround sound. My parents raised my brothers and I on moviegoing. This planted the seed of storytelling in me.

Young Jonathan and Michael Cuartas are filmed by their father, Rodrigo.

I started drawing comics, bad ones, in elementary school. For a time, I wanted to become a comic-book illustrator. I would go through my dad’s old art, stuff he drew in the past. I was very much inspired by his ability to draw. Somehow, this gave me the validation I needed to pursue art as a way to make a living. Well, it was more than that. It gave me the validation to pursue a passion.

My mother was also there from the very beginning. She struggled in this country. She lost her mother at a very young age, and had to deal with a lot of trauma alone. The fact that she went through so much inspires me to persist and never give up. She’s the strongest person I know,

and although slightly hesitant at first, she has supported my brother and I from the moment we decided to pursue filmmaking. She’s been at every film festival, every screening, no matter how small.

My younger brother also serves as an inspiration. He’s a pilot, and his drive is incomparable. Even though he’s not technically a filmmaker, he thinks like one. There are very specific script notes he gave me that found their way into the finished film, because they came from a place of knowing about sibling dynamics and the love that unites them.

Rodrigo Jonathan and Michael Cuartas at Indie Memphis, where their short film The Horse and the Stag won Best After Dark Short.

It’s fascinating to me how intertwined movies and family are for me. It’s like I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Going to the movie theater makes me feel nostalgic for the past, when I would go with my brothers and my parents, forget about everything else, and just enjoy a movie together.

I really value telling stories about family, but what I value even more is telling these stories with my family. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Featured image of Jonathan and Rodrigo Cuartas on the set of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To by Ivanna Picon.

Jonathan Cuartas was born and raised in Miami. He graduated film school in 2016 with his thesis film, Kuru, which screened at Palm Springs International Shortfest. His next short, The Horse and the Stag, screened at Indie Memphis, winning Best After Dark Short. Jonathan is a 2019 Sundance Knight Fellow. His feature debut, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, starring Patrick Fugit, Owen Campbell and Ingrid Sophie Schram, is out now in select theaters and on VOD through Dark Sky Films. Jonathan won the Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation at Sitges 2020, where My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To also won Best Feature Film in the Noves Visions category.