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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Paradise Hills director Alice Waddington on representation and the dangers of Instagram

By Kristy Puchko
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With her directorial debut Paradise Hills, Alice Waddington delivers a dazzling dystopia with exciting style and an all-star cast that boasts Emma Roberts, Milla Jovovich, Eiza González, Danielle Macdonald, and Awkwafina. Following Paradise Hills' Canadian premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS dug into the Spanish filmmaker's fashion inspirations for the film and the feminist messaging behind it. Now, in celebration of the film's theatrical release, we explore her cinematic inspirations and personal motivation for crafting this female-focused fantasy-thriller.

Set on a remote island, Paradise Hills centers on the posh reform school where rebellious young women are sent to learn how to be the proper ladies their high standing demands. At first blush, the school seems a sort of spa, complete with yoga, makeovers, and elegant but diet-conscious meals. But a dubious Uma (Roberts) is fearful of brainwashing. Little does she suspect what horrors lurk beneath the pretty veneer.

While the look of the film is hyper-feminine, genre fans will surely pick out allusions to more macho movies. In our Fantasia interview, Waddington happily recalled how it was her parents who got her into genre films. "The first time I watched Blade Runner, it was with them," she said. "The first time that I watched A Clockwork Orange, it was with them." She noted both films were an influence on Paradise Hills, the latter explicitly in a brainwashing sequence. But instead of the nightmarish eye-brace and straitjacket setup from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 classic, Waddington's version involves her heroine being strapped to a charming carousel horse that's hoisted frightfully high into the air, where she is bombarded by propaganda videos designed to modify her unruliness.

Waddington discovered these movies in her teens, a time when she relished reading J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, watching the 1984 fantasy film The NeverEnding Story, and playing the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. She counts all of the above as influences on Paradise Hills, though not overtly.

"In stories like the first two, I would very often see narratives that I love and feel empowered by because I could relate to the characters," she recalled. "But at the same time, I couldn't find stories with these characteristics that had people at the center that looked like me and my group of friends." She noted 1986's Labyrinth as "the exception to that proves the rule of being a young, nerdy girl and being able to see you yourself in those stories."

Nonetheless, like many fangirls, Waddington grew frustrated that she didn't see herself in these fantasy worlds she adored. So she decided, "I just wanted to make my own." What guided her in crafting the story was simple. "This is a film for my 13-year-old-self," she explained, "who loved fantasy and could never see herself in it."

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This desire sparked a broader interest in representation. "It is really important to me to be able to see the world around me represented into people that I was actually casting," Waddington said of Paradise Hills' cast, which includes women of color and a plus-sized star. "I wanted to tell a variety of stories for every single girl, [because there are different forms] of repression throughout the world."

Waddington detailed some of these different forms of repression by breaking down the reasons each of her heroines has been sent to the reform school. "We have Uma, the [white] American girl [Roberts] that doesn't want to get married," she said. "We have Amarna [González], the Latin-American character that is being told to curtail her sexuality. We have Chloe [Macdonald], who is perfectly happy with her body type, but her parents have educated their other daughters to be beauty queens. We have Yu [Awkwafina], a Chinese woman who doesn't want to follow her family's example by taking over the family business. She wants to be creative. She wants to be a musician. So, you know, there's a variety of stories in there."

González was the first to sign on to Paradise Hills, and her casting was especially personal to Waddington. "I wanted to see myself in the story," she said. "I'm Spanish and Hispanic. And I definitely wanted to have an actress that represented that point of view. And I just felt Eliza was perfect for that," adding, "I really can't imagine the role without her."

But beyond making a movie for her 13-year-old self, Waddington hopes the film's message of female empowerment will speak to girls today. "It's really directed towards girls that are 11, 12, 15 years old now," she said, explaining that she worries about the double-edged sword of social media. "The codependence they have with social media — hopefully — can also be a means of empowering one's self," Waddington said. "A lot of women have turned that into becoming models. And I think that that's extremely smart, because it's taking a lot of the societal pressure of what you're supposed to be as a woman and turning the tables. But I feel like it also can have a negative mirror effect on lots of younger women."

She spoke of her concern that social media encourages young women to compare themselves to others, damaging their self-esteem. "It scares me to seeing my younger relatives or their friends are sort of questioning their lips, their noses, their chest, their hips," she said. "I understand wanting to modify your body or character or whatever. But when you're still young, when you're still growing up and you're still learning? When you're still going to change so much in every way — and hopefully for the better? That can be such a tough mindset."

"It's a pressure that gets applied to men as well," Waddington noted. "But women historically have always been in the most dangerous side of the equation when it comes to societal pressures." As such, this daring director hopes Paradise Hills, with its pretty veneer, might attract audiences, but that its message about the dangers of striving for superficial perfection will resonate. "I just wanted to tell them," Waddington concluded. "That device they have in their hand that tells them that they're never enough, they're not perfect, that they will never be enough, it's wrong."

We are so much more than a mirror — or an Instagram post — reflects.

Paradise Hills opens in theaters, on digital, and On Demand on November 1.

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