When a virtuoso music student commits suicide days before an important concert, her death unleashes a supernatural force in Nocturne, an unsettling tale of sibling rivalry set at a prestigious arts academy. Having grown up in the shadow of her more talented twin sister, shy piano student Juliet Lowe (Sydney Sweeney) is used to always being second-best when it comes to music. But when she finds a mysterious notebook that belonged to the school’s recently deceased star soloist, her playing miraculously begins to improve and she soon eclipses her sister Vivian (Madison Iseman) as the academy’s top student. Along with her newfound abilities, however, comes a series of frightening premonitions. As Juliet’s visions grow more nightmarish, she discovers the true cost of achieving artistic perfection.
The Koalition spoke to Zu Quirke who not only wrote but directed Nocturne about being a first-time feature director, why she chose to drew on her own experiences as a young aspiring musician when she wrote the script and more.
The British filmmaker trained as a classical violinist throughout her teen years, and although she eventually decided not to pursue a professional music career, however she saw firsthand the dedication and sacrifices required of those who do.
“It’s a very cutthroat world,” she says. “Even if you train nonstop from the age of 4, you may never make it, because the competition is so high. So setting the film in this environment was a great way to explore the ways in which we make sacrifices for art.” Quirke, who previously wrote and directed three short films, sees parallels between classical music and the film industry, which is notoriously difficult to break into and where success is often elusive.
To prepare for the film, which is set at a prestigious arts boarding school, Quirke, along with several key cast and crew members, visited one of just a handful of such academies in the U.S. “Blumhouse very kindly sent us there in order to conduct some research into how these students live. It was very gratifying to discover from these kids that our story about artistic ambition, about giving up your childhood for something greater than yourself, really resonated with them,” says Quirke.
As a result, Quirke delivered a film that is a chilling supernatural horror and also an astute social commentary. “In some ways Nocturne is a story about the ways in which siblings can sometimes not have each other’s best interests at heart,” says Gold, who is also an executive producer on the film. “But it also is a bit of a cautionary tale about the tremendous pressures teens put on themselves or have put upon them. And Zu and our incredible cast do an amazing job of shining a light on that.”
The conflict at the heart of Nocturne is the rivalry between Juliet, played by Sydney Sweeney, and her twin sister Vivian — nicknamed Vi — played by Madison Iseman. “I really wanted to evoke the kind of love-hate relationship many people have with their siblings,” says Quirke. “Especially a sibling who is trying to do exactly the same thing as you — which happens more often than you would think, especially in music. Vi represents everything Juliet thinks she could have if only Vi weren’t there — but she is hardly the only hurdle Juliet will have to overcome.”
In casting the role of Juliet, Quirke says she was looking for a multifaceted actor who could essentially play two roles: the shy, unconfident Juliet we meet at the beginning of the movie and the very different young woman who emerges by the end. “She also had to be able to sell the musicianship, which is such a huge part of Juliet’s internal and external life,” adds the director. “Thankfully, Sydney gave us all of that and more. She really elevates the movie.”
Vivian loves Juliet in her own way but becomes increasingly hostile toward her when Juliet’s sudden artistic success begins to threaten hers. Everything Vi does comes out of feelings of hurt and betrayal. A pivotal moment in their relationship comes when Juliet decides to compete for the school’s prestigious concerto award by playing the same piece Vi has been practicing: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2.
Some of the most electrifying moments in the film come when the twins square off. As the film progresses it’s easy to see Juliet has a hard time watching Vi achieve everything she’s dreamed of and worked so hard for. While she does love her sister, but Vi’s achievements feel like personal attacks to her. Vi’s trajectory is almost the opposite of Juliet’s. Talented and self-assured, she seems to have it all at the beginning of the film — the soloist spot in the school’s biggest concert, admission to Juilliard, a boyfriend — but gradually, as Juliet changes and the dynamic between the sisters shifts, her own psychological issues are revealed.
Given how central music is to the storyline, Quirke says it was essential that the actors knew how to play their instruments — or at least look like they did. “I have seen too many movies where the violinist isn’t holding the bow properly or the pianist is just hitting random keys,” she says. To create that verisimilitude, the director cast real musicians in all of the non-starring roles. The lead actors, including Sweeney, Iseman and Jacques Colimon, who plays Vi’s boyfriend, Max, put in many hours of practice a day in the weeks leading up to the shoot. “All three did an incredible job of looking really at home on their instruments in the end.”
Quirke’s ability to seamlessly integrate music into the storytelling process was possible due to her working alongside composer and music supervisor, respectively, to create a musical journey that is both thrilling and heartbreaking. Nocturne communicates all of these ideas and emotions on all of these different levels, which for a first-time filmmaker is remarkable.
The catalyst for the dramatic change in Juliet’s outlook is a journal that previously belonged to Moira, a star violinist who kills herself in the opening minutes of the film. The book contains esoteric images and writing that seem to predict events in Juliet’s life. The images are based on a variety of ancient traditions, according to Quirke, who studied classical literature at Oxford. “In designing them we drew on tarot, biblical and classical influences. The quotations in the notebook that pertain to the stages of Juliet’s journey are drawn from Milton, Thomas Mann and Virgil.”
In fact, cultural and literary symbols are sprinkled throughout the film. The piece Moira practices just before she dies is Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, better known as the ominously titled — and diabolically difficult to play — Devil’s Trill. Even the name Moira itself, which means “fate” in Greek, was chosen to reflect the connection between her and Juliet’s destinies, says the director.
As the film progresses, the line between what’s really happening and what’s in Juliet’s mind becomes increasingly blurred. “For instance, there’s a golden light that recurs a few times throughout the movie, which is really the manifestation of Juliet’s ambition — what she feels she can achieve given the right chances,” says Quirke. “Whether she does so or not is a question we leave to the audience at the end.”
Before production began, Quirke and director of photography Carmen Cabana talked at length about how to visually distinguish between Juliet’s dream life and her reality at school. “You’ll find a lot more color, a lot of saturated frames and bold lighting in Juliet’s dreams, whereas the school is much colder,” says the director. “The camera movement changes as well. But as those two worlds become more intertwined towards the end of the movie, the visual styles begin to blend as well.”
The characters’ wardrobes also help tell the story. Quirke says she and costume designer Christopher Oroza used color to create connections between the characters. “For instance, at the start of the movie, Vi is wearing a lot of dark-colored clothing. But as Juliet supplants her sister, she also begins to wear darker colors. Also, in the opening scene when Moira commits suicide, she’s wearing white and we have Juliet wearing that precise color when she performs her concerto.”
Because the film takes place in a boarding school, where the students live as well as study, Quirke says she wanted the actors’ clothes to appear comfortable and casual. “A lot of the time the characters are wearing what they might wear at home in their own living rooms,” she says. “It was important to me that it not be the kind of candy-colored American high-school wardrobe we’ve all seen so many times.”
Quirke says Blumhouse, with its proven track record of supporting diverse, young filmmakers, and Amazon, with its powerful global platform and mission to bring audiences new storytelling experiences, have been the ideal production partners on Nocturne. “It was a tremendous honor to work with them and I think the partnership between them is going to result in a lot of great movies,” she says. “We’re all looking for that story that says something we haven’t heard before or shows you a world you haven’t experienced. Fortunately, we are living at a time when there are lots of diverse voices flooding into the industry. We’re suddenly seeing a huge, much wider range of stories being told. And that’s really exciting.”