- RatedM18 /GenreDrama, Thriller
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With fists flying and eyes like daggers, Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson are locked in a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all throwdown … and, battered but not broken, the two accomplished actors seem to be enjoying every punch, every choke hold and, yes, every handful of hair.
This epochal fight caps off an intricately constructed campaign of revenge between the two complex women at the core of director Denise Di Novi’s upcoming thriller Unforgettable, which promises to serve up equal parts shock and awe, emotion and suspense, and outrageous jump-in-your-seat moments.
Starring as the calculating, challenging – and, at this point, more than a little unhinged – Tessa, Katherine Heigl is detouring to the dark side of love after delivering a string of acclaimed performances in popular rom-coms like Knocked Up and 27 Dresses. Starring as Julia, the former’s unsuspecting and open-hearted target, is Rosario Dawson, who prior to celebrated turns in recent hits like the animated The LEGO®Batman Movie, cut her teeth on harder-edged roles in films like Sin City and Death Proof.
And, in sports parlance, Heigl and Dawson are in it to win it.
“We really go at it. It is a knockdown, drag-out fight…winner-take-all,” Heigl quips. “Somebody’s going to die!”
And Tessa is doing everything in her power to make sure it’s not her – having set into motion an intense psychological game of cat-and-mouse designed to engineer Julia’s self-destruction by making her believe she’s losing her mind and question who she is as a person.
But if Julia is the mouse in the scenario, this is the moment in the film when the mouse turns and bears its teeth. Dawson adds, “Julia comes into this particularly susceptible to someone pushing her buttons. It’s only when she’s backed up against a wall that she realizes she has nothing left to lose and fights back, which is such a fun and amazing journey to play.”
Unforgettable marks the directorial debut of veteran producer Denise Di Novi, who is taking the helm amid a heavy-hitting career producing a body of work that runs the gamut from edgy fare like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands to the tween-anthemic Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films
Di Novi couldn’t resist taking the helm. “As a producer, I’ve worked in pretty much every film genre over the years, but I’ve never made a thriller,” she tells us tells us during a quick chat as the crew resets. “So, when the opportunity came up to direct a compelling story of two women – with the taut pacing and intricately structured maneuvers of a psychological/sexual thriller – I was immediately in.”
As her vision for Unforgettable took shape, the lifelong Alfred Hitchcock fan – along with producer Alison Greenspan and screenwriter Christina Hodson – drew inspiration from the pioneering director’s landmark female-centric thrillers, whose alchemy of craft and artistry still casts an intoxicating spell.
To conjure her own, Di Novi enlisted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, the five-time Oscar nominee behind such films as The Natural and The Right Stuff. And just peering into one of the big monitors on the set’s “video village” reveals the legendary cinematographer’s precise and lyrical eye in the bold visual contrasts he is drawing out between the icy, composed beauty of Tessa and the earthy, unpracticed loveliness of Julia – while infusing the imagery with visual hints that nothing is as it seems.
In Deschanel’s camera, notes Di Novi, “Katherine nails the perfect posture of the classic Hitchcock blonde – cool but still very sexy and womanly. But, at the same time, she is so loveable, which is why she’s been wonderful in so many romantic comedies. Katherine can make people love Tessa and be terrified of her at the same time.”
As opposed to Julia, whom the director describes as “spontaneous, funny, loose, sexy and doesn’t care about making a mess. There is a vital heart that drives Rosario to be a good person, to do the right thing, to think the best of everyone—and that’s what Julia is.”
Though Tessa and Julia are on opposing sides of the ring at this moment, each in many ways has been driven to this point by the same maddening, ever-present demand they feel to be perfect. “To me, the relentless drive for perfection is one of the most resonant and compelling subtexts of both these characters’ journeys,” Di Novi reflects. “Whether it comes from partners, parents, other women or society itself the often unspoken demand to be perfect is a reality for women - and men, too, by the way - everywhere in the world. That kind of pressure can drive you crazy, and I think a lot of people will find fascinating points of connection with these characters in how they express it, particularly Tessa.”
To understand the inevitability of the tour-de-force confrontation being captured on set today, it’s necessary to go back to the intersection of lives and loves that sets the unstoppable force that is Tessa on a collision course with the immovable object that Julia is forced to become.
At its crux is a whirlwind, love-at-first-sight affair between the ex-husband Tessa can’t quite let go of – David, played by Geoff Stults – and Julia, who, in the throes of their mad romance, gives up her old life in San Francisco to begin a new one in Southern California with David, immediately setting her on a collision course with his tightly wound ex-wife.
Cue the hand-to-hand combat. “We have amazing stuntwomen on this film, but, as you can see, it’s almost all Katherine and Rosario,” the director raves.
Though carefully choreographed and monitored by stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi, the intense mano a mano brawl delivers the raw power of the real thing, which Di Novi credits to the emotion and sheer physicality that Heigl and Dawson are bringing to it. “This is key moment in their character arcs – these two women are past the point of pretense. It’s intense and violent, and about these emotions that are pouring out of them. So, this scene is definitely a challenge—and more than a little emotional—for them, and for us.”
Watching it play out on a monitor, it’s impossible not to root for the underdog, which the director attributes in large part to Dawson’s “inherent goodness. “Rosario brings so much positivity and openness to Julia that you understand why being with her would be a relief to David after being married to Tessa. At the same time, those same qualities drive Julia to try be friends with her, to make it work. She doesn’t want to believe that Tessa is a bad person.”
While Di Novi allows that the latter is ostensibly the film’s Big Bad, “It’s important to me that you also have some compassion for Tessa, and Katherine is so inherently good and kind, it’s impossible not to like her. I think your heart really does break for Tessa … at least initially. After all, anyone – male or female – who has had a really bad breakup can relate to that sense of rejection and displacement.
“Of course,” she adds with a wry smile, “Tessa takes it to such an extreme level – and Katherine is courageous enough to really embrace that darkness. Watching her unravel quickly goes from heartbreaking to terrifying to insanely fun.”
In producer Alison Greenspan’s words, “We love watching the meltdown and talking back to the screen—‘Don’t go in there! Come on, she’s nuts!’” she laughs. “And this movie definitely delivers as a fun thrill ride. But, on a deeper level, it’s a story about how women define themselves as mothers, spouses and partners – and what the fear of losing all of that can provoke.”
For Heigl herself, exploring the complex and twisted psychological geography of Tessa is both the fun and the challenge of embodying this woman on the edge. “I want there to still be some sympathy for Tessa,” she says. “It’s important to me that she is not so alienating that there isn’t a team of gals on her side—before she goes too far—who get her and her behavior.
“What I’m really hoping,” she adds with a laugh, “is to see ‘Team Tessa’ and ‘Team Julia’ t-shirts out there.”
Looking none the worse for wear in spite of the grueling sequence, Heigl sees a certain logic to Julia’s downward spiral. “In Tessa’s mind, it’s her world,” she argues. “She’s just trying to maintain the upper hand and hold on to what she knows is hers. It’s as simple and as basic as, ‘Hey, Julia, there is no place for you here and you are not welcome.’”
Not helping is the fact that Julia is everything Tessa’s not. “Where Tessa is controlled, practiced and studied, Julia is effortlessly beautiful and charming,” she continues, “She’s also far more vulnerable than Tessa would ever allow herself to be. And to see that naked vulnerability… well, Tessa just can’t bear it. What naturally runs through her mind is, ‘How could David choose her, a woman so completely different from me? Is he repelled by who I am?’”
But what pushes Tessa over the edge from strained tolerance to furious vengeance is Julia’s budding bond with her young daughter, Lily, played by newcomer Isabella Rice. Says Heigl, “It’s not just her ex-husband that’s been taken from her—it’s her daughter. And it’s the shops, where she is the best customer – it’s her whole town!”
Behind the scenes, there are no such power plays between Heigl and Dawson, who would be equally at home portraying lifelong besties instead of the two women at loggerheads. Heigl calls Dawson “a dream! Rosario is just the most effervescent, lovely, outgoing, wonderful woman. It might seem kind of strange because our characters go to a place that is so violent and explosive, but Rosario is just so supportive that she makes it easy to play with that and have fun.”
In between setups, we get a chance to speak with Dawson, whose whole face lights up – in spite of the carefully applied scuffs and bruises – when talking about her sparring partner. “I marvel at Katie and what she is able to do with Tessa,” she says. “She brings so many layers and dimensions to Tessa that no matter how far off the deep end she takes it – and she takes it quite far – you really do feel compassion for Tessa.”
Dawson tells us that Julia enters this story “at such an interesting point in her life. She’s in that honeymoon phase when she’s happy and in love. Despite having been damaged by a previous, poisonous relationship, and having no experience being a partner or a parent, she’s willing and excited to begin this new life with David.”
Of course, what she doesn’t count on – what no one in the throes of true love even considers – is the presence of a formidable opponent with a vested interest in seeing her relationship fail. “Julia’s on Tessa’s home turf, which obviously puts her at a disadvantage in this situation,” Dawson says. “She’s so insecure she’s even hiding the engagement ring!”
But when the gloves come off, as today’s scene spectacularly demonstrates, “Julia is willing to fight tooth and nail, even to the point of self-sacrifice,” Dawson attests. “For her, this moment is really about making a choice between staying in her corner and dying a sad, little death, or standing up to her fear. And what she decides is that she’s not going to let anything – or anyone – compromise the people she loves.”
Geoff Stults, who plays David, the ultimate quarry of Tessa’s reign of terror, good-naturedly demurs from backing either party in this all-or-nothing face-off. “As an actor, I’ve had so much fun working with Katherine and Rosario, so there’s no way I could choose,” he smiles. “They’re fantastic, super-strong and super-talented actors, and both are very real in these roles.”
Stults has similar high praise for his director, whom he credits with helping him better understand the motivations of his onscreen ex-wife. “Denise is bringing up some things I would never have been aware of,” he tell us, “like having some sympathy for Tessa, who’s watching her ex-husband and daughter arm-in-arm with this beautiful woman, Julia, who just came to town.”
Still, David is in way over his head, leading to suspense, shocks and stand-up-and-cheer moments delivered by the two fascinating women at the core of the film. “I wanted to make a film that explores a complicated relationship between two very strong, but very different women – and there is no better genre to explore that dynamic without pulling any punches than the thriller,” says Di Novi, who is aiming to bring many shades of the female experience to the screen. “We see a lot of wonderful and inspiring stories about women fighting the good fight – and I love those kinds of movies. But I think there’s a clear appetite for women-driven movies of every genre, from a scary movie to a heist thriller to an action epic.”
Unforgettable’s provocative mix of love, obsession and paranoia is in the tradition of white-knuckle classics of the ‘90s – like Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female – yet the new film couldn’t be more relevant, or resonant, in today’s world of social media and spyware. “I think we all experience the fear that somebody is tricking and manipulating us without us realizing it,” Di Novi reflects.
And, over the course of making the film, it’s an idea that strikes a chord in the reactions of many to this story. Says Greenspan, “Everyone brings a little bit of their personal lives into their experience of this film, and that’s what makes it so horrifying, scary and thrilling.”
“What amazes me,” Di Novi adds, “is how many people say to me things like, ‘I’ve gotten so jealous that I thought about doing some pretty extreme things.’ I think that’s what draws us to psychological thrillers – even if we would never, in our darkest hours, even contemplate the things Tessa does in this film, it’s fun to experience that vicarious thrill of seeing just how far we might go.”
Audiences will get their chance when Unforgettable hits cinemas Singapore on 4 May 2017.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.