Warning: Spoilers for Fresh will be found below.
You can tell Mimi Cave isn’t squeamish when it comes to cannibalism.
The director’s been fielding questions about body parts and meal preparation for months in advance of the release of her feature directorial debut, Fresh. So many questions in fact, that we spend a good chunk of time discussing how to achieve the right “sheen” on a slab of prosthetic meat with only one of us getting queasy. (Spoiler: It’s not Mimi.)
The film, which stars Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, carves out a new niche in the body-horror genre, examining the world of modern dating from a gory, over-the-top, yet oddly realistic angle. Jones’ Noa is fed up with swiping until she meets Steve (Stan) at a local grocery market. What follows is a quirky, feel-good rom-com that lasts just long enough for Cave to painfully pull the rug out from under audiences by way of an opening credits scene that’s unnerving, bloody, and brilliant.
We chatted with the director about the film’s many metaphors, Zoom food auditions, and why she really wanted to gaslight audiences with ’80s pop ballads and a dancing Sebastian Stan.
Was there something specific about the script that convinced you that it had to be you to make this film?
The script really scared the hell out of me. The story, but also just the thought of directing it. It was scary because I knew it would be a challenge to get the right tone. But I think that ultimately there was something there that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Well, comparing modern dating to a literal meat market feels pretty on point.
Honestly, the metaphors we used are so over the top and exaggerated that you can’t ignore them. And it can be read in so many different ways depending on who’s watching it. For one person it might be, “Oh, I understand this in the sense of when I’m in a toxic dating relationship. Once that relationship is over, I feel like I’ve lost some parts of myself.” I think that was the biggest thing that I connected to. For other people, it’s about the exploitation of women’s bodies — just the fact that we are expected to be all these extraordinary things that are completely unrealistic, especially now with social media. That we feel we’re disappointing people, or we’re not enough.
There’s a definite tonal shift when the credits drop about 30 mins into the movie. Why did you want to slow-burn build to that?
I wanted to create a delineation between the first act and then the rest of the film. It was already built into the script that there was going to be this big shift, and I wasn’t exactly sure at what moment I wanted to do it. The titles were not written into the script so I could have some creative leeway in terms of where I wanted to place it, but I felt like you needed that first act to buy into the characters, invest in them emotionally, and actually feel like you were connecting to them – that they were accessible, and you were rooting for them. My hope was that that was enough time to where you’re enjoying their journey. And I think that makes the big twist — and when the titles come in — just that much more jarring. That feeling you have when that happens, that’s the way I felt when I read the script. I just wanted to make sure that translated.
It does. There’s a real gut-punch moment when Steve shows his true colors.
I think that was the trickiest thing to do. When you’re working with an actor like Sebastian, who does already have some other characters under their belt that audiences know, you’re aware that they’re going in with a preconceived notion of him and projecting those characters onto him. So it was really important that he was trustworthy off the bat, self-deprecating, seemed a little humble even though he’s handsome and successful. I knew the only way to have people buy into that was the connection between Steve and Noa, the fact that it felt genuine, and it felt real, and maybe it was. So that’s the fun game we play throughout the movie of, “Wait, is there still a connection?” And truly, I think that doesn’t go away even when all the crazy stuff happens.
You’re a dancer. You’ve shot a lot of music videos. Did that inspire some of the more creative visuals in this film?
Yeah, I think that I approach things definitely from a physical standpoint, a spatial awareness. I’m always very honed in on bodies, what that means, how we frame the characters, and what story that tells. And the presence of the camera – that it’s sometimes nodded at, and sometimes, you know it’s there, and sometimes you feel like you’re in a fantasy. I think that has a lot to do with my background.
Is that where the 80s dance montages come from too? There was an eerie quality to those scenes that had me questioning whether I should like Sebastian Stan’s character or not.
[Laughs] Yeah, in Fresh, we’re always trying to sort of subvert expectation. A lot of that comes with mixing things that feel like they shouldn’t go together. We got lucky with some of the swings we took, but that scene, in particular, was always planned out from the beginning. It had a different song originally to it, but we felt “Obsession” really, lyrics-wise, had the right energy for Steve. But again, you’re right. We’re watching actually a very normal scenario, but with the context, and with the contents of what’s happening, it really confuses you.
And I think that’s the whole film — you feel confused. ‘How do I feel?’ And not to get too meta, but if you’re being gaslit at any time in your life, that’s exactly how you feel. You don’t know, ‘Wait, is it this way, or is it that way? Am I crazy?’ And I think that feeling is so specific, and kind of jarring that… I’m not trying to make the audience feel terrible, or anything like that. But I think watching that scene, and enjoying it, and having fun, and then going, ‘Wait, why am I enjoying this?’ It’s a great medium to play with, and honestly, it’s just very entertaining.
Where did the idea for this “secret society” come from and what does it add to the story?
So that was in the script originally, but we definitely… Every word I’m going to say is going to be a pun, but we definitely fleshed it out as we went, and built upon it. And as we brought in our cast, it was a very collaborative effort of what’s Steve’s backstory? Who is he involved with? Why is he involved with them? But I think, yes, this ties into that high echelon wealth of people that are so few in the world, and the idea that “What happens when no one ever says no to you? How far can you push it? Does your tolerance for thrill-seeking just go away?” And it’s a sort of version of Jeffrey Epstein. You’re dealing with these people who have so much power, and wealth, and are predators. And so, I think there’s truth to that. This film is not based on anything, or anyone specifically. But I think drawing from all of those types of real stories, it’s really scary and out there, but it’s also oddly not that far-fetched.
It’s odd though, isn’t it? These men can have anything, and yet consuming women is top of their wish list?
I’m not a man. So I can’t speak to that. But my guess is the psychology behind it is that feeling of being able to overpower someone. In long run, I think it always comes back to power. With the relationship between Steve and Noa, we played with that a lot — that cat and mouse game between the two of them. I think that Steve really enjoys overpowering women and Noa’s maybe the first person who’s giving him a run for his money a little bit and twisting the tables back on him.
How did you create “the meat” on screen?
It was a lot of food Zoom auditions.
Yeah, with our prop stylist and the chef presenting the dish, and us testing how grossed out we would be. Because we knew we wanted the dishes to feel familiar, and maybe at first seem appetizing, but then you look at them for a couple more seconds and you realize something’s off about this meat. It just doesn’t quite look like any other meat I’ve ever seen. We got creative and did a lot of rounds of using different ingredients in order to get that specific shine or that specific color. It was a long process, and bless him, he did a great job because he also had to make everything edible for the actors. Supposedly, it was actually pretty good.
The ending feels as jarring as everything else in the film. Why wrap the story there?
That was scripted. The only thing additional that was added was our moment where we see the phone on the ground, and the texts come up, and an additional scene that comes in through the credits. So I would say to everyone “Watch the credits.”
It wasn’t meant to be this thing where it’s all of this chaos, and terrible things happen, and then all of a sudden, everyone’s okay. But more just reconnecting with Noah and Mollie in the way that we started the film and sort of understanding that their friendship is the root of everything, and really at the foundation of the story. And a lot of the same reasons why a lot of the humor works in the movie is because in these terrible moments, in these dreadful situations, a lot of the times those are when the most honest laughter comes. You’re either going to cry, or you’re going to laugh. I think that felt really natural to what they had just gone through, and who knows two seconds after that what happens? But I think we wanted to leave it just like, “F*ck it. I’m done, man.”
‘Fresh’ is currently streaming on Hulu.