- Jenna Ortega stars in a new erotic thriller alongside Martin Freeman, playing an ambitious high school student fixated on her literature teacher.
- The film is set in modern-day Tennessee but was shot in Georgia, with the director incorporating Memphis Easter eggs into the storyline.
- Writer-director Jade Bartlett teamed up with Seth Rogen’s company to bring the film to life, and she praises the performances of both Freeman and Ortega.
She may have dropped out of Scream 7, but that doesn’t mean Jenna Ortega isn’t keeping busy in Hollywood these days. That includes a new erotic-esque thriller alongside acclaimed actor Martin Freeman (Black Panther, Sherlock), where Ortega plays an ambitious high school student named Cairo Sweet who becomes fixated on her literature teacher Mr. Miller, developing a questionable rapport with him.
It’s a steamy thriller that calls back to a Southern gothic feeling, mixed with classics like The Secret Garden and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while keeping things fresh with a unique setting in modern-day Tennessee. We recently caught up with writer-director Jade Bartlett, who shared her thoughts on teaming up with Seth Rogen’s company to bring Miller’s Girl to life, and why Greta Gerwig should have nabbed a Best Director Oscar nod for Barbie.
‘Exceptional’ Freeman Alongside ‘Charming’ Ortega
Miller’s Girl takes place in Tennessee, but was actually shot in Georgia — more specifically, inside Bartlett’s real-life home for some of it. Combined with the fact that Barlett wrote the script and directed, it’s safe to call this a passion project of hers. Bartlett expanded on the chosen setting, telling MovieWeb:
“There are a lot of Memphis Easter eggs in it, like when they’re at the poetry reading… Memphis has like an extraordinary amount of talent… like, throw a rock and hit the most talented singer you’ve ever seen in your life. So I grew up with a lot of insanely talented, intelligent people. And the movie is not supposed to be set in Memphis… I grew up in East Tennessee and West Tennessee. So it’s kind of supposed to sit in a bowl between those two worlds. But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of Memphis in there… I wanted it to feel like it’s a character.”
They say “write what you know,” and that applies to Miller’s Girl, the idea of which spawned years ago when an old friend of Barlett’s once said she’d love to play the character of Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed — who is a psychotic killer child, if cinephiles might remember. “So I was like, ‘Right, okay, I want to write about the birth of a villain,'” said Barlett. She added:
“The high school that we went to was really rural, way out in the boonies. And it was full of insanely intelligent people… Our theater program was really competitive, but it was in this weird bubble out in nowhere… And I think when you’ve got really precocious young people, with talented teachers in the middle of nowhere, it’s, of course, a recipe for anything that can happen. And I think if you’re a teacher, and you are deeply intelligent, you’re in the middle of nowhere and you feel marginalized, I was sort of was asking myself, ‘What is the scariest, worst-case scenario out here in the woods, that’s not murder?’ To me, it’s intellectual and emotional intrigue.”
And this edgy idea is certainly heightened with the committed turns by Martin Freemman and Jenna Ortega. Barlett herself said she’s “still a little LOL” that such big names are in her debut feature. “We really connected right away,” she told us in regard to Freeman. “We just had really great chemistry, and he really understood the context and the content and the character. And he was not afraid of Jonathan. There was a pretty robust search for the actors for this movie. And a lot of actors that I met were afraid to play his weakness and were afraid of what he is. And of course, I totally understand, in this day and age, it’s very tricky to play a character like that. And Martin was absolutely fearless and had such humanity for this character.”
And then there’s Ortega, who has been winning us over with past acclaimed projects like The Fallout and Netflix’s Wednesday. As Bartlett said of Ortega:
“She’s so funny and charming. And when I met her, she really surprised me. This was pre-Wednesday… She’s from the desert, but she also was quite gothic like me. She loves Ralph Waldo Emerson. And she’s really, incredibly literate and so intelligent. And she said things to me about this character that I hadn’t vocalized to anybody. It’s like she crawled inside my head and pulled it out… In a similar way like Martin, she wasn’t vilifying her. She loved her. And I think her love for her, and Martin’s love for Jonathan really allow those characters to be relatable.”
Teaming With ‘Lovely and Intelligent’ Rogen and Greenberg
Interestingly, the production company run by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (yes, the guys behind Superbad, This Is the End and more) was the one that bought Bartlett’s script. “But if you take the humor out of a comedy, it’s a drama,” said Bartlett, “and they really understand all of that.” Bartlett continued:
“Seth and Evan are so lovely and so intelligent. It was great to have men on a project that is entirely from the female gaze. I think we just all learned a lot from each other, and they were so kind, and they really just kind of let me do whatever the f*** I wanted, which was also really great. They just really trusted me, which gave me a ton of confidence. And I love them. They’re all very kind, wonderful, charming people.”
As mentioned earlier, a number of past features come to mind in viewing a movie like Miller’s Girl. Bartlett opened up to us about her notable influences and inspirations:
“Everything Park Chan-wook does: The Handmaiden, Stoker, Oldboy. Just the light, the characters, the way he moves the camera, hands-down all day, every day. Also his DP is just next level. Also, the 1993 Secret Garden with Maggie Smith was a huge influence on this movie. And of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a massive influence because I wanted it to feel still feel like a play… I wanted it to have that kind of intimacy… because this is Cairo’s perspective, when you are invested emotionally in something at that age, that’s the only thing that exists. So I wanted the world to feel quite tight around her and to move like a play.”
And on that note, there is at least one Academy Award nominee in the current race that feels like a play. The Color Purple comes to mind, and even Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest could work as theatrical productions. We asked Bartlett if she had any favorites from the past year amid awards season:
“Barbie, I sobbed my face off. I don’t know what to say. I had the same sensation in Barbie, weirdly, that I had in when I saw Wonder Woman for the first time, when I saw all those women on horseback… It rocked me to my core. And Killers of the Flower Moon, I think Lily Gladstone is so arresting. I think maybe I have a big crush on her. I thought that was so good… Saltburn was so beautiful.”
On that note, Barbie has been the talk of the town after getting snubbed in a major Oscars category. “I think Greta Gerwig should have gotten a director Oscar nomination. So it’s disappointing,” said Bartlett. “I find it really weird that you can get nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director… I mean, Greta is a genius.”
From Lionsgate, Miller’s Girl is now in theaters.