Set in the high-pressured, passionate world of an elite arts academy, Zu Quirke’s Nocturne explores dark rivalry and the deep desire to succeed.
Part of Amazon Studio’s Welcome To The Blumhouse, Nocturne stars Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman as Juliet and Vivian respectively – twin pianists whose sibling rivalry takes a sinister turn when the former finds a mysterious book from a deceased classmate that is supposedly written by the devil himself.
We spoke to Nocturne writer and director Zu Quirke about Perfect Blue, Black Swan and the pressures young people face to succeed…
How did Nocturne begin for you?
I trained as a musician when I was a teenager. I trained pretty aggressively as a violinist, and although I didn’t go into classical music in the end, I saw first-hand the level of sacrifice that these kids had to commit to in order to try and make it in the industry that they loved. I was also struck at the time by how odd it really is that kids – 17, 18, even younger – should devote their lives to what is basically a dying art. Classical audiences are fading. They are growing older, live audiences are anyway, and I’d be hard-pressed to find, you know, a typical 15-year-old who knows who [Dmitri] Shostakovich is.
It interested me that all of these people that I was growing up with would be so willing to make it their lives when it’s not really a part of the modern world. So there was this odd dichotomy for me when I was a teenager between the old, the arcane and what is the more humdrum life of a teenager that I observed in these kids. When I was older and I was writing, I realised that this world, specifically the British music school world (which is a very particular world!), would be a really interesting place to explore that theme of sacrifice…
What were your inspirations when writing Nocturne?
I’m inspired a great deal by East Asian cinema, so I watched a lot of Park Chan-wook and Kon Satoshi – his film Perfect Blue was a big influence for me while I was writing this movie, as was Darren Aronofsky [with] Black Swan.
Also classic psychological horror – I’m a big fan of Bergman and early Polanski (although obviously problematic now) but movies like Persona, Hour Of The Wolf, Through A Glass Darkly, Repulsion… so I delved into that.
What do you want audiences to take away from the movie?
Selfishly, simply, I would like on a very surface level for them take away a little appreciation for what these kids do. Classical music is very relentless and everything that’s said in the movie is true and I stand by it. The amount of work you have to put in even to compete at a basic level in classical music is bigger than most other arts, and I think people kind of dismiss that these days. So it would be nice if an appreciation of that could factor in.
On a deeper level, I’d like it to provoke a discussion of what we ask of young people. Especially in the arts. There’s this idea that you have to know what you want to do from a very early age and dedicate yourself to that. It works for some people but for the vast majority it doesn’t. I think that that system can be detrimental to development, even as artists, because lots of people don’t work out what they want to do until later in life.
I think Juliet is one of those – I think if Juliet hadn’t grown so obsessive about music, she could have had a very nice existence doing something else. But she’s kind of dragged on by her own sister’s success and by her obsession with it. So yeah I guess that’s something that concerns me and I hope concerns other people too.
Why have twins as the protagonists?
The idea of Vivian as Juliet’s twin is she’s kind of a second self in many ways. As the older sibling, as the more successful sibling, as the arguably better looking within the world of beauty sibling, as the more outgoing sibling, she kind of outshines Juliet in every way and she becomes this kind of mirror for what Juliet wants. Narratological, she serves as a function of representing Juliet’s desires in a very physical, very free way that presses upon her every day.
In terms of personality and character, I think everyone who has an older sibling, many people are familiar with that feeling of not quite living up to them. I have older siblings. There’s definitely a feeling of competition and it’s closer to home because you know you come from the same roots as this person. You have the same upbringing. You have the same materials. So why aren’t you achieving the same results? I think it’s quite a vivid idea. I think Sydney and Madison portrayed it really well.
Why do you think Vivien and Juliet are so driven to succeed?
I think we didn’t want to represent Juliet’s ambitions and drivers as coming from her parents, because I think a lot of the time – particularly with classical music movies – the drive to succeed is depicted as coming from the parent and usually via an abusive relationship. I really didn’t want to do that because a lot of the people I interviewed and a lot of the people I knew growing up who went into music, had known themselves that they wanted to do it from a very young age. Whether their parents cared or not. Even as young as five years old – I interviewed a girl who had decided when she was five that she wanted to be a great pianist, and had just told her parents. I think a lot of the time the drive does come from within and that’s kind of great to see. What’s not so great is when it doesn’t work out so well, which is what happened to Juliet.
Why is the film called Nocturne?
Thank you for asking that, a nocturne is a piece of music played at night, often meditative, and I guess I like this idea that this movie is kind of Juliet’s nocturne. She’s at the end of her school career, possibly at the end of her professional career, and this is truly her last gasp. In her head, her last efforts to make it. It is, if you will, the nocturne of her childhood…
Nocturne is out now on Amazon Prime Video.