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Malevolent houseplants are coming for us in the horror film Little Joe

The director and star explain how they made the heady, dread-filled creepfest.

A red-haired woman standing in a lab among red potted plants.
Alice (Emily Beecham) among her creations in Little Joe.
Magnolia Pictures

When I first saw Little Joe at its Cannes premiere, it creeped me out. It’s a stylized horror sci-fi drama from director Jessica Hausner about scientists who try to create a houseplant that makes its owners happy whenever they smell it. The plant, the scientists say, will help cure depression and anxiety around the world. But then things go very, very wrong.

The measured, dread-filled film is set largely in clinical laboratory spaces that are banal and punctuated by the fiery red flowers of the plants, a sight that grows more frightening as the story goes on. I found myself edging away nervously from plants as I walked out of the theater.

The movie stars Emily Beecham (who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance) as Alice, one of the houseplant’s main developers and a single mother of a middle-school-aged son. She works with Chris (Ben Whishaw), an amiable scientist who seems like he might want to ask Alice on a date. As Alice’s personal and professional lives start to mingle, though, she starts to doubt everything around her.

I talked to Hausner and Beecham by phone before the film’s US release about Little Joe’s uncanny sets, the strange experience of making a movie like this, and what the film is really about. Our conversation, which has been lighted edited for length and clarity, follows.

Two scientists standing in a laboratory surrounded by flowers.
Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw in Little Joe.
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

Tell me about where the inspiration for this story came from.

Jessica Hausner

Well, the center of the story is a female scientist. And I think that was also a starting point for the story. Frankenstein is an inspiration: The female scientist creates a monster that gets out of control.

But I am also always intrigued by some plant horror films that I like a lot — something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or similar films where some people have been changed, and then you find out it’s plants from outer space that did it. I find it very comical and very funny, but also very true: You can love someone very much and think you know them well, but actually not know them.

I think it is very universal among humans to feel like you love someone, and you think you know them — like, for example, your child — and at a certain point that child becomes independent and movies away from his parents. Everyone who has children knows this experience. Or in other relationships, the person you know very well, or love, is suddenly alienated from you. This feeling of loss or isolation is something I wanted to describe.

The other side was a scientific approach, that gene technology is a tool in the story to talk about the very basic human feeling of isolation. The gene technology is just the stage on which the story takes place. I find that topic very interesting. It’s very modern, very important for our times. And it asks questions about the responsibilities of scientists.

Alissa Wilkinson

Emily, what attracted you to the role?

Emily Beecham

I’d seen Jessica’s work before, and so I knew her films. The character was a very interesting protagonist and very topical, in many ways. Jessica and I met, and we discussed the characters’ thoughts and feelings, her complicated relationship with her son, her romantic life, her work life. When the issues with the plant crop up, it all starts to blur for her. I thought that was a really interesting journey to take on.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’re never really sure if what you’re seeing is in her head or if it’s really happening.

Jessica Hausner

Yes.

Alissa Wilkinson

That seems like it would be a challenge to pull off as a performer.

Emily Beecham

Yes. We kept discussing it throughout the whole shoot, when we approached every scene. Jessica had very interesting ideas about the shapes of the scenes and the dynamics going on between the characters. Lots of subtext. Challenges of power between characters, and roles reversing. For instance, Alice’s role reverses with her son, and she becomes more of a child who becomes more needy and paranoid, and a bit insecure.

A woman and a man at a bar, laughing.
Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw in Little Joe.
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

What other subtexts do you think are in the film?

Jessica Hausner

One thing that definitely was important as a subtext was that all the people act a little bit like robots. I wanted to show how we all are very much influenced by the society we live in, so the film is also very much about manipulation of thoughts. There might be a real virus in the film, but there is also an ideological virus; the film is about how when you start to believe in an idea, it suddenly becomes very real to you, and you can’t easily escape it.

So whenever we shot a scene, it was like, okay, the characters are saying things, but behind [what they say] there is always a second thought, as if the way they behave is only pretending. They don’t say what they really think. They hide their secret thoughts and feelings, which is very normal; I think we all do that. But I focused on that side of us in all of the scenes.

Alissa Wilkinson

You also created a world that looks antiseptic but also very uncanny. It’s a visually memorable film. Emily, what did it feel like on set?

Emily Beecham

The visuals, the colors, are very vivid and brightened, very striking — but I generally had to ignore that and get on with the acting. I think that that’s the style that she was going for.

Alissa Wilkinson

It feels like you’re living in an alien civilization.

Jessica Hausner

I always try to create a very artificial set, but not artificial actors. So I was glad that everyone tried to not get distracted by the green clothes and the strange colors. I think that’s an interesting tension; if it’s all artificial and strange, then you stop believing it.

Alissa Wilkinson

You could describe Little Joe as a horror film, but there are elements of other things in it, too. How do you think about horror?

Jessica Hausner

I love horror films a lot. I really am addicted. The problem is that the older I become, the more I’m frightened by them. It’s getting a bit difficult, because I can’t sleep for two weeks when I watch a really scary horror movie like Hereditary. I saw Hereditary a month ago, and I still have to turn on the lights at night. But I love it.

Alissa Wilkinson

It strikes me now, as I think about it, that Little Joe is about people who are trying to make a plant that can manipulate people’s emotions, seduce them into feeling a certain way. And that’s not entirely unlike making a movie, right?

Jessica Hausner

This is a difficult question, because the films that I make are seductive, but in a different way [from some other movies]. For example, the music — you have a lot of films where the music helps to seduce the audience. The music seduces the audience. It makes the feelings stronger. It pulls you into the film. But the music in Little Joe is not really doing that. It’s a bit too strange for that. It’s also annoying. Some people say it’s too loud, and others say it’s ugly or strange. A lot of films use all the tools of manipulation just to seduce the audience or to manipulate them.

What I’m doing is a bit different. I try to wake up the audience, to say, “Hey, don’t fall asleep and believe everything I show you. Maybe it’s all wrong. Maybe not even I know my story well.”

Emily Beecham in Little Joe.
Emily Beecham in Little Joe.
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

Emily, as a performer, are you also trying to seduce or manipulate the audience through your performance?

Emily Beecham

Tough question. It’s answered in so many ways.

Jessica Hausner

I would also like to know your answer to this question. I can say from [the] outside that I have the feeling your acting is very much like a secret. I, as an audience member, want to know what your character thinks, but you don’t show me what you think or feel.

Emily Beecham

Well, obviously, my task was to follow Alice’s journey, and her journey isn’t clear. She seems like she’s constantly confused and a little bit bewildered and suspicious and — I use this word a lot — very cerebral. She’s got a scientist’s mind, so she’s always trying to work things out. She’s very self-sufficient. She’s not reaching out to anyone in any way.

But then that meant [that] when she was perplexed, there weren’t really answers for her questions. She’s not really supposed to have answers for what’s going on around her. That made her, and her journey, quite an enigma.

Little Joe opened in theaters on December 6.