Jonathan Cuartas: Influences and Inspirations behind My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To

It’s always interesting to pin down the influences and inspirations behind My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. I was influenced by many films for many different reasons. Funny enough, a lot of them aren’t even horror films, but I would argue some of them are horror adjacent. Dogtooth is the first film that comes to mind. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a vampire film, but it’s also about a family of three siblings and the strange rituals they create to get by. I love the way Dogtooth dealt with the idea of family traditions and isolation. There’s a sense of artifice behind this family’s existence, as it’s all built upon lies, and this was something I was excited to play with in my film. When thinking of the lengths families will go for one another, I can’t ignore the incredibly taut and tense A Monster with a Thousand Heads

Another big story influence was Let the Right One In. This was the first vampire film I saw that really subverted my expectations of what a vampire film could do. I was specifically intrigued by the subplot following Hakan, Eli’s familiar. He would insist on going out himself to bring Eli blood, but there was a sadness in his mission. He carried a lot of remorse in enabling this vicious cycle of murdering strangers to keep Eli fed. This sadness was something that really resonated with me as I wrote My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. I thought the concept of familiars needing to feed a loved one could be the central premise of a film. During pre-production, I studied and revisited several other vampire films. Some standouts include Thirst (Park Chan-wook) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is very visually specific. I created the look of the film with my brother, Michael Cuartas. Aside from being a wonderful cinematographer, he’s my best friend and closest collaborator. A lot of our pre-production and development involved watching tons of films. We shot in the Academy ratio. Films like Ida and Winter Light left such an indelible impression on my brother and I. Paweł Pawlikowski barely moves the camera in Ida, and this is something we sought to emulate, due to the observational nature of our film. 

My brother was also inspired by the tall, towering frames in The Witch. He was drawn to the contrast of how our 4:3 frame could both incarcerate the characters inside, but also make them feel isolated outside. He framed the characters with a lot of headroom, enveloped by woods and mountains. The way Yasujirō Ozu observes his characters from a distance also inspired the cinematography of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.

Jonathan Cuartas is a Colombian American filmmaker from Miami. In 2020, Jonathan completed his feature debut, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. Jonathan won the Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation at SITGES 2020, where the film also won Best Feature Film in the Noves Visions category. The film received a Special Jury Mention at Tribeca Film Festival 2020. Dark Sky Films will release the film in the US.. You can follow him on Letterboxd and Twitter, or check out his website at