Miller’s Girl – Professor and Protégé Confront Their Darkest Selves

Bartlett’s Its first iteration for Miller’s Girl was as a play: and it was shot in the same structure: “Act 1: a love story, Act 2: a thriller.”

“At the outset, this story feels familiar – illicit attraction between two inappropriate parties in a formal setting like a school, a trope we’ve seen countless times. But I hope you look closer. This film sets out to examine these tropes and rework them – to acknowledge the complexities between desire and desperation, villain and victim, adolescence and adulthood and to have a conversation about the starkness of power dynamics and the nuances of boundaries. It poses uncomfortable questions in a world that only has grace for the ‘perfect victim’ in an exacting binary of good and evil. I challenge you to consider your judgments of these characters, and how you make them, when the information you have is subjective.”

Miller’s Girl is a Southern Gothic fairytale about lonely intellectuals, the abdication of integrity, and the inevitable perversion that comes of repression. It is an allegory of estimation,” says . It is about animals that eat each other. This world is intentionally three feet off the ground, in a space too beautiful, too intimate. The accent, the language, the aesthetic – all a deception to mask the taste of poison. Like a bite of ripened fruit whose sweetness you discover too late is rot. This story is about the birth of a villain. But who that villain is…I leave to your discretion.”

A talented young writer (Jenna Ortega) embarks on a creative odyssey when her teacher (Martin Freeman) assigns a project that entangles them both in an increasingly complex web. As lines blur and their lives intertwine, professor and protégé must confront their darkest selves while straining to preserve their individual sense of purpose and the things they hold most dear.

Jenna Ortega as Cairo Sweet in Miller’s Girl. Photo Credit: Zac Popik

Jade Halley Bartlett is an American screenwriter, director, and actress from Memphis, Tennessee. Two of her scripts appeared consecutively on The Black List: Miller’s Girl (2016) and MAD (2017, before she was hired by Marvel to write the first draft of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Jade’s directorial debut of her first feature film, Miller’s Girl premiered at the 2024 Palm Springs Film Festival. Jade and creative partner Mary-Margaret Kunze helm Biscuit Belly Productions.  

As a first-time director, did you draw on any inspiration from other films or filmmakers?

Yes, of course: Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden (1993), Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and every last thing Park Chan-wook and Chung hoon-Chung have touched, particularly The Handmaiden and Stoker – all of which are, in their way, gothic fairytales. That is what I set out to create in Miller’s Girl – a gothic fairytale.

What are some of the key themes and nuanced elements in the film?

Miller’s Girl is a film that asks the viewer to acknowledge the complexities between desire and desperation, villain and victim, adolescence and adulthood. It offers an opportunity to have a conversation about the starkness of power dynamics and the nuances of boundaries. We want so badly to box people into neat categories of ‘victim’ and ‘villain’, so that we can feel comfortable knowing their place, and our own, in our judgments of them. But that’s not real life. Real life is gray and nebulous and the perfect victim or villain does not exist. The themes of this film – love, morality, shame, vanity – attempt a portrayal of that reality through the fantastical lens of a Southern Gothic.

You’re from Tennessee and the film has a distinct Southern Gothic vibe. How do you think that influenced the look and feel of the film?

I grew up in two Tennessees: East and West. I am the only child of two brilliant and bookish lawyers who started reading Stephen King to me when I was six. My proclivities for the macabre, the grotesque, and the haunted started with them while I was growing up in East Tennessee – a place verdant with old time religion and ghosts and misty hills and hollers. And then we moved to Memphis, with its brick mansions and its muddy water and poplar trees and a heat that makes people fucking insane. I found it all so romantic – I still do. The entire film is a love letter to Tennessee and the dangerous things that grow there.

As you were writing the script, did you always have yourself in mind to make your directorial debut with this project?

Absolutely not! But I realize now that I was already directing the movie in the way I wrote it. After the script made the Black List in 2016, my producing partner Mary-Margaret and I were in a casting session for Cairo, the lead. The actor reading was close but not quite there with a critical scene, and though it was a faux pas at the time (we were considering attaching a different, very talented, director), I stepped in to offer my own direction. It was instant – I knew that the actor and I understood each other. She nailed the scene. And later that evening, Mary-Margaret said, “…you’re going to direct this movie, right?”. In that moment, she spoke life over me. My “yes” was so easy. And the outcome was likely imminent from conception. It just took the right question to know for sure.

Did much change from the script stage to production when you got on set?

Not really. We’d had years with the material to scout locations and anticipate issues – so much so that the script was already in a very tight, production-ready place when we began to prep and shoot.

What was the casting process like, and what did Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman bring to the roles that you were looking for?

To put it plainly: there is no Miller’s Girl without Martin Freeman. The material was (is) complex, intimidating. But when Martin and I met, I knew immediately that he not only understood the inherent challenge in portraying Jonathan Miller, but that he’d engage thoughtfully with that challenge. In scene work, Martin is a practitioner of the highest caliber, an absolute surgeon of an actor. He created a terribly romantic and tragic figure in Jonathan. And beyond that, he’s a deft, intelligent producer. The final cut of Miller’s Girl reflects Martin’s capacity for warmth and longing and tenderness and hubris. We begged him to join. He said yes. And in doing so, he activated the entire project into reality.

Years after that fateful casting session when I became a director, when we were greenlit (at last!), Mary-Margaret and I auditioned all of the eligible (and incredible) maidens in the kingdom for Cairo and Winnie – and entirely over Zoom! Even remotely, we were blown away by the talent we were able to consider. Overwhelmed, really. But there was Gideon…and then there was Jenna…and then there was them reading together. Their chemistry set me afuckingblaze. It could never have been anyone but them, and we know that because our search was so robust.

In scene work, Jenna is a savant. I could ask her to drop a tear on a word on a syllable between a breath and 10/10 she could do it every time…and yet always spin something new into the moment. She’s a weaver. Her Cairo has staggering emotional intelligence and a lyrical enchantment. You love her, you are her. And then you watch her heartbreak calcify in real time and the devastation is palpable. The audacity to ask Martin Freeman, Jenna Ortega, Bashir Salahuddin, Gideon Adlon, Dagmara Domińczyk, and Christine Adams to shoot with me required a level of reckless overconfidence I wish I could bottle. To my ever-loving luck they agreed. The whole process felt like kismet. I’m still pinching myself.

What is one question that audiences should ask themselves after seeing the film and/or one concept they should have in mind when discussing the film with others?

At the outset, this story feels familiar – illicit attraction between two inappropriate parties in a formal setting like a school. I set out to examine those familiar tropes and rework them. Break them, actually. Because it is more interesting creatively, socially, culturally to push deeper. I’m exhausted by the ‘perfect victim’, particularly when it comes to writing women. It’s the same Damsel Box in which we’ve always been put, just with new wrapping. If there is a named villain in this story, does it make the person irredeemable? Do we need a directive on who to hate, and if so, why? I challenge the audience to consider their judgments of these characters, and how they make them, when the information they have is subjective.