Sasha Rainbow on Her Horror Feature Debut ‘Grafted’: Emerald Fennell and Jordan Peele Pics Were ‘a Guiding Light’

U.K. sales agent Mr. Smith Entertainment is launching one of the Marché’s most anticipated genre titles: “Grafted,” from Kiwi helmer Sasha Rainbow. The smart, surprising, female-led body-horror film marks the feature debut of the L.A.-based, Wellington-born Rainbow, who took a quick break from post-production in New Zealand to talk to Variety

Penned by Mia Maramara, Hweiling Ow and Lee Murray, “Grafted” follows a bright but socially awkward Chinese scholarship student who arrives in Auckland to study biology and hopes to continue the work of her late scientist father. Rainbow was brought on board by Murray Francis, one of the film’s producers.

“This is where I was interested in going in storytelling,” says Rainbow. “It had uncanny similarities to [the] feature I was writing called ‘The Actress,’ which is all about identity theft and an unhealthy obsession with beauty.”

After shooting in Auckland in a combination of private homes, university buildings and urban areas, Rainbow is editing the feature. “It was a delight to see the first assembly on the big screen and it’s so exciting to now be in the dark calm of the cutting room bringing the film to life,” she says.

What filmmakers inspire her approach? “Emerald Fennel and Jordan Peele’s first features were a guiding light,” says Rainbow. “They both shot them in around the same amount of days and made incredible, socially poignant films that were exciting and original.”

In a sense, “Grafted” sounds like a modern take on “Frankenstein.” “Yes, you’re right!,” Rainbow says. “The obsession with beauty and changing our bodies has a certain Frankenstein nature to it which has been so fun to explore.”

After “Grafted” wraps, Rainbow will return to L.A. to continue developing “The Actress” and also a miniseries, “Jack and Rochelle.” She notes, “‘The Actress’ is a twisted modern fairy tale with a bittersweet ending. [It’s] a dark comedy with a ‘Knives Out’ quality set in Hollywood.” 

“Jack and Rochelle,” produced by Neal Edelstein (“The Ring,” “Mulholland Drive”), offers an incredible true love story set in the forests of Poland during the World War II. Rainbow says, “It speaks to me on many levels — especially the extremely strong women’s perspective of the war, which we rarely hear, and the physicality of surviving as a human thrust back into nature, which again has a body horror quality to it that I don’t think has been thoroughly explored.”

Rainbow, who originally studied fashion design, found her way into film through music videos. “By 21, I had moved to London and was attempting to be a stylist,” she says. “I conceptualized fashion shoots, characters, costume, art design, storyboarded and all but pressed the button.” Frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement for her creative input, she bought a camera to take ownership of her ideas. Her first music video was made for her then-boyfriend. Since then, she’s made videos for Wild Beasts, Placebo, Suki Waterhouse, Priya Ragu and Findlay, as well as directing commercials.

Rainbow had the inspired idea to pitch documentary ideas around music videos, and with the permission of the bands, to film a short doc on the side, which eventually led to the award-winning “Kofi and Lartey” and “Kamali,” the latter also nominated for a BAFTA. “The experience of making these documentaries was humbling, heart-wrenching and inspiring,” she says. “But I was really interested in how one could talk about the human experience in a truly entertaining way, in a way that someone who wouldn’t usually engage in social commentary could be engaged to view the world through an imagined story.” 

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