I love meeting and speaking with female filmmakers who bring a unique style to the screen, especially if it’s in a way that I’ve never seen before. Aussie based Natalie Erika James checks all of those boxes by bringing to the screen an infusion of horror, dark beauty, and female-centric stories. Before meeting her, I’ve been a fan of her Instagram feed, full of curated images that reflect the mind of her creatively twisted genius. Her love of Asian/Gothic horror and a recent visit to her grandmother’s house birthed the idea for her directorial debut “Relic”. The film has shades of Gothic horror, but breaks them through the immersion of the tri-generational relationship between a grandma, daughter, and granddaughter. The film begins when the grandmother goes missing and the daughter and granddaughter go to the grandmother’s home to find her. Once they arrive, they find that the grandmother and the house are different in nature. From there, a thrilling story is revealed. The film premiered at Sundance this year and stars Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin. I was fortunate to speak to Natalie about “Relic”, which comes to select theatres and VOD/Digital rental on Friday, July 10th.

Natalie Erika James, director of Relic, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ben Morgan.

REBECCA MARTIN: What led you to this project?

NATALIE ERIKA JAMES: The idea came to me on a trip to Japan to see my grandmother. She has had Alzheimer’s for quite a while, and on this particular trip, it was the first time she could remember who I was. That obviously had quite an impact on me and it drudged up all of these feelings of guilt about not seeing her more regularly. But she also lived in this house that I had been quite scared of as a child, because it was this traditional Japanese house that was maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old. Being a big fan of Asian horror, I think your mind just goes to scary places. 

MARTIN: Really dark places [laughing].

JAMES: Exactly. I think the combination of those two things coalesced it. That was really the start of the idea, and then I started writing it. I have a co-writer, Christian White, and we put together the first draft of the script. Then we got all of these producers on board from that point, and we decided to very consciously make a short proof of concept. And that’s the short film “Creswig”. It was great because it did what a proof of concept should do. As it went through the festival circuit, mostly genre festivals, it was enough of a calling card to bring interest from agents, and then further down the line from producers, partners, and financiers in combination with the script. It took ages, because we started writing it at the end of 2014, and then we shot the film in 2018. So it took some time.

Emily Mortimer as Kay in “Relic”

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the cast. You have a powerhouse of women. I love the actresses you have playing the grandmother [Robyn Nevin], daughter [Emily Mortimer], and granddaughter [Bella Heathcote]. How did you go about casting those three parts?

JAMES: With actors who have that kind of profile, it’s obviously not an audition process. It’s more about the conversations that you have and the brainstorming that you do with the core created scenes. 

It is tricky casting “family”, because of course it’s like moving parts, even if one person is great, it may not make sense as a trio. We threw around a bunch of names and when we landed on Emily [Mortimer], it was kind of like an “aha” moment. I had long been a fan of her work, as well as the other two actors [Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote]. Then it really was just meeting them in person and talking through the script, and getting a sense of who they are. You get a feeling of someone from meeting them as well. It happened quite organically with all three of them. They all really loved the script and they seemed to understand it. The horror elements of it never put them off. It felt that they truly understood the core of what it was about and what I was trying to say with it. They were all wonderful.

Bella Heathcote as Sam in “Relic”

MARTIN: To me, this film was so much more than a horror film. It has layers, especially with the relationships of the women involved. You do get the haunted house tropes and jump scares, but for me, it was a lot more complex. The three female relationships are so strong and so believable and there are so many layers. I feel that the house is an expression of that. I’m curious how involved you were with the production design, and would love to discuss the parallels between both the design and the relationship of the characters.

JAMES: Our production designer Steven Jones-Evans was incredible to work with, and is so talented. He and I really talked a lot about creating a space in which it felt familiar from the start, and then it didn’t play into more conventional horror gothic mansion kind of trope. So in terms of the color palette, we went with creams and blushes, and sages, and things that make you think about Edna’s age. We want the audience to view the house in the sense of deep history, but then also making them acutely aware of its decline, so you feel the heartbreak. You feel the heartbreak, not only in the story in Edna’s deterioration, but also in the state of the house too. 

I don’t know if I can go into spoilers, but in terms of designing the labyrinth as well, we really tried to continue to use the architectural language of the rest of the house, like you were entering the wardrobe into Narnia. 

Robyn Nevin and Emily Mortimer in “Relic”

MARTIN: I do love that as you go on into the film how the different elements reveal themselves. I’ve watched the film two times now, and there are so many things I want to ask you about the reveal, but I don’t want to do spoils in this interview. I feel like I’m noticing new things that I didn’t catch the first time.

I couldn’t help thinking a little bit of Alice in Wonderland when I saw the film, like “The Looking Glass”, just when it comes to the layers and the dimensions of the characters and the house. Were you influenced or inspired by any fairy tales, or horror films when you were putting the film together?

JAMES: I was a massive fan of fairy tales growing up. I just remember consuming big volumes of them as a kid. I don’t think that I necessarily consciously referred to them, but maybe they’re just deeply rooted into my subconscious. 

For this film I think there is obviously a lot of gothic horror, and Asian horror references. In reference to the tone of the film, I always point to J. A. Bayona’s ‘ “The Orphanage” (2007), because it’s a film that really hits you at the end with an emotional gut punch, and it still manages to be a thrilling ride. That film was a big inspiration for me. I’ve just always loved deeply psychological films that have the genre element to them. 

Robyn Nevin as Edna in “Relic”

MARTIN: The relationships between the grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter are so believable and relatable. I watched one of the Sundance interviews, and Robyn Nevin said she didn’t look at the film as a horror film, she looked at it as a realistic and raw take on a relationship between a daughter and a granddaughter. What were you trying to bring to the screen with these relationships?

JAMES: Often in films, I feel that traditionally there is an incident that causes a rift within relationships. In real life that can be true, but often I feel you can’t pinpoint a single reason why you have conflict with your parents or your kids. Sometimes it’s more of a personality clash or a bunch of small slights over time and resentments that simmer. And sometimes it’s apathy as well, stemmed from a lack of closeness that just hasn’t been cultivated. The film is not heavy in dialogue, we wanted to hint at something like that, that felt not as dramatic in its conflict, but truer to the life abrasions that you have with your family. At the heart of it, we bring it back to the importance of connection at the end of the film. To show up for your family and to push past those kind of resentments. 

And from a tri-generation perspective, obviously you’rE often able to have relationships with your grandparents that are smoother, or less riddled in resentment because you just don’t spend as much time together. There is not as much conflict going on, because their parenting wasn’t at the forefront of your childhood. I think that is mirrored in Sam [Bella Heathcote] and Edna’s [Robyn Nevin] relationship compared to their relationship with Kay [Emily Mortimer]. 

Emily Mortimer as Kay in “Relic”

MARTIN: What advice do you have for emerging female filmmakers through your experience with your directorial debut?

JAMES: My advice would be to make sure you’re climbing the right ladder. A combination of that and to keep making your own work. They’re linked. For example, when I was at film school you work on each other’s films and you’re often having to play other roles. I was okay at ADing. After film school, I thought it would be more practical to earn a living doing ADing. I asked one of my lecturers, ‘Can you give me advice on how to get into this kind of work full time.’ She asked me, ‘Do you still want to be a director?’ I responded, ‘Well yeah, but I’m being realistic.’ Her response was, ‘Go be a director. I don’t really understand why you’re suddenly changing career paths.’

For me, that was invaluable advice. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do a lot of other jobs, like working in advertising as a Production Assistant. Looking back now, I see I was arranging my life in a way that I could continue to direct, even if it was low-budget, no budget, a passion project, music videos, short films, whatever else. My takeaway is don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. And also don’t sell yourself short.

MARTIN: What’s coming up next for you?

JAMES: I’ve been writing quite a bit, with this forced down time we’ve been having. The one that is probably the furthest along is a Japanese folk horror called “Drum Wave”. I’d say it’s very much in the vein of a “Wicker Man” and “Rosemary’s Baby”. It essentially deals with the question of motherhood. It follows a woman who’s married into this family who worships a fertility goddess, and it’s how she’s confronted with these things head on.

One Comment

  1. This is a great first feature, thanks for the interview!

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