Natalie Erika James haunting debut feature Relic begins in the best way a film can; flashing Christmas lights à la Morvern Callar (2002) signalling the death of something. Brought to the present day, Edna (Robyn Nevin) who we saw stood before the Christmas lights, has gone missing. Her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and Granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) arrive at Edna's house and quickly realise all is not as it seems. Inspired by James's own experience of her Grandmother's Alzheimer's, Relic delicately blurs the line between reality and the supernatural evoking a sense of loss, a loss of theirs and our grip on reality. Although it's unclear what has taken over Edna's house and mind, the recognisable depiction of a family grappling with how to adapt to the changes in their matriarch's dependency, makes for an emotive exploration of our own fears of aging and loss with a final scene that will stay with you long after leaving the cinema.
We spoke with James via Zoom about the making of the film, the power of horror and her interest in portraying experiences of motherhood...
Amy Watts: Relic was inspired by your own experience of having a Grandmother with Alzheimer's and a trip to visit her home in Japan. What was it about horror that was fitting for you to explore this?
Natalie Erika James: I mean a few things, I guess I'd always had a deep interest in horror, I was also making some horror shorts so in some ways maybe my brain was just wired to think in that way perhaps! But I do think that horror is a great genre to explore fear and to tell stories that externalise those real life fears but in a really thrilling way. I thought that the experience of watching a loved one decline and lose parts of themselves is one that is really full of fear, both for the person who's suffering but also in the way that it makes you think about your own mortality essentially and I guess a fear of mortality or a fear of dying is kind of the threat that underpins all horror films so in that way it felt like the perfect genre to tell the story.
AW: Horror to me feels like it's the most subversive genre and such a brilliant genre for drawing our attention to societal issues in an non-obvious way. I thought Relic did this in highlighting how we treat our elders and those with conditions like Dementia and Alzheimer's. Was that something you were commenting on and could you talk a bit about that?
NEJ: Yeah, I definitely think a part of it, if you want to go back to the origin of the story, part of it was driven by a lot of guilt that I felt in not going to see my Grandma more often, the loss of that you know, that I hadn't made the most of the time I had left with her and so I'm sure that's definitely a part of that. I think we're all guilty of not seeing our grandparents enough so I suppose that's a driving force of the intention for the film, underscoring the importance of connection in the face of these dark and scary things and in some ways being there for someone or having a connection with someone through that experience is the only kind of light, it's the element of beauty within the horror as well. I'm particularly drawn to stories that capture the duality of those things; the beauty and the horror of the experience.
AW: What was it like writing and filming Relic given you had such a strong connection to the story? I personally found the final scene really emotional.
NEJ: The writing process was probably the most emotional, where you have to drudge up a lot of stuff to craft something. In some ways it can be useful because if you're feeling it then maybe that's something that's real so it can be like a compass in a way. I think when you're on set, when you're in production, you've got so much flying a you that you just don't have as much time to process that element and you can distance yourself a little bit from what you're seeing on screen but there were certainly moments like there's a scene where Edna's burying photos in the forest and it's kind of her last lucid moment before shit hits the fan. That really got me and I think I cried about four times behind the monitor and definitely watching that scene in the edit. You have your moments but you have to remember as well that you get very desensitised to footage. I think in some ways if you were too close to your experience then it could be like a negative thing for the creative process but in some ways if you're close enough to the experience it drives you forward and makes the work more meaningful.
AW: What was it like working with your phenomenal three leading actors; Robyn, Emily and Bella? Did you have any of them in mind when you wrote the script?
NEJ: We didn't actually have them specifically in mind while writing per say, it was more of a creative conversation that we had when we were at the stage of casting and financing but yeah, they were all so wonderful. They were really generous with me and I think your worst fear as a first time director is to be working with very experienced actors and feeling like they don't trust you or that they're holding back and I felt none of that - it really felt like a true collaboration and there was lot of give and take. I think a lot of it was being really open with them and being very honest like emotionally about the experience and kind of bonding in that way. I think they're all just wonderful - I feel very lucky.
AW: Your next project is a Japanese folk horror exploring the fear of motherhood and losing one's selfhood and this film speaks to the relationship between mother and child and I watched a music video you did (Fires for Life is Better Blonde) which was about the longing for motherhood. Could you talk a little bit about what interests you about this topic?
NEJ: Sure! I think as a writer or a filmmaker you write about the things that you are passionate about, that weigh on you and I suppose a few things, if you step back, you can see the trends in your work and I think for me the parent / child relationship is a really potent one that I'm constantly drawn to; potentially because it relates to mortality. In essence the person who gives you life you are connected to until their death. I think it's some of that potency, this is me just speculating, who knows why we're drawn to certain topics. The motherhood thing I think is probably just the stage of life I'm in as well, being recently 30 and it's the point in your life where these questions emerge. My sister as well had her first child three years ago too so obviously the start of our next generation in our family has begun in the last five years. I'm sure that's why those themes are arising in my work.
AW: I definitely think that for women and actually across the gender spectrum, society tells us that this is the time we should be thinking about it and there's all the pressure to decide now.
NEJ: Yeah and I've never really been a maternal person, I've never wanted kids actively so I think those pressures come in conflict with that quite often so that's probably why I'm interested in the subject.
AW: I was wondering what your thoughts were on the time we're in right now where it feels a bit like we're living through a horror story, what kind of art do you think will come out of this time and what art do you think we'll want to consume?
NEJ: Yeah, it's an interesting question, I do think probably things that don't relate to pandemics will be more sort after. I think some of the stuff that's arising that's pandemic focused now feels very of the time but feels like it has a very short shelf-life even though you watch a film these days from a couple of years ago and you kind of flinch at people hugging each other and going out without a mask and it already feels quite surreal. It's an interesting one, I'm sure comedy but I also feel like horror can really help to capture feelings of anxiety in a way that helps you process them, I think everyone's different but I still feel like people will be watching horror films and probably a lot of films about the end of the world, those kinds of things, capturing that very specific eco anxiety that we all feel.
AW: I suppose with horror it's kind of a cathartic experience watching one because you can let out all the adrenaline and anxiety you have.
NEJ: Yeah, it's a really physiological response like it's such a primal emotion so it can be emotionally cathartic in that way.
AW: What filmmakers do you enjoy the work of and were there any films in particular that inspired you to want to get into filmmaking?
NEJ: When I first got into cinema - I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 13 - and probably my first filmmaking loves were David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, Guillermo del Toro. I guess, dark psychological drama but also with very defined worlds in a way, those were the kind of filmmakers I really loved and when I was older I was really into Lars Von Trier's films, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and then the greats of course like Bergman, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Fellini...
AW: What were the visual references you used for this Relic?
NEJ: I think one of them was, I guess this is kind of a tonal reference but The Orphanage (2007) by J.A. Bayona, I always really loved the balance of emotion and horror that film captured. Antichrist (2009) was one of the visual references we pulled; the coldness of winter and forest around the house. We kind of went for something that had muted tones, that felt almost like a faded memory.
Relic is released in cinemas and on digital HD from Friday 30 October with previews in Showcase cinemas on Thursday 29 October!