Romola Garai has been acting for twenty years and is known for her roles in period pieces such as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Vanity Fair, Atonement, Emma, The Hour and Suffragette. She now makes her feature film directorial debut with the Gothic and Folk horror-inspired Amulet, which uses some practical creature effects and body horror to provoke a visceral reaction from the audience. It also is a slow-burn drama starring God’s Own Country‘s Alec Secareanu, Blade Runner 2049‘s Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton as you’ve never seen her before.
We discussed the period feel of the film, the influence of The Dark Crystal, the sound design and the experience of making a feature debut.
I was interested to read about some of your inspirations for Amulet, including The Babadook, Under the Shadow, the work of Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland and David Cronenberg’s early films. Why did you want your feature debut to be this particular brand of Gothic or Folk Horror?
I don’t think it’s so much a case of wanting, I think what comes out comes out and I suppose once I finished it, I wasn’t really surprised. I’ve always been very into creatures, so I guess that leans more into mythological or folklore horror as opposed to maybe ghosts. When I was a child I was very impacted by seeing creature work, The Dark Crystal and things like that, they made a really big impression on me.
Also, the film is kind of about birth. Which again, I think is a kind of visceral thing. So I ended up with something that was closer to that physical kind of horror, with creatures and beasts, as opposed to something that was more ephemeral perhaps or to do with the mind. It’s more of a body horror than something that’s more psychological.
You’ve appeared in many period films and TV shows as an actor, but for Amulet you went for something that is a combination of being set in the present day, but with a period feel in the production and costume design. Why did you want this particular aesthetic for Amulet?
I suppose when I was thinking about the interior of the house, I did want the feeling that you’d slipped out of the immediate present day in a sense, not in any kind of very obvious way. But there was a sense that the house had fallen out of time somewhat, so that you get a sense of Tomaz’s disorientation and isolation. Also, I guess that the film to a certain extent deals with the past and whether it can ever really be the past. Do people have the right….should people be afforded the opportunity to walk away from their past and reinvent themselves and give themselves new identities. The house is a kind of receptacle of that idea, in that it is somewhat hanging in the past, like Tomaz’s past has come to get him, as it were. I think that’s why I wanted it to fall into a more retro feeling aesthetic. Obviously the influences are films that were made quite a long time ago, so I guess that bled into the aesthetic as well.
The sound design and the choral score combine very well to give the feeling that the house is a living presence almost, with the suggestion that there’s something supernatural or even religious behind it. Could you tell me a bit about the aural landscape you wanted to create.
In all honesty, when you make a film and you come from a performance background, an acting background, the one part of the process that you have absolutely nothing to do with at all really is sound. And I went into that process not even completely aware that sound design and music don’t usually interact. I understood them to be at least in conversation with each other but as I understand it now, with a lot of films, that doesn’t usually happen. I mean, they’re obviously mixed (in editing) but those departments often don’t even talk to each other. I was surprised by that because as I understood it, I wanted to mix them, because of my interest and liking for music and I wanted that interaction with the sound design. So I ended up working with a composer called Sarah Angliss – she had not composed for film and television before, but her work does sit somewhere between those two mediums. So she and sound designer Nick Baldock did collaborate. A lot of Sarah’s work falls under the description of sound or aural design, as well as conventional music, so when we worked together, we worked very much as a team and the sound of the house became part of the score essentially from the off. There was never any real distinction between those things. I wanted to create something that was a very immersive aesthetic, in the hope that when people entered into the house, they would be entering into a space where there was no separation really between any of the elements, so it would hopefully feel very immersive.
I’ve interviewed quite a few debut directors recently (for our magazine issue on Directorial Debuts) and I like asking this question – what gave you the confidence on set to follow through with your vision? Do you think it helped that you’d written the script and therefore you knew these characters and this world better than anyone?
Yes, I think that definitely does help. I think it helps because you’re already coming from a …. most directors who direct a first feature are coming from a place (at least somewhat) of ignorance and innocence. The one thing that you have is that you’ve spent more time than anyone else studying the script and that’s a kind of pocket weapon that you have. You don’t need to be in any doubt of that one element of your ability, you know it really well.
But then how you get the confidence to do it – I think to a certain extent other people contribute to that, you’re given confidence to a certain extent by your team. Not only when they look to you for guidance, which is a kind of confidence boosting thing, but also when people say “no it should be this way” or they resist your guidance. Because then you have to fight for something and know when to fight for it and if you fight for it because you care about it, then it obviously means something to you. So it becomes allied with your passion for the project, those two things become interdependent. So even if on the inside you have no confidence at all, you have to override that, in order to be able to get what you want.
What did you learn from your feature debut that you will apply in your work going forward, whether that’s writing, directing or even acting?
So much! (laughs) Where to start? It’s just the most unbelievable learning curve. I mean, it’s not for everyone. I do think there are some people who go into making their first feature who are already film scholars, their first feature has been in preparation for ten years perhaps and they’re already a complete director. But I think for 90% of people, particularly for women who have often had perhaps other calls on their time, it’s often not like that. You have to go through a period of refining your art-form and working out what kind of creator you want to be. What kind of work you want to make, how you want to make it and so you learn a tremendous amount. The problem is or the difficulty is that you’re not going to be able necessarily to apply all of the things you’ve learned to your next film, which may be in a different medium or a different genre or with different people.
But I think the thing I would say more than anything else, the useful thing that I learned is that you cannot but listen to your heart. You don’t have any other choice. You only have your instinct to guide you and you have to be in touch with that and that’s not easy. I think great filmmakers and great artists are just really in touch with their instincts and they profoundly believe in them. You don’t have any other option than to listen to those primal feelings about your tastes, for want of a better word.