Director Natalie Erika-James’ directorial debut Relic, is a heart-breaking horror film that looks at humanity and our connections with family. The film follows three generations of women from one family as they come together to face the shadows that haunt their minds and their family home. Relic is a powerful all female-led film starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin.
I spoke to co-writer and director Natalie Erika James all about the inspiration behind this emotionally driven movie, how the film talks about grief and how there are more opportunities for women in horror.
What first inspired you to write and direct Relic?
Well the idea first came to me when I was visiting my Grandma with Alzheimer’s. So I think I was inspired by watching her and her condition worsen over the years. But that trip was really memorable and notable because it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was, and that had a real big effect on me. At the same time, her house had been one that I was really scared of as a kid. So probably those two things came together and that was the starting point.
Your film portrays how entwining yet complicated family relationships can be. Do you think the horror genre is the perfect medium for portraying more realistic aspects?
Yeah, potentially. I’m always just fascinated by, not so much the horrors that are invading the home, but the kind of terrors that are already inside the home. Those really psychological fears that arise. There’s something really potent about families because it’s so much about, and relates to, your childhood and your fears, because that’s also when they form. Particularly when you’re coming home to somewhere, you’re coming back to your childhood home, I think that can be a really interesting time when your childhood fears come back. Yeah, potentially horror is a great way to explore those tensions and those resentments that build over time.
This is a female driven film; do you think there’s more opportunity now in today’s society to show more female focused horror films?
In terms of opportunity, I suppose that always comes down to who is telling the story and in what way. I would say I would agree that there are more opportunities for women. First time women directing in particular, I think now more than ever we are seeing an encouraging increase, although we need to still be vigilant because the numbers are completely out of whack. So yeah I would say there is an increase.
I would also say the audiences’ willingness to engage with those types of stories, I feel like I’ve read so many stats about films with female protagonists doing well at the box office, which is not something you really take into account when you’re writing one yourself. You kind of just write about what you’re interested in but I think certainly for the people who greenlight projects, that would be an attractive incentive.
Do you think the dynamics would have been entirely different if it were male generations?
It’s hard to say. I’m just more interested in women and female characters. I’m sure there’s a version with three men that would have been great but I wouldn’t have been interested in telling that story.
You have an exceptionally strong cast in Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote. How did you choose them for the roles?
I didn’t write with any particular actress in mind so it really came in the casting process of having creative discussions and brainstorming sessions about the actors I was really excited in and what combinations would work. For me it really came down to obviously being a big fan of all of them and also just meeting them, hearing their thoughts about the script. They all seemed to have their own relationships with grief that spoke incredibly well to the themes of the film and I don’t think any of them spoke about it as if it were a horror film, it was as if it were about the drama in the script, which really appealed to me.
You mentioned grief there, which is something that is really pulled on a lot in horror. When reviewing Relic I could see a lot of similarities with other films. Were there any other horror or genre films that you took inspiration from?
Something like The Orphanage – the idea about the missing loved one and the heartbreak of neglect or oversight, and abandonment. I also took inspiration from a film called Amore, that really central relationship and aging and loss of memory in general. I know the films gets compared a lot to Hereditary which is a fair comparison, but we’d already filmed by the time I saw it so I can’t really cite it as a reference.
Something that really came through for me was striving to be a better daughter, to be a better mother, which is quite a heavy topic. Did you find that the process for everyone was quite emotionally demanding and hardworking?
I would say for the actors in particular it was pretty gruelling. There were some weeks in there where we were filming the more intense scenes towards the end of the film and we did our best to create a safe and respectful environment where they could have that space, but everyone was joking that they’d have to go off and do a comedy after. There were some dark days. You know it depends on the actor but some of them were dredging up their own shit to go to those places.
For me, it was probably the writing process that was harder emotionally, just because that’s when you have this solitary existence, even though I have a co-writer, you really have to dig deep. Whereas in production, there are so many things flying at you that you kind of have to step outside a little bit. But having said that, there was one scene in the film where Edna is burning the photos and I was just crying behind the monitor and it really hit me. You have to find a way to manage that but it certainly creeps in. I don’t know how the film would function if I was just an emotional wreck the whole time, it would be tricky!
There’s a lot of emotion in the film but it’s also very frightening. How did you entwine those scares whilst also keeping the emotions running through it?
It’s tricky. It starts with the writing and I think you have to balance the two so that there are essentially two threads to the story. Where is Edna? What are we going to do with Edna? But also what is wrong with the house? What’s in the house? Who is in the house? There is that mystery as well. You have to balance those and structurally escalate them hand in hand and make sure that basically everything that is happening with the house doesn’t compromise what is happening with the characters’ emotional journey and what they would do in a straight drama.
If you prioritise the horror too much then the audience really starts to feel the writer’s hand at work where there are all these scares, so you have to really balance both which starts with the writing. There are things you can do in post like shift scenes around and make sure the pacing of the scares is spread out but generally it has to be there in the bones of the script.
There are some incredibly stunning aesthetics throughout the film, whether it’s the grandpa scenes which are horrific or the scenes in the house. How did you come up with what Edna, the grandpa and the maze element of the house would look like?
In terms of how, it’s something that starts with the writing process – i tend to be quite a visual writer, so you’re looking for references even in that stage. You have a rough sense of it just from visual research and whatever it is – some freaky dream you’ve had that you think would be scary. When it comes to production you’re having to convey that, whether that’s to the concept artist or the prosthetics team or the production designer. We pulled from a lot of references. The main thing with Edna was that we wanted it to feel very human, even though with the black mould it was to a supernatural extreme, it was really supposed to mimic how people look and feel in terms of their vulnerability and fragility at the end of their life. So a lot of what we pulled on wasn’t so much supernatural but more like mummies and how they look. Using the human form as a base.
For the labyrinth – there are so many optical illusion images we pulled, and I guess its architecture that speaks to the uncanny and finding the unfamiliar in the familiar and banal. If you look at our look books there are so many architectural references that create a mood that don’t necessarily make it in as a visual, but just a kind of wealth when you’re designing it. In terms of the house itself we wanted to create a sense that it wasn’t completely signalling the horror from the get go. A real sense of space that was falling into decline, and had a real sense of history that was supposed to bleed into this labyrinth space as we didn’t want it to feel completely separate from the rest of the house. That’s why you see the same architectural language in the labyrinth as the rest of the house, it’s just warped in that way.
You’ve mentioned before the film was a cathartic process. Do you think viewers will also feel a sense of this?
I hope so. I would hate people to get to the end of it and just feel depressed. The sadness is unavoidable, but for me atleast, it’s quite a hopeful film and a hopefully ending. It just highlights the importance of human connection in the face of darkness. Fingers crossed people don’t come away being like what the fuck did I just watch.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few things but probably the one that I hope will go next is a folk horror set in Japan. Very much in the vain of The Wicker Man or Rosemary’s Baby and tackling the themes surrounding motherhood. So if Relic is about decay and death then this is the opposite and is about creation and birth.
Relic is available on VOD in both the US and UK now.