Relic is not just the best horror film of the year, it’s the best film of the year, full stop. Debuting to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, Japanese Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James’ feature film debut is a chilling meditation on family, losing a loved one, and grief, stars the incredible trio of Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin. I had the honour of speaking with James, Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin recently in an intimate Zoom video roundtable and the following is an edited and condensed version of that in-depth conversation. *Major spoilers ahead for Relic*
Brief Take: What did you like best about working with each other?
Bella Heathcote: Gorgeous first question. I love that!
Robyn Nevin: I think the ease with which everyone just moved into relationships with each other. Everybody was very open and quite at ease from the start and very much themselves. So as individuals we were relaxed about being who we were. Somehow, cleverly, Natalie assembled a group of women who just came together very well. I loved them all. It helps!
Natalie Erika James: I just love how game everyone was to get into such heavy subject matter and to trust me and trust each other, that was huge. Also how game they were to do all the stunts, because there’s quite a bit of that in the film. It can feel really extreme and ridiculous at times when you’re rehearsing it, but also incredibly fun. So to commit to that level of intensity, emotionally and physically, was a gift that these guys have given me. That was probably the most amazing part for me.
Emily Mortimer: Well I just feel so psyched about these three women that I now count as friends. They’re just properly funny, bright and really down to Earth and normal, all of them. Normal and also crazy, of course, because otherwise I wouldn’t really be interested. [laughs] I remember walking down the main street at Sundance and my friend Ben Whishaw, who is an actor in England and a brilliant one and so lovely, and he came up just for a few minutes and he joined us walking down the street together. Afterwards, I just got all these texts saying “Oh my God, those girls that you’re working with are just the coolest. Robyn, Natalie and Bella are just so cool! You’re so lucky.” And I was like, “yeah, I know”. [laughs] It took three minutes of walking down the street for Ben to be in love with all three of them, and I know what he means. [laughs]
Bella Heathcote: I agree with what everyone said. I really felt like we were all in it together and we could laugh at ourselves. I think being able to laugh when things got really dark was a lovely escape. Also, to add to that story, I grabbed Ben on the street. Like “Ben!”, because I just watched the Mary Poppins film and I was obsessed with them both in it. So I just kind of grabbed him and was like “Hi! Emily, Ben. You guys know each other!”.
BH: So it’s great that he just went with that because he had no idea who I was when I stopped him in the street at Sundance.
Coming into this project, what initially hooked you in and in terms of your characters, can you talk a little about how you developed them in terms of the generational divide with these women and how grief affected those differences?
RN: Woah, that’s a very big question.
BH: I’ll go. The script grabbed me, I just thought it was great. It’s rare that you read a script like this, full stop, but rare that you read a horror script where you’re emotionally invested and I didn’t want to put it down. The end of the film gut punched me in the best possible way. I think as far as the generational divide goes, I find that often it’s easier to be friendly with your grandparent than it is with your parent because they’re the one that has to do the disciplining and set the boundaries and I loved how that was present in the script. I felt like I was really on Robyn’s side and willfully misunderstanding Mum’s intentions and it was more fuel to the fire of whatever complexity was between us, and I loved that. I loved that the relationships were really difficult.
EM: I agree. I felt that it was recognizable and truthful – the feeling of going home and going home to be with your parent and how that makes you feel both full of love and safe in a way, but also full of all sorts of confused and strange emotions. I felt like Natalie’s script was really good in the most subtle and not banging it over the head, it was very delicately done, just the kind of complications of being somebody’s daughter and somebody’s mother, and however much you love the people that you’re related to, you can also feel an awful lot of pain and regret and confusion in their midst too, and that felt really right.
RN: It was the script that appealed to me quite powerfully when I read it. I’m a mother and a grandmother, and it’s certainly not my story but I recognize so many elements in the story that I just instinctively understood it. Although it was quite a spare script, there was much unsaid that I just understood to be there. So that doesn’t happen in an awful lot of the work for you. Generational divide is also something I understood because I’m living it and it also took me back to my own mother who died thirteen years ago, and I’m now feeling the guilt from that relationship from my side of it, that I might have felt had I allowed it to be present when she was still alive. That all adds to the complexity of the work that you make, if you have all that inside you and that level of understanding and pain and sadness and complexity, all those words we keep using because they’re all so relevant. That all feeds into the work.
The ending is very tender but also very audacious and unpredictable. Natalie, were there other endings that you considered? For Bella, Robyn, and Emily, was that final scene filmed at the end of the shoot? It must have been very cathartic for all of you.
NEJ: Yes, certainly. The ending was originally different in its first form, but even the characters were slightly different. There was a husband character for Kay, there was a brother character for Sam.
BH: Oh really? Huh.
NEJ: Yeah. But I will say the sentiment was always the same and it always ended on a note of connection and this kind of horrific examination of aging and dementia. I would say that in terms of what you see on the screen, it came maybe mid development, we had it for quite awhile, it wasn’t a last minute change. But the sentiment of that ending has always been there from the start.
BH: We did shoot two different versions, didn’t we?
NEJ: Yes! Actually you’re right, yeah. So in terms of the skin peeling, that was all the same, but the last note, when Sam discovers the bruise on Kay’s back, we also had a version where Kay discovers a bruise on herself, but I personally felt stronger that it was Sam’s discovery because it lends itself more to the cyclical nature of things. In a way, Kay had come to terms…her journey had come to an end in terms of accepting and passing and the state that she was in. So it made sense to me to shift focus to Sam and the next generation.
BH: But when did we shoot that?
NEJ: It was Emily’s last day, wasn’t it?
BH: Oh my God, was it?
EM: I think it was.
NEJ: Yeah, because we had a big “that’s a wrap!” in that bedroom set.
BH: Oh my God, what a way to go out. It’s funny that you talk about personal stories because I don’t know how else to talk about grief without referencing personal stories because I feel like it is so personal. I suppose the same goes for any heartbreak or anything like that. But that’s one of the things that I loved about this film and one of the things that I loved about that last scene because that idea of coming to terms with mortality and losing the people you love, and the fear of hereditary diseases, which is certainly a fear that I’ve carried in my family. But it was so tender and loving, and just that moment of acceptance after all that horror, I mean I get emotional just thinking about that scene. I also get emotional thinking about Emily’s last day! [laughs]
RN: And I just have to say that I actually wasn’t there, of course, and I didn’t see that until I saw the movie at Sundance and it was very affecting. For the entire movie I was just looking at myself thinking “Oh God, maybe we could have done that a little bit better, Robyn.”
RN: But then, in the scene where she’s carrying her mother up the stairs, I just started to go then. That’s when I started to go. But when the action within the scene, the peeling, it was just so extraordinary. I don’t know what kind of imagination that comes from, Natalie, is all I have to say to you, but it was profoundly affecting. It was something I didn’t even quite understand why and I had to think about it in retrospect. It’s very beautiful. But I did go through the prosthetics to provide for the skeleton.
NEJ: Let it be known! [laughs] And Emily, the peeler.
EM: The peeler! As the peeler [laughs], I feel just what you both have said, the same is true. That scene, from the moment I read it to being in it and to watching it, it was the same feeling of “I have never considered or thought of…what is this??”, it’s something that not in a million years could I have imagined this notion. It’s so wild, it’s so out there and outrageous and strange and crazy and horrifying and yet, it feels so familiar. That’s what was so extraordinary about it, it felt so right, it felt like such a right kind of depiction of the feeling of helping someone that you love die or cast off their mortal coil and how horrifying and difficult that process is, and also how beautiful it ultimately is in a weird and strange way. I’m still staggered by it.
Did you learn anything new about yourselves or your own fears while making this film?
NEJ: I think you always learn something about yourself through your writing. A lot of the time you write intuitively and then you look back and think “oh wow, I didn’t know that was an issue!”. [laughs] It’s certainly very illuminating, and it’s even more illuminating when you read stuff that people have written about your work and they look at it in a way that you never would have considered. So yes, I have learned a lot about myself.
BH: Oh lord. I don’t know if I learned about myself but it’s definitely something, I feel like my grief is very close to the surface, you know? It was wonderful to be able to explore that in a film. I remember talking to my therapist and saying “I have to do this stuff at work”, and she said “well, what else are you going to do with it? It’s great. Use it.” But yeah, certainly fear of mortality, of those I love dying is probably my predominant fear, which is strange because we’re all going to die at some point. But it’s certainly something that is very present in my mind. And particularly that moment at the end, losing someone to hereditary disease or perhaps falling ill to it myself, that’s definitely something that I think about and I’ve thought about it a lot since that film.
RN: I think it illuminated my relationship with my daughter, for me, and also my deceased mother. And that was useful – my relationship with my daughter. Interestingly, being the oldest person and being 78, the imminent death didn’t effect me at all, I didn’t have any sense of my own mortality through that, interestingly. Maybe that’s just suppression. There were many sad moments, I have to say.
EM: It made you think of so many things. It made you think about death, it made you think about your relationship with your mother or your daughter, with your own mortality, but I guess one of the things that really happened on that set was just a feeling of how cool women are. [laughs] I’ve never had an experience of working with three other women, that was really the experience, and I just loved it. It was so different not having the presence of an alpha guy around really did feel different and was cool and really exciting in a way that I’d never known before because there’s normally a guy around to complicate things in an annoying way. Without that, it was so fun and so exciting in a way that I’d never experienced work before.
RN: It was calmer and quieter. All directors are focused. I catch myself saying this all the time that Natalie was very focused, but it’s a different kind of focus, it’s a quieter focus. Anyway, I found it a very calm and quiet set, which I really prefer. Some actors love to joke around between takes, I don’t, and in a film that is as intense as this one was, you do a take and then you listen for “we’re going again” or “reset”, and you either relax and start to breathe again and let it go, or else you have to maintain whatever your particular energy was for that scene. So I found the atmosphere on set much calmer and quieter and more helpful than in other less female-centric settings. And the two women I just adored. I felt comfortable with them in ways where when an alpha male is present, inevitably, dot dot dot.
EM: [laughs] I agree. I keep referring to this one moment of being on this set, that crazy fight scene that in itself is so cool. As an actor, I’ve never seen that, a fight scene between three generations of women, one of whom is the grandmother and has got the most fight of all of them, was just so wild and wonderful as a concept to begin with. But actually making that scene and realizing that you’re on a set with the three of us actresses and then three female stunt people and then Natalie and we were all working out how to make this fight work, and there were no men around, that was a first for me, and I really thought it was cool. It felt badass.
BH: It’s funny, I’ve been asked this a bit recently and I asked my husband “did I talk about it at the time?”. I don’t feel like I was aware of it, it was just a great experience. But he said “yeah, you were talking about it a lot at the time, how awesome it was to go to work and just work with women.” I guess because the material was so dark, I definitely felt like Natalie and Emily and Robyn, the space that was between us felt really safe to go to. It felt like there’d always be someone there to throw a hand down through the hole and pull you out afterwards, and then watch Natalie push you in again. [laughs] But I definitely felt it at the time. And also everything that Robyn and Emily said, that kind of quiet and calm on the set, I’ve never experienced that on a set before. There’s usually a lot more yelling that takes place.
NEJ: Wow. See I don’t know because I’ve only ever been on my own sets, so that’s amazing to hear.
Natalie, what inspired you in your creation of this film?
NEJ: I guess apart from the personal inspiration, visually, I suppose it’s an accumulation of everything you consume in your life – the horror films, Gothic literature, art that you research, and you do a lot of research to come up with the imagery as well. I actually found a notebook that I had taken on that trip when I first began writing Relic, and I saw the first line that I had written on it was “a young woman tries to save her grandma in a house that appears bigger on the inside than it is on the outside”. So I think that must have been influenced on the novel House of Leaves as well. I think it’s just an accumulation of ideas and you find the thematic drive that you really care about, and you find a way to use the images to talk about that theme. It’s a mix of things. [laughs] It’s probably childhood nightmares as well because I used to have recurring nightmares about my Mom dying and I’d find her and she was a skeleton, so I’m sure it’s all of that too. It’s also the real life horror, of course. The figure at the end is not dissimilar to how people really are in their vulnerability and fragility as well. It’s hard to analyze your own brain, I have to say. [laughs]
I’m curious about the set design. Was it an actual house that you filmed in or a created set? Bella, how did it feel to film the sequence at the end where you’re trapped in the house?
NEJ: The house was actually a combination of two locations and a studio build. So one house in Melbourne was the exterior and there was another one that was largely the interior of the downstairs as well as the staircase, and then on the sound stage we built the upstairs bedrooms and we had to rebuild parts of the hallway to give it that connective tissue to make it feel seamless. So our production designer, Steven Jones-Evans, did a phenomenal job concocting all of that. Then the labyrinth itself was a set, too, built on a sound stage. For budget reasons, we had to make it it modular so that we could take out areas and put up a different wall to make it feel like a different space that was larger than it actually was, so lots of creative problem solving.
BH: It was as intense as it looked. I feel like I owned recently how I had a hissy fit on the last day that we shot there. I was in there maybe four or five days and it was a lot of running around screaming, banging on walls. The last day, Natalie is very precise as a director and she wanted one more take, and the moment I’m least proud of is “I’m not a robot, Natalie!”, which she took very well. But yeah, it was pretty gnarly. I was glad to be out of the labyrinth. But also, I can’t really complain because it did most of the work for me, I didn’t really have to generate that much because it was all there to scare the bejesus out of me.
Relic is currently available on VOD and Digital