Last Saturday night in Sundance was a horror feast as the Australian film Relic world premiered in the midnight session following hot on the heels of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. Meeting up later with horror fans trudging through the snow in the wee hours provided an insight: that the full-on gore of Possessor, not to mention the lack of storyline, makes it one for the fans, while Relic, a kind of dementia horror story has a humanistic side that makes it relatable and the tension slow-burning. It is also the better film.
The astute directing debut by Natalie Erika James, was written by James and Christian White, and backed by heavy-duty producers Jake Gyllenhaal and the Russo brothers. It focuses on three generations of women whose family home on a country estate is taken over by a strange presence.
Robyn Nevin is the granny, Emily Mortimer sporting a convincing Australian accent is the mum and Bella Heathcote, appearing in her first Australian film in a decade, is the granddaughter.
Here is the essence of the film’s post screening Q&A.
The film feels personal. What was your inspiration?
Natalie Erika James: When I went to Japan and my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, it was the first time I visited her where she couldn’t remember who I was. There were a lot of feelings of guilt about not having gone to see her earlier. She lived in this creepy 100-year-old traditional Japanese house and having been a massive fan of Asian horror growing up, the combination of those two things were the starting point for Relic.
Christian White: I was going through parallel experiences because of my Nan. She is actually still alive and turns 100 this year, but for the last ten years she’s been gone. I was really crying watching the film because the gross little gobliny creature looks like my grandmother looks now. It’s really a bit disturbing and troubling. It’s about processing that and doing something positive with the sadness and heartbreak. I still don’t see my Nan enough.
The house is a character in itself. How much is real and how much was created?
Natalie Erika James: All credit goes to our production designer Steven Jones-Evans for pulling that together. Obviously, we had specific needs and had to build the labyrinth, so the majority of the sequence where Bella’s crying crawling through the labyrinth is all a set. We had two house locations that we married with a set, so it had to be really seamless. We actually had to cut down our labyrinth close to shooting, so a lot had to be reconfigured in a way that it would feel bigger than it was.
Was it emotionally charged for the actresses?
Bella Heathcote: It was rough watching it! Crawling through a tunnel and the walls are closing in, it was pretty easy to just go there. I cried for four days straight! I felt that Natalie was good at guiding us. I actually also thought she was playing a prank. They asked me to provide photos from my childhood for set dressing and I asked dad for them and I just gave them to the production designer without looking at them. So, I was crawling through the labyrinth and there were photos of my mum who had passed when I was 12. They just showed up. So, whoever did that is some evil genius because that really helped.
Emily Mortimer: The feelings we were meant to be feeling were so universal. From the first moment I read the script I felt like I understood the dynamic between the characters and the complicated feelings, the sadness and guilt and fucked-upness of being related to people. So, it was really hard, really depressing all the time.
Bella Heathcote: Some days I’d wonder, “Why am I doing this kind of job? Let’s do a rom-com or something!” We’d just look at each other and laugh in amazement at what we were doing.
Robyn Nevin: I didn’t have the same degree of stuff they had to do. I think the animatronic puppet at the end did all the work. Natalie is really the dark creature.
Did you want to leave it up to the viewers to work it all out?
Natalie Erika James: A backstory is hinted at through the dream sequences. Suffice it to say it plays on the idea of generational diseases being passed down. A neglect of your loved ones is implied in the dream sequences as well. For Kay (Mortimer), there is a cabin on the property that played into her childhood nightmares and now she’s having these recurring nightmares that pertain to her mother. It was important for her to see her mother in that space, to align her guilt about her mother with these fears about this story she’d heard as a child about a family member.
Christian White: At the end it’s an act of acceptance.
You said before how your parents wanted you to be a lawyer. Is the film about parents having misguided best intentions?
Natalie Erika James: No, I don’t think so. My parents were always really supportive. It’s more about how the dynamic of your relationship starts to shift as you get older. The question regarding who is being the child and who is being the parent shifts several times in the film.
The house is tied to the dementia.
Natalie Erika James: It’s certainly within the design. We tried to mimic how her deterioration is taking place and to physicalise her experience through the design of the house. What we consciously tried to do is not make it a traditional haunted house where everything is dark. We went for a much lighter palate, a lot of white and cream. We wanted to make it familiar at the beginning, so even if it’s a mystery and she’s missing, there’s a cosiness to the house when she comes back and that’s slowly flipped on its head.
Relic will release in 2020