“The idea that these memories could be within this never-ending sinister space, a labyrinth-like space, that was really the first image and the starting point.” Relic director and co-writer Natalie Erika James
Natalie Erika James’s bold and shocking horror Relic takes place in an outwardly serene and beautiful family home in Australia, a home that inside is corroding. Strange knocking reverberates within the walls and black mould encroaches on everything.
Its owner, Edna (Robyn Nevin), is suffering from dementia, and within the house the realities of her declining memory co-exist with some kind of supernatural entity, terrifying Edna’s daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote).
I spoke to Natalie over Zoom about where her film comes from, that extraordinary ending, and whether she believes in ghosts herself… (warning: there is a spoiler in this so best to watch the film first.)
Sarah Cartland: I read that the idea for Relic originally grew out of your experiences of when your grandmother in Japan developed Alzheimer’s, and how that affected the family. When you decided you wanted to make a film about that, did you know that you wanted to make it in a horror style? Is it actually a horror film or do you think it’s a love story between the family?
Natalie Erika James: A bit of both maybe. I think the supernatural elements in the film can’t be counted as purely psychological, so I would count it as a horror film. But I suppose it always was a horror film from the start.
I think part of it was because I had always had an interest in horror, I was already making some horror shorts, but also the house where my grandmother lived – it’s been knocked down now, unfortunately – had always really freaked me out as a kid.
And the first image that I had when these ideas arrived was at her house, and this idea that the house was kind of growing inwards and that we had rooms upstairs where it was just full of this hoarded stuff.
So the idea that these memories could be within this never-ending sinister space, a labyrinth-like space, that was really the first image and the starting point. So I think they came hand-in-hand. There was never a point where it was one over the other.
Sarah: found Creswick, your proof-of-concept short film for Relic, on YouTube last night. It really freaked me out. Obviously that’s a short film, so you’re going to have a much smaller cast, but you went from an elderly man in Creswick to three women in Relic. What drove that?
Natalie: It was actually reverse engineered in a way. My co-writer and I already had a first draft of the feature. And then we’d seen a lot of people make these short proof-of-concepts with a lot of success. So we were like, “Why don’t we make one?” And we wanted to tell a more succinct story rather than try and shoehorn a bigger film into a short; so that film was more drawing on my relationship with my dad and almost the first moment of having to confront your parents’ mortality. So, similarly drawn from family experience, but on a smaller scale.
Sarah: Grandparents’ houses are always creepy, aren’t they? On the one hand it’s this amazing thing that you’re seeing your granny. And on the other hand, there’s always something slightly spooky about it.
Natalie: Especially if you’re a kid, you’re just not used to it or something. But yeah, it’s like a weird dichotomy of coziness, but also the unfamiliar. 100 percent.
Sarah: In Relic you’re focusing on women, but it’s not just that Edna doesn’t act how we expect women to act – also she doesn’t act how we expect little old ladies to act. So there’s an age thing as well, isn’t there? And we always assume that however they’ve been during their lives, we just expect them, when they age, to mellow and to act in a certain way. To see Edna ripping those preconceptions and stereotypes up, you just don’t know what she’s going to do next. And she veers between very pitiable, and being able to look after herself, and just being kind of crazed.
Natalie: I guess it’s that I think Alzheimer’s affects people in really different ways. And for me, at least, we were really lucky in my family that my grandmother was never aggressive, but that’s certainly something that can happen. And it can be really heartbreaking because usually it feels like it’s prompted by something, even if you don’t understand what it is in that moment.
And for them to kind of swing back and forth can be a really confusing experience because it’s really not their fault, but you can’t help but feel the emotional impacts of their actions. So yeah, I think it lends itself to that suspension that, for much of Relic, we lead the audience in about whether it’s just the Alzheimer’s or something supernatural, and similarly with Edna, you never really know which way she’s going to go.
Sarah: Have you had different responses from different generations?
Natalie: It’s interesting. My grandmother on my dad’s side has watched it and she said she loved it. I assumed that she just wouldn’t be able to stomach the last scene, but no, she really loved it. I guess maybe hopefully there’s something for everyone in terms of telling the story from all three perspectives. Even with Edna, there are moments where you’re very much in her point of view and you do feel her fear as well.
And our intention was never to demonise Edna, or people with Alzheimer’s in any way, so it feels right that we should be just as sympathetic to her as we are to the other characters. I’d be so interested to hear, though. What do you think the divide on it would be?
Sarah: I’d love to hear how younger women view it, particularly because your relationship with your grandmother is often very, very tight. Now I’m middle-aged, I always identify with the middle-aged mum. And my mum had dementia. I did exactly what Kay did, by the way, I tried to get her to move down to a care home near me.
Sarah: You are Japanese-Australian – are there differences in how dementia is treated in the two countries?
Natalie: I would say nothing I can point to particularly. I think my grandmother was in a dementia ward at a nursing home for some time towards more the end of her life, when she couldn’t feed herself, for example, because she lived with my uncle for many years. But I guess the big difference is that that kind of framework of living with your family was already there from the get-go.
Whereas that’s probably the key point of difference in Australia: generally you’ll move out of home and then there’s a process of them moving back in, whereas in Japan, at least historically – maybe not as much these days – the oldest usually has the family house and lives with his parents. So there’s that bigger community household set up anyway. That can make things easier because there’s less upheaval, I think, but there are still certainly nursing homes with carers for Alzheimer patients who have declined.
Sarah: Relic has these psychological and visceral horror elements as well. And then the ending, which is uplifting, but also it’s like, you’ve just got to deal with this. You’ve got to accept this, because, with Sam finding the bruise on Kay’s back, it’s carrying on. How did you actually film that with Edna aging physically?
Natalie: We had a animatronic puppet, in fact – so, wonderful prosthetics like silicone sculpt based on Edna’s face. And the whole thing was controlled with, almost like a toy car remote control. Every element of every muscle in the face. I was so amazed by the nuance that they could capture in that. It was my first time working with animatronics as well, and I just assumed we would have to replace the eyes with visual effects, but it turns out that the life in your eyes comes from your facial muscles.
So in the end, there was no visual effects on the face. It was getting rid of cables and wires and that kind of thing.
There’s a breathing mechanism as well, so that the chest would move and then they just puppeteered it. There was a mechanism in the hand so that her hand could kind of close around Emily. It was a really beautiful piece of prosthetic, like a puppet essentially.
Sarah: It was really peaceful, but it was also shocking at the same time, which I suppose, is a bit like how death is. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
Natalie: Yeah, an intimate experience that’s harrowing and scary, but very meaningful as well.
Sarah: In terms of actually making the film, you and your performers – were you all the kind of people who could put it to one side at the end of the day, or was it traumatic? How did you feel actually making the film?
Natalie: I think when you’re in the thick of making the film, there’s so much that demands your attention that it’s easier to distance yourself from the experience of what’s on screen. There was one scene where Edna’s burying her photos in the forest, and I was just sobbing behind the monitor. So there are moments where it hits you.
But I think for the actors, it’s a really tough thing to be in that heightened emotional state for such a sustained period of time. So yeah, everyone was joking that they were going to go off and do a comedy afterwards. There wasn’t much levity, I have to say.
It’s all about the vibe you create on set and everyone’s having fun, and I think you have to have a certain sensitivity for those really intense scenes, but generally it’s a very relaxed environment.
Sarah: Robyn Nevin, who plays Edna, was incredible. How much was she able to do herself and how much do you have to bring in stunt women and a stunt double?
Natalie: We had a stunt double for her who is doing most of the really physical crawling and stuff like that. But Robyn was so game for everything, I have to say. A lot of the stunt rehearsals that we did in pre-production were the way that the cast bonded, I suppose. And she’s very up for anything. She’s great.
Sarah: Our time is nearly up. Very quickly, do you believe in the supernatural?
Natalie: I would never say anything definitively, but I tend to lean towards being a sceptic, I have to say. I do believe in the incredible power of the human mind to conjure up crazy fantastical images and how real that can feel. I’ve seen ghosts, but I know that they’re just coming out of a dream or it’s image that I produce. What about you?
Sarah: I say no, but there are probably places I wouldn’t go. It’s a bit like believing in God. I want to keep my options open while sounding sceptical. You don’t want to get to the end and find you’ve made a terrible mistake!
Natalie: In some ways, I wished I believed more.
Relic is released in cinemas and on digital HD in the UK on 30 October, with previews in Showcase cinemas on 29 October