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Interview: Director Natalie Erika James Talks Her Terrifying Debut Film Relic

Hitting cinemas just in time for Halloween, director Natalie Erika James’ feature debut Relic is one of this year’s best and most terrifying horror films.

A new and inventive spin on the haunted house genre that will leave you hiding behind the sofa in fear, Relic also has a melancholic edge to it as the story analyses the impact dementia has on a family through a horror lens, playing on our fears of both aging and loss of memory.

Trio Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote are fantastic as the family at the heart of this story, with writer/director James also marking herself out as one to watch out for in the future.

We caught up with James to chat about all things Relic, the personal inspiration behind the story, the challenge of creating the twisted labyrinth, and how producers Jake Gyllenhaal and The Russo Brothers came on board.

Zavvi: Congratulations on the movie. It is terrifying! What was the inspiration behind the story?

Natalie: It was pretty personal. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and I started writing it on a trip I took to go visit her. It was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was and it had a big impact on me.

Also the fact she lived in this really creepy, old Japanese house, and I had been working on horror films for a while, the two things came together.

My co-writer Christian White, he also had a grandparent with Alzheimer’s. Both of our grandparents worsened over the writing period, it was a weird process to put that into our art.

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Zavvi: And why did you want to tell this story about dementia and family through a horror lens?

Natalie: I suppose I already had a deep interest in horror, so I think my brain processes certain things in that way. Also when I started writing it, that was playing on my mind.

Also horror is an incredible genre to explore stories about fear, particularly something like body horror which relates to this idea of decay really well. It felt like a natural fit.

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Zavvi: Well it works brilliantly. The film also has a focus on female familial dynamics as well.

Natalie: I guess that also came about quite naturally, as it was my mum’s mum who had Alzheimer’s. Also it’s almost like you see your future reflected in your mother, and then by extension your grandmother.

There is a nice unity there visually, as well as a way to envision your future.

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Zavvi: This film is produced by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company (Nine Stories), as well as The Russo Brothers (AGBO). How did they come on board?

Natalie: So Nine Stories jumped on during late development through my US reps, which was great as we could do a couple drafts of the script with them, and they were really helpful with casting as well.

And then yeah, AGBO came on as executive producer and financier. Essentially as soon as they came on it was pre-lit.

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Zavvi: The three leads are excellent. What about them made you think they would be perfect for the roles?

Natalie: I had long been a fan of all three of them. Robyn Nevin is a national treasure here in Australia, she’s great.

There was no audition process, it was more creative conversations about who would be a good fit as a family. I remember there been a real ‘a-ha’ moment when Emily Mortimer’s name came up.

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Zavvi: One of the most striking things about the movie is the maze, the labyrinth within the house. Was that a challenge to design?

Natalie: Yes! To be honest it was also a joy to figure it out. My production designer, Steven Jones-Evans, is a bit of a genius. We had a bigger set originally, but unfortunately we were ridiculously over-budget so we had to take a red pen to it and try whittle it down.

That was heartbreaking at the time, but instead we made it modular so you could reset parts and it would look like different areas, which did make it a logistical nightmare.

And the repetition was built into the design anyways, we wanted her to feel like she was stuck in loops. Much in the same way people with Alzheimer’s, their brains can often get stuck in loops too.

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Zavvi: The black mould metaphor, the representation of decay, is very effective.

Natalie: It feels like something that that is natural to the idea of deterioration. I had also read something about how black mould can be really toxic, and how for the elderly it can cause fatality.

So it made sense in a real world way, as well as a metaphor for this growing, sinister thing.

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Zavvi: This house is in the middle of nowhere in a small town, which is another horror trope. I understand there was something more to that decision though?

Natalie: It relates to this idea of neglect. And it is not such a black-and-white issue but Edna’s isolation plays an important part of the story, and her behaviour is isolating herself even further.

What would make Alzheimer’s worse is a lack of human connection. So for it to start in that place, and for it to then be slowed down by being surrounded by the people that you love and still be able to enjoy your life through them, that seems like the journey of the film.

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Zavvi: I found the small and tight cast made the film feel even more claustrophobic.

Natalie: Yeah, I guess so. Also with Alzheimer’s, there’s nothing external that can really help you. There is a inevitably to someone’s decline, which in some way heightens the horror of it.

There are moments when Kay comes out of the house, for example she goes to the nursing home. But ultimately it’s something that has to be grappled with with the family. So the claustrophobia is an appropriate parallel.

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Zavvi: That ending, we will keep it spoiler free but it is incredibly striking. What would you like people to take away from it?

Natalie: The way we approached it was almost like a funeral rite, for example in Japan you wash the body before the funeral. It felt similar to that, an intimate, caring act of love.

I suppose it comes back to there is an inevitability to Edna’s decline, but I wanted to highlight the importance of connection in the face of that.

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Zavvi: And finally, what is next for you?

Natalie: Hopefully what is next is a project which is rooted in Japanese folk horror working with the same producers and same co-writer.

Relic is released in cinemas and on digital HD 30th October, with previews in Showcase cinemas on 29th October.

Check out our full range of horror films here.

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Emily Murray

Emily Murray

Editor

Emily is a journalist and film critic who unashamedly cries at most movies having got too emotionally attached. When not at the cinema, she is at home cuddling her cat Holmes, whilst binge watching New Girl.