How ‘Relic’ Director Natalie Erika James Turned Personal Pain Into Heartfelt Horror

Editors’ Note: Some Relic spoilers ahead.

When Natalie Erika James’ Relic premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, her parents sat alongside her in the front row of Park City, Utah’s Ray Theater. They had only just lost James’ grandmother to Alzheimer’s disease, and watching this horror story that mirrored their own made the pain of her recent passing sting even more than usual.

“We had a nice debrief on the night after the screening and we all teared up a bit,” James recalls. “It was obviously emotional. I think that’s the best thing: If a film can help you deal with your shit and there’s some form of catharsis in that, then that’s wonderful.”

That frosty Saturday night marked the first time James’ parents had ever seen their daughter’s debut feature.

“I was so pleased because they really got it—especially the film’s depiction of ‘The Other,’” James says. “The Other” in Relic is the strange creature that Edna (Robyn Nevin), a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, slowly morphs into as she becomes increasingly alienated from her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote).

“It’s such a fragile, sympathetic creature,” James continues. “But that’s the reality. At the end of her life, my grandmother was stick-thin and almost catatonic, like ‘The Other’.”

James’ talent for interpreting personal experiences is one of her greatest strengths. It’s helped the Australian-Japanese writer-director develop a unique voice early in her career, and it fuels the nightmarish reveal of “The Other” as Kay peels off layers of Edna’s skin in a bathtub during Relic’s body horror climax.

“In Japan, we bathe our deceased loved ones,” James explains. “So, when Emily and I shot that scene, we approached it in much the same way—like a ritual funeral rite. The shedding of skin is also about seeing what’s underneath a person. Throughout the film, the family builds up a resistance to Alzheimer’s and what it means for them. Emily’s character is able to confront that head-on—in a visceral way because it’s a genre film, but really what it’s about is accepting your parents’ mortality and loving them while dealing with grief in whatever way you can.”

The transformation scene is perhaps the defining moment in Relic: It looks unflinchingly at how a daughter’s love for her mother endures in the face of the ugliest and most alien of circumstances. James shared a number of phone calls with Mortimer before she was on the ground in Australia for the shoot, and believes that the bond she built with her lead off-screen was key to the scene’s power.

“That’s the best way to understand somebody else’s point of view, and I also found it to be helpful in the writing process as well,” James says. “Half the time, we would just tell each other stories, talk about what makes us cry and what makes us laugh, and build ideas off of that. Emily has amazing instincts and she’s wonderful in that scene because she’s drawing from her own personal relationships. Her father passed away a while ago, but she understands that particular kind of grief. That’s why she’s so effective in that scene.”

James says that Mortimer didn’t approach her performance by thinking, “I’m in a horror film”—but she stresses that “the genre stuff on top of the emotion of the scene is icing on the cake.”

Of all those “icing on the cake” production elements, prosthetic FX remain at the top of the horror moviemaking list. And until making Relic, James had not yet worked with animatronics. “We had this amazing team fly down from Britain, and I was blown away by the amount of detail and nuance that they could create in ‘The Other’s’ facial expressions,” she says. “They do it with little remote controls and it looks like they’re operating a toy car.”

She was equally amazed by how much she and her crew could ramp up the film’s intensity by experimenting with sound.

“The visceral body-horror element to the bathing scene comes from the sound design,” she says. “Because what does flesh peeling sound like, right? So, you have to find all these things to recreate that noise, and we used chicken fillets being pulled off the bone. Then, because Edna lets out this guttural death rattle toward the end, we needed sounds that would capture her deteriorating lung capacity.”

Originally, the sound designers experimented with dragon sounds for Edna’s breathing, but nothing quite worked. Until… “Eventually, two of the sound design assistants became very ill during the Melbourne winter and we ended up using their grunts to supplement Robin’s performance,” James laughs. “There was all sorts of fun stuff like that.”

The only things more essential to Relic’s impact on audiences than its FX are its sense of place and sense of pace.

For James, any gothic clichés were to be avoided at all costs. The production design team instead opted for a light palette of creams, beiges, light greens, and pinks to give Kay, Edna, and Sam’s house a sense of warmth and familiarity. “That way, we could start to degrade that cozy feeling and fuck with it throughout the film,” she laughs.

To show the family’s shifting perspectives as their reality is warped, James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff followed certain visual rules when shooting their locations. “In the beginning of the film there are a lot of wide shots that are distanced from the characters, centered framing, and slower camera moves,” James says. “As Edna’s deterioration progresses, the cinematography becomes off-kilter, there’s a lot more handheld, and the axis of the shots starts to tilt.”

Throughout Relic, James pivots away from scenes of narrative importance to non-linear shots of unsettling atmosphere. It’s in those moments, she says, that the audience can step back from the characters and take in their surroundings. Telling a story in this kind of cadence isn’t something every horror director has the patience for, but James wisely trusts that breaking up the action will allow her to catch viewers off guard when it matters most.

“In terms of pacing, the film starts off as a slow burn and then ramps up quickly,” she says. “I wanted to capture the sense of a loved one slowly turning. When you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you adjust to the point of thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t too bad…’ But anything can suddenly turn on its head at any time. So, there are a lot of moments of tension in the film that don’t quite ‘pay off’—or that keep you on edge, but then don’t turn into full-blown scares. You might start to think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not gonna go there…’ I wanted to build that into the script so that you’re lulled into a false sense of security—like the lobster in the pot that doesn’t realize it’s in boiling water until it’s too late.”



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