“My taste is for films that are consciously playful with genre,” says Romola Garai. Her debut feature, Amulet, certainly fits into that category: The actor-turned-writer-director describes it as a cross between British kitchen-sink realism and 1970s-era Dario Argento.
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After Amulet premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Garai told Dread Central that her goal was for the film to feel uncomfortable—even confusing—to watch. To tell a story in which characters’ understanding of themselves is often changing, she felt that her visual style had to change throughout its runtime, too.
An ex-soldier, living homeless in London, is offered a place to stay at a decaying house inhabited by a young woman and her dying mother. As he starts to fall for her, he cannot ignore his suspicion that something sinister is going on.
Amulet is now in select theaters and available on VOD.
“Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a film with a contradictory, mash-up aesthetic,” she says. “Even in the act of putting it down on paper, I realized that this would be a film that, at its very core, lacked consistency. I wanted to create that visceral, ‘confused’ feeling to explore the themes in the film—about how a man who’s done something bad is in a moral wasteland and isn’t sure of his identity anymore.”
Amulet follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an ex-soldier haunted by his violent past. With help from a kindly nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), he tries to start a new chapter of his life as a live-in repairman for a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri) and her ailing mother.
Garai plants these story seeds to invite viewers inside Tomaz’s world, but refrains from defining the true nature of the characters that inhabit it. “The young woman’s identity isn’t clear either,” she says. “It makes you question, ‘Who’s the goodie and who’s the baddie?’”
To film Amulet’s early scenes, set in London, Garai opted for a naturalistic shooting scheme. When the setting moves to a vast forest, her shot choices are more deliberately constructed, to distance viewers from the action as if they’re watching a fairy tale. This stark contrast, she says, is by design.
“When we’re in the forest, it’s as if we’re opening up a book and saying, ‘Once upon a time…,’” Garai explains. “Fairy tale tropes clearly define who’s the goodie and who’s the baddie. So, when you shift from that back to something in a modern setting, it makes you feel like, ‘I’m not really sure what’s true anymore.’”
Some filmmakers might take the mandate of “confuse the audience” to its literal extreme—intentionally misdirecting even their own actors on set to keep them in the dark about the scenes they’re shooting as they shoot them. But Garai’s empathy for how actors work turned her against the idea of manipulating her cast in such a way.
“My style as a director, if I have one, is to be completely honest with the actors,” Garai says. “As an actor, I have a high level of respect for, and trust in, actors. I’m not at all interested in the kind of, ‘I’m going to tell you one piece of information and you another piece of information.’ I don’t do the puppet master thing. I’m pretty straightforward and just treat them as equals, as co-collaborators, and as human beings.”
While working with actors was familiar territory for Garai, other parts of her first time in the director’s chair were not. Amulet’s phantasmagoric climax required some elaborate special effects work, and she had to face its inevitable challenges with little preparation.
“I didn’t test enough, that was my big problem,” she recalls. “Any filmmaker out there who’s going to do this needs to know: You can’t just get to the set and say, ‘OK, now let’s do the effect!’ and assume that what you need to do has already been tried.”
Garai worked closely with her team to design the prosthetic suits they needed in advance. But when it came time to do the blood effects, the crew had to pull it off with no prior practice.
“We hadn’t physically put the rig on Alec before the day of shooting,” she says. “That made it a tense day. You’re putting the rig on the actor… then there’s blood coming out, but it’s not enough. Or, the blood’s coming out at the wrong time. Then, the puppeteer is in the shot and you have to work to get him out of the shot! Knowing that you’re not going to finish your day as you’re trying to make an effect work, you’re like, ‘My God, why didn’t we make time in the prep schedule to test this three weeks ago?!’”
Three weeks is also the amount of time Garai needed to write Amulet. (That’s even less time than the film’s brisk four-and-a-half-week shooting schedule.) She admits that that’s “not a good idea, normally”—and wishes she carved out more time to edit it, too. But she knew that speeding up that process would help attach producer Matthew James to the project early, and then they could take a year to develop the “extreme vision” of her first draft.
The thing Garai says horror filmmakers should understand, though, is that some things haven’t gotten any easier to do now than they were decades ago.
“Technology has moved forward in terms of visual effects, but there’s no huge leap forward in how to make blood spurt out,” she laughs. “Effects for blood work are the same now as they were in the 1930s: There’s a guy with a pump and you blow into a tube. It’s the same!”