'Relic' director Natalie Erika James reveals the unusual film that scared her as a kid (exclusive)

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·14 min read

Watch: Spooky trailer for horror movie Relic

Natalie Erika James may be scaring cinema audiences with horror movie Relic, but she was easily spooked as a child — even by Steven Spielberg’s benign family adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Relic is heading to British cinemas in time for Halloween, telling the story of three generations of women dealing with their matriarch’s dementia.

Read more: The sinister E.T. sequel that was never made

It’s an intense and complex emotional drama as well as a horror film, but the Aussie director hasn’t always had a stomach for the macabre.

The Shining, I watched really young,” James tells Yahoo Movies UK. “But going younger, E.T. That was the kind of kid I was, that E.T. was just terrifying.”

Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Now that she has stopped hiding behind the sofa from bug-eyed alien buddies, James says horror is the perfect vehicle for the stories she wants to tell.

She says: ”I am very much drawn to exploring the darker side of what it means to be human and I think horror is a great way to externalise your fears.

“I was a really scared kid growing up so, for me, maybe it’s a way of working through a lot of s***.”

Read more: Sinister crowned scariest movie of all time

James says the inspiration for Relic came about when she visited her grandmother on her mother’s side, who was living with Alzheimer’s.

“The house she lived in had always really scared me as a child,” says the filmmaker.

Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)
Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)

“I used to have crazy nightmares there and going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was my worst nightmare.

“I think those childhood fears were sort of lingering in the place and so I think it felt quite natural to combine those things together.”

Read more: Becky actor reveals film that scared her most

Relic premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and subsequently played for UK audiences at the London Film Festival earlier this month.

The movie has received strong critical notices as it has rolled out across the globe, with a current approval rating of 91% on aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

Read the full interview with Natalie Erika James, in which she discusses elevated horror, casting an Australian icon and the folk horror movie she’s making next...

Natalie Erika James attends the Sundance Film Festival premiere for 'Relic' on January 25, 2020. (Photo by Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images)
Natalie Erika James attends the Sundance Film Festival premiere for 'Relic' on January 25, 2020. (Photo by Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images)

Yahoo Movies UK: The rollout for this film has been pretty lengthy since its festival premiere in January. Having had a proper premiere at Sundance, what has it been like to be on this weird path of not being able to be at festivals in person?

Natalie Erika James: On the one hand, it has been very heart-breaking but, on the other hand, I’m still so grateful we were able to squeeze that first premiere in. Generally, I would have to say I hated watching it with an audience. It feels very exposing to do it for the first time. So I’m glad I don’t have to repeat that, but not having the chance to meet other filmmakers at festivals and have those experiences is sad.

This is such an interesting story for a horror movie to tell, with its focus on ageing and illness. Where did the idea come from to tell that story and to use horror as a way to tell it?

I think it was a combination of things. I already had a deep interest in horror and had made a few horror shorts, so it was a genre I was already working in. When I started writing the film, I was visiting my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s.

The house she lived in had always really scared me as a child. I used to have crazy nightmares there and going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was my worst nightmare. I think those childhood fears were sort of lingering in the place and so I think it felt quite natural to combine those things together.

For a lot of the film, it’s not the people that are scary. It’s the house. I think that’s really interesting.

Bella Heathcote in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)
Bella Heathcote in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)

I am a big fan of Gothic horror literature, like those kind of ghost stories where there’s a real restraint to them. There’s always a question about whether there’s something real or something explained by other people or something supernatural. There was certainly that kind of consideration while we were writing it.

And that leads me on to asking about your cinematic inspirations for this film. Are there horror movies and horror directors who fed into this?

I’m a huge David Cronenberg fan and you can probably see all of the body horror references. I’m a massive Asian horror fan as well. Some of my favourite directors are like Kurosawa Kiyoshi or Miike Takashi, so films like Pulse or Audition or Dark Water. I love how they are really psychological horrors and often combine emotion with the horror. There’s often a sense of compassion for the ghost or the menace itself, which was something I felt was particularly suited to Relic. It’s not our intent to vilify Edna. It’s more about feeling compassion for her.

I always pointed to The Orphanage by JA Bayona as a comparison when we were getting it financed. It has the ability to really connect with you on an emotional level, as well as taking you on this journey.

When you look at the producer credits for this film, you see big names like the Russo Brothers and Jake Gyllenhaal. How did those people become involved in your movie?

I already had Australian producers on board and they had a history of working with American partners, so it was always something we were open to. I made a short film that was a kind of proof of concept for Relic and I travelled around a bit with that film. It was enough to get me some US representation and it was through my reps that it opened up some doors.

We actually did quite a few meetings with potential producing partners and investors. But AGBO Films [the Russos’ company] and Nine Stories [run by Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker] were wonderful. I think they really understood what the intention of the film was and that it wasn’t going to be a conventional horror with scares every 10 minutes. It was a great partnering.

It’s interesting what you said at the end there. Did you have any concerns about how some horror fans might react to a film that doesn’t have that many conventional “scares” or gore?

Emily Mortimer in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)
Emily Mortimer in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)

I think you always have to have audience in mind when you tell a story, but it’s more about where you’re placing the audience than their reaction. Ultimately as a director, your instincts are the only compass that you have. If you’re going off what you think other people are going to want or expect, there are so many different types of audience that you’re going to get lost very quickly.

You have to be careful, particularly in marketing the film, that you’re not selling something that isn’t what the film is. But it has always been the intention to straddle the drama just as much as the horror.

I was talking to Saint Maud director Rose Glass the other day on a similar topic of the term “elevated horror” and how it has become controversial. What’s your take on that and whether your film fits into it?

I feel like people find it offensive because there has been so much great horror over the years that it’s not anything new. It’s not like The Babadook and Hereditary completely created a genre, I don’t think. Certainly there has been more diversity in the voices of horror directors, which is why we’re seeing such a renaissance of amazing content being produced. I feel like it doesn’t matter what it’s called. The film is either interesting or it’s not, right?

And I think horror is a genre that does lend itself to invention and ideas. Is that part of what makes it so attractive to you?

I think so, yes. I am very much drawn to exploring the darker side of what it means to be human and I think horror is a great way to externalise your fears. I was a really scared kid growing up so, for me, maybe it’s a way of working through a lot of s***.

When you were growing up, did you have a horror film you watched probably too young and it terrified you?

Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

The Shining I watched really young. But going younger, E.T. That was the kind of kid I was, that E.T. was just terrifying.

At the core of your movie, you have these three amazing women. How did you go about finding the right people to play those roles?

It was more about creative conversations we had once the script was finished. We didn’t have single actors in mind. It’s interesting trying to cast a family as well because you have to think about whether they’re going to be believable as a family. There’s certainly a lot of consideration that goes into it.

But it was definitely an aha moment when we thought of Emily Mortimer. I had long been a fan of all three of them. Bella Heathcote, I actually saw some of her Australian work first before she moved to LA. There has always been a forthrightness to her that is kind of wonderful and she’s the most down to Earth person.

Robyn Nevin is a bit of a national treasure in Australia. She has been on the stage for decades and decades. She’s a very funny woman too and does a lot of TV comedy. I needed someone with a lot of range and she certainly is a force.

I think a force is very much the right word to describe her. Particularly with her background in comedy, did she have reservations about taking on such a dark and complicated role?

Robyn Nevin in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)
Robyn Nevin in 'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)

I don’t think the darkness would have scared her. She has done Shakespeare and played the lead in so much theatre. She really gets her hands dirty on stage, so I don’t think that was it.

But she likes to say that she has never seen a horror movie before, other than like Rosemary’s Baby or something. So it certainly wasn’t an interest of hers. I think she was more drawn to the relationships. She read the script and said she loved it, but really she was ignoring the big print and it was just about the dialogue and what was happening between the characters.

When I think about the relationships, I immediately jump to that final scene. I think it’s so powerful and interesting. Was there any pressure to do a “scarier” final scene and end on a big jolt as so many other horrors do?

We definitely had some meetings where we would have pushback and people would say it’s not the standard way to end. But I think the ending of the film is always like your contention of what the film is about, so it was never going to be anything other than this emotional note.

The script, from its first iteration, changed superficially so much but it always ended with a family coming together at the end of someone’s life. That’s the heart of the film and its core, so it wouldn’t have felt right to make it any other way.

I thought it was a really impressive ending. We spoke about the casting and I think it’s interesting how few male characters there are in the film. Was that a very conscious choice?

The first draft, I think, had a husband for [Mortimer’s character] Kay and a brother for [Heathcote’s character] Sam. It just felt like those characters were extraneous to the meat of the drama and the really interesting characters. Part of it came about naturally because my mother’s mother was the one who had Alzheimer’s, so that tri-generational thing was built in to what I was working from.

There’s just a really nice simplicity or unity in the idea of seeing your future reflected in your mother and, by extension, your grandmother as well. It underlines the cyclical nature of ageing and how the child has to become the parent.

'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)
'Relic'. (Credit: Signature Entertainment)

And one of the few men in the film is Chris Bunton, who is a disabled man and plays a very sweet character. It’s particularly interesting in horror, which has a long history of using disabled people as scary things. Were you thinking consciously about changing stereotypes of the genre with your casting?

I have a co-writer, Christian White, who is a novelist as well. He and I often talk about the tropes of horror and particularly the way horror has been a bit exploitative, traditionally, in terms of vilifying people who are outside of the heteronormative, white, male experience — whether it’s mental illness, pregnant women or elderly people, whatever that “other” category is.

The psychology of it thrives on the otherness of those minorities. Certainly our intention was in breaking that down and doing something that steps outside of the creepy boy next door or whatever it is. He’s such a wonderful performer as well.

As you look forward to what you’re doing next, do you see yourself staying in the horror world?

Yes. My tastes are a bit broader. I’m a huge fan of sci-fi as well and magical realism — anything with a heightened element. For me, it’s really about the ideas and what the film is saying that is most important, and the character’s journey. But I’m writing a few things at the moment and they’re all in the horror genre, so it’s safe to say yes.

I wanted to ask about the film in terms of Australian cinema. We’re in a real boom period, not just in horror but with all of the stuff Justin Kurzel is doing. How exciting is it to be an Australian filmmaker right now?

Yeah, it’s cool. I think we have such a wealth of talent here and some brilliant film schools as well, which train up a lot of cinematographers, production designers and stuff as well as writers and directors.

Someone described it recently to me as the Australian New Wave. I don’t know if that’s how we’ll look back on it but, if I could be counted in it, that it’d be amazing.

Watch: Trailer for Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang

You mentioned some of your upcoming work. Are you able to say anything about what you’re doing next?

One of them is a folk horror, so I’m taking more traditional British folk horror conventions and using Japanese mythology instead. It’s a Japanese-language film set on an island off the coast of Japan.

I look forward to seeing that. Relic is getting a big screen release in the UK in time for Halloween. Do you think this is the sort of movie people should see on the big screen and, as a horror fan, what will you be watching for Halloween?

I think any horror film is best enjoyed with other people and there’s nothing like a cinema. It’s like comedy, so the people around you amplify the experience. Also, with a film like this, you want to hear it and have the full cinema experience with the sound and the darkness, which is a massive boon to watching any horror film.

Read more: Halloween 2020 viewing guide

As for what I’m going to watch, I’ve recently signed up to [horror streaming service] Shudder, so probably something on Shudder.

Relic is released in cinemas and on digital HD from 30 October with previews at Showcase Cinemas on 29 October.