With the recent limited theatrical and VOD release of critically acclaimed horror film “Relic”, Cinema Crazed had the chance to talk to filmmaker Natalie Erika James, who makes her feature film debut courtesy of IFC Midnight.
Just like with your short Creswick, the story of Relic is rooted in family, caring, wanting to be there, fear, and a few other surprise elements. How did you come up with these stories, that of Relic in particular?
Both stories were drawn from personal experience. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, so a lot of the inspiration came from unsettling moments I’d had with her and the experience of watching a loved one decline. I was interested in the shifting dynamics within a family, when the child has to start parenting the parent.
How did you go from Creswick to Relic?
My co-writer Christian White and I had already written a first draft of Relic when we shot Creswick, so in some ways it was reverse-engineered. We were wary of trying to shoehorn a feature into a short film, so instead we came up with a more succinct story to demonstrate the same tone, theme and setting in 10 minutes.
Please explain to us how you connected the elements in these stories with horror as these work so well together?
Thanks! I guess in some ways people who suffer from Alzheimer’s effectively live in multiple timelines – they can talk to people who aren’t there, they seemingly regress in age, etc – and as an observer there’s something almost frightening or seemingly supernatural about it.
When casting for Relic, how did you go about things? The cast is incredibly talented and does amazing work here. Was is about the right person for the part or about their connection with each other or any other reason?
The casting process wasn’t like the auditioning I’d done in the past. It was more about having creative discussions around which combination of actors could work as a family. I had long been a fan of all three of our leads, and luckily they all responded to the script and I was able to meet them and chat in through in person.
What is your process when connecting with cast and crew for a film, especially one that feels as intimate and close to you as Relic?
In pre-production, I spent a lot of time getting to know the actors, and just sharing life experiences with each other. Almost ‘trauma bonding’, if you want to call it that. As a director I think you owe it to your actors to be open and vulnerable, given the lengths they go through in the filming process. It’s definitely a mutual building of trust.
Luckily a few of the crew, including my DOP Charlie Sarroff were long time collaborators, so there’s already a shorthand that you have on set together.
Your shorts and now your feature have had good festival runs, how important have festivals been for you and your work?
I’ve found traveling with a short around to festivals to be incredibly useful in the lead up to making a feature film. The amount of industry people you can meet incidentally or otherwise is really concentrated and I also managed to secure US representation through attending some festivals in the states. It’s also helpful in starting or cementing creative partnerships. Even though we live in the same city, I actually met my co-writer Christian for the first time halfway across the world at the Palm Springs Shortsfest.
As some know, you have a few short films under your belt and this is your first feature. How was it transitioning from shorts to feature film and what were the best and worst parts of this transition?
(laughs) There are definitely some challenges in stepping up to direct a feature! I think the endurance required is the biggest adjustment. But at the same time, on smaller projects you’re often wearing multiple hats and at least partially funding the thing yourself. It was amazing to focus solely on the job of directing and have everything else taken care of.
How did you manage to snag the producers you have, including the Russo Brothers (Avengers, etc.) and Jake Gyllenhaal, for your first feature?
My Australian producers at Carver Films already had a history of teaming up with international partners, so it was something we were on the lookout for from the get-go. Having US representation definitely opened up some doors, and we had a bunch of meetings with potential US partners. Through creative conversations, Nine Stories and Agbo Films felt like the best fit.
What is your process in deciding which film to work on next?
I’m drawn to stories that have something really strong to say, and have some kind of elevated element outside of reality. For me, filmmaking is an incredible way to process the world and ask philosophical questions.
What do you have on your plate next that you can tell us about and when can we get to see it?
I’m writing a few projects at the moment, all of them in subgenres of horror. We’re still in development, so I daresay it’ll be a little while until the next film is released!
Thank you Natalie!
You can get more information on Relic, now in limited release and on VOD, from its distributor.