One of this writer’s favorite films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Relic, a stunning feature-length directorial debut from filmmaker Natalie Erika James. Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote, Relic is centered around a family of women who are at odds and the tragedies that bring them together through the horrors of Alzheimer’s.
While in Park City earlier this year, Daily Dead was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with James as well as with Heathcote and Nevin about their experiences collaborating together on Relic, how genre storytelling helps heighten dramatic stories, and more.
Relic hits select drive-in theaters this Fourth of July weekend, and will arrive in a handful of regular theaters and on VOD beginning on July 10th, courtesy of IFC Films.
Natalie, let’s go ahead and start with you. I know this is a personal story and I was hoping that you could talk about putting yourself out there on a personal level like this. Because that's not always an easy thing to do as an artist, but Relic feels very raw and very relatable in so many different ways.
Natalie Erika James: Yeah, I think it's great. It definitely comes from a personal place, but I think what's great about genre is that it allows you to tell your story in a very heightened world, right? So it's not like cinéma vérité, where you're recreating conversations word for word or your family can recognize their character on screen exactly as they are. So, I think there's like an inherent distance that you can obscure your family's personal story just by virtue of it being a genre film.
And we've always talked about capturing the essence of the experience, as opposed to a blow by blow of how it would have been. So, I think that it's certainly emotional and there were certainly times when obviously in the script writing process, and during the shoot as well, where you are dealing with your own shit at the same time. You almost have to split your brain into two and go, "Okay, I can deal with that later. Let's just focus on making the film and just trust that the two will marry in a way that's meaningful."
And for you ladies, what was the initial appeal for you, in terms of coming aboard Relic and taking on your characters? Was there something in particular that, when you read the script, you knew you needed to be a part of this project?
Robyn Nevin: What struck me about the script was the relationship between the three women, the dysfunctional grandmother, mother, or grandchild. The script was quite spare, but quite profound. I thought it was amazing how it captured the sadness of the pain of the relationships in that family. It's a terribly sad little family. I think that's why at the end it was so moving to see the love between them.
I just loved the script. I didn't know Natalie. She hadn't done any feature films, but I loved the script, so we had a long conversation while I was at the hairdressers, on the telephone. Then, we met in L.A. face-to-face and I liked her very much. And so you trust your instincts. Good script. You like the director. That's a very good place to start from.
Bella Heathcote: I should have gone before Robyn. Robyn said it best [laughs]. But I saw Natalie’s proof of concept, and I just thought it was really interesting and the script was just fantastic, particularly because the relationship between these three women wasn't idealized at all. It was kind of messy. I find that it's rare in scripts because people think, “Oh, they're not likable unless they really relate to each other in some sort of non-existent perfect way.” I find I come up against that a lot in stories, particularly around women.
It's like women have to be likable or something for people to want to watch them, or they can’t have any conflict. That’s not authentic. So, I think I was really, really into that messy aspect of this story.
Did you all get a lot of time to work things out ahead of time, in terms of the script and the characters and their relationships? I know when you're doing indie film, you've got to make every single moment count, so I was curious about the preparation that went into making Relic.
Bella Heathcote: I feel like we had a few days [of] rehearsal leading up to it.
Natalie Erika James: We did, which was more about discussions. We didn't really rehearse scenes, necessarily. It was just going through the script and the characters so we could build these backstories.
Bella Heathcote: Which was helpful.
Natalie Erika James: And just talking about life, really. I feel like that’s always the most important thing.
Bella Heathcote: It was our way of finding points to connect on as people. I remember there was a series of circumstances that prevented Emily from being there at that time, though, but she just dove in head first when she got to set, and she was just fantastic.
Natalie Erika James: I'd had a few Skype calls with her prior to that and she'd done quite a bit of dialect coaching work as well.
Robyn Nevin: Her accent in this is so good.
Natalie Erika James: I don't know how she did it, because an Australian accent is not an easy thing to do.
Robyn Nevin: It's so weird how flawless her accent was. She's so great.
Natalie, I'd love to talk about the visuals in this film, because the house itself becomes this thing that weighs over everything. I also really loved the sequences outside, as it’s lush and it feels very damp, which really adds to the mood of everything. What was the collaborative process like between you and your DP, Charlie [Sarroff]?
Natalie Erika James: Because a lot of the film has to do with decline and deterioration, we wanted the cinematography to mirror that. So, at the start of the film, everything is quite squared off. There are a lot of wides, just in the use of shot size, and we slowly wanted to destabilize that as the film progressed.
Towards the end of the film, there's a lot more handheld work. It's much more claustrophobic. There are sequences where we lit it with purely just an iPhone, whereas at the start of the film, we introduce you to a world that is much more centered, I suppose. We start off at more of a distance to the characters, but as you slowly get to know them and you go through this horrible journey with them, the camera work mirrors that intimacy and some disorientation, too.
This may be something that you all have some perspective on. Do you feel like there's something in particular about setting this story within the realm of the genre of storytelling that really heightens the horrors of what's happening between these women? Because you could have done Relic as a straight drama and it would've been just as compelling.
Natalie Erika James: I think, just for me as a storyteller, I tend to gravitate towards darker stories, and genre has always been a big love of mine growing up. So, when I write, and I co-wrote this script with Christian White, I like to tell my stories through this lens. It's just a darker version of capturing the essence of something and elevating that into a thrilling ride, where you are keeping the drama and the emotion at its center.
Bella Heathcote: When I read it, I thought that it was such a genius idea because Alzheimer's is so terrifying. It's terrifying and just the fact that it's not more commonly used as the basis for a horror film is mind-boggling to me.
Natalie Erika James: I think the depiction of mental health can be a little bit problematic in horror as well. It was really important that Edna [is] very sympathetic all throughout this story, and that you do get glimpses of her own experiences in everything that’s going on as well. It's not just about an outsider judging her as this crazy old lady or something, and I hope audiences really align with her character as well.
In case you missed it, visit our online hub to catch up on our previous coverage of Relic.
[Photo Credit: Above photo of Natalie Erika James courtesy of Ben Morgan and Sundance Institute.]