One of this writer’s favorite films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Relic is now available on VOD and is currently playing at select drive-in theaters around the U.S., courtesy of IFC Midnight. Last week, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with co-writer/director Natalie Erika James as well as the film’s trio of terrifyingly terrific actresses—Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, and Robyn Nevin—for a roundtable discussion on their experiences collaborating together for Relic.
During the interview, they chatted about everything from their initial thoughts about the project, James’ wonderfully emotional script (which she co-wrote with Christian White), tackling their respective roles and the thematic elements of Relic, and more.
I would love to hear from the actresses, in terms of coming into this project. What was sort of the initial appeal of Relic that hooked you? And also, I was wondering if you could talk about the approach to your characters, in regards to exploring the generational divide between these women and how grief and the stresses of these thematic elements affect those differences.
Bella Heathcote: The script grabbed me. I just thought it was great. It's rare that you read a script like this, full stop, a horror script where you're emotionally invested. I didn't want to put it down. The end of the film just gut punched me in the best possible way. I think as far as the generational divide goes, I find that often, it's easier to be friendly with your grandparents than it is with your parents, because they're the ones that made the disciplining and set the boundaries and I loved how that was present in the script. I felt like I was really on Robyn's side and I was willfully misunderstanding mum's intentions. It was more fuel to the fire of whatever complexity was between us. I loved that. I loved that the relationships were really difficult, that they weren't all “Pollyanna” somehow.
Emily Mortimer: I agree. I felt that it was so recognizable and truthful, the feeling of going home, and going home to be with your parents and how that makes you feel both full of love and safe in a way, and yet also, full of all sorts of confused and strange emotions. I just felt like Natalie's script was really good in the very subtle way, where it was not banging these ideas over your head. It was very delicately done. The complications of being somebody's daughter and somebody's mother and however much you love the people that you're related to, where you can also feel an awful lot of pain and regret and confusion in their midst, too. That felt really right.
Robyn Nevin: It was the script that appealed to me quite powerfully when I read it. I'm a mother and a grandmother. It's certainly not my story, but I recognize so many elements in the story. I just instinctively understood it. There was much that was unsaid that I just understood and knew to be there. Generational divide is something I also understood because I'm living it. It also took me back to my own mother who died maybe 13 years ago, I think. I'm now feeling the guilt from that relationship from my side of it that I might have felt had I allowed it to be present when she was still alive. That all adds to the complexity of the work that you make. If you have all that inside you and that level of understanding and pain and sadness and complexity, all the words that we keep using, because they're all so relevant, that all feeds into the work.
I wanted to talk about the ending in that regard. It's very tender, but it's really audacious. It's a daring ending I think as well. It's not predictable. Natalie, were there other endings that you considered? And for the actresses, Emily, Bella, and Robyn, was that final scene filmed at the end of the shoot?
Natalie Erika James: Yeah, certainly. Yes. The ending was originally different in its first form. Probably in the first draft, but even the characters were slightly different. There was a husband character for Kay, Emily’s character. It was actually quite substantially different, but I will say that the sentiment was always the same and it always ended on a note of connection and then this horrific examination of aging and dementia. I would say in terms of what you see on the screen in the skin peeling, that came early mid-development. We had it in there for quite a while. It wasn't a last minute change, but the sentiment of that ending has always been there from the start.
Bella Heathcote: We did shoot two different versions, didn't we?
Natalie Erika James: Yeah. So in terms of the skin peeling, that was all the same. But the last note when Sam discovers the bruise on Kay’s back, we also had a version where Kay discovers a bruise on herself. I personally felt it was stronger that it was Sam’s discovery because it lends itself more to the cyclical nature of things, and in a way, Kay’s journey had come to an end, in terms of accepting what was happening and the state that she was in. It made sense to me to shift focus to Sam and the next generation.
Bella Heathcote: When did we shoot that? I feel like we shot towards the end, cause we were in that tin shed.
Natalie Erika James: It was Emily's last day, wasn't it? We had a big thing in that bedroom set.
Bella Heathcote: It's funny when you sit and talk about personal stories. I don't know how else to talk about grief without referencing personal stories, because I feel like it is so personal. I suppose the same goes for any heartbreak or anything like that. That's one of the things I loved about this film. One of the things that I loved about that last scene, because that idea of coming to terms with mortality or losing the people you love and the fear of hereditary diseases, which is certainly a fear that I've carried in my family, but it was so tender and loving and just that moment of acceptance after all that horror. I get emotional just thinking about that scene and also get emotional thinking about Emily's last day.
Robyn Nevin: I didn't see that scene until I saw the movie at Sundance and it was very, very effecting. For the entire movie, I'd just been sitting there looking at myself, thinking, “Oh God, maybe we could have done that a little bit better, Robyn.” But then in the scene where she's carrying her mother up the stairs, that's when I started to go, when the action within the scene of the peeling was just so extraordinary. I don't know what kind of imagination that comes from, Natalie, is all I have to say, but it was profoundly affecting and I didn't even quite understand why. It was something I had to think about in retrospect—very beautiful. But of course I did go through the prosthetics to provide for the skeleton that was presented.
Emily Mortimer: I feel what you both have said, the same is true for me. I mean, that scene, from the moment I read it to being in it and then to watching it, it was the same feeling that this is something that I couldn't even in a million years have imagined. This notion, it's so wild. It's so out there. So outrageous and strange and crazy and horrifying. And yet it feels so familiar. That was what was so extraordinary about it. It felt so right. It felt like such a right depiction of the feeling of helping someone that you love die or something, or helping them cast off their mortal coil, and how horrifying and difficult that process is and yet also how beautiful it ultimately is in a weird and strange way. I'm still staggered by it. It was just so, so cool.
Because this film deals with these heavy issues, did you guys learn anything about yourselves playing these roles or learn anything about your own fears?
Natalie Erika James: I think you always learn things about yourself through your writing, and a lot of the times you write intuitively and then you look back and you're like, “Wow, I didn't realize that was an issue.” It’s very illuminating, and it's even more illuminating when you read stuff that people have written about your work. They look at it in a way that you never would have considered. So yes, I've learned a lot about myself.
Bella Heathcote: Oh Lord, what did I learn about myself? I don't know if I learned about myself, because I feel like my grief is very close to the surface and it was wonderful to be able to explore that in the film. I remember talking to my therapist at the time, being like, "Well, I have to do this stuff at work," and she was like, "Well, what else are you going to do with it? This way, you can use it.” But I think dying is probably my predominant fear, which is strange, given that everyone is going to die at some point, but it's certainly something that's very present in my mind and particularly that moment at the end, losing someone to hereditary disease or perhaps falling ill to it myself, that's definitely something that I think about and I've thought about a lot since that film.
Robyn Nevin: I think it illuminated my relationship with my daughter for me, and also my deceased mother. That was useful. Interestingly, being the oldest person and being 78, the imminent death didn't affect me at all. I didn't have any sense of my own mortality through that. Maybe that's just suppression, but there were many sad moments, I have to say.
Emily Mortimer: Well, God, so many things for me. It made you think about so many things. It made you think about death, it made you think about your relationship with your mother or with your daughter, with your own mortality and stuff. I guess one of the things that really happened on that set was just a feeling of just how cool women are and that I've never had an experience of just working with three other women. I mean, that was my experience and I just loved it. It really did feel different, and it really was cool. It was really exciting in a way that I hadn't ever known before, because there's normally a guy around to complicate things in an annoying way. And without that, it was so fun and so exciting in a way that I hadn't experienced before.
In case you missed it, visit our online hub to catch up on all of our coverage of Relic, including an episode of our Corpse Club podcast with special guest Natalie Erika James.