Director Natalie Erika James and stars Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin on Filming ‘Relic’ and Bonding on Set

(L-R) Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, and Bella Heathcote in Relic. The three women pose in a family portrait, looking directly at the camera with sombre expressions.
Images courtesy of IFC Midnight

“I definitely felt like there was a space that was created between us that just felt really safe. I haven’t experienced that on a set before. There usually is a lot more yelling that takes place.” Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin are bonding over their experience on the set of Relic, the latest critically acclaimed horror film from IFC Films, who also brought us Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ exceptional Swallow and Malgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb this year alone.  “Wow! I’ve only ever been on my own set so that’s amazing to hear,” chimes in first time director Natalie Erika James. It’s hard to believe that Relic is James’ first feature film. Every shot is expertly framed, every movement choreographed to perfection, every scene an absolute masterclass of atmospheric filmmaking. Not to mention the three lead performances, courtesy of Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin, which are among the best of the year. It’s the type of debut that will undoubtedly launch James – who is currently prepping for her next feature, a folk horror story set in Japan – into the upper echelon of prestige horror filmmakers, firmly cementing her status as an exciting new voice in the genre alongside Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers and Jennifer Kent.

Relic centers on Kay (Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Heathcote) who, after discovering that Kay’s mother Edna (Nevin) has disappeared, return to their quiet hometown to track her down. Edna eventually finds her way back home but it soon becomes obvious that she is not the same person she once was. Much like Aster’s Hereditary and Kent’s The Babadook, Relic takes real life experiences and trauma, in this case chronic illness, mortality and generational divide, and filters them through a horror lens, portraying dementia as a sinister supernatural force that feeds on a family’s underlying resentment and attempts to destroy them from the inside. It’s an incredibly intriguing premise, one that director James has been developing for years. “I actually found notebook that I had when I first began writing Relic and I saw the first line that I had written on it which was ‘young woman tries to save her grandma in a house that appears bigger on the inside than it is on the outside’,” she says. “The ending was also originally different in the first draft. Even the characters were slightly different. There was a husband character for Kay and a brother for Sam. It was substantially different but the sentiment was always the same. It always ended on a note of connection amidst this kind of horrific examining of ageing and dementia.”

Emily Mortimer as Kay in Relic. She wears a bright blue raincoat with the hood up.

“I don’t know what kind of imagination comes from Natalie,” wonders Nevin as the conversation shifts to the inspiration behind the film. “[Natalie is] funny, bright, down to earth and normal [but] also kind of crazy, of course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t really be interested [in working with her],” adds Mortimer. “I suppose it’s just an accumulation of everything that you consume in your life and all the horror films, the gothic literature and the art that you research,” muses James on what drove her to make Relic. “You do a lot of visual research as well to come up with the imagery too. It’s just an accumulation of ideas.” One sequence in particular, easily the most haunting and visceral in the film, was directly inspired by a recurring nightmare James had throughout her childhood. “I used to have really graphic nightmares about my mom dying and I’d find her as a skeleton,” she reflects.

Relic is very much a slow burn, exploring the psyches of the three women before it explodes into an unrelenting experience of a third act that starts off with an intense, claustrophobic sequence where Sam suddenly finds herself trapped in a constantly shifting, constricting and disorienting house, a direct metaphor for how the mind is affected by dementia. “[Filming that scene] was just as intense as it looked. I was in there maybe four or five days and it was just a lot of running around, screaming, banging on walls,” recalls Heathcote. “It was pretty gnarly. I was glad to be out of the Labyrinth.” The Labyrinth refers to a replica of the set that was built on a soundstage, one of three different filming locations for the film, which also included 2 different houses. “One house in Melbourne was the exterior and there was another one that was largely interior,” says James. “And then in the soundstage, we built the upstairs bedrooms and we had to rebuild parts of the hallway as well to give it that connected tissue to make it feel seamless so our production designer Steven Jones-Evans did a phenomenal job concocting all that. Then of course, the Labyrinth itself was a set built on a soundstage. For budget reasons, we had to make it kind of modular so that we could take out areas and put up different walls to make it feel larger than it actually was, so [the process consisted of] lots of creative problem solving.”

Bella Heathcote as Sam in Relic. Sam is in the bath, looking over her shoulder at something out of the frame.

While Relic is chockfull of intense jump scares and spine-chilling visuals, the heart and soul of the film – and a huge reason as to why it works – is the powerful bond between the three leads. Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin dive headfirst into their characters, delivering fearless and vulnerable performances on par with some of the best in the genre. “Everybody was very open and quite at ease from the start and very much themselves so as individuals we were just relaxed about being who we were,” says Nevin of the process of being on set. “I really felt like we were all in it together and we could laugh at ourselves when things got really dark which was really lovely,” agrees Heathcote. “The material was so dark. I definitely felt like between Natalie and Emily and Robin [and I], there was a space that was created between us that just felt really safe to go there and like there would be someone to kind of throw a hand down into the hole and pull you out afterwards.” James couldn’t have been more elated with her cast’s exceptional performances. “It’s just a gift that these guys have given me,” she gushes.

With glowing reviews and a strong start at the US box office (Relic is the #1 film in the country at the time of writing), Relic has been registering with viewers on a very personal level, a sentiment shared by the film’s cast as well. “I felt that it was just sort of recognizable and truthful, the feeling of going home to be with your parents and how that makes you feel full of love and safe in a way, and yet also full of all sorts of confusion and strange emotions,” says Mortimer. “I just felt like it was Natalie’s script was really good in the most kind of subtle and not banging over the head. It was very delicately done, the complications of being somebody’s daughter and somebody’s mother and how much you love the people you’re related to [but how] you can also feel pain, regret and confusion in their midst too.” It’s a feeling shared by Nevin as well. “I’m a mother and grandmother. It’s certainly not my story but I recognized so many elements in it. I instinctively understood it,” she says.

“I couldn’t in a million years have imagined the ideas [in this film]. It’s so wild and so out there and so outrageous and strange and crazy and horrifying and yet it feels so familiar,” reiterates Mortimer. “It felt so right. It felt like such a right rendition or depiction of the feeling of kind of helping someone that you love die, 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 cool.”

Relic is now available on iTunes and other VOD services in the US and is currently streaming on Stan in Australia.

by Ahmad W.

Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favourite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.

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