Writer-director Rose Glass discusses her first feature, Saint Maud, making a thrilling and funny horror film, and getting comfortable working with actors.
This is an excerpt of the essay which appears in the ebook Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and The Struggle for Female Agency. Get your copy of the ebook here.
One of the best surprises at TIFF, Rose Glass’ Saint Maud is an effective thrill-ride of a horror film that is as funny as it is terrifying. The feature debut centres on the young, extremely pious nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark), as she moves into the mansion of celebrated retired dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) to take care of her. Maud is good at her job, but soon cannot help judging the liberal ways of her mistress; the dancer — much more of a social animal than the shy Maud is — can immediately tell. Amanda initially takes great pleasure in poking fun at the extremely conservative behaviour of her young employee, and it’s easy to laugh with her. But the film thankfully does not go down that predictable route; Amanda’s mockery soon turns into genuine concern.
As Maud progressively loses her grasp on reality, her actions become more unpredictable and extreme, and the mild chuckles of the film’s earlier moments make way for sheer hysteria. Although we may be laughing, we cannot help but empathise with Maud to some degree, simply because the film does not give us a choice. Through thick and thin, Glass stands by her lead character even at her most unhinged. It is this kind of faithfulness to its protagonist — this kind of humanity — that makes Saint Maud stand out from most genre fare. Where the large majority of horror films are too cynical to stick to their premise, Rose Glass’ impressive debut follows through with unwavering devotion.
I talked to Glass in Toronto about the process of writing the film, the choice of its perspective, the question of tone, and the challenge of not losing the audience in the film’s most unexpected moments.
Seventh Row (7R): Can you tell us about the genesis of Saint Maud?
Rose Glass: I started thinking about it just around the time I was finishing film school, so about five years ago. The initial scenario I thought was interesting was about a young woman — I think she was even a nun, at the beginning — who hears the voice of God in her head and falls in love with him. So it was going to be this weird, sort of kinky, sadomasochistic relationship between a nun and the voice of God in her head. I thought that sounded fun.
It developed from there, and obviously, we spent the last few years working on it. A lot of that stuff ended up falling away, and it turned into something quite different. But I guess the core remained — having something that is set in a very interior kind of world.
7R: It’s interesting that she was initially a nun because I feel like the aspect of her being a housekeeper or live-in nurse adds a grittiness to Saint Maud, which adds to the horror of it.
Rose Glass: Oh, good! As soon as you get into stuff which has any kind of medical groundings or connotations, I find that kind of stuff — bodies, medicine — very interesting. And anything that makes people a little squeamish is good.
I think the nun fell away pretty quickly; I think it was even set in the 1960s. We’ve kept a sort of timeless feel. But that was the idea that I was initially attracted to. And then it felt a bit too on-the-nose, if she was a nun. A big sort of progression was getting rid of her growing up in a really intensely religious background.
As soon as I knew that it was set in the present day, that she was a nurse, and that she didn’t have any sort of religious background at all, then we decided the fate business was actually something she’d come to herself in her own way. Her version of Christianity is quite warped; it’s like a weird form of self-care!
7R: How did you work out the perspective for Saint Maud? Why did you choose to always have us with Maud throughout? Her ideas and her religious interest are strange; the number of people in the audience who would completely side with her is very limited if not inexistant. How did you think of the audience’s alignment and perspective throughout?
Rose Glass: I’m always interested in anti-heroes and characters who are deeply flawed. I’m interested in stories where you see characters doing seemingly unacceptable, or kind of crazy, bad, monstrous things, but hopefully, through the experience of watching the film, you kind of put the audience in their experience enough to realise that maybe there’s something more universal in the motivations behind it. Maud’s behaviour may be sort of monstrous, and she does terrible things, but the hope is that you present her as a real person: she’s funny; she’s arrogant; she’s vulnerable; and she’s all these other things. Even though a lot of stuff that happens is very strange, it comes from a misguided place of just wanting to connect with people, to not be lonely, to feel valued and seen — all these very fundamental, normal things that I think, I hope, everyone else wants.
She obviously goes about it in an unhealthy way. And she needs help. But she’s the hero of her own story. I thought if it were too naturalistic or realistic, then we’d sort of see her a bit too much as a victim, a bored and lonely girl, so depressing… And I’m sure some of it is a bit down, but it was important to me that it’s a really fun experience for people to watch. She experiences these ecstatic highs, as well as lows.
Want to read the rest of the interview? Order a copy of our ebook on feminist horror beyond empowertainment here.