Writer-director Rose Glass discusses her first feature, Saint Maud, making a thrilling and funny horror film, and getting comfortable working with actors.
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.
7R: In the film, you follow her even in those moments that are surreal, where she just sees things that are not real. We follow her, and we might be on her side, or at least understand her, but then there are things that are just beyond reason.
Rose Glass: It was important to me that we’re going along this strange story with her: we’re very intimate; we can sort of see that she’s gradually unravelling and that things are going to a dangerous place.
There’s that scene quite late in the film when an old colleague who she’s bumped into drops in to see if she’s doing okay, and we get a hint of what she was like before. She sort of reinvented herself in this weird saintly persona. I wanted there to be a sense of “too little too late.” Even though, throughout most of the film, people are sort of aligned with her, and they can understand what she’s aiming for, at the end, it does get to a certain point where she does some crazy, horrible stuff which obviously I don’t want to spoil. A descent into that level of delusion and psychosis is gradual.
Getting to that point doesn’t happen to someone overnight. The hope was that we’d eventually see that she hasn’t always been this person. There have been missed opportunities and failures in her previous life. But it shouldn’t have got to this point! By the time you go past a certain point, then maybe dangerous things can happen.
We didn’t want to hammer it home too much. I don’t want it to be a message film at all. If anything, I guess it’s about the danger of failures of care, and the dangers of what happens when someone feels so alienated or separate — if what’s going on in your head becomes too far away from what’s actually going on around you.
7R: From a filmmaking perspective, how did you approach the challenge of going to those lengths near the end, as Maud goes crazier and crazier, without losing the audience? All these extreme moments where Maud does crazy things, they are really scary but also really funny because they are so extreme and not expected at all.
Rose Glass: It gets a weird laugh, usually. I like a good, uncomfortable laugh. I mean, that’s the thing with life, tragedy and comedy are often just a hair’s breadth away from each other. And I like to try and do that throughout the film: the moments where the audience is kind of lulled into thinking, “Oh well, she’s a bit kind of funny and sweet; she’s this kind of cookie girl.” It means we overlook what’s really going on and how these moments are escalating.
7R: Was the humour always there for Saint Maud?
Rose Glass: Yeah. I mean, a huge amount of it definitely has to go credit to Morfydd [Clark] and Jennifer [Ehle], who gave just really great performances. I especially love the stuff that Morfydd found in the character. And we’ve got a fantastic editor, Mark Towns. It’s a team thing, bringing it all together.
But I did always want it to be funny, and I kept saying that to people. At the script development stage, there were a couple of slightly nervous meetings where the executive producers who were like, “So, you say it’s going to be funny…?” with a kind of slightly unconvinced expression, saying, “Where is that humour gonna come from?” And I’d say, “Um, hopefully, the script?” It’s quite deadpan, a lot of it.
People are funny The disconnect between the dramatic and grandiose quality of what’s going on in our private worlds, versus the mundanity of reality outside, there’s a lot of potential in that, like characters taking themselves far too seriously. Existential angst can be funny. Humour is a better way of getting closer to someone.
7R: Jennifer Ehle’s character, Amanda, is such a fully realised character, and we totally get what kind of woman she is. But I really like the way that it’s not a confrontation between her and Maud. We don’t see Amanda as much in the film. I really thought it was going to evolve into a face-off or a catfight confrontation, but it does not.
Rose Glass: To be honest, in the beginning, I think we did sort of go down that route. We’re very happily kind of leaning into this kind of horror genre space. We tried, at one point, going down this more Misery-esque hostage situation where Maud keeps Amanda trapped in the house, and the whole thing took place in the house. But it meant that about halfway through, you just kind of completely disconnected with Maud because she would go too far. Ultimately, what draws them together is the fact that they’re both very lonely people, even if they’re at very different points in their lives and have quite different outlooks.
Everything that Maud does is motivated by a desire for connection with someone, and she thinks that she finds that with Amanda. And she does, I think, but not in the same way that Amanda thinks they are. That was something I wanted to explore, the kind of missed opportunities of these two people who, again, just aren’t living the same reality. The little things getting misread between them.
7R: How did you work with the actresses on Saint Maud?
Rose Glass: It’s not a very interesting answer, to be honest. We all had a really, really fun, exciting, enjoyable, quite close-knit team experience with cast and crew. Everyone got on really well. Obviously, Jennifer is hugely experienced, a talented actress. Morfydd has been in features, but it’s her first big lead, so I think Jennifer ended up shepherding us both a little bit and taking us under her wing.
I don’t know about Morfydd, but I was certainly a bit nervous about working with Jennifer because, it’s a weird thing about directing. I don’t have any acting experience beyond school stuff, but I’m always aware of how much more actors know about acting than I do — technique, craft, and all that stuff. So I think I had got it built up in my head as this impenetrable process, but at the same time, I was supposed to somehow be telling people what to do… I was quite insecure about working with actors, to be honest, before I did this. I always enjoy it, but there’s a slight imposter syndrome thing of telling someone how to do their job. But it all got massively demystified. We very quickly we got into it, much more relaxed. It was fun. I learned a lot.
We didn’t have an extensive rehearsal period or anything either. Jennifer is from America, so I think she flew in literally just a few days before we shot the film. We emailed a fair bit before, and I sent her a list of films that I thought she should watch, pictures, and details. I tried to send her mood boards about what Amanda’s house was going to look like so she could get into it. Same with Morfydd. I think I had a couple of days with Morfydd where we basically read through the script, me acting out all the other roles, which was funny. And I sent her a list of films to watch so they both could know what kind of world they were stepping into. It wasn’t a big, long, intensive process. And then we just had to shoot.
7R: What were some of the inspirations for the house in Saint Maud? It’s very specific, but the camera doesn’t go over all the details, so it feels like a real, lived-in house.
Rose Glass: Good, I’m glad. With my production designer, Paulina Rzeszowska — she’s mad and brilliant — we both knew that the whole film would have this slightly heightened, timeless, weird feel to it. But yeah, we didn’t want it to feel artificial. It had to feel like a lived-in, old house that would have been passed down through generations of a family or something like that, but at the same time, not be distracting. She’s just got great eye for textures. I think she and her team deserve a lot of credit for keeping it real and lived-in.
Reference-wise, there were probably some more specific production set design ones. But generally, we looked at films like early Bergman stuff, like the hotel in Silence, which I love. Polanski stuff like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Lots of drapes and great wallpaper. But we didn’t want it to feel too kitsch and retro, so it was a balancing act.
7R: You mentioned the textures of the house, which brings me to the cinematography. There is a lot of darkness, and from the shadows, we can really see the texture of things, the skin especially. It’s very sensual. How did you develop this look?
Rose Glass: You never kind of know exactly what it’s going to look like until you’ve got it all there. The films I mentioned were also cinematography references, and we looked at lots of paintings, as well. Figures and faces emerging from black. Slightly gothic art. We always knew there had to be this contrast, people emerging from the shadows, this slightly mystical and mysterious air, with people being enveloped in darkness.
Ben [Fordesman]’s an amazing cinematographer. It’s his first feature, as well. I know his work from music videos and commercials. He’s just got a really great eye.
7R: Do you have anything else planned?
Rose Glass: I’m starting to develop something which I’m co-writing, with pretty much the same team. And I’m starting to work on a pretty weird thing I’m writing myself. Not horror, I don’t think, but definitely still in that genre-leaning space.