'Relic' Director Natalie Erika James Shares The Personal Story Behind Her Terrifying New Horror Movie [Interview]

Drawing from personal family experience and a love of J-horror, Japanese-Australian writer/director Natalie Erika James' feature debut hits all the emotional and cinematic marks with Relic. James used her 2016 short Creswick as a proof of concept for her debut and clearly has a knack for the horror genre, tapping into the emotional side of terror. 

I reviewed Relic last week and I recently had the chance to sit down with James to talk about the personal story behind the film, utilizing practical effects, and what she's up to next.

What was the influence for Relic?The original idea was kind of born on a trip that I took to Japan to visit my grandmother who had Alzheimer's. She didn't know who I was, so I had a lot of guilt for not going to see her earlier. In combination of that, she lived in a creepy, traditional Japanese house that was hundreds and hundreds of years old. I was always really scared of it as a kid when I spent my summers there.  Those two things coalesce and a lot of it was drawn from seeing her relationship with my mother over time and their dynamic kind of change. I felt like there was a lot of grief and loss and conflicted feelings about when you have to start helping your parents as they start to decline. Did you insert any personal traits or homages into the film for your grandmother?My production designer and I looked at photos of my grandmother's house in Japan to see what we could draw into our design. So, that was pretty great. My grandmother was ill for quite some time whereas Relic takes place over the span of about a week. So, it wasn't exactly true to form. But I would say her sense of humor was something that carried across. You approach the horror genre with a more dramatic lens by exploring grief and loss, but not in the traditional life and death sense. How did you want to convey those themes visually within your filmmaking?In terms of the menace within the film, I think the suspense of  what is actually scary and the transformation of what she actually becomes at the end of the film isn't something to be feared so much as something to be emphasized with. It's a real opportunity to show vulnerability for her at the end of her life; I really wanted to capture that visually so that it wasn't just a black and white view or good versus evil where the evil would have to be vanquished. The menace in the film is almost elemental. It's biological and organic. It's not so much that Alzheimer's is an evil force; it just is. It's heartbreaking and the effects it can have on people and how it can make people lash out and become aggressive, but ultimately they are not evil. We wanted to be weary of that and the depiction in general by exploring evil not so much in a simplistic or traditional fashion. The set design appears to be a direct reflection of Edna's mind. Can you talk about your specific direction with the production design and why you didn't approach it in a fantastical manner?That's something we really wanted to do because it wasn't like you were entering the back of the wardrobe and suddenly you're in Narnia or separate alternate reality. We wanted it to speak the same language as the rest of the house and for the realness to feel gradual. There's a point where a character named Sam wanders in there and she knows something's not right, but when she tries to turn back it's just too late. The prosthetics have a gritty and raw authenticity. What kind of practical methods did you use and where did the design influence come from? I believe in making effects as practical as possible. In the design of it, we wanted it to stay in that fashion that's organic and to make it still seem human. We looked at a lot of black mold growth as well as mummified bodies because we wanted it to have the age of The Other, that's what we call the creature in the film. So, we really took care to make sure the skin was just as wrinkled or even moreso. I think the design influence was really just what happens to people in real life, especially with Alzheimer's, and how people waste away at the end of their lives. There's a real humanity and fragility that's really heartbreaking to watch.The puppet at the end of the film was actually an animatronic. I really loved working with that thing. They controlled it with a remote control similar to how you would a remote control car. The face and arms would hook up to two different controllers. So, you can really get a lot of movement. It turns out that what would make the eyes look realistic is the muscles in the face. So, we were able to capture a lot and get animatronics to move subtly which was incredible.I like how there were so many aspects of decay throughout the film with the mold in the house and the characters changing. It's a very streamlined motif within the film's vision. It's also nice that you avoided traditional jump scares and instead opted for a more diegetic sound design as well as silence. Your use of sound and lack thereof was reminiscent of Don't Look Now and Hereditary, those more emotional horror films. What prompted those decisions?Oh, that's so nice! Don't Look Now is one of my favorite films. It's always been more of an interest of mine to push for scares that work on more of a psychological level that creeps into a scenario or even the untidiness of someone's physicality. I think different things scare different people, but I've always just chosen to create scares that are surrounded around things that scared me personally. So, the kind of scares that get under your skin or create tension around the frame as opposed to a more quick jump scare with a loud noise. Something like The Shining is a perfect example; there's maybe one jump scare in that film but it's really terrifying and I watched it really young.  You've mentioned before that Gothic horror and Asian horror are two of your biggest influences. How did you infuse those passions into your film?I think the restraint within the frame, also this sense of uncanniness of the way someone is moving and infusing that by using a sense of dread or tension. From the gothic horror perspective, I think the psychological aspect is tied in whether it's supernatural or a real-life explanation for it. There's a duality of is it or isn't it. I think a lot of people would love to know what you are working on next. Do you have any new projects coming up?Yeah! I have a few projects within the subgenres of horror. One is about folk horror and set in Japan along the lines of The Wicker Man or Rosemary's Baby, and is very much focused on motherhood, fertility and control over one's body.