One of Hollywood's best emerging talents, writer/director Natalie Erika James has proven herself an empathetic storyteller capable of delivering studies of life's most harrowing interpersonal challenges. Her debut feature, Relic, takes the painful business of contending with dementia and crafts a wholly original, relentlessly raw story that will endure and endear itself to audiences long after the credits roll.
STARBURST was fortunate enough to nab some time with the director, who is hard at work on her next feature and graciously offered up insights into the making of the film and what it all means to her.
STARBURST: Forgetting can be a really terrifying thing, as can watching a loved one deteriorate. What kinds of things were you drawing from when you were writing this script?
Natalie Erika James: It really did come from a very personal place. My grandmother had Alzheimer's for quite some time before she passed. I guess a lot of it came from, to be honest, guilt. She lived in Japan and I actually started writing Relic when I went to go see her. But she couldn't remember who I was on that trip. So I felt guilt about not having gone and seen her more often. A lot of it was also trying to capture the uncanny sense of someone who, for all intents and purposes, looks the same but it feels like they're becoming someone different. Something other than who they are. And it was also observing the heartbreak for them going through the experience. It is hard for the people around them but it's a really devastating process for them, especially in the beginning when they are really lucid about what's happening. They start to blame themselves, get really upset, and... yeah, all of those things fed into the writing of the film.
Do you think the best movie monsters are the ones we know or the ones we don't know? Like, something that's familiar and close to home or something more otherworldly and Lovecraftian?
I'm a massive fan of Gothic horror and Asian horror and both of those genres really play on psychological horror, which is a lot to do with the terror within ourselves and within our homes and our family dynamics. So I think there's something more potent about that genre and that approach compared to something like a monster that's kind of invading from the outside. I guess I draw from what I'm actually scared of, and that's just what interests me. If I watch a slasher film, I always feel like I can just lock my doors and I'm fine. But if the menace is already inside the house, there's not a lot you can do.
As a horror filmmaker, do you think your topic or your subject matter should scare you more than it should scare the audience?
The writer/director is the best gauge of what is going to be scary and, to a certain degree, you have to use that as your compass for what you write. If I write something and I can't put myself in the character's shoes and imagine being scared, then I'm probably not going to shoot it because I can't imagine anyone else being scared in that position. I think you try your best to write stuff that scares you because you hope that there's commonality in your audience.
Circling back to the guilt you were discussing earlier, that seemed like a pretty prominent aspect of the film. The guilt Kay feels is really potent.
Right! The things that we owe our parents. The simmering resentments and how your dynamics can change... yeah. It's a really emotional time for people and you have to constantly negotiate the power balance in your relationship because, effectively, you have to start parenting your parent. And there can be a real resistance to that.
What are you tackling next? Any details you can share?
I've got a few things but the one I've been writing the longest is a folk horror set in Japan. Relic is about mortality and death and this one is more about creation and birth... motherhood, really. A folk horror using Japanese mythology.
RELIC is available to rent digitally now. Check out our review here.