Writer/director Rose Glass: “women love messed up stuff.”
Saint Maud, an electrifying psychological horror about a pious young nurse’ dangerous obsession with her new patient, most recently enjoyed its Scottish premiere at FrightFest. Film4 Online’s Nicole Davis caught up with its breakout writer/director Rose Glass at the Glasgow Film Festival…
In Rose Glass’ debut feature Saint Maud, arguably the buzziest horror film of the year, a young Catholic carer — the titular Maud (played with unassuming menace by Morfydd Clark) is prone to ecstatic religious seizures wherein she believes God is communicating with her; through her. Writhing and thrashing on the floor, her body is filled with the sensuous electricity of feeling a connection with someone, or as Glass puts it bluntly, she’s having a “God-gasm.”
It was the physicality of Maud’s relationship with God, rather than the theology, that Glass focused on. That notion of unwavering devotion, punctuated by bursts of fist-clenching euphoria, sounds not dissimilar from the process of making a feature film. Particularly your first.
About a year after graduating from NFTS, Rose teamed up with Oliver Kassman, one of her producers on the film. “It was his first feature as well, so we were both mutually galvanised by this slight desperation for it to work.”
The project was developed with Film4, who were following Rose’s career since her NFTS graduation film Room 55. Producer Andrea Cornwell joined the project in development, and the film was financed in its entirety by Film4 and the BFI, with National Lottery funding.
Securing development funding from Film4 after submitting a treatment for Saint Maud was “an exciting but daunting shift”, Glass says, going from plugging away at scripts in her spare time, to having all this time to concentrate on it. “I wasn’t quite prepared…you’re just by yourself a lot of the time.”
Speaking in conversation with Robbie Collin at the Glasgow Film Festival’s Industry Focus programme, Glass discusses how the idea evolved.
“I told one exec try and imagine Maud as Travis Bickle, if Travis Bickle was a young Catholic living in an English seaside town…The tone and world stayed fairly consistent, it was just the mechanics of the story that changed quite a bit”, she says. “I always wanted it to be an intimate psychological story told on a very grand scale.”
And why the burning desire to tell this story, I ask, in a follow-up interview with Glass. She gamely acknowledges the pun. “I wanted to make a film that I was confident would be the sort of thing that I’d really want to watch.”
Glass allowed herself to be lead by a curiosity, particularly in the “the idea of setting a film entirely inside a young woman’s head and someone having this intense, personal, unusual relationship with God.”
Halfway through the scriptwriting and development process, Glass threw away the draft she was working on, which was “a bit more like Misery”, and started again because she had “figured out Maud’s secular past, and it took a different direction.”
It’s quite a bold move. But considering Saint Maud is a film made up of them, it’s hardly surprising. Glass says it was all about trying to establish that fine balance in tone, between Maud’s devout intensity, her playful power dynamic with Amanda, the fading stage star she cares for (a luminous, coquettish Jennifer Ehle) and the moments of hallucinatory horror.
“I’m not a horror nerd…jump scares weren’t a priority”, Glass admits. Though you should expect them anyway. “I’m more into the twisted, psychological thriller world”. Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and cult horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965) are cited as influences.
Glass also reveals an interest in medicine and psychology. She spent a lot of time writing her script in various cafes and libraries across London, including the Wellcome Collection, where she would distract herself with their various medical exhibits.
“I’m interested in brains and bodies and the fact they can go wrong.” Morbid, perhaps, but “women love messed up stuff,” Glass iterates emphatically at the talk.
Her first press tour has already provided a taste of the media’s tendency to ask women filmmakers what it’s like to be a women filmmaker, and particularly, Glass notes, how she handled the gore. “I wrote it, so it’s not like it came as a surprise. I love all that stuff, it’s the most fun.”
What can the industry do to change the conversation? asks journalist Hanna Flint.“I’m just looking forward to the moment when [being female] is not the most interesting thing, I don’t want to be ticking a box for anybody, I want people to like the film regardless.”
It appears, if Twitter is anything to go, they very much do. Collin asks whether she’s had that moment of realisation, that she’s made a banger. Glass admits, reluctantly, to having an inkling in the edit. And if not then, presumably when StudioCanal picked up rights to release the film in UK, and A24 did the same for the US, after the film’s premiere at Toronto’s Midnight Madness strand in September. Or perhaps more recently when Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-Ho selected her as one of his 20 directors to watch in Sight & Sound? “I try not to think about that, but it’s cool”, Glass demures.
“The process was wonderful and I was ok with that being enough. It was a good team of people,” Glass continues, referring to her cast and crew, many of whom she hadn’t worked with before.
And how did she deal with the pressure of directing her first feature, I wonder? “I tried to completely immerse myself and all the collaborators in the world of the film.” The knack, Glass suggests, is making sure that “everyone is growing the same idea in their heads.”
As a writer, you start out with the idea on your own and then “throughout the process of making the film, your team gradually gets bigger and you’ve got to make sure everyone’s actually making the same thing,” says Glass.
“Keeping things as contained as possible, helps massively.” The film shot all its interiors across four weeks in London, in two houses situated side-by-side and then all its exteriors in Scarborough.
“Working with actors was something I was most nervous about, actors know more about acting than I do.” Glass’ advice for other directors in this scenario is not to be “too precious.”
“You just need to know your script really well and remind actors of context and what’s happening and why they’re doing something, so you can answer their questions. Don’t be uptight, give actors the chance to play and experiment and try different things and then in the edit you have options.”
Unlike Maud, Glass sounds like a young woman, very much in command of her mind, and its powers.
Saint Maud will be released in UK cinemas on 9 October, courtesy of StudioCanal.