Consecration follows Grace (Jena Malone) as she travels to the Mount Saviour Convent in Scotland after the suspicious death of her brother to find out what really happened. Once there, she uncovers murder, sacrilege and a disturbing truth about her own past. Director Christopher Smith places Malone's Grace, a woman of science, in a fish-out-of-water scenario as she enters the world of her brother, who just so happened to be a priest. Smith and Malone joined us to chat about the unknown, unpeeling the onion of the past, and horror as a genre for exploring the question.
What is it about religious iconography that can be kind of chilling? Something that's meant to be comforting and warm, but something about it can also be inherently creepy.
Christopher Smith: That's what the whole film's about, I'm really intrigued. Religion is a really human thing. Otherwise, it wouldn't give me the creeps. And it's not just the creeps. You actually feel something. You go into an old church, you feel something. I went to a synagogue three months ago when I was working on this TV show, and I'd never been in a synagogue before. And oh my God. It was in Budapest, and I just felt 2,000 years of history just boom, straight on you.
I grew up going to Sunday school, and I think there is something supernatural in the stories you're told. If you think about the story of the Bible and the way you're told it as a kid, it's just supernatural. I mean, it ties right into Santa, some of it. And I don't mean that disrespectfully. I mean, as a kid you go, "Okay, well, the Jesus story, I get it. The Santa story, I get it." And I didn't want this to be a film that didn't take that subject seriously. I want this to come at it as though, "Hey look, this is a girl, she's a secular single girl." She's not in any relationship. She doesn't need to be in a relationship. She's not interested. She comes to a place and starts to unpeel the onion of her past there. And you begin to say, "Well, does she have power? Is it true what these lunatics in this really kind of fundamentalist monastery are saying about her?" At what point do common sense and science give way to religion? And that's what the film's about essentially from the get-go.
Jena Malone: Yeah. But also, why does religion creep some people out? I mean, it's because the questions it asks are some of the most innate questions that are unanswerable. And I feel like when there is a lack of information or there is a lack of an answer, fear begins. So if you know a lot about spiders, you won't be as afraid of them. You'll be able to identify them, you know what it is. You're like, "No, this is good." But with religion and spirituality, it's this abyss of the unknown. And so, of course, what do we build out of the unknown? Architecture that induces awe but also silence and austerity.
I feel like throughout time, we've built these infrastructures that kind of protect and hold, not the creepiness, but rather the amazing ability to make you feel so small. And in that feeling small, it's so easy to not feel like yourself, to lose your power, to feel creeped out, to not feel like you know what's going on. So I think that it was sort of a little bit pre-planned. It's so interesting how architecture can speak for the emotional journey. And I feel like that's why churches feel haunting. They feel like they're from another space. It's purposeful.
It's this dichotomy of such a beautiful thing. The architecture of churches is awe-inspiring. Sometimes it can be warm, but it can also be a bit chilling or a bit creepy. So it's interesting to me that it encompasses all of these things at once. You can stand in a space and feel all of those things happening simultaneously.
CS: True. And we also wanted it to be inclusive for everyone. Just because we've got an atheist character who then becomes less atheist as the film goes on, it doesn't mean the film is. I wanted to approach religion in a respectful way.
Where did you shoot this?
CS: Well, there are two places. There's the whole setting location stuff, all of the ruins of the old church, obviously, the landscape, all of that is on the Isle of Skye. And then we managed to find a real ex-monastery that became a school in the 1940s. They deconsecrated the church, so all of the corridors and the stuff that's of them walking around the actual interior church is just on the outskirts of London. So we managed to do kind of everything in there and everything on the Isle of Skye in two separate things, which was great.
JM: That was creepy, that convent. I ended up staying there for a couple of days in my little tiny changing room, and it was nice. I was like, "Okay. Cool." it's nice to invite a place in. You're not going to find anything but interesting details, conversations, and ideas that will come from that. I think the more you dive into something, the more you will get to know it. So it doesn't have to be method, but really just the more conversations you have, of course, you will have a more well-rounded understanding of the story you're telling.
Christopher, you co-wrote this with Laurie Cook, it has some really great wraparounds and callbacks. And also, the idea of the ruins of this church where people go to ritualistically atone for their sins, what was that concept, did you pull that ritual from something?
CS: I've been doing this kind of research into the way religion would be. What would happen if someone was reborn? And I'd made a film called Black Death, about what would happen if the Second Coming came. And then I started to look into sort of medieval history, and I came across this movie called The Valley of the Bees, which is just this amazing film about these Czech guys set in the 1400s who've come back from the Crusade. This man disrespects a priest, and you don't really understand what's going on. But he goes upstairs, and these monks are there. They all turn their back on him, and he walks backward and falls through this trap door. It wasn't explained in the way we do it in our film, but I was like, "Whoa."
It was kind of like a transcendental scene that felt so religious because why are they breaking the candles? Why is he falling through a trap door? And then, when you look down, these wild dogs are savaging him. It's a brilliant film, The Valley of the Bees. So I thought, "Well, why has he done that?" And then I came up with this idea, "Well, maybe for every step you take, that's one of your sins absolved."
JM: That's amazing. I love that. It does feel like it's actually a real thing.
Jena, you've done a ton of genre work, you're no stranger to genre in general, but you've also done horror stuff. You recently reunited with Carter Smith on Swallowed. You guys did The Ruins together. Now you've got this coming out back to back. How does this return to straighten up horror feel?
JM: I mean, it's sweet. I love the genre. I feel like it's right up there for me with sci-fi in the sense that it gets to ask societal questions that are just a little bit harder, more askew, more to the left. You get to explore things that are not traditionally easily explored. And you don't have to have pretty summaries. You don't have to have all of the answers. I think horror and specifically sci-fi, are some of my two favorite genres sometimes in filmmaking because it's sort of the genre of the question. Whereas a lot of traditional films where it's small, indie dramas, family dramas, and rom-coms, it's like it's the answer. They want to give you these answers. And I love exploring the question.
Also, I think that we always go through these ebbs and flows within society, what type of genre are we exploring? And I just love that throughout pretty much the last 20, maybe even 40 years, horror just keeps showing itself, and it's not going anywhere. It's only continually sort of transcending and skirting right along with where the collective consciousness wants it to go. And it's just flexible enough as a format that you can continually use it to push new ideas into the world, which I really love. I think it's cool.
CS: Anytime Jena answers a question, I get answer envy
I feel like you're comfortable living in that and exploring the questions. I try to balance myself out with that a little bit and not be so, "What's the answer?"
JM: Honey, to each their own, though. You know what I mean? I get to do this because you don't have to. It just happens to be moderately an actor's job or mouthpiece to explore questions. So it's just what I've been doing forever — exploring the question.
Consecration is now playing in theaters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.