SAINT MAUD: A Holy Terror

First-time director Rose Glass explores the extremes of religious fanaticism in her shocking film.

By Tony Timpone · @tonytimpone1 · April 2, 2021, 8:10 AM PDT
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Morfydd Clark in SAINT MAUD.

Distributor A24 has cornered the market when it comes to releasing bleak, uncompromising tales of terror. British writer/director Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, now on premium cable, follows the independent company’s playbook established with such hits as The Witch, Hereditary, Midsommar and The Lighthouse. Now it’s Saint Maud’s turn at bat.

The latest assignment for devout nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark from Netflix’s Dracula) finds her tending to dying dance diva Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty). But besides administering meds to the disease-and drug-addled woman, Amanda decides she must also save her soul… by any means necessary. In this exclusive interview, rising auteur Glass talks about the making of her disturbing debut feature.

Would this film have been possible without your Catholic upbringing?

I went to a Catholic school, but my family was Church of England Protestant, so I was never too bombarded. Religion was just floating around in a sort of typically light touch English kind of way: ‘You can do it if you want to.’ Christianity was a fairly present texture in my life, my whole childhood growing up. But it was never forced on me or rammed down my throat. As a teenager, I had the typically cynical, stupid attitude of, ‘Church is boring.’ So, the last thing I wanted to make is a film about religion, and then it just ended up happening like this. The film is not really about religion per se. For me, it’s more about the psychological loneliness, mental health side of it.

Why do horror and religion go so well together?

Religion is still taking on the big questions of why we’re here, what’s the meaning of life, what’s it all for, what’s going to happen to us afterward, how to live… the enormity of those questions in the face of the chaos of life is quite daunting stuff. So, it all taps into fairly existential fears. It probably all boils down to being afraid of dying, or being afraid that life has no meaning. That’s the stuff that I’m scared of, but religion takes that stuff on head-on.

What were some of the other inspirations for the story?

In the very beginning, I came up with what I thought was an interesting premise. Every day it was going to be a weird fucked-up kind of love story between a young woman and God, but God was going to be a character and you’d hear the voice. It would be a two-hander between the two of them. I’m interested in the contrast between the weird private bubble we live in inside our heads and how much that can vary from what everyone else sees and what we present to the world. So, I was definitely interested in doing a film which was completely set inside a woman’s head. As I developed that initial premise, I started wondering more about what else is going on in this woman’s life. Why is it that her most important relationship is with a voice in her head? And what does that even mean? In the beginning, I didn’t really ask myself whether this really was God or whether it’s a voice in her head. Part of me still thinks there doesn’t need to be a distinction between the two. You interpret the film depending on what you believe in, which I find interesting. I never wanted to say that faith is a form of madness because I don’t think that. I’m obviously interested in making shocking, weird films and films that look at the extremes of things.

And I was interested in how society today would react if somebody says they talk to God in their head or hear the voice of God. How differently they would be perceived by society a couple of thousand years ago or further. Joan of Arc thought she could talk to God, and she led an army. Whereas if somebody says the same thing today, they get treated quite different and probably get taken to hospital. That seemed like an interesting area to play with. It’s an exercise in compassion. We hear stories in the news about people doing terrible things to themselves and to others, committing terrible acts of violence. It’s a lazy and even dangerous reaction to write these people off and be like, ‘Oh, well, that person must just be a bad person or an evil person or a crazy person.’

For me, this would be an interesting and exciting experience for an audience if I could get people to imagine what it’d be like in the lead-up to that event and maybe wonder how somebody would get to a place like that and maybe be frightened to see how much they might recognize in a person’s motivations or how they got there. Even though she’s going about it in a very damaging, warped way, everything Maud does is pretty much motivated by a desire to just connect with other people and feel a part of something and belong and be seen. Even though the way she goes about it ends up being dangerous, that motivation is pretty universal. Sometimes the most threatening and dangerous place can be in your own head rather than some external forces.

You’re a fan of shocking films. Were there any particular horror films that inspired you as a young filmmaker and inspired this film?

For sure. Some of my favorite films are horror movies. But I’ve always tended to lean toward being more attracted to films I find horrifying, films which don’t necessarily tick the genre boxes. I was always looking at films that I probably shouldn’t be watching when I was growing up. I watched a lot of Asia Extreme things like The Grudge, Dumplings, A Tale of Two Sisters, Tetsuo: Iron Man… visceral, squirm-inducing horror. I was also obsessed with Darren Aronofsky’s PI. Again, I was seeking out shock-value reactions. I liked weird, shocking films, but it’s most satisfying when you feel like you get them, you get a character and you get the place that this extreme stuff is coming from. I find that very appealing, particularly growing up in the countryside in England without many friends. This was my exciting form of escapism.

You said your script was influenced by Taxi Driver. How so?

Maud and Travis Bickle have a fair amount in common as neurotic antiheroes, people who in some way feel completely ignored and overlooked by society and have a very different narrative going on in their heads about how they see themselves compared to how the rest of the world sees them. They’ve got different missions in some ways. He feels that he’s going to do something big and important to change society, but he’s not quite sure what it is. Travis Bickle has these grandiose delusions about himself. I like that. If Saint Maud wasn’t told from her perspective, it could very easily be this quite bleak, small, social-realistic thing, about a traumatized nurse with mental health issues who isn’t getting the help that she needs. That story’s there, but that wasn’t the perspective I wanted to tell it from. The stuff that she thinks is going on is much more epic on a grand scale. I like antiheroes who you can empathize with, but you’re not sure if you can trust them. These characters have a sense of self-loathing and also incredible arrogance in some ways. Those contradictions are very human. Cinema is inherently voyeuristic, and it’s a medium that really allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and have a window into a completely different character’s life.

Saint Maud is such a dark, uncompromising film. How difficult was it to get financed?

In hindsight and in the grand scheme of things, we were incredibly lucky. It always feels incredibly uncertain until the last minute. I was working on the idea for a very long time, but some people from Film4 had seen my graduation film Room 55. Not too long after graduating, I had been able to go in and meet a couple of those guys and kept them updated on this weird idea I was coming up with. They liked it and signed us up for development. A couple of years later, BFI came onboard to co-finance and that was it. I am very fortunate to be coming up now, where there is a particular appetite for interesting genre-twisting work by female directors. My timing is really fortunate.

What was the toughest thing about shooting your feature directorial debut?

Writing it was the hardest bit. By the time we got to the shoot, I was relieved I was getting a chance to do it, so I just gave myself the attitude, ‘Well, maybe this goes terribly wrong, but I’m gonna give my all and try not to think too much about the fear of failure while I’m shooting it.’ Then shooting the film and post, the actual process of making it, was enormous fun. Obviously, it was exhausting and stressful at times and it’s a stamina thing. At the end, I was just completely brain-dead and exhausted. But the development, writing, everything up until the point where it’s, ‘We definitely have the money and the dates and it is definitely happening,’ up until then it’s more this agonizing, squirming uncertainty of everything, of whether all these years of work and stress will actually pay off or whether the whole thing is just going to have been for nothing. I’d never written a feature before. Though I’d written short film scripts before, I don’t particularly think of myself as a writer. I don’t like writing for the sake of it. So, I was battling massive imposter syndrome. If you think about any film or any story for too long, at a certain point you’re going to end up hating it. There were some points toward the end of development where I still felt uncertain. ‘Have I got this all wrong? What if they don’t get it? What if it’s just not what I’ve got in my head?’

Was it a challenge to inject humor into the story?

I didn’t think so. From the very beginning, that was one of the hardest things: to convince people that we would have humor in there. I’m aware that the premise of the film maybe sounds like it could just be this quite sad, small little story. But from the very beginning, I wanted to tell the story on an epic scale and be funny and exciting. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand, and it was important to me that they both be in there. I wanted a playfulness to it so the whole film wouldn’t get bogged down in this overly somber atmosphere. The thing about Maud’s story that’s ridiculous is, she has that disconnect between how a character sees themselves and how the world sees them. That can be really funny or really tragic as well. It’s important to find the humor in it. Morfydd has the best comic timing. When she first came in to audition, I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, she gets the humor.’ Some people didn’t get that certain things were meant to be funny, and I had a development executive saying, ‘You say there’s going to be humor in the film. How exactly? Like jokes? You’ve written jokes?’ That was always an important part of it. Otherwise, the audience gets bored.

The casting is so perfect. I can’t imagine better actresses as the two leads. Was it hard to find them?

For the role of Maud, we did lots of auditions quite early, while I was writing the script, because everyone realized that the success of the film hinged on whether we could find someone who could do the role. We saw a lot of people, and I was starting to get quite nervous. And then, luckily, Morfydd was one of the last people we saw. When we found her, we knew that she was perfect for it. We had to persuade the financiers a tiny bit because she looks sweet and unassuming. They just needed to check that she could go to the extreme places. So, in this brightly-lit casting room, we had her do the scene where she has a seizure, vomits and levitates, and that persuaded them [laughs].

As for Jennifer, we offered her the role, and I’m very fortunate she said, ‘Yeah.’ Hats off to her. It was a risk for this fantastic, very established, very experienced actress to do it. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, and she didn’t have a clue about me. She didn’t know who I was or anything like that. It’s this small, very weird film. And her character, on paper, is quite vulnerable and quite exposed and not always kind or nice or sympathetic. I thought of it as a fun role for an actress to play and luckily, she agreed. She’s wonderful. I had the best time working with both of them. I was always very nervous about working with actors because I don’t have any theater background or anything like that. And when you make shorts, you don’t really rehearse so much. This was the biggest chunk of time I’d ever spent just working really closely with two actors, and they’re both awesome. I’m very grateful to both of them.

You tell Maud’s story from the inside out. How did Morfydd help you achieve that?

It was making sure that she always knew exactly why every scene was there and every nutso thing that I was getting her to do. She just wanted to make sure that she actually knew why it needed to be there. And we just talked a lot about the script and the character and hypothesized about what might have happened to her in the past and what kind of life she’d had. Morfydd and Jennifer are incredibly natural and effortless performers. And particularly with a film like this, which is in some ways quite heightened and a bit theatrical and even a bit campy in places, it really brought so much more depth to each of the characters, having these very nuanced performances. As a writer, you always think that you know the characters really well and clearly in your head. But then an actor comes along and actually turns them into a real person. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is so much better than what I wrote.’ Morfydd made her so much more a real person, which is essential. And she did the voice of God, too! I heard her talking to her mom and sisters in Welsh on the phone, and decided to use her, but brought it down in the sound mix.

Is it true you shot the levitation scene with a forklift instead of wire work and CGI removal?

Yeah. It wasn’t technically a forklift. It was that kind of pressurized platform thing that gets used in warehouses to lift boxes to high shelves. It was quite funny filming. The device itself is incredibly noisy and stops and starts quite a lot as it goes up. It didn’t look super-mysterious the day we were shooting that. We painted it out in post afterward. It was good fun.

The score by first-timer Adam Janota Bzowski adds such an oppressive mood to the film. Talk about his use of organic sound effects in his score.

To be honest, I don’t know a lot of the details of exactly what he used for each sound. His work and that of our sound designer, Paul Davies, intermingled a lot throughout the film. I wanted the music to be a bit more experimental, more abstract. I wanted music to be something like, when it begins, it sounds [like it’s coming] from within the scene, then it develops into a piece of music. I didn’t want a traditional sweeping score. It just needed to be something that came from a slightly more abstract place. The sound of doom. While we were editing, I’d written a little brief of the kind of stuff I was thinking, and he sent us some demo tracks and pretty much nailed it. And several of those demo tracks ended up in the film. It was quite simple and a very fun process.

How cool is it that you have people like Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright praising your film?

That’s very surreal and incredibly lovely. I love their films. Particularly as a teenager, I loved Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. For Edgar Wright, I was a massive Spaced fan. I remember going to see Shaun of the Dead in the cinema when I was 13. It was the first time I had seen gore with a big audience. It was in a packed cinema, and the visceral vocal reaction from the audience when Dylan Moran’s stomach gets ripped out… That combination of people being shocked but also laughing at the same time, I really responded to. Some of the stuff Danny said was very embarrassing but very nice. And I’ve met them both now, and they’re really lovely blokes. It’s all very weird.

What’s next? Are you looking forward to more genre films?

Yes. I want to continue doing weird films like Saint Maud. That’s obviously something I end up leaning toward. Definitely genre, but not exclusively horror. We’ll see.