By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Now in select theaters and available on premium VOD, AMULET is the assured and accomplished first full-length film venture by Romola Garai, who previously made her mark in front of the camera. After appearing often in dramas and period pieces for both film and television such as ATONEMENT (2007) and EMMA (2009)–though she did co-star in the 2013 sci-fi thriller THE LAST DAYS ON MARS–Garai significantly switches gears with AMULET. This modern, brooding and ultimately graphic and shocking horror story is set largely in a British row house where Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), traumatized by wartime experiences in an unidentified European conflict, accepts an offer to work for Magda (Carla Juri), whose invalid mother (Anah Ruddin) lives in the attic. As the situation in the house becomes stranger, parallel flashbacks reveal the truth about Tomaz’s past as well. (See our review here.) Following her 2012 short SCRUBBER, Garai announces herself as a filmmaker to reckon with AMULET, joining the remarkable lineup of women helming horror this year.
How did you decide to write and direct a horror film as your debut feature?
After I made my short, I started to write feature-length scripts not in the horror genre. I was writing the types of stories I had predominantly worked in as an actor, which were dramas. But one of them was a ghost story, and that gave me the sense that I should be more open to doing genre films than I had been previously. That coincided with a lot of women making incredible horror films like THE BABADOOK, and that suddenly felt like an easy and acceptable way to talk about big and significant topics, like gender. THE AMULET is very much about men and women and their relationships, and about masculinity, and horror suddenly felt like a great world to go into if you had a big or extreme topic you wanted to explore.
AMULET also has religious undertones, so how did you work your feelings on that subject into it?
I don’t really think of it as a film overly concerned with religion. There is a nun in the film [Sister Claire, played by Imelda Staunton], and I suppose it’s a religious kind of concept, or certainly a Christian idea, that forgiveness should be perpetually extended. And I don’t disagree with that on a philosophical level; I think it’s more that I was interested in approaching that kind of question with another question, which is, what do you do with people who don’t acknowledge that they’ve done anything wrong? How do you extend forgiveness to people who are in complete denial of who they are as human beings, and prevent the cycle of violence from continuing, because then you never get any kind of reckoning?
One of the things I enjoyed about AMULET is that it’s a very slow burn for a while, and then it suddenly becomes very visceral. How did you approach that combination and transition of tones?
I definitely wanted it to have a sense that the horror kind of creeps or sneaks into the film. There are parts of AMULET that don’t feel like a genre movie, like when you’re with Tomaz while he’s living in the forest; that feels like a dramatic film, and we’re not staying in the horror realm the whole time. I’m somebody who really likes movies to push against or subvert genre expectations, and a lot of the films I love are horror films with a small “h,” in a sense, like POSSESSION, which is amazing and became a major reference for AMULET, in that it’s a horror movie in some ways and a dramatic movie in others. I’m always excited to see films that tread into different camps in a rebellious way in terms of audience expectations, so I suppose AMULET is an expression of the kinds of things I enjoy when I’m watching a film.
You have great practical effects in AMULET. Can you talk about finding the artist and working with him to bring those creations to life?
We were incredibly lucky, really; when you come into working on a film like this, and you tell people it’s going to involve puppets, there’s a lot of resistance to that idea, because there’s the thought that it’s going to look like a B-movie. But I absolutely knew it had to be practical; I was open to the idea of visual effects, but only for enhancement, because I wanted the actors to be able to act with real physical objects, and with puppeteers who would essentially become part of the cast. We were about a month away from filming when we were able to land Cliff Wallace, one of the best special effects designers in the business, and he agreed to come on board what I’m sure to him was a really small film. He made beautiful creatures for us, and big prosthetics and blood work.
It was difficult, because with practical effects, unless you’ve tested them and tested them and tested them in advance–which is difficult to do on a small film–sometimes they don’t work the way you think they’re going to. It’s just one of those things in filmmaking where you have to prep and prep and prep, and then be prepared for things to look different on the day. In that sense, it was a great learning experience.
You also have a great spooky house location. Was any of that sets, or were you able to find a real house with everything you needed?
The attic was a set. The house we filmed in did have an attic, but it was tiny [laughs]; there was no way we would have been able to get any of the crew up there. But the rest of the house was one location. We filmed there for three weeks and had the whole run of the place. We did everything: My production designer was able to paint the walls and rip up the carpets and change the glass in the doors, and just take it over and dress it entirely. We were very, very lucky to get that, because it was not easy to find the right house, and one we could have complete control over.
How did you cast the unusual and difficult role of Mother?
I needed an actress who had background in either physical theater or dance, because I knew it was a role where we would really have to focus on the physical, and she was going to have to do things that were demanding for an older actor. We didn’t see many people, and I believe Anah Ruddin was one of maybe four people we met. She was up for what was going to be an incredibly grueling part, coming in to work for three or four days on her back, crawling around on the floor, wearing a lot of prosthetics–that’s not an easy day, you know? But she was incredibly committed, and we did a lot of preparation in advance, and were very lucky to have her.
As an actress yourself, was it important to do a lot of advance prep and rehearsals with your cast?
Yeah, but rehearsals are very different with horror; you interact so much more with the camera than you do in other genres. Your relationship with both the actors and the camera department, and the kind of dance you do, and the way your blocking is as much a part of the storytelling as what you’re doing with the performances–it’s not a case of the camera standing back and ensuring that the actor can tell the story, like if it was a biopic or something. We rehearsed and we discussed, but we mainly stayed on our chairs just talking about it, because so much of the film was going to be about the way it was shot as well.
I’m curious about the choice of your lead character being Eastern European. What was the importance of that to the story?
Oh, it wasn’t, really. We saw actors from a number of different places. The place he’s from wasn’t named in the script, deliberately; I didn’t have any interest in making it about that. The character fights in a war, but because of the kind of film AMULET is, I didn’t want to make any sort of comment about an actual conflict. It would have been inappropriate given the style of the movie. I told the casting director, “He can be from anywhere”; he couldn’t be from the UK, he had to be from a different country and he would feel like a fully sympathetic character who needs help at the beginning. It just happened that Alec is Romanian, but we don’t say where he’s from in the film.
Was there anything you wanted for AMULET that you weren’t able to do on your budget?
[Laughs] Well, it feels very disloyal to answer that! The thing is, it doesn’t matter what your budget is; you’re always going to want more, aren’t you, when you’re a director. It’s more about knowing absolutely when things aren’t going to work because of the money you have. For us, we had four and a half days in Dartmoor at the end to film the forest flashbacks. We just didn’t have enough time, and it rained the whole time; it was December, it just poured and it was really difficult to keep the cameras dry. That was an incredibly difficult experience. The crew was staying in a house together, people were on top of each other; it was demanding. That’s the kind of thing you feel bad about. You want people to have a good time at work, and it’s challenging to do that when you’ve got a very low budget. And also, I would have liked to shoot on film. That would be the other one.
Was that something you seriously investigated for AMULET?
Yeah, because we could have used 16mm for the flashbacks, and shot the main bulk of it on digital, because the flashbacks are in a kind of self-contained world. But the filming conditions for that part of the movie were so challenging, it was actually a blessing that we didn’t try to shoot it on film, because everything would have got soaking wet, and everyone would have been standing around crying [laughs].
Right now is a very exciting time for women directing horror movies; what are your views on that trend, and the specific point of view you can bring to this kind of material?
It’s great that there is now an appropriate, and getting closer to a correct, number of women and people from diverse backgrounds telling stories in our industry. It’s completely and utterly crazy that that industry is over 100 years old, and for almost 100 years of that, there has only been a very small number of people who have been able to tell their stories. But women have revealed themselves to be as interested in horror as men, which may be surprising to some people, but not at all to me, because women’s lives are already full of horror, you know? Like, childbirth is horrific, feeling afraid all the time is like living in a horror film. As a female actor, you’re often the recipient of a lot of fear when you’re making a horror film, but as a director, you can sort of embody that as well. I believe a lot of women have been naturally drawn to a genre that explores the feelings of being afraid, and I’m sure that they’ll continue to do so long into the future.