By MICHAEL GINGOLD
The three awards won this week by SAINT MAUD (British/Irish Film of the Year), its creator Rose Glass (Breakthrough British/Irish Filmmaker) and its star Morfydd Clark (British/Irish Actress of the Year) at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards, along with its pandemic-delayed U.S. release (in select theaters now from A24, and coming to streaming exclusively via Epix this Friday, February 12) are the culmination of Glass and her movie’s long and lauded journey. Rapturously received at festivals beginning at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a deeply evocative and disturbing study of the dark side of faith.
Clark is mesmerizing as Maud, a young woman whose devotion to God runs deep, and is put to the test when she takes a job providing home care to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), an acerbic former dancer who nonetheless responds to Maud’s ministrations. Yet their personalities are ultimately fated to clash, leading Maud to engage in truly unsettling behavior in the service of her spirituality. (See our review of the film here.) Glass is also in the running for several BAFTA Awards for SAINT MAUD, her debut as a feature writer/director that establishes her as a singular talent on the genre cinema scene.
How much of a personal place does SAINT MAUD’s story come from?
It’s not autobiographical, if that’s what you mean. The mechanics of the plot and the vast majority of the things Maud does, I have not done. Emotionally, I guess, it could be. When you’re writing anything, you tap into personal stuff, but SAINT MAUD is more imagination than autobiography.
Do the film, and Maud’s character, reflect your own views on religion?
I’m not a religious person, though Christianity was something I was familiar with growing up. It was all around–I went to an all-girls convent school and my teachers were nuns and stuff–but it was never rammed down my throat. I guess as I got older, I started to become more interested in why some people believe and some people don’t, and the different roles that faith can play in a person’s life. To me, Maud’s version of faith doesn’t have much to do with organized religion. She’s created her own warped version of faith, and the role it plays in her life is a sort of messed-up self-help or self-care. It’s a way of keeping herself together and making sense of the world. That instinct to find meaning in life, and to put things in order, even if you’re not religious, is at the heart of quite a lot of faith; I think that’s a universal human instinct.
The thing I have more connection to is the idea of feeling trapped in your own head, in a sense. We all go around in these kind of weird little bubbles, and no one really knows what’s going on inside one another’s heads. The idea of constantly making deals and bargaining with yourself, and saying, “OK, if I’m good and I do this, then I won’t have to do that”–that’s something I could relate to.
How did you find Clark, and then work with her to create Maud?
It was a traditional casting route; I think I was still writing the script and we hadn’t been greenlighted when we started casting. But myself and the financers, we knew the success or failure of the film would hinge on finding the right actress. Maud’s in pretty much every shot, and if you didn’t buy into her character, the whole thing would completely fall apart. So we saw a lot of actresses, and she was pretty much the last person we saw, and it was that slightly cheesy moment where we saw her tape and were like, “Oh, thank God!”
Working with her was a dream, honestly. We’re good friends now, and it was fun. It was her first lead role in a film as well, so for both of us it was a big deal, and we were equally committed to making it work. In terms of preparing for it, though, we didn’t do a huge amount. We met up and talked about what the film was all about and how Maud got to where she is and that sort of thing, and we had a few days’ rehearsal, just the two of us. And with Jennifer, it was even less time; she’s from New York, so she only came in two or three days before we started shooting.
It all felt…not relaxed, that’s not true of any film shoot, but we all just got on and did it, and it felt quite natural. They’re really good actresses, so as long as they felt like they understood why their characters were doing what they were doing, we were good. It was important to me as well to make sure both of them knew the tone of the film we were making, and the world of it, because that affects how an actor calibrates their performance. You want to make sure you’re all making the same movie. It was a charmed group of people, and a very enjoyable process.
Were you specifically looking for an American actress to play Amanda?
No, not initially. The character was originally written as English, and quite a lot older as well. We started looking down that route a little bit, but I began to get nervous that the character could start getting too theatrical and trope-y. SAINT MAUD is deliberately quite heightened, and there are some theatrical, campy elements to it, but I was concerned that Amanda in particular might become a little too “Oh, fabulous!” and Norma Desmond–although she’s not English. So our casting director, Kharmel Cochrane, suggested Jennifer, and it was like, “Ah! That works.” The idea of her being American and younger basically made–you know, Maud’s a young woman who becomes obsessed with this other woman, and as an audience, we have to get on board with that. And it clicked a little better when it was someone a little closer in age to her. I could get my head around why Maud would become obsessed with her when I started picturing Jennifer in that role.
And Jennifer being American and Morfydd being Welsh added an extra layer of it being a bit weird that they’ve both ended up in this random little English seaside town, and being fish out of water. On the surface, they don’t seem like they have a lot in common, but they’re both lonely outsiders, so it helped with that.
How did you find those great locations?
We did a little road trip through UK seaside towns, and Scarborough seemed to have everything we needed. We did a week of shooting exteriors there at the very end of the shoot, right before Christmas, and before that we spent a month on the interiors. We took over two big houses in North London, and basically did all the interiors there. I wanted the film set in the present day and the real world, but a slightly heightened version of that.
Can you talk about balancing the real-world elements and the moments when we see things from Maud’s skewed point of view?
It was a constant weighing of things as I was writing it, because the film always had to operate on two parallel levels: what’s going on the “real world,” and what’s going on internally with Maud and her relationship with God, and her whole submission. It wasn’t too difficult, because for me, I tried to play everything aside from the very last shot from Maud’s point of view, while still being aware of there perhaps being a parallel version happening that would look different from what we’re seeing. My aim was to quite literally put people in her experience, if that makes sense.
One thing I found interesting about SAINT MAUD is that many films like this become more claustrophobic as they go on, while here, we’re confined to the house for the first half, and then the film opens up in the second.
There was a whole draft of the script very early on, halfway through development, that I had to throw away and start again from the beginning. That one was pretty much set entirely in Amanda’s house, but it was very hard to keep that on Maud’s side, because she started to turn into some sort of cartoony torturer holding Amanda hostage, and it didn’t make any sense. I definitely wanted the film to build in intensity, and feel more and more oppressive as it goes on, even if it does eventually spread out a bit location-wise, and we see what her life is like.
The whole film sort of unlocked for me when I started this new draft, and the main change was that Amanda fires Maud halfway through, and then for the rest of the film, Maud’s back in her flat. I realized that in order for us to understand this whole relationship she’s got with God, we need to see what happens to her when she doesn’t have that, so when her mission to save Amanda is disrupted and doesn’t go to plan, suddenly she has this wonderful focus to everything she’s doing. Now it’s all gone tits up, and she’s angry at God and questioning her faith, and we see her slip back into her old ways–maybe the way she would have existed before she found God, like that whole night when she goes out to the pub. The idea was to give a glimpse into what her life is like without God, so it makes sense why she would cling to her faith that much more. Her experience can be chaotic and depressing, and when presented with an opportunity to take on something that makes life incredibly meaningful and her role in it incredibly important, it’s hopefully not too much of a stretch to see how she could get sort of sucked down.
Do you see SAINT MAUD as a horror film, a drama or a kind of intersection of the two?
I consider it a horror film, but I see horror as being, like everything, a multifaceted beast, so there are different kinds of horror films, I guess. In the very beginning, when I started coming up with the idea, I wasn’t thinking of it as horror. In my head, it was this messed-up character study–which it still is, but I think it can be both things. When one of my producers first came on board and I told him about the idea, he said, “Oh, this sounds like a horror film,” and I was like, “OK, fine,” so we started talking about it that way, because it was easier to get people on board. But my personal thinking about the story didn’t change a huge amount; a lot of that stuff came quite naturally from the story and character I was interested in anyway.
Were there any past horror films that influenced you on this one?
Yeah, sure; the obvious ones are REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY. Those are two of my favorite movies, and some of their tone and visual language certainly inspired aspects of SAINT MAUD. Otherwise, though, it generally wasn’t so much horror films that I had floating around in my head. There were a lot of Bergman movies; they’re not horror, but they’ve got this oppressive, bizarre, otherworldly quality to them. And then THE DEVILS, by Ken Russell, which is kind of a horror film and really messed up and pretty fun, with lots of fantastic religious mania and ecstasy, so that was a big one. TAXI DRIVER was in my head as well; there are some parallels between Travis Bickle and Maud, and the way they see themselves in relation to the rest of the world.
What has been the most interesting reaction to SAINT MAUD so far?
I haven’t had any totally nuts ones yet. It’s more like when people I know well see it, and then they look at me a bit funny afterward. My grandma came out from watching it just looking utterly appalled [laughs], like, “Where did that come from?”