Glass, Darkly

Rose Glass, the writer-director of long-awaited A24 horror Saint Maud, tells Valerie Complex about finding comfort in psychological thrillers, being terrified of gremlins, and drawing from Joan of Arc’s story for her expressive, bold debut.

I could’ve gone with a melodrama about this young woman struggling with reality, but I wanted it to feel grand and cinematic because she’s going on a spiritual journey.” —⁠Rose Glass

Saint Maud will have you questioning reality. You’re not sure if Maud, the protagonist (or antagonist, or antihero depending on your point of view), is experiencing something truthful, or having a delusional, psychotic breakdown. Tellingly, Saint Maud’s writer and director Rose Glass leaves those decisions up to you.

Ever since her father sat her down in front of David Lynch’s 1977 fantasy horror Eraserhead, Glass has had a thing for, in her words, “messed-up” films. Her feature debut arrives off the back of a series of shorts and music videos that gave glimpses of her weird way of seeing and stylish aesthetic. A year ago, Saint Maud won Glass the IWC Schaffhausen Award (and £50,000) at the BFI London Film Festival. Delayed, like so much of life, due to Covid-19, the film has at last arrived in (available) UK cinemas, and recently had a BeyondFest screening in the US. It has immediately climbed into the top tier of the Letterboxd community’s 50 highest-rated horror films directed by women, and Letterboxd reviews variously praise Saint Maud as “a masterclass in slow-burn horror” and “powerful filmmaking”, with a “sucker punch of an ending”.

Welsh actress Morfydd Clark (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Personal History of David Copperfield) leads the film as Maud, a new member of God’s army, who is using religion (specifically of the Roman Catholic flavor) to atone for a mistake she made while working at a hospital. Maud quits her nursing job and becomes a private caretaker for former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), in Amanda’s gothic seaside home. While working there, Maud is swept up in moments of religious ecstasy. The longer Maud stays at the house, the stronger her spiritual connection is, with… something. Along with her religious conviction comes a belief that she has been chosen to save Amanda’s soul from damnation.

The film is told from Maud’s point of view, which warps our ability to decipher whether her experiences are real, or the result of something more sinister. When I spoke to Glass earlier this year—a whole pandemic ago—about the inner workings of Maud’s mind, she delighted in the ambiguity at play, and pointed to a famous historical figure as inspiration.

Morfydd Clark in a scene from Saint Maud.
Morfydd Clark in a scene from Saint Maud.

I loved Saint Maud. Where did the inspiration come from for this story?
Rose Glass: Saint Maud is an amalgamation of weird stuff I had in my head for a long time. I’ve always been interested in the extreme divide between how we present ourselves to the rest of the world and how the rest of the world sees us. We see inside somebody’s head while having a strange relationship with reality and the people around you.

I read about people who hear voices and the different circumstances, and conditions that might lead to that and how it causes difficulty in other people’s lives. There are figures who claim to hear the voice of God thousands of years ago and were revered. However, in 2020, if someone says they hear the voice of God in their heads, I’m sure the public reaction will be different.

I did pick up on some Joan of Arc parallels in the film.
I did definitive research about Joan of Arc, and what’s interesting is some modern-day psychologists believe that Joan might have had a particular type of epilepsy, that is accompanied by ecstatic seizures. These seizures are sometimes accompanied by [divine] hallucinations that are euphoric. It can make you feel like you’re touching or hearing from God.

I went back and forth on whether this film wants to explore mental illness or demonic possession—it could be a bit of both, right?
I wrote an ambiguous story on purpose so the audience could choose to take the whole thing as a bout of psychosis, or whether you think she’s actually talking to God. I never thought about the idea of possession and it’s a truly interesting take.

Rose Glass on the set of Saint Maud.
Rose Glass on the set of Saint Maud.

Maud is ambiguous too: is she a protagonist, an antagonist, or antihero? That’s what makes the character alluring.
Her mind is a source of horror and because she’s an unreliable narrator, the audience just won’t know what to believe. I hope that it’s an exciting film that gets under people’s skins and stays with them. I also hope they feel some compassion for Maud. This film is all about getting people to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is experiencing reality in a radically different way.

When did Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle get involved in the project?
We started doing auditions before the film was green-lit. The success of the film hinged on finding the right actress for Maud. We auditioned a lot of women, and were worried we wouldn’t find the right person. Morfydd was the last to audition and she got the part. She’s talented, has massive range, and fantastic comedic timing.

With Jennifer, we offered her the role and she said yes. I’m grateful to her because she’s an established actress and here is this weird little English film from an unknown director and she still wanted to be a part of it.

When developing the film, what was your process for deciding how Saint Maud would flow on screen? And how did the cinematography, set and sound design add to that narrative?
Before I started writing the script, I wanted the whole thing to be incredibly subjective and told through Maud’s [eyes]. I could’ve gone with a melodrama about this young woman struggling with reality, but I wanted it to feel grand and cinematic because she’s going on a spiritual journey. I spent a lot of time with the crew and I wanted everyone to be expressive and bold in how this turned out. And that’s what we got.

Do you think those elements you describe help land Saint Maud in the horror genre, as opposed to a psychological thriller?
When I wrote it, horror wasn’t something I had in mind, but it definitely ended up being more of one when I talked to the producers. They told me the script reads like a horror film. It’s always been this twisted, dark, story, but the conventional horror beats happened later.

Jennifer Ehle and Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.
Jennifer Ehle and Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.

You filmed in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. What was the behind the choice to set Saint Maud in this particular coastal town?
We wanted the setting to be an English seaside town. They have a feel that’s timeless and slightly otherworldly. I wanted the illusion of a place that appears like an alternate version of reality. We went gothic and intimidating with a mysterious house on the hill overlooking the water to have some elemental imagery to play with.

What was the first horror film you remember watching?
I’m not a horror nerd but the first horror film I remember seeing is Gremlins. I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house, and we watched Gremlins. They were all laughing and loving it and I was absolutely terrified.

You’ve mentioned that you like to watch “messed-up” films. Which one is your favorite?
Visitor Q, The Piano Teacher and Videodrome. I think watching anything that you feel like you shouldn’t be is always fun.

What was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s the first time I was interested in knowing how films were made. I obsessively started to, like, track down interviews with the filmmakers and watch behind-the-scenes stuff. That was the film that sort of made me realize how much can go into creating.

What living filmmaker do you admire the most?
David Cronenberg, John Waters and Martin Scorsese were some of my favorites growing up.

In the midst of this global pandemic, are there any go-to movies that are your comfort films?
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I’ve watched for the millionth time. I also watched a film called Border, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. I also really liked a psychological thriller called The Platform. Those are my go-to films right now.

Saint Maud’ is now in limited release in US theaters, and will be available on VOD and Epix February 12.

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