Image Credit: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions (SPWA)
It was to a somewhat dazed Rose Glass that I spoke on the 2nd October, who only having discovered that she had won the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award the night before, still seemed in a state of shock, ‘Everything seems quite surreal at the moment to be honest’. The £50,000 bursary is awarded to up-and-coming, British-based filmmakers with work premiering at the BFI London Film Festival, and is designed to support and foster new, exciting talent. At 30, having both written and directed her first feature film Saint Maud, described as ’sensational’ by Variety and as ‘a thrilling cinematic journey’ by chair of the Bursary Award jury Danny Boyle, Glass can certainly be classed as a new exciting talent.
Saint Maud, which had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival on the 8th September and which premiers in the UK on the 5th October as a part of the BFI London Film Festival, has already been snapped up for North American distribution by A24 and for UK distribution by Studio Canal. Despite all the excitement of festivals, awards, and the involvement of major distribution companies, Glass remains notably down-to-earth and self-effacing about the whole situation. ‘So I’ll take it that somebody wants me to make another one, that’s pretty encouraging’, she says of the Bursary Award with a chuckle.
When I ask her how she came to want to be a filmmaker she recounts her introduction to the world of filmmaking around the age of 8, on a family holiday, where she met another family with a camera and together they ended up ‘making a little silly film and getting me, my sisters and the other family to act in it. They got me to stab someone with a pretend knife which at the time seemed pretty cool’, she adds reflectively. This soon resulted in her family getting a mini-dv camera, with which she would make stop-motion films and short films with her friends at the weekends, all of which eventually led to her doing a film BA at the London College of Communication, then an MA at the National Film and Television School. It has clearly been a far from straightforward journey from film school to getting her first feature made though, ‘It feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall for a long time trying to get a first film off the ground’. She lists the many jobs she has had in the interim in order to support her ambition, such as waitress, cinema usher and receptionist.
Having made her own short films in film school, including the acclaimed 2014 short Room 55 which showed at festivals including BFI London Film Festival, SXSW, and Palm Springs, not to mention the many films she made on her family’s mini-dv camera, Glass was certainly no stranger to filmmaking. However, she says that making a feature film was a completely different experience. ‘The amount of time and work and money is so much bigger on a feature film, there are so many more hurdles to jump through’. ‘Once you’re actually shooting it, there are all these adults working full time on your film’, she adds, the slight tone of disbelief in her voice betraying that she’s still not quite used to this strange state of affairs, ‘With short films I was used to being the one sorting out everything that’s going on: catering, where the toilets are, stuff like that. This time I got to really just focus on directing which was great’.
Saint Maud in many ways sounds like a natural progression from her early filmmaking days of pretend stabbings. It is described by Indie Wire as ‘taut and trembling…a refined slab of body horror’. It is the story of a lonely, disturbed young palliative care nurse, played by Morfydd Clark, who develops a religious obsession with saving the soul of her patient, a retired dancer played by Jennifer Ehle. ‘It’s a lot about loneliness, the dangers of social alienation’, says Glass, ‘but it’s also just a weird, fun horror film’. I ask her if there are particular themes that she finds herself drawn to as a writer and director, and it is clear that she is fascinated by the complex and intricate dynamics of internal character and public presentation. ‘I’ve always been interested in the divide between the normal exterior that we all put on to interact with the rest of the world and the how radically different that can be from what’s actually going on in our heads, in our little private universes. The tension between those two things is an interesting area to explore’. She describes, with obvious passion, the kind of stories which she wants to tell, ‘I like stories, and going forward I want to continue exploring stories that look at characters who might seem to be doing kind of crazy, dangerous, seemingly inexplicable stuff that seems shocking at first, but explore it in a way that finds something universal in it and puts the audience in that character’s perspective. So rather than presenting a weird outsider, we’re actually getting an audience to feel aligned with them’.
It seems that this kind of exercise in empathy and personality study is Glass’ main consideration when making films. When I ask her what it’s like to be a woman working in the horror industry she seems reluctant to be compartmentalised as ‘female horror director’. ‘I don’t think of myself as being in the horror industry as such…There are a lot of genres and areas that I’m interested in but I think the best films, underneath all these cinematic layers and tropes are actually about something, with more food for thought’. She names Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror Rosemary’s Baby as a major influence, describing how it could be seen as a literal tale of demon possession, or as an allegory for post-partum psychosis and the control exerted over women’s bodies. While female experiences and female stories have long been present in horror films, they seem to be becoming increasingly prominent, and increasingly made by women. She admits that there currently seems to be an appetite for female-led horror films, which brings to mind recent female led or directed films such as Julia Ducournau’s 2017 cannibalism horror Raw; Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary, which is centred on and carried by a fantastic Toni Collette; or Jennifer Kent’s 2014 The Babadook. With its plot based on the highly fraught relationship of two women, Saint Maud would certainly seem to fit into this trend, but Glass is careful to ensure that it is not simply classed as a ‘female horror film’, stressing that, ‘Every filmmaker has their own different perspective and things they can bring to the story’.
Despite having just achieved such fantastic success with her debut film, Glass is far from wanting to rest on her laurels, and already seems eager to get to work on her upcoming projects. ‘I’ve got two different film ideas that I want to get on with working on now. Having this amazing bursary means that I can afford to take a very valuable bit of time now to work on them by myself for a bit and really work out what direction to take the stories in before I start involving other people and having to pin things down with particular companies’.
Saint Maud will be in cinemas in Spring 2020, a definite treat with which to kick off the new decade, and one which should cause quite a stir. In the meantime Rose Glass plans to ‘go and lock myself away in a little hole and do lots of writing’, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what she produces while she’s in there.