‘Relic’ director Natalie Erika James on Asian horror and Australia’s “sanitised view of death”

The Japanese-Australian filmmaker talks her first feature-length movie, a tender, mind-bending horror tale of dementia and familial relationships

Natalie Erika James has had a nerve-wracking weekend. The 30-year-old Japanese-Australian director’s first feature film – the psychological horror Relic that premiered at Sundance earlier this year – screened at drive-in cinemas in the United States, which James hadn’t anticipated. The unexpected milestone, she tells NME, has left her feeling “over the moon”.

James’ mould-infested, Cronenbergian prosthetic-heavy production centres three generations of women: there’s the idealistic, boyish granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote of Bloom); hardworking, sensitive daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer of HBO’s The Newsroom), and the sharp-witted but declining grandmother Edna (former director of Sydney Theatre Company and Australian veteran actor Robyn Nevin). A presence in Edna’s Victorian house causes her dementia to materialise, seeping into the recesses of her home and tormenting her next of kin.

James wrote Relic alongside Christian White (the Australian writer behind forthcoming Black Mirror-esque Netflix series Clickbait), and was inspired by her Japanese grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The film poses an ancient yet timeless philosophical question: how do we tend to the dying?

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The result is an unnerving film that handles universal experiences with rare sensitivity: the processing of guilt, newfound responsibility and the sheer endurance required to care for a terminally ill loved one while balancing a demanding worklife.

The breakout filmmaker had a mildly spoiler-y chat with NME about real-life horrors and sustaining empathy for the dying, touching briefly on her next film, Drum Wave, a Japanese folktale that unpacks fear of pregnancy and motherhood.

There’s a lot of sustained dread in Relic; it reminded me a lot of the Australian horror film Lake Mungo.

“Oh, I love that film! It’s beautiful.”

I read that for Relic, you were also inspired by Asian horror movies. What films inspired you?

“I would say Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is probably one of my biggest influences, aside from the more obvious Ring series and The Grudge. I was also a massive fan of Audition by Takashi Miike. I love those films that have a sense of the uncanny; Lake Mungo does it really well but so does something like Picnic At Hanging Rock, which was always one of my favourites, like in my late teens.”

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

“One of them was where Edna is trying to bury her photo album in the woods; it’s a particularly emotional scene. And that was tricky just because I couldn’t stop crying [laughs] because I was so moved by Robyn’s and Emily’s performance. Whereas the rest of the time there’s just so much going on, it’s easier to separate yourself from the subject matter.

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“Another thing that was tough for me, personally, was a scene where Bella’s character Sam is breaking through a wall in the labyrinth. It was probably our second to last day of shooting, and we were starting to run out of time, as you do. You have these breakaway walls that an actor can break through, but they take some time to reset once you go for a take. I knew that we didn’t have all of the coverage that I wanted, but we had to settle for the one take because it would take too long.”

Relic movie interview director Natalie Erika James Australia horror
Actresses Robyn Nevin and Emily Mortimer in ‘Relic’. Credit: Stan

So the scene where Bella kicks through that mouldy wall, that’s the one take?

“Yeah!”

It looked like you got it!

“No one ever sees what’s in your head, so it doesn’t really matter in the end. But at the time it was devastating [laughs]. My lovely art department team, as soon as we called wrap, they brought out the spare breakaway wall so I could kick through it myself. They were all so committed to it and like, completely underfunded and over-budget, so that was a really nice memory.”

The last horror film I saw that centred three generations of women was Blumhouse’s Halloween in 2018. It was lauded as a film for the #MeToo movement but, the script was, uh, written by three men. Who are your favourite woman screenwriters?

“I have a friend called Catherine [S.] McMullen, an Aussie screenwriter that does genre – she is phenomenal… Certainly, the one thing I’ve noticed is that all the traditional pregnancy horrors are written by men, which makes no sense whatsoever. Apart from Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, which is a comedy-horror – she’s another phenomenal writer-director and an actress as well. I’m writing a horror film that deals with pregnancy at the moment [Drum Wave], and it’s baffling to me.”

Relic movie interview director Natalie Erika James Australia horror
Actress Bella Heathcote in ‘Relic’. Credit: Stan

The tagline for this film is ‘Everything Decays’, which is a particularly, uh, hard truth…

[James laughs]

…and it does seem like one of the most horrific aspects of Relic is to do with its truth-telling around death. Do you think we have, in Australia, a healthy cultural relationship with death?

“In one way, I feel like it is a somewhat sanitised view of death. I haven’t dealt with a lot of death in Australia in my own family, more so in Japan. And I think one of the amazing things about Japanese funeral rites is the washing of the body. I think there’s something so incredible, heartbreaking, but also real about physically handling the body.

“It’s this notion of death that’s very immediate or visceral or something; certainly, the end of Relic speaks to that. We tried to play it as this funeral rite in a way, because it is so much about the grief and the acceptance but also the loss as well.”

Relic movie interview director Natalie Erika James Australia horror
Actress Robyn Nevin and director Natalie Erika James on the set of ‘Relic’. Credit: Stan

The way you tie up Relic captures the idea of standing by a loved one no matter how ugly their demise becomes. Was that message intentional?

“Yeah, definitely. I think you’ve nailed it on the head. Going back to the tagline, the idea of ‘Everything Decays’… the film has always been optimistic from a realist perspective or a humanist perspective. There’s absolutely heartbreak in that decline, but I think my intention was to highlight the importance of that connection in the face of this inevitable death – and 100 per cent accepting your loved one, no matter what state they’re in.

“Because really, in the film, the most terrifying thing about it is Edna’s transformation and the way that the disease makes her act out and become aggressive and violent and rude, but, at the end, she becomes someone to have empathy for. We call her The Other at the end of the film, and you see that in The Other’s physicality: how frail and human and fragile she becomes.

“I always really recoil from anything that describes the presence as evil, because I think it’s a little bit simplistic and rooted in fantasy as opposed to the horrors of real life – which are always scarier anyway.”

Relic is available to stream on Stan from July 10

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