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The making of Saint Maud, the shattering horror debut from Rose Glass

(Image credit: Studio Canal)

When Rose Glass was in her early teens, she’d already decided she wanted to be a filmmaker and repeatedly pored over the world-building of Peter Jackson’s all-conquering Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Then something happened. Her dad
sat her down to watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead, saying, “If you want to make films, perhaps you should watch this – it’s the only film I’ve ever walked out of.” Rose, however, loved it, and her taste in movies promptly took a hard swing to the left.

“I watched loads of messed-up films,” she tells Total Film with a gleeful chuckle. “I got really obsessed with Pi and Visitor Q. And The Piano Teacher!” Around that time, she also saw Shaun Of The Dead at the cinema, marking the first time she’d heard the explosive reactions of an audience to a bunch of gnarly kills. “I went home and made little films with my friends, throwing gore about.”

Fast-forward 15 years to 12 October 2019, and Glass’ first feature, Saint Maud, has just been awarded a Special Commendation by the jury of the London Film Festival. The nod has completed a hugely satisfying couple of weeks for the 30-year-old writer-director, for on the eve of the festival she won the £50,000 IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award, presented in association with the BFI to provide meaningful support to an exciting new voice. Jury member Danny Boyle was ecstatic in his praise.

“Rose Glass is an extraordinary talent and powerful storyteller,” said Boyle. “Saint Maud is a genuinely unsettling and intriguing film... Striking, affecting and mordantly funny at times, its confidence evokes the ecstasy of films like Carrie, The Exorcist and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. Her skill in successfully incorporating original elements to a genre story and finding new ways to offer audiences a thrilling cinematic journey through madness, faith and death signifies Glass as a true original.”

Carrie. The Exorcist. Under The Skin. Those are huge titles to raise when talking about a low-budget two-hander that takes place almost entirely in one house, as a pious carer, Maud (Morfydd Clark), wrestles to save the soul of her cancer-ridden patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). But ask Glass for her influences and the titles she throws out are even more daunting: “Through A Glass Darkly, The Silence and Persona were the big ones,” she starts, namechecking three of Ingmar Bergman’s most austere titles. “Those movies for the warped, claustrophobic, dreamlike atmosphere that he conjures up. Taxi Driver, in terms of how the main character sees himself in comparison to how the rest of the world sees him. [Robert Bresson’s] Diary Of A Country Priest. And The Devils and Black Narcissus, which are visually epic and cinematic ways of telling very intimate stories.”

Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that Saint Maud is just another patchwork debut that cribs shamelessly from other movies, with nothing personal to say. Glass first started working on it as she studied at the National Film and Television School in 2014, taking two years to “knock it into shape” before presenting it to Film4, who boarded for development. The script then took another two years to complete. Only then did the BFI come in with production finance.

During these four years, Saint Maud changed a great deal. The original idea did not feature Amanda, and was instead a two-hander between the title character and God – or at least his voice in Maud’s head.

What is real?

(Image credit: Studio Canal)

“In terms of the loneliness, emotionally and psychologically, a lot of the stuff in the film is stuff that I’ve been feeling and thinking at various points throughout my life,” says Glass, who went to an all-girls Catholic school, attended church with her parents, and whose grandfather was a vicar, though he died before she was born. “It took me a while to realise how lonely the character is, because she’s so wrapped up in her reality, of what’s going on with God. The script really took off when I started wondering about the reality of her situation.”

That reality rippled and warped until Glass saw the whole picture: Maud, a private carer living in a bleak British seaside town, her patient a once- celebrated American dancer and choreographer whose hard-drinking, loose-loving ways Maud takes it upon herself to mend. Amanda, for her part, is equally determined that her young nurse – so severe, yet shy and sweet – should lighten up, and sets out to crack the shell that Maud has encased herself within in order to keep out past trauma. What follows is part horror, part character study and part rigorous religious enquiry, by turns moving and shocking, grim yet full of grace. Playing Maud is Morfydd Clark, the

Welsh actress who has so impressed in recent months in supporting roles in the BBC’s His Dark Materials (playing Sister Clara) and Dracula (Mina Harker), and with the dual roles of Clara Copperfield and Dora Spenlow in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield. Maud is Clark’s first on-screen lead. It took her three auditions to win it, with the last designed specifically so that Glass might convince the execs that this “pure, plain” actress harboured the necessary darkness for the role.

“I got Morfydd to come in again and do a scene where she has a seizure and is vomiting and crashing round the floor and then levitates, which is a weird one to do in a brightly lit casting room with no special effects,” explains Glass. “I shot a little sequence of her doing that, and cut it together and sent it to them, and they were like, ‘Oh, OK...’”

(Image credit: Studio Canal)

It’s a star-making role and one that Clark felt in her bones. “As soon as I read the script, I had this feeling that it needed to be written,” she says. “I felt such empathy and sadness, for both of them. And I understood why everything happened, despite never knowing what was going to come next.” At school, Clark struggled with dyslexia and ADHD; she was anxious and socially awkward. When she moved to London, she felt desperately lonely despite millions of people crowding in on every side. Now she is in a better place – and we don’t mean New Zealand, where she is currently playing Galadriel in Amazon’s gigantic Lord Of The Rings series – but those memories were available to access.

“I’ve been around people who have been nice about my eccentricities,” she says. “My weirdness is celebrated as an actor. But for a lot of people, it’s not like that. Maud’s just not been able to get away with anything. Every mistake she’s made went down the worst path it could have.”

“Morfydd is an amazing actor,” says Jennifer Ehle, for whom the same might be said given the consistent standard of her work over a 30-year career that includes films like The King’s Speech, Zero Dark Thirty and Little Men. But the brilliance that confronted Ehle was a bonus – the main attractions, initially, were script and character.

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“Amanda just seemed like she’d be a lot of fun to play,” Ehle says. “She’s complicated. She’s got a huge ego that’s now partly stifled by her circumstances and her illness. She’s also on God knows whatever cocktail of drugs. She’s gone from having a carefully curated empire of underlings and people who worshipped her to having a very limited audience of people to toy with and impress and seduce and charm and fascinate. And then she meets this fascinating, gorgeous young woman. I think people who are in positions of power are used to being able to have playthings of lower status than themselves; they can sniff out somebody who could be vulnerable. Amanda senses that, but is also genuinely intrigued by Maud.”

The power dynamic between the two women makes for riveting drama. Strip away the shimmering layer of religious fervour that allows Saint Maud to slide between reality and fantasy, the humdrum and the heightened, and the film would continue to grip.

“I thought a relationship between a carer and a patient had a lot of potential for weird power plays,” nods Glass. “The carer has this power and responsibility over this incredibly vulnerable person they’re caring for, but she’s also an employee of this older, more successful woman.”

“The scene where Maud is humiliated at the party was so interesting to me,” offers Clark. “As a private carer, some people can just treat you as their property. She’s treated like a servant. Amanda can use her however she wants to. That’s one day to laugh at, one day to go along with, one day to use her as a prop in a horrible joke with her friends. Maud just has no agency at all.”

And yet Maud succeeds in cracking Amanda’s own shell, cajoling her into revealing more of her true self than she ever has done before. “Yes,” agrees Clark. “You see in lots of moments why Maud is a nurse. Why she wanted to look after people and help people.”

Ehle ponders, speaking slowly. “Power dynamics are generally fascinating to explore. This one was an interesting... what’s the word? Terrarium? You’re kind of watching these two insects in this terrarium of a house. And yes, in a way, Maud experiences more intimacy with Amanda than Amanda’s ever experienced. Amanda’s never let anybody in quite as much. I’m sure she’s had a trillion lovers, but she’s probably controlled the way they perceive her. And she’s had other carers, but probably hasn’t let them in anywhere near as much.”

Adding to the complexity of the two characters and their relationship is the exploration of their sexuality. Ridiculous though it is to say this in 2020, it’s still uncommon for a movie to so openly lay out a young woman’s desires, for there are scenes here in which Maud’s hungry need for connection evoke Samantha Morton’s kamikaze carnality in Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. Even more unusual, Glass’ script refuses to quell Amanda’s sexuality, ensuring it is still a vital part of her kaleidoscopic makeup despite her debilitating illness.

“I think it’s obviously a film written by a woman,” says Ehle. “I didn’t find it any more comfortable doing those scenes with a female director than I would a male director, but I do think there’s something in the female gaze. Never was any sexuality there to titillate. Amanda’s sexuality is a huge part of her but it’s an incidental part. It’s not, ‘Oh my god, this woman’s a lesbian!’ You’re more interested in how it’s affecting her and the people around her rather than putting labels on.”

Clark concurs. “Amanda is allowed to be a whole person, and her sexuality is still a part of her,” she begins, before zooming in on her own character. “I love the ambiguity. Maud wouldn’t know what those feelings are particularly because she hasn’t been allowed to explore them. And I found it very interesting in a film that is also about religion, because female sexuality has suffered a lot because of organised religion.”

As for Glass, she always knew that sexuality would be a key part of Saint Maud. “When you’re doing a film that’s a portrait of a person unravelling, then obviously their sex life is going to come into it,” she shrugs. “But I was always going backward and forward on how much to show and tell about what happened to Maud to make her the way she is. I didn’t want it rammed down people’s throats, but hopefully what comes across is that this new saintly persona is something that she’s latched on to help her cope with herself.”

(Image credit: Studio Canal)

Saint Maud’s formal risk-taking and tonal control are remarkable. The action, often just two actors in a room, was shot in a house in London’s Highgate area, and a basement of a neighbouring house standing in for Maud’s bedsit. Exteriors were filmed in Scarborough. It was a five-week shoot, with a week of pickups, and all the scenes featuring Ehle were shot first so she might return to New York and the production could limit its spend.

The contained, focused shoot makes for claustrophobic-but-far-from-
dingy viewing, as Ben Fordesman’s crepuscular, claret-soaked lensing and Paulina Rzeszowska’s seamy production design unnerve viewers en route to an extraordinary climax.

“The world, visually and tonally, came first,” says Glass. “I wanted it to start off controlled and gradually, hopefully almost imperceptibly, to unravel stylistically, into a more nightmarish world. The last thing I ever wanted to do was a small, bleak drama. I was telling people, ‘It will be fun, I promise!’ The sensual and visceral side of it was something I kept banging on about to anyone who would listen. We’re not just seeing things literally as they are, but are experiencing Maud’s sensory emotions.” Once seen, Saint Maud will not be forgotten.

Just ask Clark, who was as disturbed as anyone else the first time she saw it. “I find it horrifying,” she admits. “I can deal with the monster in the cupboard but not in my head. Those movies really scare me.”

As for Glass’ parents, they were scared but also suitably proud. “They came to Toronto [Film Festival] for the premiere,” says Glass. “They love it, and they’re keeping up-to-date on every Google alert.” She laughs. “My grandmother also saw it and was surprised. She said, ‘Where did that come from?!’”

This feature originally appeared in Total Film magazine. Make sure to subscribe so you never miss another haunting feature again!