Natalie Erika James on Making “Relic,” a Psychological Horror Pic Inspired by Alzheimer’s

Natalie Erika James is a Japanese-Australian writer and director who is based in Melbourne, Australia. James’ 2016 short “Crestwick” premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and has gone on to screen at 60-plus festivals including the New York Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, and the Atlanta Film Festival. “Crestwick” was awarded the 2017 AWGIE Award for Best Short Form screenplay by the Australian Writer’s Guild. James’ 2018 proof-of-concept short for “Drum Wave,” a Japanese folk horror funded by the Screen Australia Hot Shots Plus program, was nominated for Best Australian Short Film at the Sydney Film Festival and premiered internationally at Fantastic Fest. “Relic” is her debut feature.

“Relic” opens in theaters and on VOD/ digital rental July 10.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

NEJ: “Relic” is a psychological horror that follows three generations of women as a manifestation of dementia takes over their family home. It’s a story about the heartbreak and tragedy of aging and Alzheimer’s, and the shifting dynamics between parent and child as people age.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NEJ: “Relic” comes from a personal place; it was inspired by my own grandmother and her battle with Alzheimer’s, as well as her relationship with my mother.

As a genre piece, there are a lot of heightened elements in the film, but for me the writing has always come from a place of emotional truth through the experiences I’ve had and the stories other people have shared. I think you can’t help but write about what’s important in your life.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

NEJ: I think having to confront your parents’ mortality — and your own by extension — is such a scary but universal concept. There’s a specific tortuous quality to Alzheimer’s and watching someone decline in its clutches.

If there’s one person in the audience who watches the film and it resonates with them on a level that helps them process a feeling or an experience with the disease, or see their loved ones in a new light, I’ll feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to do.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NEJ: Like any film, there were a number of production challenges along the way! But those are often creative problem-solving challenges that can be fun to work through. I personally find post-production to be the trickiest phase on any project. And with it being my first feature, and not being used to so many months in post, it was certainly an exercise in endurance.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

NEJ: “Relic” was co-financed by AGBO films, our Australian funding bodies Screen Australia and Film Victoria, as well as some generous Australian tax offsets. Both Screen Australia and Film Victoria had supported the project through development, so it was great to see the film through with them, and AGBO came on board once we commenced casting.

We also collaborated with Nine Stories Productions, who came on board the project during late development and were instrumental in the casting process.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

NEJ: I was obsessed with reading growing up, so I think I was always in love with stories. Probably first inspired by Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes DVDs, I started making some truly awful films when I was 13 and — hopefully — progressively better films since then.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

NEJ: The best advice I received that made a tangible difference to my career was in my second year of film school. I asked my lecturer for some advice on how to get into the industry as a first AD, thinking I was being practical about my future in a tough industry. She asked me point blank if I still wanted to be a director. When I said yes, she asked, “Then why would you pursue a career as an assistant director?” At the time, I wasn’t even aware I’d needed someone to give me permission to chase what I truly wanted to do. I’m so grateful that she recognized how much I was short-changing myself. Thanks, Siobhan!

Also, I absolutely still did my time in production to pay the rent, but always made sure I was working on something to write/direct on the side.

Worst advice: That as a director who is female, you have to be a screaming “hardass” to be taken seriously. You don’t.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

NEJ: Often when you’re a female director, or any role, really, competency in your job — regardless of your experience — is not an assumption that people automatically hold when they first meet you. All the more so if you’re relatively young, or a person of color. And that can be really frustrating. It’s hard not to bite back. My best advice would be: basically, ignore that shit.

Your work will speak for itself and you shouldn’t let other people’s misconceptions affect you. Find the people who believe in you and stick with them.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NEJ: It’s a close call between Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lynne Ramsay. The former for creating such a beautiful, potent world and affecting story with brilliant performances, and the latter for its powerful tension and unflinching honesty in asking seemingly impossible questions. Also, I love the book!

Or if I can be cheeky and list a third, “American Psycho” by Mary Harron, for its biting satire and because it was always inspiring to me at 13 to see a “masculine” film made by a director who is female.

W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

NEJ: I think the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have been closely linked with the push to reach gender parity in the industry, which has been great. There have been a lot of amazing programs that push to develop female filmmakers in a meaningful way. “Relic,” for example, was first supported through Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program, which granted development funding for 45 projects led by predominantly female teams.

It almost goes without saying that there is still a lot of ingrained misogyny on a wider societal level that will takes years, decades to overcome. But at the very least, I think in the film industry there is a growing sense that there are repercussions for certain behaviors, and people are more open about coming forward to report incidents.

July 12, 2020
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