Welcome to World builder, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive, thoughtful artisans behind the scenes in the industry. For this entry, we’ll talk to Saint Maud’s writer and director, Rose Glass. Note: This interview was conducted in February 2020 before the movie’s original April 2020 date was dropped and its release was postponed.
Most first-time filmmakers go through a long, arduous creative process from screenplay to screen, but few have had to deal with the vague fear of distributive weakness that exists in a pandemic-ridden world, and even fewer have had to deal with that grave dismay take with the promise of a breakthrough under their belt like Rose glass. Her debut feature, Holy Maudwent from one of the hottest spring releases of 2020 (along with its A24 cousin The Green Knight) to one that was almost unknown, if for good reason.
With momentum slowing, the situation worsening, and a truly remarkable movie, A24 decided to consider Saint Maud a theatrical release and play the game so many troubled distributors have been playing since March: announce the occasional release date and immediately withdraw, flush and repeat. Ten months later, after releases in the UK, Norway and Poland, it is finally coming to US theaters (which, mind you, are largely out of order) with a January 29 release date and an exclusive streaming deal on Epix starting February 12th.
Partly catholic body horror, part brain thriller, part excavation of what lies under devotion. Saint Maud follows a palliative nurse in her twenties named Maud (played by a grave and a fever) Morfydd Clark) who recently converted to Catholicism in her own grim, inflexible way – one that depends on orgasmic possession and the hermetic practice of self-flagellation to denounce the flesh and remember its inherent depravity before God. Needless to say, she’s not a good slope.
But her terminally ill patient at home, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), you still have to have it with you. Amanda is a sharp, critical, and aggressive presence. She gives her opinion and is not concerned about Maud’s beliefs. Her own mortality stares at her with all the cruelty life can muster. A mysterious backstory lingers in flashbacks as the sinister nature of Maud’s attempted purity (on behalf of herself and Amanda) increases, and the film plunges into the maddening stages of Jesus-Fucking Christ.
We phoned writer and director Rose Glass (almost a year ago) to talk about:
Do you have a spiritual or religious background?
My parents were Christians. My sisters and I attended a Catholic girls’ school. My family wasn’t particularly religious, but we went to church on special occasions. I was familiar with it but wasn’t particularly interested in it at the time. And as I got older and got a little more distance and an outsider’s perspective, it got more and more interesting.
Did you deal with Christian history for the film? Have you studied monasticism, asceticism, saints, martyrs, etc.?
Not really. I reached out to someone who found religion quite late in their life, you know? She is a recently converted person who creates her own strange version of belief, which you find out pretty quickly. I didn’t feel that she was someone who adhered to any Christian doctrine or was particularly aware of history. It’s their own distorted version of Christianity.
What made you want to write a body horror film for your first feature film? Are you trying to make a career as a horror director?
Not necessarily. I mean the body … I don’t feel like it’s particularly body horror, but I’m glad people enjoy these elements. However, that was the side of the story that interested me more. I don’t see it as particularly theological. The psychological and almost physical relationship she has with God appealed to me a little more.
Speaking of physical relationships, Is It Safe To Call It Orgasm?
[Laughs] Yes / Yes. For sure.
Why did you choose to depict such devotion?
As someone who is worldly, I wanted everyone who saw the film to get the bond Maud has with God. That kind of ecstasy of connecting with something bigger than yourself is a feeling that can be got from many other things that people can relate to. And the idea that it’s a stronger, physical thing … I don’t know. We all do things in strange ways, but ultimately we are all looking for the same thing. Ecstasy i think? I don’t know that one is consciously looking for it, but somehow looking for a feeling of transcending the body and feeling connected to something.
Many people make connections between Saint Maud and Carrie, The Exorcist, Under the Skin, etc.. Are these connections intentional? And were there other, more religious films that influenced you? Like the Passion of Joan of Arc or the Apostles or anything like that?
There were certainly religious films. Carrie and The Exorcist have been mentioned a lot, which is very cool of course, but I didn’t consciously think of either as I wrote it. But things like Black Narcissus and The Devils by Ken Russell and Through a Glass Darkly by Bergman, about a woman who communicates with God. Those would be the most important religious ones. Oh yes, and like you said, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
And, you know, the film is not based on Joan of Arc at all, but when I researched her I found it quite interesting that there are some psychologists out there who, looking back on the evidence, believe that Joan of Arc might be a particular one Art had temporal lobe epilepsy that comes with such ecstatic fits and hallucinations and so on and that would explain a lot about her history.
The iconography is a big part of the movie. It played out to me like the way she interacts with symbols represents the way we interact with media or our phones.
Yeah, it wasn’t that conscious. As we did it, I realized that I was deliberately ignoring social media and the internet and more contemporary things in some ways, which in real life would make her spend a lot more time on those things. I wanted to keep it timeless. But yeah I think it’s pretty much the same. In a way, their relationship with God may be the relationship some have with the internet. They have followers and try to please people and be seen and all that.
Do you then oppose a certain strength of devotion to one thing?
Certainly more than in a strictly religious sense. But yes, research the dangers of submitting too much. Question things!
How was your film financed and found?
I graduated from film school in 2014. In 2016, me and one of my producers brought an idea for Saint Maud to Film4, and then we developed the film with them for a couple of years, and it was funded by them and the BFI. and then we shot it at the end of 2018. That’s how it was done, and then we premiered in Toronto, and A24 saw it and picked it up for US distribution. This is of course a very compressed version [laughs].
Do you have plans for your next movie?
I am writing two things. To be honest, out of my selfish little bubble the timing of all of this isn’t bad in the sense that I can retreat to my little hermit cave. Hopefully when that all normalizes, I’ll have something to push forward.
Are they horror movies?
I do not know yet. Possibly. Maybe one of them.
Saint Maud hits theaters on January 29th and debuts on Epix on February 12th.