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Tyler Aquilina Loves The New Wave Of Artful Horror Movies, Like ‘The Witch’
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Religious devotion comes in many forms. For the title character in Saint Maud, it involves levitation. And orgasms.
The latest gauntlet of psychological terror from A24 (The Witch, Midsommar) tells the tale of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young nurse freshly converted to a unique and deeply fervent form of Christianity. She soon becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her newest patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a jaded former choreographer with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, her intense relationship with God — with whom she seems to have an intimate and oddly physical connection — steadily takes a toll on her well-being. Sticking nails in your shoes as a form of penance will do that to you.
"I could see Maud so clearly [right away]," Clark says of her first big-screen leading role. "Often, [when] you read stuff that you think is good, that doesn't necessarily mean that you think you'll be good at any of those parts. And with this, I was like, 'I think I could do this well. I think I understand her in a way that maybe other people wouldn't quite.'"
The Welsh actress, who's currently filming Amazon's top-secret Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand, landed the role of Maud after three auditions. "Every time I went in, I was more obsessed with this part and this film, so it was getting really painful because I was like, 'I really, really, really want to do this,'" Clark recalls.
She attributes part of her connection with Maud to growing up with ADHD: "I spent a lot of my teenage years, to avoid being told off in school, masking and being a goodish pupil. So I find that characters that have two very different sides maybe make more sense to me than they would if I didn't have ADHD." But she also drew inspiration from real-life medical workers — including her cousins, who are nurses, and her mother, who's a pediatrician — and how "ground down" and burned out they were by their profession.
"I've so seen my mum as a hero in terms of her being a doctor, and I also was quite shielded [from] how hard she was finding things," the actress recalls. "So it was very illuminating and sad to talk about all of that. And the guilt that comes with not being able to do what you feel you should be able to do for a patient — finding out how guilty my cousins and my mum felt really made the religious aspect of Maud's character make so much sense. She needed to be freed from that."
For her final audition, Clark performed the scene involving the aforementioned levitation, a moment late in the film in which Maud floats off the floor in her latest instance of uncanny religious ecstasy. For viewers, it's more than a little unnerving; for Clark, it was only natural.
"The physical scenes where [Maud] really goes to extremes, they made so much sense," the actress says. "There wasn't ever a bit that I read and was like, 'Why does she do that, and why do we have to have that bit?' None of it felt ever silly or performative. It made sense to me."
That's to the credit of Saint Maud writer-director Rose Glass, who's making (remarkably) her feature debut with the horror film. An alum of England's prestigious National Film and Television School, Glass conceived of what would become Saint Maud as a two-hander between a young woman and a voice in her head. "Quite quickly," the filmmaker says, "the voice in her head turned into God." And then things got physical.
"I didn't want it to be this cerebral faith that we just have to go with," says Glass of Maud's relationship with the divine. "There needed to be something tangible about it. In the beginning, it was more like she'd literally be talking to him, but I didn't find that as interesting. I wanted their relationship to have this physical nature to it. So that's where the sort of orgasmic moments came from, when she feels God moving through her."
Still, she adds, "I tried to always make sure that there was a clear logic to everything, even in the more surreal, heightened elements. I just always had to know exactly, specifically, what is actually happening. Like, she's not just levitating for no reason. That's God lifting her back up from the depths."
Both Glass and Clark were raised Christians, but both also say they were never particularly religious. "[Christianity] was never something that was forced on me," the filmmaker recalls. "It's something that I was very familiar with, and didn't think I was particularly interested in, until I got a bit older and started looking at it more objectively from the outside and realizing how strange some of it is."
Clark's relationship with religion was a bit more fraught: "I just didn't believe in God," she explains. "I remember asking lots of questions like, 'Why do they believe in God? I want to believe in God,' but I just didn't. So this idea of Maud finding God, and then feeling the fragility of her belief and possibly losing it — that seems to me like such a seismic shift that I don't think I'd survive if I ever went through it. I think my lack of faith made me really fascinated by it."
Connecting to Maud so strongly eased the burden of what could have been a relentlessly daunting task. Clark's performance carries the film; she's in every scene, and the plot hangs almost entirely on Maud's roiling crisis of faith. But Clark's confidence in the material and her interpretation of the character carried her through production.
"I feel much more nervous, even if I'm doing a role that has two lines, [when] I don't feel I understand the character," the actress explains. "I never felt like that with Maud. This character that Rose created was so complete that I didn't feel unsure about what I was doing. That gave me a lot of strength to do a much bigger part than I had done before."
Furthermore, she adds, "The scale of it all was very small, so it never felt too overwhelming while we were actually doing it. It all felt familiar…. It had an element of scraping together a performance in drama school. We were all newbies. It felt very relaxed, but with an intensity of possibility and excitement."
Echoes Glass, "Once we got down to shooting it, I was kind of like, 'I've done this before. This feels familiar, just being on set and directing.' [But] on short films, by the nature of it, everyone always ends up doing a little bit of everything, so your mind's being pulled in a lot of different directions. Whereas on this, it was the first time I felt I was able to entirely focus on directing while we were shooting."
"Rose created an environment where I think people felt fulfilled, people felt trusted, people felt like their skills were respected," says Clark. "You feel very safe that Rose knows what she wants, and that if she doesn't know what she wants, she'll use the people around her to find what she needs. She's very tiny and powerful. She's like a tiny giant, I'd say."
"Tiny giant" might also be an apt description of Saint Maud itself. It runs a slim 83 minutes, and as Clark notes, is a fairly small-scale indie. But its emotional stakes feel truly Biblical, and as a showcase for Clark and Glass, it's titanic, at least according to the rapturous reviews.
For Clark, who's spent the last year away in nearly COVID-free New Zealand, everything has felt surreal, not least experiencing the reception of her first star vehicle from a distance. "I still feel closer to having just filmed it than it coming out," she says. "[But] we got nominated for lots of [British Independent Film Awards] recently, every department got nominated. That brings me much more joy and satisfaction because there's no neuroses about myself in that. To really be in an ensemble piece that everyone shone in has been really wonderful."
Clearly, someone prayed to the right god.
Saint Maud is in theaters now, and debuts on Epix Feb. 12.