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How filmmaker Natalie Erika James used her own life to create new horror film Relic.

Natalie Erika James never pictured herself as a horror film director, yet when she looks back on her life now, it all makes sense.

The Melbourne based Japanese-Australian writer and director describes her younger self as “a massive bookworm” who fell in love with storytelling at a young age, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking early on from director Peter Jackson, via her Lord of the Rings DVD boxset.

“I spent my teen years making these really well-intentioned but pretty terrible short films,” Natalie told Mamamia. “I eventually used film as a medium in art in high school and it was enough to get me into VCA (Victorian College Of The Arts).”

Natalie went on to win the Australian Music Video of the Year at the 2015 Triple J Awards for directing the music video Mine by artist Life is Better Blonde and in 2017 was awarded a Film Victoria funded director’s attachment on Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller, Upgrade, while also creating critically acclaimed short films.

Now, the 30-year-old filmmaker’s first feature film Relic, which she directed and co-wrote with Christian White, will premiere on Stan on Friday, July 10.

Relic tells the story of Edna (Robyn Nevin) the elderly and widowed matriarch of her family who mysteriously goes missing from her remote home in Victoria. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) then travel to the family home to find her.

Edna returns, but it quickly becomes clear that a sinister presence is now haunting the house and slowly taking control of her.

Take a look at the trailer for Relic, directed and co-written by Natalie Erika James, premiering only on Stan. 

 

In Relic, Natalie utilises the horror elements of the film as a manifestation of dementia, an elevated and otherworldly look at what it’s like to watch a loved one slowly slip away from you.

Natalie used her own family’s life as the inspiration for Relic, with the idea coming to her during a trip she made to Japan several years ago, to see her grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

It was a trip she had kept delaying for one reason or another, and when she finally arrived to see her, it turned out she’d left it too late – her grandmother no longer recognised her.

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To Natalie, this felt worse than death – to see a loved one progressively lose parts of themselves and then slowly become a stranger.

“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s for a long time but on that trip, it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was,” Natalie told Mamamia. “I had all these feelings of intense guilt, for not going to see her more regularly.

“At the same time, she lived in this house that had always scared the crap out of me as a child. It was this traditional, older Japanese style house. Those two things then came together, this idea of expressing the experience of emotional heartbreak and trauma, of a loved ones decline, through the horror genre. That’s when the idea came to life.”

“The idea of using three generations of women in the film was also linked to my experience,” Natalie continued. “It came from me watching my grandmother’s relationship with my mother shift over time. It gets to the stage where you have to start parenting your own parents.”

Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin in Relic, directed and co-written by Natalie Erika James. Image: Stan.

Although she's now a creator of horror films and had ghostlike experiences as a child, Natalie said that outside of creating monsters for the screen, she doesn't really believe in the supernatural.

"I would never claim to know anything definitely, I am a bit of a skeptic, unfortunately," she told Mamamia."Having said that, I truly believe in the power of your mind to conjure images. There’s something to be said about the emotional and physiological effects of that.

"I have personally seen a ghost in my grandmother’s house as a child, but I know now what that really represented in my childhood. I was waking up from a nightmare and I opened my eyes and there was a face floating above me. It was gone a second later but I did see it with my eyes.

"But I know now that it wasn’t real, I understand the power of the brain."

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Principal filming for Relic took place over six weeks in Melbourne, and thanks to the emotional and personal nature of the story, took quite a toll on the cast and the creators.

"Making a horror film is particularly emotionally taxing, for the actors especially," Natalie said. "I think at one stage Bella cried for four days straight. The writing phase and post-production were very cathartic for me. In making a film, it’s a way to process an experience.

"I also think the perception of horror movies is changing," she continued. "Horror gets a bad representation sometimes, particularly because in the past, people have seen horror films as a way to make a quick buck. They can sometimes be made for the wrong reasons because from a producing perspective you can make them relatively cheaply and they will still have an audience.

"In that case, the quality can be subpar, but now people are becoming more accepting of the fact that horror is so broad. It really is the perfect vehicle to tell stories about fear.

Relic received rave reviews after it premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and currently holds a perfect 100 per cent score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

With this level of success in her wake, Natalie is now in the midst of creating other elevated worlds of horror to mesmerise us on screen, commenting that there now seem to be fewer obstacles in the road for female filmmakers.

"In recent years a lot of work has been done to train and support female directors specifically," she said. "Gender parity in the industry is a massive thing right now that this is being discussed, so that is very positive.

"When you’re a female director or just a director who happens to be female, the biggest issue is that people have preconceived notions about your capabilities.

"It’s worse when you’re young, female and a person of colour as well. In those first meetings, I find that people have those assumptions of you, but if you have a team who knows what you are capable of it’s less of an issue. In other cases, when you’re dealing with heads of departments or development executives, you can definitely run into obstacles.

"I’m working on a few scripts right now, but the one that is furthest along is a Japanese folk-tale with Christian White, the same co-writer who I worked with for Relic.

"It’s in the same vein of Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby, and it’s to do with motherhood and selfhood. It follows a woman who is deathly afraid of motherhood for various reasons and then she marries into a family who lives on a remote island and worships a fertility goddess.

"So it’s about falling pregnant and that idea of escapism, with very strong body horror elements as well."

If the success of Relic is anything to go by, we can look forward to being both terrified and fascinated by Natalie Erika James' films for years to come.

Stan Original Film Relic premieres July 10 – only on Stan.

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