a long talk

Saint Maud’s Rose Glass Explains What’s Real and What’s Imagined in Her Unholy Horror Debut

Photo: A24

Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

When I spoke to writer-director Rose Glass all the way back in April 2020, she was, like most of us, newly locked down, stuck indoors with her five flatmates and three cats in her native U.K. But Glass was also anxiously awaiting the imminent U.S. release of her debut movie, Saint Maud, a darkly comic surrealist horror film that had already premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival and across the pond. Shortly after we spoke, Saint Maud was pushed due to the pandemic, then pushed again, then disappeared from the release schedule entirely; finally, it’s hitting theaters on January 29 and Epix on February 12.

Not to get all Christopher Nolan about it, but Saint Maud is genuinely worth the wait, the sort of film that deserves to be seen (when safe) in a theatrical setting, with its unnerving diegetic sounds, hallucinogenic visuals, and thrillingly immersive storytelling. Saint Maud centers on a deeply troubled young woman (Morfydd Clark) who’s given herself the title’s name. She’s a hospice nurse who, after a mysterious and traumatic incident involving the violent death of a patient, recently converted to an ascetic sort of Roman Catholicism that involves placing nails in her shoes before her bleak daily walk by the British seaside and purposefully burning herself on hot stoves. When we first meet Maud, a sort of unholy marriage of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie and Regan from The Exorcist, she’s just beginning a new job as the caretaker of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), an ex-dancer and atheist who’s dying of cancer. As the two women grow cautiously close, Maude begins to lose her grip on reality, engaging in orgiastic rituals with a disembodied presence she believes to be God, committing increasingly disturbing acts of self-harm, and eventually isolating Amanda from her friends in an attempt to save what Maud thinks is her sinful soul.

The whole thing unfolds in an impressively tight, absolutely riveting 84 minutes, a lean and terrifying little theme park ride that slides fluidly between the outright supernatural and the quietly haunting, never quite letting you orient yourself. Half the fun of watching Saint Maud is admiring the seemingly effortless dexterity that Glass, 31, has with tone and images, and her unshakeable confidence as a first-time director; she pays homage to body-horror classics like Repulsion and the stark, subjective isolation horror of Ingmar Bergman while also creating something entirely fresh and surprisingly fun. It’s the delightful sort of debut that announces the arrival of a distinctive new voice in horror — and it’s also the sort of film that raises a lot of questions, both about its origins and its many narrative mysteries. I asked Glass as many of them as possible during our hour-long conversation.

When did you first start thinking about Saint Maud?
I started coming up with a version of the idea a while ago, when I was finishing my M.A. at National Film and Television School, in 2014. A couple of years later, I started writing the script. The initial premise was the idea of a love story between a young woman and a voice in her head. At the time I was reading about people who hear voices, and the various conditions that can lead to that. I also wanted to make the kind of films that I like, which are very subjective. We all live in the same world, but we’re all confined to our bodies and all experience reality subjectively. You never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head.

How did it evolve from that point?
Hours of angsting and changing and thinking about it. Quite quickly when I started interrogating that initial premise, I wanted to figure out what else was going on in her life. There’s this whole thing in her head that nobody else knows about, but why does nobody else know about it? So I figured out that she’s very lonely and alienated and doesn’t have any people in her life, and that’s why this important relationship with a new patient she’s taking care of came in. And I started to realize that maybe her relationship with God could feed into her relationship with this woman. So the way it was set up in her head is that she’s about to embark on this holy mission to save this woman’s soul.

I was also thinking about how when you see or hear stuff about people blowing themselves up or setting fire to themselves in the name of religion — it’s a lazy and quite dangerous way of thinking, to dismiss people who do terrible things as just inherently bad or mad people. Being led to do something as extreme as that is not the kind of switch that happens overnight. There’s always a long complicated series of events. I was trying to see if I could get the audience to that point with the character, and understand why and how she got there.

I was surprised to learn that this was your first movie. It’s made with such a steady hand, specifically in terms of its tone, which I think achieves a really tricky and delicate balance. It feels like the work of somebody with a lot of movies under their belt. What do you attribute that to?
Fear. [Laughs.] Fear of failure. And obsessiveness. I was doing other stuff and working other jobs, but like I said, I’ve been thinking about this character and this film since 2014. By the time we came to shoot it, I never really looked at my script very much at all. And I had incredible collaborators.

What were your short films like before Saint Maud?
I didn’t start making proper shorts until film school. But even before that, when I was 11 or 12, my parents got me a camera and I started making films at home, experimenting with stop-motion and things like that. And then throughout my teens, me and a couple of really cool friends made silly little parody movies. Even when I was doing that, it was quite heightened, silly stuff, spoofs and comedy things. Then I went to film school and discovered arthouse cinema, and I guess it’s a weird merging of those two instincts. I want things to be fun and entertaining, but interesting. The shorts that I made, the narrative ones, tended to also be quite isolated, claustrophobic characters in some way, experiencing reality a bit differently.

I read an interview with you where you said, “Women love messed-up stuff.” Which I think is absolutely true, specifically as a woman who loves messed-up stuff, though I do think for a long time there was this sense that horror wasn’t for women.
That was in response to a male journalist asking me about how I’ve “handled” filming the gory stuff. I was like, “I wrote it!” He was very nice but he genuinely seemed to assume that because I’m a small woman, I was like, “Ah! Gore and blood!” Somebody told me that, in general, cinema audiences for horror tend to be made up more of women. There’s so much weirdness throughout history that has to do with women and their bodies, the paranormal. Maybe we tap into that.

I can’t believe men are asking you that.
Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s like … [Sighs.] Well, anyway. There is something inherently voyeuristic and subversive about cinema, strangers sitting together in a dark room, spying on other people’s lives, and there is an extra layer of voyeurism in [Saint Maud]. And people like being shocked. Horror taps into something quite primal, to experience crazy and dangerous things from the safety of a cinema seat. I wanted it to be a fun film. I remember having to persuade people in development: “Yeah, I swear, it’s not just going to be bleak and depressing!”

That was my big takeaway after the first time I saw it — I just had so much fun. I remember I approached you after the screening and told you that, and you were like, “Thank you, I really, really want people to find it funny.”
It’s not a straight comedy, but life is funny. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. The final shot, that often has an effect on an audience — a shocked noise, and then a nervous laugh as well. There’s some kind of instinctual reaction between fear and laughter. And Morfydd brought so much to it. There were jokes written into the script, but a lot of it is just her being a really good comic actress.

How did you find Morfydd?
In a quite traditional audition process. We started doing it about halfway through writing the script. We started seeing a lot of people early on because the film hinged on finding the right person. If you don’t like her or the character, the whole film falls on its face. Morfydd was one of the last people we saw, one of those classic cheesy things, like, “We saw her take and we knew.” In terms of what I was looking for, she’s in pretty much every shot in the film, so it has to be someone convincing and charismatic, who you can’t take your eyes off of. And who has massive range, and is a really good comic actress. At the London Film Festival [premiere], she was in two other films as well, and in one film she played two roles, but people didn’t recognize [that it was her in each film]. She can really transform.

Her eyes are so incredible and frightening, these liquid blackholes. Did you modify them at all?
We got her to wear a brown contact lens in one of them. Maud has the condition where you have different-colored eyes. I wanted the audience to be able to buy her as a character who could sort of go through life completely unseen, being ignored a lot of the time; she’s quite mousy and plain. But I was trying to think of a subtle visual thing that would make her stand out a bit, with mixed success. You can only tell she has different-colored eyes in a few shots. I think some people even thought her eyes changed throughout the film. But when she has a godgasm, we stretch her eyes out.

A godgasm! How did you come up with that concept?
I wish I had come up with a much more highbrow-sounding name. [Laughs.] From early on I was always grappling with, How do I make Maud’s relationship with God relatable? Something the audience can engage with? In the beginning, there was a lot more of God’s voice [in the script], but it got a bit distracting. I wanted to find a different way of them communicating. The last thing I wanted was for God to be this cerebral, academic thing — even if you don’t have faith, the idea of succumbing to ecstasy, coming out of your body, connecting with something bigger than yourself, is something anyone can relate to. And it makes her feel really good. [The film] wouldn’t make sense unless she was getting something enjoyable and wonderful out of her relationship with God, while the rest of her life is small and humdrum.

In some of my research I read that some scholars now believe Joan of Arc may have had a temporal lobe epilepsy accompanied by seizures, and hallucinations, and this incredible euphoric sense of well-being and bliss. So some believe that now she had this thing and that’s how this 13-year-old girl had the conviction to lead an army. Not that I’m saying Maud had the same thing, but some kind of ecstatic, orgasmic, sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy — I spoke to some people who said you could get to this space through meditation and fear. Whatever is happening in those scenes, she’s interpreting it as God, but tapping into the same part of your brain that you can reach through sex and hallucinogens and meditation. As someone who’s not religious, that’s how I can get onboard with it.

How did you accomplish the face-stretching effects for Maud and Amanda, both in terms of effects and directing?
When Maud’s face stretches at her peak, that’s a “facelift” — Technicolor did the effects and ended up doing so much more work than we’d initially paid them to do. That was all done in post, but I kind of wanted there to be, even in her most holy and pure and ecstatic moments, a hint of a dark force underneath the whole thing. And Jennifer’s face transforming [at the end], that was a combination of scary makeup and spooky effects. Up until that point, it had been quite serious between [Jennifer and Morfydd’s characters], but at that point Jennifer turns to me and goes, “So … just demonic?” I was like, “Yes, that would be great, thank you.”

We learn that Maud has had some sort of traumatic incident with a recent patient of hers, but we don’t learn much more about what happened, other than this visual of an old man’s chest exploding blood everywhere. How did you figure out where to draw the line on revealing what happened?
I didn’t want it to be a case of it seeming like, “This one terrible thing happened and now it equals a crazy person.” To me, it felt too chicken and egg. I wanted to give enough of a sense of it, but not so much that the whole thing is about that. Her whole life she’s felt alienated, and she probably has minor health issues, but then compounds that with going to work at the hospital in this stressful life or death profession — without having a social support system, it can lead places.

So you had all of these details fleshed out in your mind, just not in the film?
I was talking to a friend of a friend, a nurse, about, “Oh, I’m making a film and it’s got a nurse in it, does this stuff ring true to you?” And she said, “Yeah, of course, medical stuff, getting PTSD on the job, it’s a very stressful profession.” She told me this whole story — she was working on an ICU for people with lung difficulties, and was doing a night shift, and there was an old man asleep in one of the beds who’d had a major operation on his chest. And his chest had this massive incision down the middle that had been stapled up. And he went into cardiac arrest, and she called the crash team, and while they were running there, she began compressions, and because he was so delicate and spindly, the incision in his chest burst open and her hands went into his chest and squished everything. And it all went up in her face, and he died. Anyway, that stuck with me, and I asked if I could put it in the film, and she said yes.

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud. Photo: Courtesy of A24 Films

Has she seen the film?
Yeah. She liked it. What we show is probably much tamer than how it must have actually looked. Medical stuff, in real life, is pretty fucking intense.

When you and Morfydd spoke about creating Maud’s inner world, how explicit were you in terms of laying out whether things were happening in her head exclusively, or if there was some sort of truth to what was happening to her? Did you talk about wanting to keep the audience guessing up until the end?
Oh, totally. Until that final shot, I’d like to think that you can interpret it as all being kind of a genuinely spiritual relationship that she’s building. My interpretation is that by the end of the film, maybe something that started off as faith and spirituality has sort of descended into psychosis. We were aware that a lot of the stuff that happens maybe isn’t literally happening, but in terms of the character and how she played it, we looked at it from Maud’s perspective — any time we were talking about God, it was unambiguous. “So then you feel God, and he’s communicating this to you.” We played it, in that sense, completely straight.

Watching the movie made me curious about your own religious background.
I grew up with a Christian upbringing. I was baptized and went to church with my family on special occasions. And I also went to an all-girls convent school, and my teachers growing up were nuns. So Christianity was just around a lot. It wasn’t forced on me; I wasn’t particularly interested or connected to it growing up. I found it a bit boring. Once I grew up and had more distance from it, I started looking at it closer and sort of seeing the strangeness of it. And I became interested in looking at the more extreme ends of belief, and what it leads people to do — the cults, the more messed-up ends of it. The film isn’t really about religion, particularly, it’s more about the other things I was just banging on about. But because Christianity is familiar to me, I didn’t really do any extra research or theological research. Because Maud is sort of making up her own warped version of Christianity.

How did you come up with the character of Amanda?
Until late in the [process], the character was quite a bit older than she is in the film. And she was English. The character was a bit too theatrical and trope-y, so we changed it a fair bit with the casting of Jennifer. Maud is this young woman who becomes obsessed with her and I wasn’t sure if people would quite buy into her becoming obsessed with this old woman. From the beginning, she was always a foil to Maud. I wanted them to seem like diametrically opposed, whore-Madonna thing; Maud being pure and Amanda being the embodiment of sin. But hopefully quite quickly picking that apart a bit, and not being quite so on the nose.

So on the surface, Amanda’s a bit fabulous, and elements of her that are similar to characters in cinema — a lot of my favorite films have the role of the slightly sinful or strange older woman living by herself. But I wanted it to be the same as with Maud: Neither are entirely the protagonist or antagonist. They both do bad things and misinterpret each other. I wanted people to realize that in some ways, they have quite a bit in common. Amanda is also lonely and looking for an escape, and for a little while, she finds that in Maud. But then it goes wrong.

Their dynamic turns a bit erotic at one point; it seems like maybe Maud falls in love with Amanda a little bit.
The whole thing with Amanda being gay, I wanted to play with people’s expectations. If you place a Christian character alongside a gay character, the audience says, “Oh, it’s going to be a story about repressed desires, her heart says no but her body says yes” sort of thing. But I’ve seen that story quite a lot before. I thought it’d be more interesting if the roots of Maud trying to save Amanda were not at all based on her disapproval of her sexuality. It’s much more ambiguous. There is an element of physical attraction, but for me, it’s not about Maud repressing her sexuality. Sometimes women bonding with other women can take on this almost romantic [tinge]. I think part of her envies Amanda and wishes she could be a bit more like her.

Their dynamic reminded me a lot of Persona.
Yes, that’s another nurse-actress pairing. Totally. I love that film. In that film and in other ones like it, the roles between an employee and an employer is quite interesting, as well. On one hand, Amanda is in charge, the older and more successful who’s employing Maud. But at the same time, Maud is taking care of her body, and Amanda is physically helpless.

There are so many good body-horror moments, to that point. The nails in Maud’s shoes; the way she picks her scabs. How did you come up with the specific ways that she would torture herself?
The pins, specifically, I saw on bondage websites, people tying themselves up, and a bit where people took tips and tricks you can do to make your experience more painful. Somebody had drawn a diagram of it. I saw it years ago, but it stuck in my head. I was like, Bloody hell, I gotta use that somewhere. The scab was more literal: festering, drudging up all of this stuff with Amanda in her head, boiling indignance and resentment. I did really enjoy filming that scene. This whole team of professionals helping me film a girl pick a scab on her hand! My dream has come true!

I want to talk about the scene where she gives the guy at the bar a furious, dead-eyed hand job, which was very funny to me. The economy of it, the humor of it, it’s so well done.
Nobody ever asks me about the hand-job scene! I think the way she behaves with that guy and the guy [she sleeps with], I knew she’d had somebody who had a very different life and persona before she became Maud. So it was a hint of how she dealt with her troubles before she found God. I think watching that film, people might assume she’s this pure, virginal, naïve woman who knows nothing about the world. But this scene, it’s like, “No, she knows about all of that, she’s just chosen something else.” I also wanted to lull people into a false sense of security — give them a laugh and then show them something horrible afterwards.

Let’s talk about the ending. When Amanda goes off on Maud about how God isn’t real and becomes demonic, are we meant to believe she’s really saying these things and Maud’s mind is amplifying it? Or is the whole interaction in Maud’s head?
The point just before that happens, when they’ve been talking, Amanda’s basically said to Maud, in no uncertain terms, “I didn’t feel God, this isn’t happening, nothing we do matters.” And when we close up on Maud, that’s the closest she comes to lucidity, to potentially realizing how far she’s sunk into this thing. And then her brain basically defends itself against that reality. That point is her slipping much further into psychosis. In my mind, everything after that, barring the stabbing, is in her head.

Did the script always end with her killing Amanda and then lighting herself on fire?
The killing Amanda I’d gone back and forth on. I tried to resist the idea of her killing Amanda. I knew there had to be a clear reason, if she ended up killing anybody, why she ended up doing it. It makes total sense that she’d kill Amanda! She thinks she’s the devil. But there were versions of it where [she didn’t]. But the ending where she lights herself on fire and then switches to reality at the last moment, that never changed. Ultimately, the person she’s the biggest danger to is herself.

Why did you decide to sort of reveal the “truth” of reality at the very end, rather than leave it ambiguous?
I think it seemed like a bit of a cop out not to. I don’t know. It just felt a bit disingenuous. “Oh, maybe everything’s fine!” It’s like, no, she’s got a terribly dangerous point in her life and badly in need of help and isn’t getting it, and now it’s too late, basically. To me that was the more important, genuine note to end the film on. Hopefully because it is such an abrupt cut, because the whole thing has been from Maud’s perspective, it jolts you out of it and you realize that it had been a long time coming. She ended up here, but we’ve slipped down there with her. Hopefully it makes you realize, “Oh fuck, there’s a girl set on fire on a beach, saying ‘Glory to God.’” You realize how you’d view that scene if you came to it cold.

What were the logistics of shooting that final scene with the alternating perspectives?
It was quite intense. The stuff on the beach — not the real flames shot but everything leading up to it and the people around her — it was the second to last day of shooting, a few days before Christmas. It was going well but we were all knackered and it was freezing cold on the beach. Morfydd kept having to pour this water all over herself, and the tide wasn’t doing what we thought it would, and we kept losing the light. And there were all these extras who turned up probably thinking they’d be doing regular extra work and I was like, “Okay, drop to your knees on 3, 2, 1!”

We did initially film this whole stunt as well with a woman being set on fire, but ended up reshooting it with Morfydd as a big close-up instead. On the day we did have the stunt double being set on fire, which was weird — it was so exciting because I’d had the scene in my head for so long, but when you see this woman being laced up with all this flammable stuff, you’re like, “Oh my god, this is terrifying.” She was great, but she had to wear a fake head and fake hands, and we had to keep the shot really wide, which I thought would make sense, but it didn’t feel right, suddenly. We needed to see that it was her. It was like, “Oh, it’s a stuntwoman.” So we did some pickups with the big close-up. We had a green-screen setup, and Morfydd came out of hair and makeup with awful, charred body makeup with a blown-out eye. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we hugged, and it was like, “Oh, you’re burning to death.”

Did you anticipate the critical reception it’s gotten?
No, God no. I always thought it’d be this tiny British movie, but I guess not.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Yeah, I have a couple of things. One I’m co-writing with a friend I went to film school with, and one I’m writing at myself, and I’m in fact right now in my room staring at a serial-killer-esque map of the whole thing on my wall. I’ve worked out that I’m interested in bodies and brains, and they’re both continuing in this direction, the emphasis on body stuff. One is sort of body horror, I guess? Even with Saint Maud, I’m like, “Is this a horror film?”

Rose Glass on What’s Real and What’s Imagined in Saint Maud