Saint Maud, the debut directorial feature from director Rose Glass, was the last movie I saw in a theater (well, a screening room) before the pandemic began. The film follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young nurse with a vaguely traumatic past who is hired to take care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a retired dancer with cancer who stays holed up in a creaky old house in a seaside town. Amanda is a vibrant bohemian, filling what are the last years of her life with parties and hook-ups, as a sour Maud, a recent convert to Catholicism, looks on with contempt. But Maud isn’t just religious, rather she talks to God, or so she believes she does. Visions and violent spasms that knock around in Maud’s mind and body have convinced her that she is not only a vessel for God’s wisdom, but that must “save” Amanda from sin, no matter the cost.
A creepy horror film about the crossed wires between madness and extremist religious devotion, Saint Maud toys with a history of martyrs and saints who believed they were in conversation with God. Here Glass talks to Jezebel about what inspired the film and creating an unreliable narrator with logic.
This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Where did Saint Maud’s story come from?
ROSE GLASS: My brain. [Laughs] I think it is an amalgamation of stuff that was just sort of floating around and that I’m interested in. I was just finishing film school [and] came up with the idea of doing a film which is kind of a two-hander between a young woman and a voice in her head. I think at the time I was doing research into voice hearing, into the different conditions and experiences that might lead to that and sort of the different two roles it can play in people’s lives.
I just always been interested in the divide between the sort of weird, messed up private universe that we all have going on in our heads and how sort of radically different that can sometimes be from how we present ourselves to the rest of the world around us and how the rest of the world sees us. The fact that we’re all given the same world, but we’re stuck in these weird flesh body things and we all experience reality so subjectively.
Obviously Maud is an unreliable narrator and it’s hard for viewers to know what she’s seeing is real or self-manifested. What was your approach to creating a character like Maud and depicting her visions? When you’re trying to portray that on screen, can you tell me about your approach to that balance between visualizing what was going out with her and that kind of ambiguity?
I think it does boil down to pretty much aside from the very final shots, the entire film is just shot entirely as how Maud experience things. The narrative has to constantly be working on two levels, you know, the kind of “Real World Story,” which I guess would just be a sort of a drama about a traumatized nurse who is kind of struggling with mental health and not getting the help she needs and succumbing to a psychotic episode. But whilst that’s there, the story I was more interested in telling is the one [with] her relationship with God and this mission and trying to pick apart how she’s perceiving all these things and what they mean to her.
The fact that sort of underneath this quite seemingly sort of odd belief that she has got to save [people], looks to me like that’s entirely driven by some subconscious desire to sort of connect with someone else and find friendship and communicate with somebody else. It’s trying to just make sure that every detail was quite specific and that everything she does, even if it seems sort of bonkers and weird on the surface, that there’s kind of a simple logic to it.
You mentioned the story building out of this research you had been doing about women and voices in their heads. Obviously, religion is so rich with stories of martyrdom and religious experiences where people are voices in their heads. Was the film always focused on religion?
To me, it’s not kind of focused in the sense that for me the film is not about religion, but maybe faith, the kind of extreme, strange nature. I think the Christianity stuff came in fairly naturally just I’m very familiar with all that. I went to a Catholic all-girls school and would go to church on special occasions. I think one of the things I was thinking about earlier on is exactly what you’re saying, this sort of disconnect between how somebody a few thousand years ago would be perceived or perceived by society, when they say that they hear the words of God in their head.
Joan of Arc, actually, there are some psychologists that believe that she maybe had this particular kind of temporal lobe epilepsy accompanied by this thing called ecstatic seizures, which is sort of a seizure accompanied with kind of vivid hallucinations but also this kind of euphoric, orgasmic kind of sense of inspiration and well-being and the divine. And there are some people that think that that’s that she was having these and that that’s when she was hearing God. There’s something real going on, it just depends on how you choose to categorize it.
The way that you describe the character of Maud and wanting to shoot the film so there was always a bit of logic behind what she was doing or what was happening, it sounds like you saw humanity in her and didn’t want her to be this typical horror villain.
Yeah, totally. She’s kind of an anti-hero. She’s sort of the hero and the villain, her mind is a source of fear and she’s the one who’s afraid. She’s obviously a bit of an oddball. You can sort of see in her feelings with most other people that she obviously doesn’t find it super easy to communicate with other people. It’s all about compassion, getting the audience to enjoy spending time with this character and to understand what she does. Someone [said] she seems like a textbook psychopath and I was a bit disappointed. I always like films where you can explore dark, heavy extreme things which maybe on the surface people think they have no connection to that. Then hopefully you start to realize that maybe she’s going about in a weird way, but she’s ultimately motivated by quite universal stuff like wanting to connect with people and to feel seen and valued and a part of something bigger than herself.
Do you think of Saint Maud as a horror film?
Yeah, an odd one I guess. I didn’t think of the movie as horror initially when I was kind of conceiving of the idea. At that point, I was still describing it to people as this quite heightened, dark, visceral, stylized thing. And one of my producers, when I first pitched him the idea, he said it sounds like a horror film. That didn’t really change the way I was thinking about the story that much, and then a lot of the more extreme horror elements didn’t actually come into the script until quite late. But the kind of films I like tend to be delving into the slightly more strange parts of characters’ psyches so that obviously, I guess, naturally lends itself to lean towards horror.
It’s a weird time for Saint Maud’s release right now, given the state of theaters and movies. But are you thinking what your next film might be?
I’m basically sort of back to the drawing board, so I’m kind of writing a lot at the moment. I’ve got to basically got two scripts, co-writing one of them and doing the other one by myself. I can’t say anything about the plot but I guess sort of throughout doing all this I kind of realized I’m interested in bodies and brains, I think they’ll both be continuing to explore those kinds of things. There’s a lot of weird body stuff.
Saint Maud is currently in theaters and streaming on Epix starting February 12.