New Expressions in Horror: Relic’s Natalie Erika James and Deep Tissue’s Meredith Alloway on Career Beginnings and the Power of the Short Film
Launching a career with a strong short is a hallmark of the independent film scene. The best shorts of the year commonly attract attention from festival programmers, managers, producers, agents. And in addition to generating recognition and industry interest, many shorts do more — they establish not only a voice but also subject matter their makers go on to explore with even more depth, nuance and subtlety in future works.
Currently in release from IFC Midnight and attracting much-deserved attention is Natalie Erika James’s Relic, which artfully lodges an exploration of dementia and elder care within a genuinely scary haunted-house horror story. Starring Emily Mortimer as the daughter trying to aid her widowed mother (Robyn Nevin), who is succumbing to the fog of Alzheimers’s while living alone in her secluded house, the feature is an outgrowth of a short, Creswick, in which the bare bones of the story — a daughter, a mentally failing parent, a house, and some supernatural presence — are first presented.
Another psychologically charged and highly recommended short viewable online is Meredith Alloway’s Deep Tissue, currently premiering as part of The Future of Film is Female. Alloway, who is a frequent contributor to Filmmaker, stars as a woman for whom a professionally-administered mid-afternoon body massage becomes, for the viewer, a shockingly visceral experience. Yet in a gory work that flirts with body horror, there’s real tenderness and empathy here. Deep Tissue shares with Relic an unexpected, beautifully-executed final turn that emotionally recasts all that we’ve seen before.
For Filmmaker, James and Alloway did a virtual sit down talking about their paths so far as women working in horror and genre-adjacent areas. In the conversation below, they discuss formative influences, the path towards directing, identifying collaborators and, of course, the next-step possibilities of the short film.
James: It was such an interesting time [watching your film] — it was kind of sinister but had this erotic edge. But then at the end it was almost like this playful, light romance. I really dug it.
Alloway: Thank you! I know you’ve talked about influences growing up, watching Asian cinema and horror. What was the first hardcore genre film you remember watching as a kid?
James: I watched The Shining pretty young — it’s a pretty common answer. My brother, who is four years older than me, was really into Stanley Kubrick. I was scarred very young by that bathtub scene. The other film that I saw with friends when I was 11 was The Others. It was the first time we went to a cinema without parental supervision. It scared the shit out of me, but was so fun [to watch] with friends and have that communal experience. I think that really stuck with me. What about you?
Alloway: The first time I remember seeing a horror film in the theater with my friends was Swimfan when I was in eighth grade.
James: Wow. Like a slasher film.
Alloway: Yes. And I think, you know, when you’re in seventh or eighth grade you’re just starting to like people and understand what trust means. And that film is a Fatal Attraction type of story. I remember seeing that and then the conversations everyone was having after — it gave such a platform for us to talk about those kinds of things.
But going back, The Lost Boys. I literally wear a side-dangling earring because Keifer Sutherland has this earring that he wears. My dad loved horror films. He was the guy that would get every horror film at Blockbuster. He didn’t care how crappy or “B movie” it was. But, like, Rosemary’s Baby — movies that I think I was probably too young to see — I think shaped me on a subconscious level.
James: Horror is so broad there are so many subsets. Where would you say your main interests lie? You know, some people are really into witches or vampires….
Alloway: That’s a good question. I think I’m interested in characters, and I let the character dictate what the genre is, in a way. Deep Tissue is very much inspired by an actual massage that I got in my house.
James: Oh yeah? Was it similarly kind of sinister? Was there a bit of a threat?
Alloway: No, not at all! I think the visuals of the film came from the fact that it was the first time I had a masseuse in my house — a very sweet man. But again, stranger, man in your apartment. It was my roommate’s birthday, so she had flowers everywhere, and I put on classical music, and I was like, this is so bizarre, you know? I wrote the first draft of the short right after.
James: So it almost sounds like there were your preconceived notions about what [the massage] should be, but also the male presence, being alone and the kind of the inherent weirdness of that when [the man] is a stranger. It sounds like [the experience] was a bit heightened and felt almost like a set up of a date, weirdly. And that plays into the short, yeah?
Alloway: Absolutely. As you have been saying about Relic, the short explores topics that we’re afraid to confront. We can do that within the horror genre. I don’t want to say we’re “normalizing things,” but we’re making them available to explore in a way that maybe is a little bit less daunting than if it’s within a straight drama.
James: Yes, I think [horror] also externalizes or physicalizes those things. That feeling that you had is on screen [in your short], and it’s translated not as cannibalism but as a really sensual erotic act. So I think that’s the wonderful thing about it. It’s so visual and so cinematic.
Alloway: Thank you! I’m really curious about how you developed your vision for Relic and then how you found the right producing partners and got it made. What was the journey of moving from your short, Creswick, into your feature? I’m in that position right now where I have producers and I’m working on my feature script, so I’m very curious about that transition.
James: My Australian producers approached me after seeing my graduate film back in 2011. They had just done Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders, so, you know, to me, they were the ultimate producers. I was so stoked to have even gotten a meeting with them, and they were like, ‘Oh, do you have any feature ideas?’ And I had nothing because I just come out of film school. You’re just burnt out after film school anyways. But I wrote a treatment in two weeks that was crap, and they very wisely passed on it. And then we kept in touch on email, but we didn’t really meet up for another four years. So [a meeting] that was seemingly a failure paid off in the long run.
When I started writing Relic, they were really interested and came on board. They already had a bit of history of working with international partners, which meant that they were already actively looking to people that they previously worked with. But for me the turning point was getting US representation. That came about directly through making the short film and traveling with festivals and meeting people and getting write ups.
Alloway: There’s this similar narrative I was told before graduating theater school — you graduate and need plays ready to go. And if your short is playing a big festival, you need your features lined up. But sometimes that doesn’t allow you to focus on what’s right in front of you.
James: Yeah, it’s a lot to expect of yourself. I think it’s a lot to expect of graduates to have everything sorted. You need life experience to have things to write about. So for me, I took a year off after graduating, and then I did go back to university, but it was just paying for deadlines essentially. I thought I’d make this film in Beijing, and I didn’t feel like I’d do it if no one was pushing me to. But that’s so interesting that you did playwriting. How did you transition into filmmaking?
Alloway: I made my first film, The Doll, when I was 10, and I played a Barbie doll that came back to life to seek revenge on the world who didn’t buy her. (And by the world, I mean my friend Mallory.) So I’ve been making movies for a long time, but I really got into theater in high school. I went to SMU in Texas. SMU was like the only acting program I found where I could do an emphasis in playwriting and directing. I was a film minor at first, but yeah, theater is so all consuming and the film minor felt almost like film studies. I knew I couldn’t do both. I think studying theater just gave me appreciation for dialogue and a love for Shakespeare and language. Directing actors, too.
I moved to LA after school and started writing for this site, the Script Lab. I was learning about screenwriting by writing reviews and doing interviews and pieces on screenwriting, and then I fell into going to film festivals. I fell in love with interviewing people. I always knew I wanted to make films, but I spent a lot of time figuring out what I had to say, what story I wanted to tell.
James: I think that’s so crucial. There are so many scripts that you read and get to the end of and go, “It’s well written and an entertaining ride, but what does it ultimately amount to?” Filmmaking is two years minimum of your life, and unless you really believe in what [a film] has to say, it’s a really hefty price to pay. I love the craft, but not enough to put that much of myself into a project unless I really believe in it. Everything I’m writing about is just essentially stuff that matters to me — the big philosophical questions that you have about your life or the world as it is.
Alloway: You have mentioned that your grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and that [you were also inspired by] this house that she had. What was that real-life experience that then informed both the short Creswick and Relic?
James: It’s a few things. Part of it is the mass of guilt — processing your guilt and your grief surrounding the subject. A lot of the time people with Alzheimer’s can feel like they’re living in two timelines. And if you think about what ghosts are, or the supernatural, [they are] things from a different time in the present. And so that felt like a parallel that really fit; [with Alzheimer’s], people talk to people who aren’t there, or are from another time, or they regress to childhood. [Those were] some of the experiences I had with my grandma — her being convinced that there was someone in the closet. You know that that’s not real, but it’s still a very sinister, uncanny, supernatural feeling. Those were the things that tied the idea of exploring Alzheimer’s through the haunted house together.
Alloway: I haven’t had someone in my family go through that. But I’ve definitely dealt with someone close who I’ve tried to understand the way that they’re viewing the world — why they do what they do and say what they say. I can totally see how that links to a years-long artistic exploration.
James: Yes, that’s right. There’s something really exciting about starting a project and not necessarily knowing the answer. It feels almost like there’s like a risk there or something. You know the parameters of what you want to explore, but it always changes as you’re writing.
Alloway: With Deep Tissue, my producers, Joshua Wilmott and Rachel Walker, were really good at seeing the questions I was asking that I didn’t know I was asking and pushing me to explore those further. Deep Tissue started because I had an idea to explore toxic relationships and codependency through the lens of what these characters do in the short, without giving any spoilers. Maybe two years before I wrote this short, I had developed a feature set in Texas about a couple like this. But it just never quite clicked for me because I just felt Texas wasn’t quite the landscape for it. And then when I got the massage and ended up writing the short, there were already deep-rooted questions I had that this one massage incident triggered. Rachel was always like, “You’re exploring body image stuff here, and let’s lean into it.” And so then throughout every draft and in the edit and the whole project, we really tried to raise questions as opposed to answer them.
James: There are so many different ways that ideas come to you. Sometimes they are more cerebral and other times you just write on intuition. And you don’t really understand what it means in an analytical sense until you make or write the thing. I think you’ve got to be open to both sides, because if you’re too cerebral about projects, I think they can feel a bit stilted or lacking spontaneity or life. So I think a marriage of the two is good. In terms of your feature, does that mean you’re expanding Deep Tissue or is this a completely different project?
Alloway: This is a different project. I won’t say too much about it but I’m very excited! It’s a New York City story. With Deep Tissue people said, “Just make it a feature.” But what these people in the short are doing to each other is very complex, and I found you can’t tie it up in a movie. I think their desire, or fetish, is a compulsion that I don’t think can be properly explored unless you take it slow and focus on the romance. So I have a pilot, and I’m developing it as a series.
James: It’s wise to know the difference because not every idea is a feature, right? It’s good to know what format your story is suited for. You see online so many short films that have been optioned that are just a visual hook or a motif. There’s so much you have to build around that idea to create a feature film. Definitely for Relic, we had the first draft before we shot Creswick. I think it would have been quite hard to go the other way around.
Alloway: Writing a feature is such a different journey than writing short. Do you have a writing partner? How much of Relic changed in the production phase?
James: Yeah, I have a writing partner, his name’s Christian White, and we met at the Palm Springs Film Festival. We work really closely together, although we don’t write in the same room, so we’ll just basically spend a bunch of days plotting, outlining — basically chatting through everything — and then we’ll go off and we’ll either split it in half or one of us will do the first pass. We’ll just go back and forth and obviously come back together to problem-solve creative solutions for obstacles, that kind of thing. From the conception of the idea to shooting the film was about four years, so it was a fair chunk of time. It wasn’t nonstop work, but we did about four rounds of development. The government gives you money to do a draft essentially.
Alloway: That must be nice!
James: Yeah, I mean, it’s not like a shit ton of money, but it’s still very generous. You’ve got to jump through hoops to apply and all that, but it’s good.
In production, it didn’t really change. There was one scene that got rewritten after I had some discussions with the actors — that was a really tricky scene as well to shoot. It was very emotional.
Alloway: Which scene was it?
James: It’s the scene where Edna is in the forest burying the photos. It’s essentially her last lucid moment before things kind of hit the fan. So yeah, it was amazing to collaborate with Emily [Mortimer] and Robyn [Nevin] and go, “Okay, let’s reshape this.” Over the four years that we were writing the script, I think all the superficial stuff changed a lot. If you read the first draft of the script, it was more of a brother/sister story. There were still three generations, but there were two protagonists. We shifted to focus on the women because those relationships just felt richer and more interesting. But it was essentially still talking about the same thing, and still had that balance of horror and beauty and still with a really emotional note at the end. I guess it changed over time in external ways, but the core of it has remained the same. Do you find that as well with your work? That it can change quite drastically?
Alloway: At least with my feature that I started writing last June, it’s about simplifying. The first draft was more like a Clean, Shaven or like Naked — a one-character downward spiral. And it’s still a downward-spiral film. But yeah, like how you narrowed the brother and sister into one protagonist, all of the flashy stuff has kind of fallen away and it’s just getting to what the spine of the story is.
I wanted to ask you for advice because I’ve never directed a feature. It feels like something you almost have to train for. What are the things that for you were the biggest challenges?
James: Good question. For me, the biggest challenge stepping up was that in shorts, I’m very used to planning everything to a tee. I’m sure you’re the same, you shot design or whatever it is. And in a feature, your experience might be different, but there are a lot of moving parts, and over a six-week period, things just inevitably shift or you run into really practical problems. You can’t shoot things a certain way, and so a lot more improvisation was required. That was something that was daunting. But I think something you learn to get used to as well, and it’s actually really exciting, is riding the chaos to a certain degree and trusting your instincts. Sometimes you fuck it up, but sometimes you find that your ideas on the spot are better than whatever you had in your head in the first place.
I didn’t necessarily have this problem, but I know talking to my producers, who’ve worked with a lot of first-timers, that sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself to have all the answers. Whereas you should really take into account that you’ve assembled this team and they’re there to help you. So if you make yourself an island, you’re going to have a bad time. But if you just are open and say, “Look, I’m not sure yet, what would you suggest,” that is probably a better way to go because, presumably your team has got great ideas too. I think the real skill of directing is curation, though. It’s knowing which ideas are going to derail your “vision,” and which ideas are going to help you with that. My impression of working in the States is that the director is God or something. Whereas in Australia, it’s a little bit more egalitarian. So don’t believe the hype, you’re human.
Alloway: I’m on the same page. People ask me all the time, “How are you in Deep Tissue? And you wrote it, you directed, you produced it?”
James: Yeah, I was going to ask!
Alloway: I always say, “My team!” My DP, Justin Hamilton, and I went to high school together, and Josh and Rachel, too, we’ve all known each other for a long time. With Deep Tissue, I cast myself because I felt I was the best person for the job, I knew the character so well. About casting Peter Vack, he’s also a filmmaker and is incredible. I was setting myself up for collaboration. I really had to tell myself, “If anyone on the crew thinks that you’re not directing the movie because you’re also in it, who gives a fuck as long as the movie turns out well.” I [said to myself], “Don’t try to prove anything to anyone. Make this about collaboration, make it about the project.” But we basically had a system. Rachel studied acting at NYU. We speak the same sort of — I don’t know, like Stanislavsky or Meisner — acting language. We went through the script. I was like, “These are the acting beats that I want to hit. If this isn’t coming through, come talk to me.” Josh is also my editor and has been on set for my past few shorts. So he was there, watching to make sure we got enough tail on a shot, or letting me know if something we wanted to accomplish wasn’t reading. And then Justin, I just trusted him. I didn’t need to be obsessive about framing. Like you were saying, we were very specific about the shot list and how we wanted things to look and reference.
James: That’s so impressive. I cannot imagine directing and being in front of the camera. I feel like it’s just such a different headspace. You have to be so in the moment with acting, and directing is the big picture.
Alloway: I would warm up and prepare for a scene the same way I would if I wasn’t directing. Also, I’ve directed so much within a scene just from being in theater school that it felt really natural. I will say that for the actual massage scene, I had the monitor on the floor. We had one shot to get it right! We couldn’t screw it up. With Relic how did you approach actors? Did you have conversations ahead of time? Accommodate how they like to work and then bring in your own ways?
James: I think it’s mostly to do with really in-depth discussions, both about approaches to the work but also in some ways it’s like “trauma bonding” — you just talk about your life a lot and the things that you’ve gone through. It’s not dissimilar to co-writing. When I co-write with my writer, we’re just talking about our lives and finding the common ground. We’re looking at it from both of our perspectives. I think you just have to be really vulnerable with actors because they give you so much and for them to trust you, I feel like you have to really trust them in return. So we just talked a lot about obviously the characters, but also our own lives and how we’ve experienced grief ourselves and family dynamics.
We didn’t do too much rehearsal. Partly, just practically speaking, Emily’s flight was delayed for three days so we only had like two days before we shot. It was just a lot of Skype calls prior to that. She was doing a lot of voice training because she did the Aussie accent. Some actors really recoil from accents and it really disrupts the work, but for her, she saw it as a way to really get into the character. She was brilliant at that. And then I prefer to find it on the day rather than the risk of over rehearsing. But it’s good to break the ice and do a little bit, and we had a lot of stunt rehearsals as well. So that was a great way to get everyone working together. And they all got on really well.
Alloway: I definitely learned the over-rehearsing thing! But I think it also depends on the project.
James: Yeah. If you find something in your rehearsal that you think is like lightning in a bottle, it’s that feeling of trying to recapture it that makes you give bad direction essentially. So I think that’s part of the danger. I mean, it really depends on how the actors like to work. Sometimes you can improv stuff around the script, which has been helpful in the past. If it’s more about trying to just be comfortable in the character’s skin, then that can be useful sometimes. But it really depends on what actors like. Some people say, “No, I don’t want to improv or do exercises, I’m not at drama school!”
Alloway: Mark Rylance is one of my favorite actors. I was covering the press conference for Bridge of Spies, and someone asked about his process. And he leans into the mic and says something like, “I just say the words,” and that was it.
James: Yes! So great and it is so funny, like the differences. I can’t remember who the director was, maybe David Fincher talking about Alien and the difference between two actors. One needed constant reassurance between takes. The other was just like, “Back off” and could turn on the tears just like that. Everyone’s different, I suppose.
Hey, talk to me about the style of your film. I noticed there’s a lot of slow zooms, the 4×3 ratio. It has a vintage ’70s feel to it. What’s the inspiration for the aesthetic?
Alloway: I think the visuals really were dictated by my experience getting the massage and the juxtaposition of the relaxation — the classical music, the sun shining, the flowers — with this strangeness. And I just love the texture of 1970s films. I was watching Rosemary’s Baby and The Changeling — 1968 and 1980, technically. But I think that the ’70s was a time when really cool filmmakers were making films that felt very character-driven. And what the stories were saying was very strange, like The Omen. When I go back and watch those films, I’m sort of jarred by how realistic but also strange they are, and I tried to honor that. Before I make a movie, I cut together like a ripomatic. I can have a lookbook, but sometimes there’s something tonally that I can’t communicate without cutting a mini version of the tone of the movie in a way.
James: That makes sense.
Alloway: So I basically, I had a lot of like 1960s, 1970s beauty tutorials that I found. They had this “uncanny valley” vibe to them.
James: I know what you mean. But it’s cool how you gave it kind of a modern twist. If you look at a film like The Love Witch, that almost perfectly mimics it, whereas yours has more of a modern immediacy to it.
Alloway: I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t want it to feel like these characters were doing this thing in a world that wasn’t our own world. It was very much like taking the uncanniness of a lot of these ’70s videos and vibes and then really bringing it to reality. Goodnight Mommy is a film that I really love, the camera movement. Relic and Creswick do this as well — they are very much about the tension at the beginning. Grounding the viewer, but using the slow zooms, the stillness. The 4×3 choice was because I was really influenced by Andrea Arnold, and she uses that in Fish Tank. And you really feel the claustrophobia of this girl’s experience with this man.
James: No, definitely. That’s really cool.
Alloway: Before you go, I want to talk about your dream projects. What are the stories you want to tell? Is it just horror? I think some people can assume that, if you’re currently making horror.
James: I think again, it just comes down to what the film is exploring and the ideas behind it. I think genre is a wonderful, wonderful vehicle. It’s just my taste, I suppose. So I’m writing a folk horror, a demon horror, and another body horror. But I also am really interested in sci fi as well, particularly grounded sci fi. One day I’d love to do an epic. I think that would be pretty sick. Anything with a distinct world. I’m into basically anything that’s just not reality.
Alloway: I agree. I think I’m interested in something that’s slightly heightened, even if the heightened reality is within the character’s mind or POV. I would love to do an epic, a war film!
And finally I have to say that what I really appreciate about Relic is this new perspective. You bring something fresh — we’ve never seen a haunted house story like it before. And I think it’s important to talk about being women in the film industry and acknowledging how that allows for supporting new perspectives. It’s not just about filling a quota. You know what I mean?
James: Yeah. It makes total sense. Obviously the numbers are nowhere near parity, but there’s an influx of first-time directors who are women. We’re definitely going to get an awesome cohort of genre female directors. I don’t know how you feel, I consider myself a feminist, like every woman should! But it’s not like I set out to make necessarily a feminist film for the sake of it being a feminist film. The feminism is inherent in the filmmaking. Right? So you can call it a feminist film.
Alloway: Absolutely. Your perspective is inherently feminist, as long as you’re pro women!
James: Yeah, exactly!