Appropriately enough for a film whose horror is rooted in nightmarish twists on Christian theology, Saint Maud has risen again. Following its buzzy debut at TIFF in 2019, the film—which we summarized in our review as “a blend of talky chamber drama, Paul Schrader-esque character study, and visceral body horror”—was picked up by A24 and scheduled for a release in March of 2020. Then, well, you know. But now, 11 months later, Saint Maud is finally out on VOD, and our interview with Glass, conducted back in April of last year, is being published.
Saint Maud stars Morfydd Clark as the title character, a home nurse in a chilly English seaside town whose newfound piety—and new job—are the direct result of the film’s enigmatic opening scene, which sees Maud crouched in the corner of a hospital room with her hands covered in blood. Now working in the private sector, Maud is assigned to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a retired dancer with only a few months left to live. Closed up in Amanda’s dusty mansion, the two become close—until Maud casts a what seems to be a disapproving eye at Amanda’s affair with Carol (Lily Frazer), a young woman from town.
What happens after that takes Maud down a spiraling path of religious obsession and masochistic delirium, leading to a shocking finale that produced audible gasps at the screening we attended at Fantastic Fest in 2019. We discuss that moment (sans spoilers, of course) in our interview with Glass, as well as the process of creating these characters, how Catholicism encourages a morbid imagination, and how writing a film is like having a baby—or hemorrhoids. Either metaphor works.
The A.V. Club: I believe at the Glasgow Film Festival, you did a Q&A and said something I thought was fascinating, where you described Maud as being a Travis Bickle type. Could you talk a little more about that?
Rose Glass: I’ve said quite a few things. [Laughs.] It’s something that I said to a development executive fairly early on in this process of writing the script. He was struggling a little bit to picture the character in his head, what she was like and how she sees herself in the world. So as a shorthand, I was like, “Try imagining if Travis Bickle was a young Catholic woman living in an English seaside town.” And then he was like, “Oh, okay. I get it.”
It’s a bit of a stretch, but they’re both really neurotic antiheroes who have their own super important mission statement [to make] to society that they are preparing themselves for—and meanwhile the rest of the world doesn’t even know they exist. I like characters that have that contradiction of arrogance and self-loathing.
AVC: Right, you have to make your elevator pitch. But it’s interesting, because Taxi Driver is this classic of male alienation, and that’s something that’s been covered a lot in films since. But I felt like this film spoke to a specifically female sort of alienation. Do you think that’s true?
RG: I mean, the character’s female, I’m female, so obviously whatever story I tell is going to be refracted through that prism. But to be honest, it’s not something that I was consciously thinking about, wanting to say anything particular about being female. But yeah, there’s not as many female characters like [Maud] that leap to mind. I think in this case, the thing that I wanted to explain with the Taxi Driver reference was that—I was worried that people would have this image of Maud as just this shy, sweet, frightened victim character the whole time.
To me, it was all about [creating] a really complicated character and the whole film [as] this weird, messed-up kind of character study. Someone who you’re not quite sure if you trust them or not. I like characters where they’re not explicitly goodies or baddies; that’s not how people are. I just found that to be a fun thing, for an audience to not know if [they] can trust who [they’re] watching, but enjoying the time that [they’re] spending with them.
AVC: The character went through a few different iterations before you finally landed on the final storyline, is that right?
RG: The story changed a fair bit. Like, the mechanics of it. About halfway through the development process, I threw away a whole draft and then started again. It took a little while to work it out. I think it was more because it was the first feature film script I’d ever written. And I don’t think of myself as a writer. I don’t write for the sake of enjoying writing. It’s not the thing I was most confident with. I like it, and I’d written all of my short film scripts, but writing a feature turned out to be more daunting—even though it actually ended up being quite a short feature.
AVC: It’s still a feature film!
RG: It was only halfway through development where someone pointed out to me, “Oh, maybe you should actually map your scenes out on the wall and visualize it that way, instead of just staring at your computer the whole time.” Like, really basic stuff. “Oh yeah, I could visualize the story.”
AVC: Writing is the worst, honestly.
RG: It can be amazing very occasionally, and then the rest of the time you’re just like, “I want to kill myself.”
AVC: The idea phase is great, the actual writing of it is awful, and then when you’re done, you feel great again.
RG: Recently I was watching Stalker, the Tarkovsky film, and there’s a bit where there’s a writer and he’s talking about writing like it’s this shameful act, saying it’s like squeezing out hemorrhoids.
Someone also told me making a film is a bit like having a baby and that, like you said, that beginning bit is amazing. So exciting! And then the birth is this traumatic, awful thing. But then at the end you have a baby and it’s wonderful and you’re like, “I want to do it again!” I try to remember that when I’m pulling out my hair like, “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
AVC: You forget the painful part.
RG: Yeah, exactly. But with the character, she was always a girl who has a secret relationship with God and is a bit of an outsider [in my mind]. So I always pictured her a certain way, but that obviously keeps changing as you write. And then when you cast the part, it changes all over again. Morfydd made her into a real person—and a lot funnier, which I was very happy with. I always wanted there to be humor in the film, and some of that’s written in. But there’s a particular physicality and lots of little beats that she does which are just so funny.
AVC: There’s such an interesting use of religion in this film. Were you raised Catholic?
RG: No. I went to a Catholic school, but my family was Church Of England. So I was christened, and would sometimes go to church on special occasions with family and stuff. But the school I was at was a Catholic girls school, and some of my teachers were nuns. We had mass every week, and so I was very familiar praying and singing hymns and being in church and Christianity sort of being around [all the time]. It was a very normal, quite present thing growing up, but I was never particularly interested in it or engaged with it. It wasn’t forced upon me by my family or anything like that.
It was the last thing I thought I wanted to make a film about. And then as I got older and started living my life and had that distance from it, from religion, that’s when I started to get more interested in it—as a bit more of an outsider. I’m interested in the psychology of religion, and what people get out of it. Not just Christianity, but looking at the more extreme end of belief [in general]. I’d thought of all this being so normal growing up in church, but then you sit and actually read the words that you were mumbling and it’s like, “Bloody hell, some of this is pretty dark and messed up.” There’s so much blood and gore in the visuals. And part of me must have been attracted to that, the melodrama of it.
AVC: I’ve heard people say that Catholicism, if you’re of a certain mindset already, it makes people morbid.
RG: I think that makes sense. It gets it into your psyche. But having said that, in the early versions of the script, Maud had a similar sort of [fascination], but a lot more extreme. I think maybe she even went to Catholic school. But I quite quickly moved away from that, because I wasn’t really interested in doing a film about organized religion, or this woman who got led astray by other people and their beliefs. To me, it seemed more interesting to have a character who found their faith for themselves later in life.
Because in my experience, the only people that I personally know and I’m friends with who’ve had strong relationships with religion were people who hadn’t gone to Catholic school growing up. They had found it [on their own]. In one particular case, I have a friend who found faith around the time that she was grappling with depression. It’s the idea of your faith being something that you would cling to a bit tighter or would play more of an active role in your life. To me, that just seemed quite interesting. If she came to faith later on, then it must be a reaction to something, or it must be taking some sort of hold over her.
AVC: You worked a lesbian relationship into the story, and Maud feeling torn about her attraction to Jennifer Ehle’s character, Amanda. Is there some commentary, or some anger, in there about the church’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people?
RG: I want people to find whatever they want in the film. Maud and Amanda’s relationship and the nature of the bond and attraction between them is deliberately quite ambiguous. In terms of the idea of the character of Amanda being gay, it was more that I wanted to play with the fact that in the beginning of the film, if you put a devoutly religious character alongside an LGBTQ+ character, your mind immediately goes to the place of, “Oh, this is going to be about a young girl grappling with her sexuality and feeling conflicted because of her religion.” Which again, for me, that’s a story that I’d seen before and wasn’t interested in.
Obviously there are things to do with the Catholic Church and many aspects of organized religion that are in need of critiquing. But that wasn’t so much the film I was interested in telling. Maud doesn’t really give a shit that Amanda’s gay. She kind of says as much in the film. I think Amanda misinterprets it… I needed a reason why Amanda was being such a bitch to [Maud] in the middle of the film. It’s because she believes, I think mistakenly, that Maud has slighted her and meddled with her relationship because she’s homophobic.
AVC: Oh, interesting.
RG: Maud has booted Carol out. But I think that’s just because she just doesn’t like her. She’s jealous, and wants to spend more time with Amanda herself. I don’t think [Maud’s behavior] comes from a homophobic place. That’s how I saw it, I’m not sure how it comes across [to the audience].
AVC: It is open to interpretation, like you said. It seems like these themes we’re discussing were designed to fit what you wanted to do in terms of telling a character-driven story, rather than starting with the themes and working that way.
RG: Yeah, she’s supposed to be quite specific. [There are] some specific individual character traits I wanted to build. For me, she’s not really a standard for any kind of political message. The stuff I was thinking about in terms of what I wanted to get across were a lot more to do with mental health than religion. Ultimately I just want it to be an interesting, entertaining film.
AVC: The characters are very specific, but so is the setting. Was there a reason why you were drawn to a seaside setting?
RG: [The story] was always set in an English seaside. We settled on [Scarborough] after looking at a few different places. I don’t know if it’s the same in America, but English seaside towns have this slightly weird, surreal, forgotten feeling about them, which I thought was quite appropriate for the film. I wanted it to be set in the present day in the real world, but in a slightly heightened, skewed vision of it. And a seaside town just seemed to do the trick. The elemental stuff of being by the sea and nature was [also] helpful for some of the more religious imagery.
AVC: It reminded me of Carnival Of Souls a little bit.
RG: That was actually one of the ones I was [looking at]. I was looking for films that had weird seaside towns and then watching them.
AVC: We don’t need to talk about what actually happens at the end, but the end of this movie seems to get a lot of strong reactions out of people.
RG: Oh, good!
AVC: Yeah! That shot that’s cut in really quick...
RG: It tends to get a surprise noise, and then people laugh.
AVC: Really? Because at my screening it got more of a, “Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh no.”
RG: Usually there’s that, and then some nervous laughter. Kind of a guilty laughter. But I think that’s a natural reaction when you have a massive shock.
AVC: What was the genesis behind that? Was that something that you had planned from the beginning?
RG: That was actually one of the few bits of the story that didn’t really change at all from very early on. The exact blocking of the scene changed a bit, but it was always building to this really heightened, surreal, euphoric climax where we’re within [Maud’s] mindset and how she sees things and then cutting very abruptly to the harsh reality. So that was always in there. It was quite fun—weird way to put it I suppose, but yeah.
AVC: Do you feel that this film is more in the tradition of a psychological horror movie like Repulsion, or religious horror like The Exorcist?
RG: Probably more like Repulsion and psychological horror. People’s minds turning on themselves. It’s obviously got all the dressings and trappings of a religious horror movie, just because Maud’s faith takes on a Christian identity. But for me it’s always a lot more about the psychology of it than the religion.
Saint Maud debuts on Epix on February 12 and is out now in select theaters. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.