Warning: Spoilers ahead for Amulet.
Romola Garai is one of those actors I’ve always loved to watch, and not just because she starred in two of the formative movies of my teenage years: Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Vanity Fair. Cast as a good girl in an era where there weren’t many other options, she delivered memorable, magnetic, and unexpected performances. Now, she brings many of those same exciting qualities to her feature directorial debut, Amulet, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.
The film, which Garai also wrote, stars God’s Own Country breakout Alec Secareanu as a former soldier now living homeless in London. When a fire forces him out of the building he’s been squatting in, a nun (Imelda Staunton) tosses him a lifeline: free room and board in exchange for helping a young woman (Carla Juri) caring for her dying mother fix their decaying, decrepit home. But as his nightmares start to fuse with reality, it soon becomes clear that the lines between good and evil are blurred – the hero isn’t who you expect it to be.
Part supernatural horror, part rape-revenge fantasy, Amulet is the kind of movie that sneaks into your mind and plants a seed. Like Garai, it’s not showy or bombastic, but you’ll think about it long after it’s over. Ahead of the Sundance premiere, Refinery29 talked to Garai about getting behind the camera and going for the unexpected.
Refinery29: You wrote and directed this film — what inspired you to veer into horror?
Romola Garai: “I started writing features years ago, but after my short got into Sundance [in 2012], I kind of had a slate of various different things. There were many dramas, but development can be really slow in the U.K., and things weren’t moving. Somebody suggested to me that I write something that was more in the horror genre, and around the time I started thinking about it, I had read a book about the prosecution of rape as a weapon of war, and about some of the men who were accused of crimes in different war scenarios. They had experienced this kind of mental splitting in the war, where they saw everything that had taken place in war as being part of a villain persona, and essentially believed that they became different people afterwards. And I think that was the springboard idea — I wanted to write about somebody that at the beginning of the film was the hero, and then have the story [unfold] in such a way that your understanding of all the different characters shifts. The person you think is the victim is not, the person you think is the villain isn’t, so all the tropes of the horror genre turn.”
The movie definitely turns the damsel in distress trope on its head.
“It’s a rape-revenge movie but hopefully in an unusual way because you’re not dealing with just one victim, and the source of the evil isn’t quite what you think it is.”
There’s been some controversy regarding rape-revenge films in the last year, specifically regarding Jennifer Kent’s film The Nightingale. When do you think it’s okay to use rape as a plot catalyst?
“I haven’t seen The Nightingale — I’ve read about it. I think that there are valid arguments on both sides. I think it depends whether the film as a whole takes the view that the victim is the voice, and protagonist. I’ve definitely seen films where rape was depicted in a way that felt romanticised, or beautifully laid out female bodies post the rape. I’m thinking of sort of Nocturnal Animals style, where the aesthetics are there to protect the viewer from the violence of this act. You should be allowed to embrace [the violence] as long as the victim and her story are given the foreground. I think there’s an argument for doing that. That’s not what I chose to do, I chose to draw a veil over the act. But that may be more to do with the genre of the film, particularly. There is obviously violence in my film, but it’s a horror film — the violence is something you’re somewhat emotionally removed from. There was no way that I was interested in staging a rape in this film. It wouldn’t at all have been right. I wanted to see violence in the film, but I only wanted to see it meted out to him.”
“I don’t. I think that it’s a really varied genre. Unfortunately, because women have been locked out of the film industry for so long, there aren’t that many examples of female directors having directed horror, and think that until more women have directed horror films we won’t be able to actually see whether gender makes any kind of difference. I suspect that there probably won’t be, because people are just different. Whether they’re men or women. I’ve certainly spoken to a lot of women over the last two years about horror films, and they like or dislike different things according to their different personalities.”
The fear of rape, which is genre of horror we see here, seems like something that feels specifically gendered.
“Rape is a matter of fact for all women in the world. They live with it every day in a million different ways. It is a fact of our lives in the way that toothpaste is a fact of our lives. Whereas I don’t think that is the case for all men — for some men, but not all. But it is the case for all women. Because it is such a massive concern, I do think it is going to enter the psyche of people entering into the dark recesses of the mind. But up until now, the vast majority of horror films have been directed by men, and they’ve been concerned with childbirth. You could say that’s not a male experience either. I don’t think it’s clear-cut. A lot of horror films have female protagonists, even if they’re directed by men. If you think of a film like Rosemary’s Baby, there’s nothing essential about that film that suggested it was a male or female director. But yes, I think that rape is obviously an elemental part of being a woman.”
What made you decide to pivot towards directing?
‘I became an actor when I was very young. I was 17 or 18 when I started working professionally, and I kind of fell into it by accident. It’s brought me a lot of happiness, and a great life, but it’s also not the career that I chose — it kind of found me. And there came a point in my 20s when I definitely wanted to do something with my life that I had chosen, so I started writing. And initially, I think I wrote without a great sense of necessarily becoming a director. But then, with the resurgence in the conversation around women being locked out of the industry, I suddenly thought, Well if I’m writing these films, I might try and direct them myself. So, it changed quite naturally from that.”
Having been an actor and a director, did you find that people in power interacted with you differently in each role?
“Very much so. I don’t think this would be the case for all women, but being a director is a position of such tremendous authority — you are the originator of the stories that dictate our society. It’s an incredible amount of power, and I think that sociologically we are just deeply uncomfortable with seeing that kind of power in the hands of someone who exists in a female body. Even people who want a more diverse industry, maybe on a deeper, more profound level just struggle with the people who might be the authors of our society not being white men. It might be a more subconscious struggle. I think the willingness is there.
“There’s also the issue of age, and how having an ageing society impacts everything: politics, the stories we tell. And also, it was difficult for me as a woman to stand on set and say, I want what I want, and if you don’t like it you can take a hike. That’s not your sociological education. I think that it is quite a big change, and the noise is important, but the wheels of the human subconscious turn quite slowly.”
Imposter syndrome is very real.
“When I think of the male directors that I’ve worked for, some of them have an incredibly secure sense of their own power, and they’re often very good leaders, and very flexible and collaborative. And then there are some that are insecure in their power and trying to enforce their will all the time, and they feel questioned. Women are facing a completely new paradigm: How to be powerful in powerful positions. It’s just new ground.”
You’ve talked about having a bad experience filming Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, starting with an uncomfortable meeting with Harvey Weinstein, and mostly chose indies over studio films after that project. Would you go back as a director?
“I wouldn’t say that’s where my aspirations lie. My film hasn’t played to an audience yet, so I’m sort of in this weird limbo where I’ve finished it, but nobody’s seen it. I don’t know what I’ve made yet. But if somebody asked me, ‘What would your ideal career trajectory be?’ I’d say I’d rather have made Happy As Lazarro in 10 years than The Fantastic Four. Not that anyone has asked me. Although I really believe that [having women in charge of studio films] will change the world, because narratives are impactful.”
You worked with Mira Nair on Vanity Fair, a movie I loved even before I knew it was directed by a woman, or even fully grasped the impact of seeing a woman’s emancipation story on-screen.
“It’s such an incredible story, and I thought it was really interestingly told. Obviously, it’s an example of [Reese Witherspoon’s] great skill as an actress, but also interacts really interestingly with colonialism, which was way ahead of its time. People were not ready for that conversation yet about Britain and India. I was really excited to be part of it, even if Amelia doesn’t have the most exciting journey. I know a few actors who have never worked with a woman director in their whole career, but that was never the case for me. Maybe that’s what made it seem possible for me to become a director. I’d seen women in that position.”
Did you seek out advice from any of them?
“I sought out advice from every single person I’d every worked with in any capacity, and none of them were really prepared to give me any. They’d just say: ‘Listen to your heart.’ And I was like, No, I need more practical things! I guess all directors know that you’re on a journey of learning and the only way you’re going to learn is through doing. There’s nothing they can say to help you. You’re drowning and you have to swim back to shore by yourself.”
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
“I hope that they find it shocking. And I hope that they also understand that there’s a wry and dark humour, as well. It’s supposed to be awful, and also a little bit funny.”
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.