'Saint Maud' Director Rose Glass On Her Buzzy A24 Horror, Piggybacking Bond and (Briefly) Beating 'Tenet'

Saint Maud
Courtesy of TIFF

'Saint Maud'

The debut director's critically-lauded psychological horror — already an indie awards season darling in the U.K. — is now finally out in the U.S. after multiple pandemic delays.

It’s been almost a year and a half since Saint Maud became one of the hottest films to emerge from the 2019 Toronto Film Festival.

British filmmaker Rose Glass’ debut feature — a deeply unsettling psychological horror following a troubled and devout palliative carer (played to perfection by Morfydd Clark) who believes she’s been sent to nurse her terminally ill client (the equally superb Jennifer Ehle) with a God-given purpose — was an instant hit among critics. A24 quickly snapped up U.S. rights following a reported bidding war. Weeks later, the Film4 and BFI-backed feature was hailed at the London Film Festival, jury head Wash Westmoreland describing it as marking the “emergence of a powerful new voice in British cinema.”

But just as Saint Maud was preparing for release in early April, the pandemic hit. Like much else at the time, it was pushed back. First — what now appears rather optimistically — to July and then, with the crisis spiralling, removed from A24’s slate altogether.

In the U.K., however, StudioCanal finally got the film into cinemas (the ones that were open) in early October, in a period between lockdowns. It exceeded expectations — coming second in its opening weekend behind Tenet. Then in December, it earned a record 17 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, including for best film, best director, best screenplay, best actress, best supporting actress, debut director and a host of craft categories, and later also topped the London Critics’ Circle film awards nominations.

With the success across the Atlantic having helped maintain its buzz, Saint Maud is — finally — now ready to quench genre appetites in the U.S. A24 is giving the film a limited release on Jan. 29, before it heads to pay-TV on Epix on Feb 12.

It’s been a long wait for Glass to see her much-celebrated breakout film — now something of an indie awards darling as well — back in North America since from the heady pre-Covid days of late 2019. But, as she explains to The Hollywood Reporter from London, for a film that was initially conceived as an idea more than six years ago, she’s had plenty of excitement already.

It must be a relief that Saint Maud is finally coming out in the US. Given the repeat delays, did you think this day would ever come?

I was starting to wonder. But, no I always had faith. It is strange though, because for me it sort of feels like all the big stuff kind of happened already. Like just finishing the film. And then we were lucky to do the sort of initial festival run and seeing it in cinemas for the first time with audiences. And then getting picked up by A24. That’s a fairly substantial enough dollop of excitement to handle.

It wasn’t long before the film was due out that much world of the world began to lock down, right?

Yeah. In April, we were just a few days away from being flown out to America to do a sort of press tour for the release there, when the first flight ban happened. It was very strange. Now obviously it all pales into total insignificance. I feel the need to put this massive disclaimer on anything to do with Saint Maud. Essentially, everything has been amazing on the film front. I couldn’t be happier.

When Saint Maud released in the U.K. in early October, wasn’t it topping the box office ahead of Tenet, at least for a couple of days?

I read that, but I’m not sure. It was definitely skirting close. I think we were certainly number two for a bit. But somebody definitely told me that as well. I don’t vouch for that fact, but I’ll agree with it!

But it’s mad. Initially James Bond [No Time to Die] was supposed to come out around the same sort of time, so obviously all the cinemas were holding out for that. And then that got pushed to 2021. I think a few days before we were about to come out Cineworld closed, which was unfortunate. But then, weirdly, because of the state of cinema it all became a bit of a news story, and we probably ended up getting a bit more attention than we would have done otherwise. It was like, “Well James Bond isn’t out, but…” And you had Boris Johnson encouraging people to go to the cinema to keep the economy going. So we kind of piggybacked onto all that.

I spoke to your lead star Morfydd Clark recently and she said that, despite the long wait for Saint Maud to hit screens in the U.S., there’s still seems to be a huge buzz about the film with genre fans desperate for it come out… which must be very nice!

Very! It’s all massively exceeded our hopes and expectations. So I’m delighted.

Breakout Morfydd Clark Finally Sees Her ‘Saint Maud’ Released After COVID-19 Delays

So where did the original idea come from? God-fearing palliative care nurse isn’t your traditional psychological horror trope.

I started coming up with a version of it just as I was finishing film school in 2014.

In the beginning, the initial thing that I'd come up with was wanting it to be a two-hander between Maud and God. The basic thing was, here’s a young woman who has the voice of God inside her head and falls in love with it. So you’d hear the voice of God throughout the whole thing, and it was basically going to be about their relationship and was going be some weird sort of kinky love affair.

But then quite quickly the voice thing started to feel a bit gimmicky. I’d never written a feature-length story before, so I kind of spent the next couple of years, in my spare time, rehashing versions of this story. I started to wonder how this young woman got to this point in her life where the main relationship she's got is with a voice in her head and nobody else seems to really realize. So I began to examine her external relationships. I’m really bad at describing it, but it’s an amalgamation of stuff I was interested in.

And how did you first come across Morfydd, who is a revelation as Maud?

She’s phenomenal – we lucked out massively. We started looking for Mauds about a year before we shot the film. It all felt very precarious. We hadn’t been green lit, we’d just been given a small budget to start casting and basically see if we could find someone who can carry the whole film. Film4 were essentially like, start looking now, just in case it’s hard.

So in a fairly traditional casting route we saw a lot of fantastic actors, and our awesome casting director Kharmel Cochrane got Morfydd to send in a tape. She was one of the last people we saw – and on this tape she had this sort of haunted/haunting expression and she just has one of those faces where you want to watch her. And Maud is pretty much in every shot and not saying a lot a lot of the time, so we really needed someone who could convey a lot and with quite a big range. She’s a bit of a comedic character, who does a lot of pretty awful, morally reprehensible stuff, and is pretty arrogant and heavily flawed, but we still need people to root for her and find her likeable and funny and interesting.

So did you know you’d found your Maud instantly?

Yeah, once she turned up I think we were just like, yeah, we found her. But we still made come in to audition, at least twice. Just to be mean. And I think the financiers at first were like, she’s great, but is she maybe a bit too sweet and shy. I think because they knew her from The Personal History of David Copperfield and she’d done some other period drama stuff.

And then I got her to come in again and do the scene where Maud hits her lowest point and is questioning her faith and kind of throws up and has a seizure and then levitates... which is quite fun to film in a casting room under fluorescent lighting!

So what’s next after Maud?

I’m writing something and hopefully it’s not too far away from a script. It’s set in America and I’d like to shoot it this year. I’m developing with Film4 with the same producers, Oliver Kassman and Andrea Cornwell and co-writing with a friend Weronika Tofilska, who I went to the National Film and TV School with and is a writer/director as well.

And is it the same sort of psychological horror or a world away?

To me, I say no it’s not… but maybe stylistically it is. It’s not a horror film, but…

British Independent Film Awards: ‘Saint Maud,’ ‘His House,’ ‘Rocks’ Lead Nominations