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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 07.25.20] United Kingdom horror

Romola Garai is most recognized for her work in front of the camera and from early on in her career, she has worked with who's—who of notable directors including Lone Scherfig, Joe Wright, Francois Ozon, Mira Nair among many others.

In 2012, she made the transition to working behind the camera, writing and directing a short film and nearly a decade later, she has returned to working as a writer/director, this time with her debut feature film Amulet.

The film stars Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a former soldier now living on the London streets. After losing most of his belongings in a squatter fire, he reluctantly takes the help of a nun (Imelda Staunton) who introduces him to Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman who spends her days looking after her ill mother in their dilapidated home. Tomaz agrees to move in and in exchange for room and board, he'll do repairs around the home.

At first, Magda and Tomaz's relationship is cold but as the pair begin to warm up to each other, it's slowly revealed that these two individuals have complicated pasts and that they are fully who they present themselves to be.

Amulet succeeds in large part thanks to Garai's script which works on a number of different levels and which constantly drops new information which shifts the importance and perspective of earlier scenes. The result is a movie that is constantly morphing and which you never see coming and while I don't think some of the supernatural elements fully work, that doesn't detract from the overall quality of the film.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the writer/director about her the film. A transcript of our conversation is below.

Amulet opens in theatres and is available on VOD today.

Quiet Earth: Congratulating you on the film. I'm uncomfortable saying I enjoyed it because the subject matter is so intense, but I did really admire and appreciate it but before we talk about the film specifically, I'm curious how and why you started writing.

Romola Garai: Thank you. I suppose I started writing about 10 years ago when I was in my mid twenties. I'd been working as an actor for eight years and I wanted to start making my own work. So I started trying to write like a novel which as I'm sure you can imagine was predictably appalling. Then I thought "I've read a lot of scripts, I'll try and write scripts" and I think as soon as I started to be comfortable writing scripts, I realized that what I really, really wanted to do was direct them. But I think it takes an awful lot of confidence to say, "I want to be a director." It takes so much confidence to say that. And I think it took me a long time to work up to being prepared to say that to myself and then to other people.

Throughout your career you've worked with some incredible directors. Did you ever ask any of them about directing and how to get into it?

I didn't. I think the last thing a director wants to hear when they're working with the actors is that the actor is hoping to be a director. I also, I don't think you have to ask that because you're watching them work all the time so you can kind of come to your own conclusions about whether they're the kind of director you'd like to be like, or not.

I've worked with directors that I've seen everything that they've done and I've though "I would never direct like this at all." Now that I've actually directed something and I know a bit more about how difficult it is I would be a bit less judgy than before. But I think you emulate the good that you see.

Now that I've directed my first film, I was constantly talking to all of the people that I've worked with for advice all the time and I'm sure I infuriated and deeply irritated people that I've worked with by calling them up and going "What do you do if your film is two and a half hours too long?" things like that.

In addition to the script, the film also features some amazing cinematography and music. How did you come to work with cinematographer Laura Bellingham? I found the flashback forest scenes particularly beautiful.

Well, it was, it was not easy cause we only had four days to shoot that part of the film and it rained the whole time. The little hut that Tomaz lives in started to sink down into the mud disappear from view. We all stood there trying to make it look like this kind of untouched, gorgeous Eden in the Carpathian mountains. Meanwhile, all of our equipment is sinking into the mud.

Laura had worked with worked with Matt [James Wilkinson], our producer before, so he was very keen that I meet her. She came in and straight away completely understood the script, completely understood what it was about. I remember her in the meeting being really angry with Tomas. She just seemed to get it straight away.
And it was very important to me that I wasn't going to have to explain the emotion behind the scenes to somebody. That they would understand the kind of emotional content of the film and the gentle slow burn of it. Laura absolutely was able to understand that.

I really needed somebody who was going to be very flexible in their approach because there were three different worlds that coexist in the film. There's the flashback which is this kind of ideal world, which we talked about. And then there's a modern-day London, which we kind of see and recognize as such. And then there's the interior of this house which has to feel like completely out of time, this house from like a Gothic horror story. She was amazing at trying to push those three worlds apart and employing different techniques and different strategies to kind of separate those three things. She was amazing and all of the images from the film are very, very striking and powerful. She did an amazing job.

So many of the department leads on your film are women. Was a conscious decision?

I think it's a bit of both. I mean, what I said to the producer is that I didn't want to look at any exclusively male lists. I want there to be a woman on every list that I'm looking at for the HOD. In the end, it still came up to who would best help me deliver my vision. I wouldn't have ended up working with someone that I didn't think was right. It just so happened that with my production designer and with my cinematographer, those people, I think probably because they are women, just seem to be very into the film and very in tune with the ideas behind it and they would, off the bat, just really blow all of the other competition out of the water.

They were just very aggressive and committed to the ideas. And then with Sarah [Angliss], the composer, I think she was somebody whose work I already knew, and she's not composed for film and television before. So that was really a left-field thing. I didn't think she'd say yes to be honest. I asked and thought I'd get a very polite email from her saying "No, I don't compose music for film and television," but she was up for it which was great. And I'm so pleased that she did it.

But I also had a male editor so it's not exclusively female but it was just important for me to always make sure that there were women coming into the room.

What's next for you as a writer/director?

I'm hoping to make another film. I've got other things in development and hopefully when we return to something approaching normality I can get maybe one or two of those into the works. I certainly will be directing and writing again. Maybe in horror again but I've got some more projects in that are in different genres as well.

Amulet opens in theatres and is available on VOD today.

Recomended Release: Amulet

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