Actors can be quite fragile, so directors and their words will either give you wings or bury you.

Actress-turned-filmmaker Romola Garai’s Amulet trumpeted her arrival as an audacious new visionary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ruminating on the themes of sin, accountability, irrevocable regret and gender, the multi-layered feminist horror unspools with great finesse with Garai leading the charge. It’s an uncommonly confident outing for a first-time feature director. Plus, Garai is expectedly hyper-attentive to the modulations of her fellow actors’ performances and Amulet proves a dazzling showcase for both Carla Juri and Alec Secareanu, who seal the action.

Amulet unfolds in two intertwining timelines: Tomaz’s (Secareanu) past as a soldier in an unnamed foreign conflict, and in the now as an immigrant living in London. As the film opens, Tomaz is manning a checkpoint in solitude on a little-traveled road miles from the nearest village. In short order, two key things transpire, which will become important in the film’s climax: Tomaz discovers a small carved figurine under the topsoil in the forest—the titular object—and a distressed woman sprinting towards his outpost enters his orbit. In the present day, Tomaz leads a rootless existence picking up odd gigs as a day laborer while living in a squat with other refugees. His PTSD from war is such that he binds his arms and feet with duct tape before sleep to prevent injury in the throes of his night terrors, which makes escape difficult when a presumed anti-immigrant fanatic sets fire to the place and he barely makes it out intact. Coming to in a hospital, Tomaz is greeted by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who was able to save what precious little he has and furthers her generosity in offering him a live-in job opportunity. At the dilapidated house in which he now finds himself, Tomaz is tasked with tending to the household needs of Magda (Juri), an awkward and withdrawn young woman, and her sickly mother sequestered on the top floor who it turns out is keeping her daughter a virtual prisoner and abusing her as well. Soon enough, Tomaz’s two timelines intersect in wholly unpredictable ways, drawing the connections between that fatefully intervening nun, the talisman Tomaz discovered in the woods, the terrified woman from his past, and the secrets that all three inhabitants are hiding. Dodging the reveal, it’s a real feast for the eyes.

Amulet world premiered as a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th.

Horror as a genre feels most potent whenever it holds a mirror up to society and excavate something that goes far beyond the superficially grotesque. The so-called “monster” could be a substitute for trauma, the patriarchy, whathaveyou, without being quite so literal. What is your monster, Romola [Garai], and what drew you to this story as a first feature?

Romola Garai: The thing that drew me to it initially was this idea of the hero and what constitutes a hero in a film. Oftentimes a hero is committed to be violent, and violence is meted out in a morally acceptable way. If you watch an action movie or a superhero film or something, the male protagonist is violent. It’s all acceptable because he’s fighting evil. I just don’t believe that’s the truth. If you are violent, then it corrupts you. I wanted to write about a man, who’s a good man but a man nevertheless, who has allowed violence into his life. He cannot and should not be allowed to shut the door on that forever and just go back to an ordinary life.

I understand there was a particular book you read that inspired you as well.

Romola: This particular book that I was reading completely separately [from Amulet] was the initial jumping off point for the specific idea for this film. What I found really upsetting about that book was the idea that oftentimes if there is sexual violence in a conflict, those crimes aren’t prosecuted because if there’s a great deal of particularly ethnic tension in a country, they just want to shut that down as quickly as possible and achieve peace. Women are often not encouraged to pursue the people who have violated them sexually, in the name of the greater good of the country. I feel like women have been doing that since the dawn of time: putting our needs aside for other people. That’s what initially gave me the idea to start thinking about how a man could walk away from an action like that and feel like, “I can start a new life.” In the same way that countries think, “We can start again,” and not have to actually face these things that happened in our past. But I don’t believe that because they corrupt you internally and come out in other ways.

You really play around with gender roles in Amulet, especially ones typically enmeshed in the horror genre: the damsel in distress, the creepy old lady… Alec [Secareanu], you give birth in this movie! Did you have a lot of dialogue about the urgency of gender issues going into this?

Romola: I think it was pretty clear in the script. I don’t know that we talked that much about this idea. Carla [Juri], I know you and I talked individually about the fact that Magda is essentially the hero and how that has to be hidden for a long time, and the question of when to reveal that. Alec, I know we were talking about pushing that quite far at the end, and how far to push it. I guess we were talking more about when those switches would occur in the film, right?

Alec Secareanu: We talked about the ambiguity: who’s the villain and who’s the hero? I do remember us having conversations about what isolation does to this person. Sometimes when people isolate themselves, they think they’re allowed to do certain things without consequence. In the end, they’re the ones who will have to live with those actions, and of course there is a struggle inside with my character. Is it okay for him to forgive himself? Is forgiveness his to give or does he have to receive forgiveness? Basically that’s what we talked about a lot.

Romola: And the woman in the forest who’s sort of unnamed, played by Angeliki [Papoulia]. There’s quite an important point in the film where it’s revealed that Tomaz hasn’t forgiven her for perceived slight from a long time ago where she didn’t look up from her desk. I know we spoke about that a lot. Why has Tomaz carried that with him? It’s about the fact that you carry your slights with you, and all the characters are kind of doing that. They’re all carrying slights and it’s a question of whether or not they’re given the opportunity to seek retribution.

What are your feelings on a label like “feminist horror”?

Romola: I think that’s a terminology that people can only use themselves. Is Rosemary’s Baby a feminist film? I think it is. But another person would think it isn’t, you know? It’s a very individual thing. I don’t think the filmmaker necessarily has the right to say that it is that or not because it has more to do with the person watching the film. It’s how people perceive it. I suppose that’s the value of the word feminism. It is a word that enables people to have a conversation about gender in that way. I’m obviously very comfortable with that word, but if somebody else said, “I don’t think it’s a feminist film,” I’d be fine with that as well.

I read that you’re a big David Cronenberg fan, Romola, and his use of practical effects among other things. I sometimes wonder if there’s a growing allergy to analog in our digital age. You really feel the maker’s touch when things are done in-camera. I’m sure that helps you when things are there on set as well, Carla and Alec.

Romola: I love them. I love practical effects. I love the visual of them. Look—there are visual effects in our film, but we rely predominantly on practical effects just because I aesthetically prefer them. I think they’re more interesting to look at. I would rather look at something that stretches credulity than stretches emotion. For me it’s more important that the thing has a kind of texture of the real. I prefer the analog. In terms of the actors interacting with them, I don’t think they were all that useful actually, right? [laughs]

Alec: They were more useful than having the tennis ball or nothing at all to imagine a creature. It’s useful to have representation of that figure to react to. But still, you’re not playing with that. You’re playing with the puppeteer behind it. The puppeteer brings his own personality to it. For me it was easier to do it this way. But still, there are a lot of technical stuff that you have to be aware of. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but at some points you have three people maneuvering something that I had on me. You have to be careful of the wires and all those things.

Romola: The blood rig.

Alec: The blood rig. So I think it helps. It was strange technically as an actor because it was the first time I’d ever done something like this. But you get used to it. It’s part of the job.

Romola: Carla, how long did it take you to get into that suit at the end? Six hours?

Carla Juri: Yeah, I think so.

What’s the story behind this amulet that’s used in the movie? Was it an original design?

Romola: We looked at some images of very early art. One of the things that we looked up was a figurine called The Lion Man, which is supposed to be one of the earliest pieces of art ever made. The Lion Man is basically a carved stick with the head of a lion. Shells are obviously very important in the film so we even thought about having something to do with a snail initially. In the end, we went for the fan shape, which, again, is something we took from images of primitive art. Also, we knew we wanted Carla in that suit. That wasn’t special effects. We had to have something that practically could be made that she could get into. If we had gone with something that had tentacles, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to actually be in it.

When did you film Amulet?

Romola: Autumn 2018.

Carla, was last night your first time seeing the finished film?

Carla: It was actually my second time.

How did the film measure up to what you thought you had shot? What surprised you?

Carla: I guess I was surprised that I wasn’t scared. Sorry. [laughs] But I already knew the story so it was kind of like, “Oh yeah, that. Oh, that was fun! This looks pretty real!” You never know how something comes across or how scary something is when you make it. It is quite technical. I was still in my technical head when I was watching the movie. I think I could enjoy it way more the second time. You digest it more. It hits you in a different way the second time because you’re not thinking about the work you did and you can be more neutral and enjoy the story. I went home and I was like, “Wow, did we really do that?” [laughs]

Romola, you also come from acting. Is the process discernibly different working with directors who have acting experience? Is the vocabulary more specific and useful?

Romola: Carla and Alec, you guys are probably better situated to answer that. [laughs]

Alec: For me there’s a huge difference. I notice. When directors have acting experience, of course they have the same cues, the same language, and the same vocabulary. They know more about the process of actors. They know what you need to deliver in a specific scene, and how much to push you and when to push you. Actors can be quite fragile, so directors and their words will either give you wings or bury you. It’s really encouraging when you work with somebody that has acting experience because they’re more thoughtful to your process, I think.

What’s next for you, Romola?

Romola: I have a particular interest in gender—that comes up a lot in my scripts. [laughs] To be honest, I think my taste is pretty broad. I also have, I suppose, quite a gothic, sometimes camp, heightened sensibility. I’m interested in exploring those things, but maybe not necessarily in the horror genre. Maybe I’ll explore another genre in an equally heightened way.

Carla and Alec, do you have directorial ambitions of your own?

Alec: We were just talking about this yesterday. Carla, you go first.

Carla: I think so, yeah. I like being an actor and it’s great, but I do think about wanting to be a little bit more involved in the thinking behind projects to explore the symbolism of certain things. There’s opportunity for social criticism. I would like to explore that and have a voice in that sense. You get to do that as an actor, but in a limited way.

Alec: For the moment I think I’m going to concentrate on acting. At one point I think I will want to direct something. I just don’t know what or when. As Carla said, it’s good to have a voice. Sometimes as an actor you’re quite limited in what you’re able to say or to transmit because of the script and what you have to do. You don’t have the power to change the situation or change the story. It would be interesting to direct at one point. But right now, I’m sticking to acting.

Carla: Maybe we’ll do one together.

Alec: Yes, we’ll co-direct something.

Romola, can you recall a time when you first decided that you would make this leap?

Romola: No, I think it was something that was contagious. I think you see people do it and think, “Oh, people can do that?” My late 20s were when the conversation about female directors started happening. I started to become more aware of that as a potential opening for my creative journey and where I would want to put my creative energy. That’s why I started to write, and I wrote and directed my short that got into Sundance [Scrubber, 2012]. And then that made me think I really actually could do this and it became more of a serious thing. I started writing features, spec scripts, much more seriously and I wrote quite a few. It just became a need for more control and for more creative outlet, but I also think there’s something about directing where it makes you fall in love with acting again. They sort of feed each other. The thing about directing that I really appreciated was that I had reached the stage in my acting career where you think, “Yeah, all actors are fine. We come and do our job, and we’re all basically the same. It’s meaningless. The creativity doesn’t really happen with us. It’s the director and the editor who make the film, and we just look nice in the hats.” That sort of thing. Directing just taught me that’s bullshit. The acting is everything. The film is just chairs until the actor is on screen. That’s where the real emotion is. That’s what people really connect to. Directing retaught me that. So I’m hoping that as I go on in my life I can maybe do both. I think I’m actually the kind of person who would be at my best being able to do both.

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