In the fashion of a truly haunting slow-burn, Rose Glass’ psychological horror Saint Maud (2019) has waited patiently for the opportunity to captivate an audience with its wide release. The film first saw the light of day on the festival circuit nearly two years ago and has been lingering in the background of the ongoing pandemic. 

Thankfully, the time has come for its divine mystery to be revealed. The titular Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a pious young nurse, charged with the care of prodigious former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who remains confined to her seaside home while enduring late-stage cancer—and occasionally indulging in hedonistic flare. The film hums with the quiet tension of faith, devotion, abandon…and madness. I had a chat with the film’s writer-director, Rose Glass:

Gina Freitag: I have to start off by saying how much I loved this film. I saw it at the TIFF Midnight Madness premiere here in Toronto back in 2019, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Rose Glass: So you had to sit through my awful first Q&A. I just remember just standing up there, being like [nervously] “Ahhhhh…”

GF: I was just thrilled to take it all in, it was all so great. And Saint Maud was my favourite of the festival, and I’m just gonna keep gushing… (laughs)

RG: I wish I’d got a chance to actually see some of the films at the festival. It was so exciting being over there, I’d never been before.

GF: Of course, the focus is on you when you’re travelling the festival circuit with the film.

RG: Yeah, and also it was the first one we’d done, so it was also where all of our distribution stuff happened, where we signed up with A24 and StudioCanal, so we were sort of running between meetings, and then I was meeting American agents…Ridiculous.

GF: Busy, no doubt! And with the film being surrounded with these religious elements, it’s garnering a lot of attention, not to mention comparisons to other big horror films (The Exorcist, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby…). Actually, I read that you had a Christian upbringing, attending an all-girls Catholic school, and having nuns for teachers. Were there any experiences from that which helped inform the building of the characters for this film?

RG: Not so much, to be honest. I mean, I’m sure that growing up and having Christianity and the sort of experiences like going to Catholic school and knowing nuns and stuff, I’m sure that kind of fed into it. I think I maybe felt more confident with the religious aspects of the characters from that experience. But, generally, I found that I didn’t have any friends who were especially religious, even though we were all at a Catholic school. And in fact, generally the closest friends that I’ve had who’d been the most religious or where faith is like, the biggest part of their life, they weren’t friends I made when I was at Catholic school. It was generally people who sort of discovered their own faith a bit later on in life, or, in a couple of cases, kind of actually going against what their upbringing was. 

And so, when I was trying to figure it out, I only applied that to Maud quite late in development, and that helped work the character out quite a lot. I think, in the beginning, I did imagine her as having been to Catholic school, and at some point I thought maybe in the film there’d be like, flashbacks of, you know, this creepy stuff with nuns, but it just started to feel like I’d seen it all done better and more interestingly in other films…you know, like Black Narcissus. So yes, it made more sense to me, the idea that Maud finding her faith herself as a response to something that’s happened in her life, it made more sense to me that she’d cling to that bit more zealously, because it forms more of an individual part of her identity, rather than it being more of an inherited sort of cultural identity.

GF: Were there other sources or influences that you pulled from when you were writing this film—any weird avenues of research or anything specific to writing a psychological horror film narrative?

RG: It’s really weird, like neither The Exorcist or Carrie were ones that I was ever consciously thinking about when I was writing it. And then it got pointed out to me when reviews started to come out, and I was like “Oh yes, shit…” (laughs) So, that does happen. 

The films with religious themes that I was a bit more inspired by were particularly, I think, Through a Glass Darkly, the Bergman film, and Diary of a Country Priest…things like this. But in those, and Through a Glass Darkly anyway, it’s also a character who’s suffering from delusions and is looking at that line between whether what’s going on is a religious experience or something psychological. I knew that the psychology aspect was the thing I was most interested in.

I think when I was first starting to come up with the idea I’d sort of been thinking and researching about voice-hearing and auditory hallucinations and sort of all the different reasons that can lead to that occurring. I can’t remember what the word for it is, but there’s a particular name for an apparently very common kind of auditory hallucination (which happened to me a couple of times, I think that’s maybe why I started Googling it). It’s at the point where you fall asleep, or just before you fall asleep, you sometimes hear stuff, like some whispering or something. And so, early on, the voice-hearing thing was where I was leading around. In the beginning, God was going to be sort of a constant voice that you were going to hear throughout the film, like it was more of a two-hand between Maud and this voice. But quite quickly that started to feel a bit gimmicky.

And there’s all sorts of things that feed into it. Everything that’s happening in your life over those few years that you’re thinking about it sort of subconsciously does, one way or another. And then whatever stuff around what you’re reading and watching…I was kind of collecting folders of images the whole time.

GF: I suppose the pandemic has afforded you time in lockdown to start thinking similarly about your next project and/or future collaborations that you want to seek out.

RG: Yeah, so I’ve got a couple of things in development at the moment. I’m towards the end of a draft on something that I’d love to shoot this year. It’s a romance of sorts, and that’s kind of all I can say for now, and that I’m co-writing it with a friend. And I’m working on another one, but yeah, it’s pretty early days. I’m delighted to move on to the next thing.

GF: Excellent, we’ve got more of your work to look forward to then! Before we wrap, I’m kind of ‘burning’ to know: what elements scare you as a film viewer?

RG: The thing that I kind of enjoy the most about films, I guess, is when you see something which maybe on the surface seems so outside of your own experience and world, but there’s something in you that’s like, “I get that”. Recognizing yourself in the terror that you see on screen…or when horror’s connected up with or hidden in mundane, real things. ✝

Let the terror of SAINT MAUD be revealed unto you! Catch Rose Glass’s feature debut film, releasing from A24 and Elevation Pictures on-digital and on-demand this Friday, February 12th.