Directors Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis had worked together on The Fits, though then Davis was acting as editor and co-writer to the project, rather than co-director. In God’s Creatures starring Emily Watson and Paul Mescal, the two strike with confidence in a biblical and uneasy story of the lengths a mother will go to look the other way and defend the accused actions of her son.
Immediately striking and visually potent, the film is as engaging in its quieter moments along with the moments of tension. We spoke to the two directors about working together and how it felt inevitable to do so, and their inspirations for the film.
Congratulations on the film! I read that this has all been a four-year process for you two, is that right?
Anna Rose Holmer: For us, yes. We came on in 2018.
What drew you to this project and is there a particular thread of it that you really were grasped by?
ARH: Immediately when we got the draft for the screenplay we were struck by Shane Crowley’s writing voice. It’s extremely poetic and his observations of not only the landscapes but humans moved us really deeply. Then we both felt a profound, personal connection with the story. Both in the telling of the story through Aileen’s (Emily Watson) eyes but also Sarah’s (Aisling Franciosi) as a character, it felt very important to be able to, as artists, be able to examine a really violent act not by looking at it directly but looking at the echoes and reverberations of it through these lives. There were just questions that we’d been asking ourselves as artists that we found in the script and were excited to collaborate.
When it’s a project you’ve been working on for so long, are there changes that you see to the story over time just due to the progression of time?
Saela Davis: I think having the time was a gift. For us, writing is such a joyous process and we like to dissect every scene, every word on the page. But I don’t think it changes with more time I think it becomes stronger. We had Paul and Emily come on about a year before we were shooting so having that time too to develop the script with them and really understand these characters gave us more time to hone the story and meditate on our intentions.
When the film starts you’re immediately struck by the tone. When you start do you have this fully formed picture in your mind? Do you approach it with the idea of capturing a certain atmosphere or strictly through a storytelling manner? I always wonder about the dissonance between critics, audience members, and the creators themselves.
ARH: We’re makers, not self-identifying as film critics, but we study film. We were moved by other filmmakers and a lot of the work that went into this was watching films and finding the language and the movement and so much of it is about holding a tone. Creating an atmosphere is not just about expressing a mood but helping your audience, guiding them, towards the experience that you want them to have.
So it really is important from the beginning to have a sense of dread that comes from the score and holding on to the water for a very long time. For us, it’s not separate from the story. It’s as much about bringing your audience into that world and letting them know how to see, and how to move through this film. It’s really important to establish what is the tone of this place and the way this movie is going to move.
SD: It’s funny because I think there are a few moments in the film that are exactly how we saw them when we read it. I don’t know what that was. I think it was just an instinct within us because of the cinema that we watch and enjoy. I will say that there was a tone on the page and we stuck to that and obviously it evolved. But there were immediate instincts when we were reading the script.
I know you two have worked together in the past on The Fits but not as co-directors. Did you know at the end of that film that you two were going to want together as co-directors or did it depend on the script? Were you searching for scripts together?
ARH: We had been collaborating together for years before The Fits so we knew that our partnership was going to keep going and the truest form of that to us was directing as a team. So we had made that decision and we were writing for ourselves to direct right after that and this script came. It felt really in tune with what we were looking for as artists at the time and also collaborating with Shane and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly also felt right since we’re big collaborators we wanted to make sure we were going to be building a team with these other filmmakers that felt similarly.
We knew that we wanted to direct and we will continue to direct as a team for as long as we can.
You said earlier that while you don’t assign the role of the critic to yourself you do study film. As you’re filming it were there any ones in particular that you were inspired by or any filmmaker whose vision you felt was similar to your own?
SD: We have a long list, for different reasons, because we also think about each craft within a film. So the documentary team that made Leviathan inspired a lot of our sound design for the film. And then, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan as well as a story and visual reference as a very poetic and beautifully, strikingly visual film.
ARH: We were studying a lot of social thrillers from the 70s. Klute was something we were really looking at, something with tension and darkness and at times it’s like complex minimalism. But also a very vibrant palette because it felt really important that even though we’re making a film that’s out of time it’s speaking to now. So we wanted that vibrancy and urgency of the image to be a part of building it. With some of this, it’s like how does this all add up but Michael Haneke was a director we were looking at, with how you’re building tension and reframing a shot and actually by the placement and choreography of bodies how you elevate a narrative within the scene.
SD: Then Lucrecia Martel and Kelly Reichardt just as the, you know, the female gaze and female protagonist. Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, just the information that those characters do not have and how that plays a role in the evolution of the story and the tension was something that was really fascinating to us. And in Lucrecia Martel’s Headless Woman, similarly, it’s like the camera is very restricted and confined to the viewpoint of the protagonist so the audience is kept away from these other details in order to really keep you in her interior space. That was a big inspiration.
God’s Creatures is out now. Watch the trailer below.