By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Joining the acclaimed likes of HIS HOUSE and NANNY, writer/director Paris Zarcilla’s RAGING GRACE is a frightening and dramatically moving exploration of both the tensions of the immigrant experience and more extreme human horrors. RUE MORGUE spoke with the British Filipino filmmaker about this most impressive debut feature.
RAGING GRACE opens in select theaters December 1 and then debuts on VOD December 8 from Brainstorm Media and Doppelgänger Releasing in the U.S. and Vortex Media in Canada (see below for the latter venues). Max Eigenmann stars as Joy, an undocumented single mom navigating an ever-uncertain employment situation, sometimes having to hide her young daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) from her employers. She takes a job in the expansive home of wealthy, condescending Katherine (Leanne Best), where Joy’s housekeeping duties including medicating Katherine’s vegetative uncle Nigel (David Hayman). The already tense circumstances become even more so–far more so–once Grace and then Joy begin realizing that something is scarily wrong in this household.
Full of surprising narrative turns (don’t even watch the trailer below if you want to preserve them), serious chills and excellent performances, RAGING GRACE is one of the year’s standout horror movies. After world-premiering at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, where it took both the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature and a Thunderbird Rising Award for Zarcilla, RAGING GRACE earned raves at other festivals, including Montreal’s Fantasia, where we reviewed it and where this interview was conducted. (You can read more of it in RM #215, now on sale.)
How did your personal experience inform the creation of the film?
When my mother first came to the UK, despite having a degree, she could only get work as a cleaner, and as a nanny for families. When I came of age and my dad was working in restaurants, she would actually take me to her jobs, and so I got to see the really bizarre side of her working in these very intimate spaces. It was strange to see the most powerful person I knew being spoken down to sometimes. During the pandemic in 2020, it was such a chaotic year when so many of us were looking inside ourselves, trying to figure out exactly who we were, and I got to a place where I didn’t know what that was. My mom and dad had told me to pretty much just keep my head down, keep up the grades, be that good immigrant, you know? And that’s probably the worst advice I’ve ever taken, because it meant that I’d essentially rejected a large part of who I was, and my culture and my mother tongue. That was all culminating during the height of the pandemic, and the rise of Asian hate, both in the U.S. and the UK.
Had you done any horror projects before?
I hadn’t, no. But I loved horror growing up; I watched a lot of films I shouldn’t have at the wrong age. And when I think about the immigrant story, unfortunately it feels like it’s often a horrific experience for immigrants, and it very naturally lent itself to that genre. Post-GET OUT, we’ve had a raft of films dealing with the immigrant experience through the lens of horror, and honestly I think that’s brilliant.
The story could have gone a few different ways, and at times it feels like it’s almost veering toward the supernatural. How did you arrive at the kind of horror story you wanted to tell?
One of the things that I love about Filipino culture is its roots within mysticism, and natural deities that we used to worship. When the Spanish took over, they introduced Catholicism, and there was a smashing of cultures that came together, where you had a mystic kind of Catholicism, and we were still using herbs and God as a way of healing. I felt like that was a really good mechanic to kind of bring about the dark recesses of one’s mind, and how it might materialize into something else. But although it might seem like there is a supernatural element to it, it is very much a reflection of someone else’s mind going crazy.
You’ve got a remarkable pair of actresses in the leads. Can you talk about how you found them and worked with them on their characters?
Max Eigenmann is such an extraordinary actor, who comes from the Philippines, and we found her through our co-producer there, who put her forward for the role. When she auditioned, there was something about her delivery that made me hear Joy’s words in a different way, and that’s what I was looking for. I needed someone who could interpret the material in their own way, but still keep within the constraints of the story. And because there are certain comedic elements within the story and within her character, I felt she would be able to physically embody that very well, while having the dramatic chops to grapple with the stuff Joy goes through.
And Jaeden is an amazing human being. She was 9 years old when we were filming, and at that point, she had never appeared in a movie ever. Her only acting experience was playing a tree in a Nativity play. I was supposed to shoot a short film with her, and then the pandemic happened, and when the time came, I wanted to engage with her again, but I also wanted to throw the role out there to see if anybody else emerged. And despite everybody else we looked at, Jaeden was still the perfect person for the role. She has an emotional intelligence that I don’t even see in some adults. She’s incredibly intuitive, and she just gives you so much.
Did you have to make sure she wasn’t too scared while making the movie, and not put her in situations that were too upsetting for her?
Yes, absolutely. During one particularly intense sequence at the end, we had to play Spice Girls in the background just to keep things light. Even though she understood the gravity of the scene, the darkness of it was still something that we noticed was affecting her. So we did a lot, especially with our 1st AD, Carlotta Peccoz, who had an amazing way of looking after Jaeden, and being able to read her in a way that allowed me to know when things were going a bit too far. But Jaeden would tell you; she knows how to communicate, and will let you know when she doesn’t feel comfortable with it.
I also loved the visual scheme, where even before the lighting gets Gothic in the second half, every scene in the house looks underlit in a way, like nothing is illuminated as much as it should be. Was that an intentional approach to the cinematography?
Yeah, one of our key references were BARRY LYNDON; we were looking for something very natural-looking, not too overlit, as you say, and to work with what the space was giving us. It was only when the natural light couldn’t quite give us what we were looking for that we would edge it along with reflective boards and things like that. We were quite conscious about overshooting or over-DP-ing a shot. So much of it was storyboarded, and I think Joel Honeywell, my cinematographer, did an extraordinary job of being able to capture what was there in one shot, in one movement. The way the script reads, it has a very specific timing; I wrote this to a metronome, 98 BPM, and he was very aware of that, and did a great job of being able to physically move the camera with the performances and intuit when was the right moment to move it.
Where do you go from here, and do you want to continue exploring these themes in horror in the future?
Absolutely, yes. Blended genre is my jam; it’s something I really love doing, and in terms of what’s next, RAGING GRACE is one of three films in essentially a Rage Trilogy. The second film is called DOMESTIC, and the most I can say now is that it’s an unlikely heist movie that happens in ’90s London. It very much deals with the same kind of thematic elements as RAGING GRACE, which is all about railing against colonialism and challenging old and new white power.
Canadian theater lineup:
Ottawa, Cinestarz St. Laurent
Calgary, Cineplex Chinook
Winnipeg, Cineplex Northgate
Vancouver, Rio Theatre *one night only
Toronto, TIFF Bell Lightbox *one night only including a Q&A with director Paris Zarcilla