The secluded house in the woods is a familiar trope for us horror fans. The opening shot of Natalie Erika James’ short film, Creswick, immediately arouses intrigue through isolation while the main character revisits her aging father and childhood home. Sorting through relics and subsequent memories of disturbances invokes a sense of dread as her childhood fears are validated and ultimately faced in this atmospheric short. After the screening at Fantastic Fest, I sat down with Natalie to discuss her influences and execution process on this eerie, cinematic gem.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you got started in the filmmaking industry?
Natalie Erika James: Yeah, I grew up mostly around Asia. You know, kind of following my dad who moved around a lot for his job. I always loved cinema and used to make really crappy parodies of films with a group of friends. Then I started considering film seriously when I took art in my final years in high school and made these completely wanky art films (laughs) that were enough of a portfolio to get me into film school. I’ve been working alongside advertising then production and now directing making sure that I kept up with my music videos and short films past film school.
Nice! I checked out some of your music videos and loved them.
NJ: Oh, great! Thank you!
Fires by Life is Better Blonde is so visually stunning. It seems like you’re really good at tackling and condensing a lot of emotional subject matter both in your music videos and your shorts. Can you tell me a little more about the music videos you’ve done?
NJ: I’m most interested in videos that allow you to explore a world in a narrative. I’m not as interested in, you know, traditional performance music videos. So, working with that artist in particular, Life is Better Blonde, was amazing. We actually went to art school together. So, he kind of just gives me free-reign. Fires, in particular, was such a fun one to do - especially with stunts and all that kind of thing - but I was craving to do this kind of recent surge of VR kind of work which I was inspired by. I originally wanted to do a VR music video but became interested in VR in general and where that was heading. So, that was the strong point for doing that story about the nanny bot which is a player in the game. I’m not sure if you’ve played The Sims when you were younger.
Not too much, but I’m familiar and played a few times.
NJ: Yeah, so the idea that you’re doing such banal stuff in the game but it’s so fascinating when people spend hours of their lives like just cleaning. So, just taking that concept and putting it into this character where you play a nanny bot that does really banal tasks like ironing and feeding the baby. So, yeah just living in virtual worlds and I guess the larger philosophical question is about the nature of reality and if it gives you the same kind of feeling and if you’re able to persist in that world then what’s the difference? Those kinds of questions.
And you can just wrap all that up in about three minutes.
NJ: (laughs) Yeah and for that we were using quirks from The Sims where things will quite suddenly catch on fire which is kind of a glitch in the game as well. The cake comes out of the oven fully iced as it does with the older version of The Sims. Your food just kind of comes out and the production design makes it really graphic so you can imagine a game developer designing every single object. So, they’re kind of placed in their own squares. The vacuum shot where you move over three identical images is the graphic of mess that you have to continually try to clean up.
It sounds like you have a lot of personal experiences that influence your directorial style. The other video you did was based in Tokyo, right?
NJ: (laughs) Yes, it was set in Toyko.
What made you decide to base that video there? It seems like almost a homage video given your background.
NJ: Yeah, that’s right. So, I’m half Japanese and I lived in Japan for about six years. That one was playing on the idea that in Japan there’s almost this fetishization of American culture to a certain degree. It’s kind of like an appropriated thing where there’s a lot of American themed bars and American food is popular and American styles of clothing. Everything in Japan is kind of compact. So, that’s in direct contrast especially to some place like Texas where American ideals and the space you have is so much larger with the portion sizes and that sort of thing. I thought was an interesting set-up for the protagonist’s story to unfold.
Did you draw inspiration from your own life experiences with Creswick as well?
NJ: Yeah, definitely the emotional core of it. Creswick is actually written from a larger project - a feature film called Relic which has much more to do with dementia and aging. Creswick specifically was more inspired by my own experience with my father who was quite ill when I was about nineteen and living with him in this house while my mom was overseas. It’s just a jarring moment when your roles become reversed. So, that emotion was absolutely the starting point out of weaving the storyline around Creswick but the external circumstances are fictional and not directly related. My mom grew up in a rural town in Japan and she would describe to me that the house was surrounded by this bamboo forest where she felt like there was always this kind of darkness in the woods. Later, she admitted to me that every time she comes back she feels unsettled and rattled which you don’t admit to a child but can to an adult. So, that’s what I borrowed for the character is that there’s this presence in the woods that’s coming towards her which can be read as a representation of the father’s mortality that’s kind of impending. And I guess relating it to childhood because your parents are really your safety net growing up. A lot of the fear comes from losing that safety net and so your childhood fear is coming back to you but being the one solely alone in that is a really scary thing. That’s why I thought the horror genre was the perfect vehicle to tell the story.
Describe how you conveyed those themes through aesthetics in the film.
NJ: In the design process, we really looked at how dementia affects the brain and how dementia affected patients who sometimes forget steps in a list like when you’re cooking a meal. You may forget step two or repeat step three twice, that kind of thing. We really tried to inject that into form and design. We also looked at the idea of a human skeleton. The creature at the end is this skeletal black creature but we also tried to make that come across in the design of the chairs as well. The final chair mimics a human rib cage and the pelvic bone structure of that.
I liked how the effects, props, and overall design of the film was really creepy but in a subtle way without having to resort to jump scares.
NJ: I would say that’s my overall approach, to go down a more subtle route. My interest in horror started from probably Asian horror and Gothic horror as well which does depend more on building the tension and eeriness within the frame as opposed to the cuts that give you that shock scare. Those are great and there’s a place for those scares but if they’re not done within the right context, they can be a bit cheap. So, I’d say definitely it’s more about building atmosphere. And sound design is also such a key element to that. With sound design, that’s a consideration from the beginning when writing the script. In this film, it was using the machines to create the soundscape as opposed to imposing artificial sounds to incite a feeling or to incite a feeling of fear. I’m interested in that, and using what’s available and diegetic sound, and of course, manipulating it but making sure it fits within the world.
It’s also really refreshing to see another female director in the horror genre, you know?
NJ: Yeah, I know! I think there was one smaller horror festival that we got into where I’m the only female listed. It’s crazy. I think I mentioned Creswick was made as a proof of concept as well. The feature was initially funded through the Australian government’s Gender Matters program. So, they actively funded between forty to fifty projects that ticked three out of four boxes of female writer, director, producer, and protagonist. So, that’s where we started, it fit within this model, and my producer is female as well.
Do you have any projects coming up and where Creswick is screening down the road?
NJ: Yeah, I’ve got a feature that’s in casting at the moment and I’m also shooting a new short in November which is more of a folk horror. The next stop is the New York Film Festival which opens on Saturday and then we’ve got the Mill Valley Film Festival, and then we’re taking a road trip out to the Telluride Horror Show as well.