Kelsey Egan on memory, fairy tales, pandemics and Glasshouse

by Jennie Kermode

A fairytale location
A fairytale location

Already one of the most talked-about films among critics attending 2021’s Fantasia International Film Festival, South African science fiction story Glasshouse presents a post-Apocalyptic world as you’ve never seen it before. At the heart of a bleached desert sits a little island of green where a family, presided over by a strict but loving matriarch, holds out against a memory-destroying airborne pandemic by sheltering in an elegant Victorian glasshouse. All is well until a stranger arrives, unsettling their carefully maintained equilibrium.

Kelsey Egan
Kelsey Egan

Meeting director Kelsey Egan (who also co-wrote the film, with Emma Lungiswa De Wet) in the run-up to the festival, I told her that something that I've always kind of wondered about is what women do in a situation like that and how they survive. It's strange to see a piece of post-Apocalyptic fiction which looks so pretty, not at all like what we're used to encountering in cinema. Was that part of her vision from the outset?

“It's funny,” she says. “I knew when we were writing it, there's such a fairytale and Gothic sensibility to the film. We weren't thinking about it consciously when we were writing it, but we finished the film and we were like, ‘Oh, we've written a fairy tale!’ And so obviously, a sense of the Gothic is interwoven in there. But there was always this image in my mind of the glasshouse and these woman mostly all in white, lightweight, airy.” She pauses, laughing. “It was hot and I didn’t want to kill my cast.

“There was always an image in my head of this Victorian era inspired dress, and with some masks. I would be lying if I said how the idea of the bonnets came to me, it wasn't like it was an idea that I was like, ‘Oh, I should do this!’ It was always just the way it needed to be. Like, there was no question in my mind that that was 100% the aesthetic for the film, and necessary for the aesthetic for the film. And lucky me, no-one ever question that when I said that. But I think if one were to delve deeper into the subconscious thought process behind it, it’s because we knew in a lot of ways, the film was a rather disturbing allegory for colonialism. And there's a very distinct look of the idealised in Victorian dress, like a façade of beauty and perfection, and women being delicate creatures and nothing being ugly or dirty or raw. And they live such a raw, ugly life truly, and so I wanted to play with that idea of thought versus reality.”

We discuss films that influenced this aesthetic and films which share elements of its plot.

Listen to Mother
Listen to Mother

“Mother's hairstyle is actually a nod to a film called The Wind And The Lion with Sean Connery and Candice Bergen. She plays fierce female. She's like the ultimate mother, and she has a hairstyle that struck me as a child watching this movie. It's great to see, based on a true story.

“The Beguiled, we knew, was going to be an inescapable reference, by virtue of stranger invading a more matriarchal, isolated environment, but Te Beguiled didn’t inspire it. We had already come up with a concept and come up with our characters, that we were cognisant of films that were pre existing that could be drawn as analogies or very similar. And we were very careful in our own writing process to do our best to differentiate in terms of the scenes that we're exploring and the ending.

“We definitely drew on the Gothic influence. And I think Emma and I are both a huge fan of theory and literature. The Brontës would be a great example, so like Wuthering Heights, a sort of rawness and wildness in approaching relationships with the opposite sex, the pull of the of being overpowered or losing yourself to desire, but then also the potential costs and the price of that, or the awareness of what sacrifices are necessary to be made to guarantee the good of the whole or survival in the long term, even at one’s personal expense.

Women in white
Women in white

“I think these are things that we're really delved into in the classical literature, because of the cost to a woman and the price to be paid for certain very natural biological choices with heavy tolls. And now, women are considered to be liberated in the modern world. We don't pay the same price. But some things are still actually true, even today, and we were interested in exploring that in this scenario, because both Evie and Bea’s approaches, neither are wrong. Neither are right, either. Rather, like any individuals, you do the best with what you have.”

The other big character there is the location itself. How did they find that location?

She laughs. “We did that really, really naughty thing that you’re not supposed to do. We wrote the film for that location. Emma grew up on the Eastern Cape, she knew it existed. When she showed it to me, I lost my mind. I was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ It's a regal import from the UK. I believe three were brought over.

“It's just a stunning location in beautiful colours. And we were picturing it in our minds the whole time we were writing. So when we then approached them and asked them to get permission to shoot there, we were essentially begging. We were definitely taking a risk by not knowing for sure if we would be able to get it. But we did, and they were incredibly supportive. It was a true gift – also in terms of wanting the film to be untraceable, like identifiable as an allegory for colonialism and imperialism around the world, you know, not just in one specific place. So it was important to us that it had a sort of nostalgic feel.”

Masking up to stay alive
Masking up to stay alive

I tell her that one of the things I find appealing about it is that usually in post apocalyptic stories, people are thinking about how to fortify their location, and it's the complete opposite of that.

“Yeah, yeah. And I think that's the power of imagery... I mean, I'm a Mad Max fan. I love that. I love dystopian storytelling on the road, and there's so many different examples...That was even us as well. We show in our opening shot that everything's a wreck outside of that, but we're leaning into imagery and the illusion of sanctuary. And the idea of this family living in this illusion of security, and they're very, very well aware that at any moment it could crack or break. It’s a very, very fragile security. Just like life, just like feeling secure in real life is is an illusion. At any moment something terrible could happen; you never know.”

Part of the way that that made that illusion is maintained is by forgetting, or not thinking about certain things, I suggest – but I find it really interesting that initially, we think that these are people who are not touched by the plague, and everybody else is, but we find out gradually that they've all been affected in different ways, and some of them don't have perfect memory. That must have been a really difficult thing to get right with the actors, and to show that they're still intelligent people, even if they've been quite severely affected where memory is concerned.

The stranger
The stranger

Kelsey nods. “I mean, first of all, like, massive credit to our cast, who were phenomenal. Also the majority of our cast is so young, they're rising stars, and they're just exquisite, exceptional talent. But there was a couple of things we considered and it was very challenging for them. In real life these girls are whip smart. Like with Evie, it’s not that she’s unintelligent but there are things she doesn’t remember...and Jessica Alexander, in real life has the opposite personality, she is not like that at all. So she really transformed some of that character, which was remarkable to watch.

“Going back to the the idea of illusion, it’s very easy, when people look like that, to think that everything is fine, but the reality is that everyone has their trauma and cracks and obstacles that they're facing and struggle. We're such a visually oriented species and I think often times, that's a detriment to our interpretation of reality. And that was something that we wanted to visually explore, in terms of our choices. But in terms of conveying the fact that everything looks so great, we're slowly showing these cracks, and that was a massive challenge, and very much one that we tackled in the writing process.

“I think what's so frightening about short term and long term memory loss is you can have a really intelligent person who's really on it in every other way. It's sometimes not always clear what a handicap that is. And it's something I've personally experienced in real life. So we had personal experience with the frustration of you know, someone not knowing a person so well being like, ‘Oh, but they're perfectly fine.’ And you being like, ‘You don't understand.’ People don’t see how debilitating it is when you can't remember when you put something down and or you can't retain information that you've collected over the last couple of months...

Living under glass
Living under glass

“And how scary that must be not know if the reality that we are so certain as real is actually real in these cases, or not wanting it to be real at all so just letting it die. So yeah, it was a lot!”

They worried about getting the balance right and making it fair to the audience, she says. I tell her that I think it works but that it provides additional satisfaction in that people are going to uncover different things within it on repeat viewings. We discuss the way that little clues and red herrings appear throughout, thanks in parts to the marvellous sets and collection of curious objects on display.

“We had an incredible art department,” she says, praising production designer Kerry Van Lillianfeld. “I know in the script stage I spent hours sort of interrogating - it's almost like multiple choice, like open this door, go in this direction. What would that mean if we didn't follow this clue through in this direction? What would that imply? And then cultivating and curating it so that we can allow the question marks to remain as long as possible, and that the reveals were timed for the maximum emotional impact. It was something we were constantly interrogating.

“We had an incredible test screening audience that we sent the screener links to, of our initial first cut, asking those questions again and finding from their feedback, whether the realisation was early or late. And then we made some editorial adjustments accordingly. We wanted it to be a journey that the viewer was constantly questioning and constantly thinking about.”

What does Evie know?
What does Evie know?

One of the objects we see along the way there is a magazine cover which mentions a list of pandemics and has Covid-19 on it, I note, so presumably the film was shot under pandemic conditions How did that work?

“We were shooting in a hot spot,” she explains. “It wasn't a hot spot when we started filming and then it became a hot spot. So we were very cognisant of that...No one got sick and everyone was very, very good about the moment they felt like a little off, not even sick, saying something and going to get tested, to keep everyone else safe.

“But yeah, we did shoot over 2020 and it was sort of ironic to me because I’ve been trying to make my first feature now for over a decade, I did my first short in 2008 So no, it wasn't easy.”

Nevertheless, she persists. Glasshouse is the first of a trio of genre films she has been trying to put together for a long time. “So right now the plan is to do other projects this year and then do the next two as soon as we can next year,” she says. “I'm just a filmmaker. I made things as soon as everything's ready to go. We’re just pushing as hard as we can on every single project.”

So how does she feel about getting this one at Fantasia?

“I love everything the festival stands for,” she says, beaming. “I love Mitch’s commitment to representation and representing work from all over the world in the original form. And I think that his commitment to honouring filmmakers’ visions is really something. I mean, this is my first feature, and I look up to so many other filmmakers that have had films at Fantasia over the years. We're just excited and grateful. We're grateful to have a world première on a platform that we're such big fans of ourselves.”

Glasshouse screens at Fantasia on 16 and 18 August.

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