My Monster

Actress turned writer-director Romola Garai on motherhood and making her feature debut with the forthcoming horror film Amulet.

My house is filled with monsters. At night, they creep into my bed and sleep beside me. They howl in my ears and roar and prowl around in my garden digging incomprehensible and pointless holes just deep enough to twist your ankle in. They scratch and bite and tussle, rolling around and breaking anything in their path. They prefer to eat their food from the floor. They call this “floor food.” They detest pointless displays of civility like forks and clothes and “waiting.” They steal my clothes at night and make nests out of them to sleep in.

I gave birth to them, these monsters. I thought I’d get a human, that’s what I expected. But that’s one of the things no one tells you, like the pain … or shitting yourself. It’s not human for a long time after. After you’ve had your stomach and guts pulled out of your cunt by a metal robot’s arm covered in razorblades, you get a “creature”; nothing about it is part of our species as yet. It’s just a red mouth and a whole lotta fear. A monster. Nowadays, of course, mine look and sound more human, every day they pretend better and for longer … until tiredness or excitement get the better of them and they’re roaming the halls at night again, roaring for food.

Romola Garai with the creature on the set of Amulet. (Photo courtesy of Romola Garai.)

There is a creature in my new film, Amulet. It lives in the pipes of an old house and comes up through the toilet to terrify the handsome romantic lead, Tomaz. Tomaz is living down-and-out in London when he accepts the offer of a place to stay from a put-upon but lovely young woman stuck at home caring for an elderly and abusive mother. In exchange for a roof over his head, Tomaz is told he has to do a spot of DIY and maybe “sort out her plumbing.” What he finds instead is this strange creature that lives inside the walls. In my mind, when I wrote it, the creature was the sort of thing that was kind of cute, until it tried to bite your face off. I wanted it to go from being a Furby to a nightmare in a split second. In the end, we didn’t go that way … it’s hard to make something cute and also terrifying simultaneously. Unless it’s a human child, of course.

And yet, in some ways, I always found our creature endearing. It has gigantic ears and soft fur, like a bat. I always wanted to hold it and stroke it when we were working with it, despite its vivid ugliness. In my favorite scene from the film, the incomparable Carla Juri delivers the line “They are born with teeth” in such a way that is completely hilarious and also awful. We cannot but help but imagine this creature’s jaws scissoring wildly through flesh, its passage into the world aided by its tiny vicious teeth. The actors never wanted to touch it. Alec Secareanu, our Tomaz, flinched every time he had to pick it up, as though it might writhe into life and snap at his hand. I took this as a very good sign. It reminded me of hearing John Hurt talking about how people responded to him after the prosthetics were applied when he was playing Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man … a film I saw and fell in love with at the inexplicably young age of nine or 10 (probably in the forbidden lair of my brother’s room, with access to his towering stacks of VHS tapes, long after I’d been put to bed). The Elephant Man pierced me with feelings of horror and disgust. And yet, in my memory at least, I’m sure I spent most of the film inches from the tiny screen … desperately trying to see every nook and cranny of the wrinkles in his flesh. And finally, like all of us, it made me weep with grief, disgusted with my own towering human smallness in the face of such majestic difference. It taught me much.

Romola Garai with actor Alec Secareanu during the filming of Amulet. (Photo by Nick Wall.)

When I set out to write Amulet, I started with this. I wanted a creature, hairy, bloody and mewling, to crawl from inside a dark and hidden space. My son was still kicking inside me when I wrote the script. His passage into the world was just days away when I wrote the end. No prizes for what was on my mind while I wrote. Of course, the film does concern itself with childbirth and its horrors. But more than that, what Tomaz discovers … this creature … is, in reality, a part of himself. A part that he won’t acknowledge. A part that is forced to live in the pipes and shadows until he sets it free. As he confronts this writhing creature, he must confront his true self: his cowardice and brutality. That’s what all monsters are, anyway; they are our inside outside us. And that’s what our children are, too. A being whose sole job it is to see through us, to mortify and terrify and know us completely. Like God, only worse, because they are a lot less forgiving and they’re always stealing small change.

My daughter came to set one day. The puppet of our creature was lying lifeless and deflated on a side table. It looked smaller when not in motion, the sticks that operated its front and back legs lying like strange, spidery appendages off on either side. She stood looking silently down on it. “What’s that?” she asked, not looking up at me, transfixed. “It’s the monster, from the film,” I replied. She said nothing. “It’s a puppet, the sticks work the legs.” She considered it, frowning. “It’s very small.” The note of criticism impossible to ignore. “Well … it’s a small film,” I replied, looking at the back of her head and the motionless pigtails there. “We didn’t have a lot of money to make a big one.” “That’s a shame,” she replied, mechanically but politely. I remembered then the moment after her birth. When I held her and her eyes bored into mine, transfixed on me … just as she was staring at the lifeless puppet now. You can’t bullshit me. That’s what that look was. She still looks at me like that now. It makes me want to be better. And I think of the chain through time that leads directly to this moment. To me finally getting to tell the stories I had always wanted to tell and knowing that I only had the courage because of her. I only tried to be more, to be better … because of that look. I became a director because I looked into the eyes of a monster. I smile down at her. “No. It’s cool,” I say. “It doesn’t need to be bigger. It’s the size it needs to be.”

Romola Garai with actor Carla Juri on the set of Amulet. (Photo by Nick Wall.)

I hear them on set, they are calling for me. Someone in heavy boots is running across the floor towards us. “Do you think it’s scary?” I ask, before they come to take me away. Her hand extends and reaches out to stroke its fur. “Yes,” she says. “But I love it too.”

The featured image, taken by Nick Wall and used with permission, shows Romola Garai with actors Alec Secareanu and Carla Juri on the set of Amulet.

Romola Garai’s debut feature film as writer-director, the horror film Amulet, starring Alec Secareanu, Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton, is released by Magnolia Pictures on July 24. Garai is a multi-award-nominated actor whose extensive film, TV and stage resume includes work with some of the world’s finest writers and directors, including Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, Joe Wright’s Atonement, Francois Ozon’s Angel, Lone Scherfig’s One Day and Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39. She also has an extensive list of TV credits including playing the lead in Marc Munden’s TV mini series The Crimson Petal and the White. On stage, she has played major roles in plays for the Royal Court (The Village Bike), the Young Vic (Measure for Measure), the Almeida (The Writer) and the RSC (Queen ANNE and Lear/The Seagull). As well as her extensive performing credits, Romola is also known for her writing/directing work, including Sundance Best Short Film-nominated Scrubber. She has a feature film in development with UK top production company The Bureau and a number of TV projects.