Consecration is the latest by Christopher Smith (Triangle, Creep, Black Death) and it feels like an old school Hammer costume drama. The film stars Jena Malone as Grace an optometrist who gets a call one day that her priest brother, died in a murder suicide at a convent on the Isle of Skye. Once Grace arrives in Scotland she starts having visions of a life in the distant past that couldn’t be hers, as she starts retracing her brother’s steps. She can’t believe her brother would be capable of suicide let alone murder. The film plays a precarious balancing act as Smith slowly deals out the clues to the role Grace plays in all of this and what happened to her brother.
I thoroughly enjoyed Consecration and thought it perfectly blended gothic and folk horror, in a thought provoking story about faith and good and evil. I dug the Hammer undertones and the thematic quandary of what is good and evil peppered throughout.
Last week I got a chance to hop on a Zoom with not only Jenna Malone, but also director Christoper Smith, who has proved himself time and time again in the genre space. Both were very generous with their time and thoughtful in their discussion of the film, which hit theaters last week.
Congrats on the film, I went into it sort of expecting Nunsploitation and got this sort of heady Hammer riff. The film feels almost like a period costume drama. So what inspired the script, and I read that you co-wrote it with a producer?
Christopher Smith: Way back in the sort of late eighties, I was going through this massive infatuation with all things Meg Tilly and all of her films. I went on my own to watch Agnes of God and I loved the idea of Jane Fonda being this cop who’s coming to investigate a girl who’s had a baby and she says that she wasn’t raped. Because she’s so innocent, the nun claims, that God came to her and it was a virgin birth. Jane Fonda’s logic gradually — because of the conviction and faith of this young girl — gradually started to disintegrate, and that idea always stayed with me. That idea of what a logical person would do if they meet somebody who says, No, he came to me, it’s a virgin birth.
So that was part of my inspiration and the other part was I saw a film called The Valley of the Bees, that has this amazing sequence where this priest is punished, so he kills himself in front of these other priests by walking backwards and falling through a hole in the floor. I thought, this is great. We can do something here. So all these two ideas were morphing around and I bumped into Laurie (Cook), a producer I know who’d written a document, and all he really had was there’s been a murder and someone from the Vatican comes to deconsecrate the church, and lots of weird supernatural things happen.
I wasn’t so interested in that, but I thought, hang on, Laurie, I can mix these thoughts. And by the end of a couple of beers, I’d come up with this rough idea and then I went and wrote the script. Laurie came in after and did a draft and we just started bringing it together. So we shared the credit in the end, but that’s kind of the genesis for it.
It’s like, what would happen if someone had powers? How would the church treat them? Would that person be evil or could that person be divine?
Jena, I just caught your rather powerful performance in Swallowed and here you look nearly unrecognizable, in a role that was transformative. What went into crafting Grace from the wig, the accent, that mannerisms and was it all on the page or what were your flourishes?
Jena Malone: Unrecognizable. That’s cool. I mean, that’s sort of what you want in a lot of ways.
I felt like there’s a lot of aspects of Grace that didn’t feel like they were a part of me naturally. So I think every, every actor always has a key in and it can be as rare and obtuse as a fabric of a wardrobe or as giant and articulated as working with a voice coach and a body coach and getting in there and doing something so specific. But for me, I think that I tend to have a sort of more chaos theory approach, where you do a lot of work prior, and Chris and I worked a lot on the script and the lock on the character and the arc. Because in this particular film, there’s multiple arcs happening, so you really wanna flesh out what’s happening where and when. Then I worked a lot on the accent and I think the day that it sort of all came together with the wig and all the stuff grace kind of just emerged and I kind of was sort of happy to meet her there. So
Christopher Smith: When Grace emerged in her nun’s outfit with all the blood on her, I mean, I think “Rapturous” would be the response. I was like, YES!
Jena Malone: Very excited, I remember.
Christopher Smith: Very excited. Exactly.
Listen, I think Wardrobe did a great job. There’s something about those kinds of Powell and Pressburger nuns outfits in that kind of off white against Jenna. We also wanted her to, we wanted her to be a secular character, but we didn’t want her to be too modern and too funky, you know. So it’s almost this sort of wisp of Sissy Spacek in that initial thought that she’s very kind of Carrie, but not Carrie. We just wanted to sort of touch on lots of things really early on.
Yeah, I love that once she gets the habit on, you could tell she’s just uncomfortable all the time.
Christopher Smith: Yeah. (laughs), I love the way she says, “where are my clothes?” And the nun says, you can’t have them until we wash the filth off of them. It’s all those sort of responses. And your dead pan looks Jenna, that just really brings her to life. I think the way the character’s generous to the sweet girl Meg, whereas she’s not generous to the people in charge. I like that about her and I think that’s a way into her as well, to make us warm to her.
Jena, what attracts you to a part? What do you look for when you get a script? Lately you’ve been doing a lot of very interesting work, that all feels very different from the last film.
Jena Malone: Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if I had, like, I had a whole like diagram where it’s like if the script fits through this triangle, then it will go down to this new filtering system.
I think the first 10 years of my career I picked the roles, purely based on the part. I would just focus on my character when I was a teenager, you know, and tiny. Then, I quickly realized that I like scripts a lot more and so the next 10 years I think of my career, I started only reading. I only wanted to be part of Great Scripts. I didn’t really care about the character. Then that sort of wasn’t the, the best either (laughs) and then I think for the past 10 years or I guess, because I’ve almost been doing it for 30 years or whatever, I really focus on the director and, and sort of character aside, script aside, all of those things are mutable, right?
They’re going to change, and they should change. They are constantly a work in progress. So yeah, mostly it’s about wanting to work with great directors.
What was that casting like for you Chris?
Christopher Smith: You know, there’s always a commerce element. I can finance a film without any cast if it’s in that sort of lower budget sweet spot. As soon as you go over that sweet spot, you then need some cast. So you’re then in that world of a list of names, where, yes, it would be great if we got that person, but that person’s got an Oscar nom and is doing studio movies. So you end up with people that don’t excite you OR you get lucky and the people ON THE LIST are really interesting people.
The very first one I went to on the list was Jena Malone. Originally I’d sort of thought of setting the movie, moving from New York to sort of Salem, was the kind of thinking.I’m a huge fan of The Crucible and I’ve never been to that part of America, but it just has that really odd, evocative thing that I wanted. Then someone said, look, why don’t we just check out Scotland because you know, the Highlands and see there’s this church that seems to be on the edge of a cliff. I don’t know if it’s real or if it’s there and as soon as I went there, I was like, we gotta do it here in Scotland. Then obviously I’d already cast Jenna and I was like, we gotta keep Jenna, she’s amazing.
So the idea of her accent and all of that, it was like I had to sort of go, can we imagine Jenna doing it? And, and yeah, of course we can. You know, it’s because she does these really interesting films that you don’t pigeonhole her as AN AMERICAN. She’s not the LA girl even though she lives in LA she feels different.
She feels very, you know like she could be English, she could be from anywhere. I think that really helped because there also needs to be this kind of otherworldly quality about her, which I do think Jena’s got naturally as well and I felt that as soon as I met her on Skype. She has this, even talking then there’s a sort of slightly kind of, you know, she’s got this ethereal thing. You really want that as well in this character.
Chris, so I love your quote about the film that you gave early on about consecration:
“a film about the nature of religion and how defining one thing as divine creates a false opposite that is heretical.”
The film superficially could be this good vs evil, but there’s a lot of nuance sort of baked in there, why tackle that and challenge the fundamentals of what religion is based on these two opposing forces?
Christopher Smith: Yeah, I’m really intrigued by all religions. I mean, I grew up, I went to Sunday school, and I got to a certain age and I was like, I didn’t like to sing. I just thought it was a bit boring and, you know, the typical teenage and I just said, I don’t want to go anymore.
I don’t like it when religion has to sort of change science to make it work. I meet very religious people and they go, oh no, but I love the idea of, Christ the man. And that someone else will say, well, that’s not religious, you’re not religious. You can’t just like him as the man. You have to believe all the miracles. I think there’s all these sliding scales of what everyone needs. I didn’t wanna approach it from an atheist, cynical perspective. I wanted to approach it as though this is, this is a human belief, it’s what most people believe.
The people that I find that are like, “no, no, I’m totally anti-religious.” They then become conspiracy theorists or they then become ardent atheists. They’re still in a club, they’re still in this kind of group. So you hear about the real kind of hard line Christians saying, we want the second coming to happen, and if Israel gets back, then the second coming will happen. Well, how will it happen? I’m interested in that question, what would happen if that happened? How would someone walk in and say, “hey, it’s me!” These questions are interesting because there’s something very we’re dealing with, faith, you have to have faith, with a modern internet super fast world. That clash, as we’ve seen in the last 20 years and we’re still seeing now is very, very prescient if you like.
I just lost myself in the visuals in the film, what inspired some of the imagery and cinematographic language of Consecration?
Christopher Smith: Yeah, when I was at film school, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader was a big influence for me on the way you should photograph religion and also it happened organically. We shot all of the exteriors on the Isle of Skye first. There’s that religious grandeur, which is so much part of the spectacle, the austerity of it. That totally matches the dramatic landscape, if there’s gonna be a church on the edge of a cliff, it’s in Scotland in the Highlands. I think there is this kind of biblical sense to it and as soon as I started to film that this austerity came through organically.
But there was also this sense of wanting this to be a religious film, so that you can view it as a religious film as though everything is true and you are in the minds of the people who are believers. I think that’s the kind of the tone that I’m most pleased about. It’s the way that sort of creeps through into the frames, the sort of religiosity of it all, which I’m really pleased with. I sort of have stumbled over it on that in the epic scale of Scotland, and then carried it through for the rest of the film.
Finally Jena, I love how you take us through Grace’s journey on screen and it’s a very internal one of faith. Are you religious at all? And what sort of inspired your approach to that character?
Jena Malone: No, I’m not religious. I grew up sort of non-denominational Christian, but with like queer parents. So it was sort of already three steps out of a box. But I am sort of also deeply interested in all things, mysterious and religion has always been really interesting and full of unknown things to me. So it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn more and read more and watch more and question more. I haven’t really gotten to do that a lot on screen to be fair. So when I read the script, I was like, oh, this, this one will be exciting because I can sort of all of the interests and archetypes and wants of pushing new archetypes into the world of, within the religious world, I can kind of experiment with, with this film.