After winning Best Debut and Best Film in Competition following its world premiere at this year's SXSW, Raging Grace has stunned audiences on the festival circuit, receiving a standing ovation at FrightFest. The directorial debut of Paris Zarcilla, the film sees Joy (Max Eigenmann), an undocumented Filipina immigrant who has come to the UK in search of a better life for her and her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). They soon find themselves accepting a job for the eccentric and affluent Katherine (Leanne Best) to care for her ailing uncle Mr Garrett (David Hayman), but they soon realise the job comes at a terrible cost.
As the jaw-dropping film comes to UK cinemas, FILMHOUNDS talks to Zarcilla about how his own experience as a Filipino immigrant inspired the film, creating tension in the narrative, and how they crew made the best of limited locations.
You used your own experience as a Filipino immigrant to inform the narrative of the film. What was that like to develop experiences and emotions of your own on the big screen and then watch them play out in the finished product?
I've gone through the whole spectrum of human emotions writing something like this. It took the breaking of my old self to be able to try and write something authentic, that came from the heart. I have spent so long being angry. And anger and rage is a deeply corrosive thing. I needed to find a way that this energy could serve me rather than spend me. Giving myself that permission to feel that level of frustration and anger, and to be able to just massively throw it out onto the page, gave me the stepping stones to be able to get to a place where I could give myself permission to feel joy and celebrate the culture that I'd been rejecting for a very, very long time. So it's been a complicated process for me, one that I know is still unfolding for me. But I am getting to a place where beyond the process of writing and making the film, It now belongs to the public. It now belongs to the audience who either enjoy it or they don't. And it's okay. If they don't, what matters is that it is I take so much joy from people who have had the cathartic spectacle, who have also found healing from the film and joy from the film, and entertainment. So, yes, I'm still going through the roller coaster. But I am beginning to enjoy it.
The reveals in the film are thrilling and the narrative keeps you guessing until the final scenes. What was important to you when it came to crafting and executing these tense turns?
Tension is something I love in films. When I know I'm being held by a writer or a director who is taking me by the hand and I'm just enjoying the ride. Tension gives way to so much relief and happiness, and those two things are something I was constantly toeing the line until the very end with Raging Grace. Like the idea of being caught in a place where you do not belong, and the idea of finally being able to shout or express yourself after spending the majority of your life being constrained. These are all different types of tensions that I love to try to find ways to put into the film.
On a very technical level, tension was something I began to experiment with in a way that felt unique to me. I wrote this film to a metronome in my ear, with 98 beats per second. If you listen to a beat long enough, your brain begins to expect a set of beats. The moment you change the rhythm of that beat, or play a beat out of succession, it feels jarring to you. I put that concept into tension building and for scares. The film is timed by 98 beats per second and goes from 98 to 110. I know this sounds like gobbledygook. This is one of the theories that I had, about putting a jumpscare in a moment where I had already built a rhythm and pacing.
The cast is amazing, but I was particularly stunned by Jaeden Paige Boadilla's performance as Grace. How did you navigate working with a child on set, particularly for the film's more horrific scenes?
It was very important for me and my producer to create systems of care for everybody. Not just because of the subject matter that we were playing with, but also how demanding film is. Grace is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I've met in my life and was someone very easy to talk to when it came to discussing some of the finer aspects of the film, like the nuances of the micro and macro aggressions. Sometimes it would be as simple as you know, we do a scary take, and then we put the Spice Girls on. It was often just us making sure that we were talking to Jaeden about what we were about to do, what was involved, and allowing her to feel safe in that space. And also to give her the power that if she felt uncomfortable in the moment, she could call cut. That's not for any of us, although if we do see someone struggling, we will stop filming. I think the important thing was knowing to speak to her as an adult – because that's how she communicated – but also knowing when to take care of her as a child. She has extraordinary talent, and I hope to continue working with her in the future.
The film takes place in very limited locations – how did you make the most of that while filming?
I come from a producing background as well, even though I didn't produce this film. And I tell you what, producing and writing and directing is a schizophrenic process. Sometimes I felt like I was holding a knife to my back when writing some of these scenes, which I really sort of learned to let go and just tell the story that needs to be told. However, those internalised warnings that come with shooting multiple locations came into play when I was writing. So I wanted to be able to tell a story in as few locations as possible. And I wanted to make sure that the places that we were filming gave you a lot for free. The house that we were filming, that really big gothic house, was made up of really disparate styles. We showed the very old-school elements of it, but there were parts of the house that were totally different which allowed us to use it as an entirely different set.
We shot in an apartment building when it came to the London shooting days. We asked up and down this apartment, which is filled with so many different people who had eccentric styles that were kind enough to allow us to shoot in there. It was logistically perfect and meant we didn't have to do any major centres. It was just literally carrying cameras up and down stairs into different apartments that were a set in themselves.
Lastly, I wanted to ask what is next for you?
I have just finished the draft of the next film in the Rage Trilogy. So this the next one is an unlikely heist movie about a young Filipino couple set in 90s London who run a cafe and on the weekends, they set up covert rescue missions to help domestic workers escape their abusive employers. It's based on a true story of my parents who used to do this in the 90s which is really, really crazy. I didn't know about it until finishing Raging Grace, but it was a perfect subject for me to tackle because it still challenges all the things that I'm seeking to confront colonialism when old white power, the precious structures in our society, all while trying to be entertaining at the same time.
Raging Grace is released in UK cinemas on December 29.