In She Will, the thrilling directorial debut from Charlotte Colbert, the ashes of burned witches didn’t compost into peat or trees, but into revenge. Set in overcast, heavenly Scotland, the film tells the story of Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige), a glamorous aging starlet who’s recovering from a mastectomy at a rural retreat, along with her nurse Desi Hatoum (Kota Eberhardt), against a backdrop of eerie sounds and gorgeous, long shots of forests.
It’s a premise we’ve seen before: a cabin in the woods. Strange things start happening and then they get stranger. You’re telling the characters to run, but they stay, compelled by a curiosity that eventually dooms them. But She Will subverts the traditional thriller premise. While in the bath one night, Ghent starts hallucinating visions of burned witches. Only the supernatural force isn’t actually the force of evil – it’s everything in the real world. It’s a force that isn’t antagonistic, but benevolent.
In one scene, Ghent gets possessed in a plein air painting class and inadvertently lights a man’s hand on fire when he starts calling women “hysterical” for pointing out the existence of the patriarchy. Later, the spirits save Hatoum from being sexually assaulted. Eventually, they help Ghent confront the director who groomed and abused her as a child.
“I loved the initial concept of someone's individual trauma connecting with a collective one, I guess, and together, marching towards a weird form of healing,” Colbert tells NYLON. “I think it's quite interesting playing with the tropes of the genre in that sense and setting up something that's really, as you say, classically, what you'd expect and then taking us down the rabbit hole of sort.”
NYLON spoke to Colbert about creating a dark and gorgeous atmosphere, why she felt this story was important to tell now, and how the horror of real life is scarier than anything we could come up with.
She Will is in theaters and streaming on Apple TV now.
This film is so spooky and atmospheric and I know it's dark content, but it's also really fun. How did you conceive of this idea?
I think it probably evolved from a dream. I think there's lots of different things within Kitty Percy’s script that really resonated with me. We worked together to continue developing the story and bringing on the elements of nature and the sort of collective unconscious type vibes. I loved the initial sort of concept of someone's individual trauma connecting with a collective one, and together, marching towards a weird form of healing.
Traditionally, in horror, if you're having some kind of supernatural form, it's usually one that's antagonistic. This turns that idea on its head, since the women she’s seeing aren’t a force of evil. Is that something that you thought about?
There's this quote that says, “Why are we taught to fear the witches and not the people who burnt them alive?” I think there's something quite interesting in that and within the structure of the film. I really love fairy tales and that kind of idea of the imagery coming back, but each time you see it, it means something else. I think sometimes when you dream, you see things and it's maybe your unconscious trying to tell you something, but sometimes you might see it as an antagonistic thought, force and actually you just need to revisit it again and you start understanding the complexities of that and potentially finding some kind of something else within that, a strength or something else, to use or to learn.
Courtesy of IFC
The landscape and the soundscape is such a big part of this story. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for the setting?
I'm so glad you picked up on the soundscape, because we actually spent a bit of time doing it and the sound designers were just amazing. Hhe’s called Johnnie Burn and he is sort of my hero. We were struggling with the sound and I realized he lived in Brighton, which is not far from where I am by the sea in England, so I drove down to try and convince him to come help us. He then brought all his amazing talent to the soundscape, including working with the whispers and actually including clips of sounds from his daughter that we recorded doing these sort of voices.
A lot of it worked as well within the space. We recorded a lot of the sound of the birds there in Scotland and where he shot those outdoor scenes in the cabin in the most exquisite, incredible location ever, right up at the top by Abbey Moor next to the Kinghorn National Park, which is this incredible forest. I think that the location and the scale of it informs so many things, including, I think, this desire to go from really close up to wide [shots] and bring in the landscape as a sort of a character within the story.
Why is this story important to tell right now? Why did you feel compelled to tell it?
I think stories are a way to investigate things that you are toying with or thinking about and resolve those issues or whatever. I think it's interesting, too, and I think Alice really conveys that, this idea, in the world of Veronica, this idea of turning your wounds into strengths that can lead you to be taller and stronger. Do you know what I mean?
Courtesy of IFC
I thought it was interesting that it's not until Veronica has the mastectomy and goes to this retreat that she's able to confront this director who'd abused her for the first time, after she's already been kind of stripped of so much of her womanhood.
Yeah, I think it's really interesting actually. There's that thing of, you often hear people saying, “Oh, why now? Why did this person come out so long afterwards?" Because it takes a lifetime to get strong enough to do so in some instances. It's not an easy thing to do and it requires a lot of strength. It is in that sort of brush with mortality that sort of opens up her questioning and revisiting of her past, and perhaps it's only in feeling that something within her, or the past, or these women having her back, that she's able to move forward, whether it be in her mind or in his mind or wherever this is happening.
I know you're early in your directing career. What kind of films do you want to continue to make?
I love films that feel individual, films that are imperfect and very themselves. I think there's something really nice, if it's possible, to try and do stuff that has an identity of its own, in terms of stories that haven't necessarily been told or that are interesting in any way to me. I do feel there's something quite personal in this because they're so long, the timeframes, and they are so immersive. For me, I feel like I need to be figuring something out along the way, that pushes through the journey. You resolve one thing and then you're like, "There's tons more crap for me."
Right. It's so endless.
I do like the thriller. I think there's something quite interesting in that space because it seems to capture the uncertainty of the real a bit. I saw The Father, that incredible film about dementia, with Anthony Hopkins. It’s sold as a drama, but it's most definitely the most horrific horror ever. To experience from the point of view of someone who's got Alzheimer's is just absolutely hellish.
There's nothing scarier than real life a lot of the time.
Especially when you get old.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.