The idea of a pandemic that is capable of ripping away your memories is a terrifying one, especially when you’re forced to question just how real they were to begin with. This is the premise of the new South African dystopian film ‘Glasshouse,’ which tells the story of a family’s survival in the midst of a worldwide contagion known as The Shred. Mother (Adrienne Pearce) and her three daughters Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and Daisy (Kitty Harris) have sought refuge from the world in a greenhouse. However, they soon find their idyllic sanctuary disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Hilton Pelser). I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kelsey Egan, the director and co-writer of ‘Glasshouse,’ ahead of its world premiere at Fantasia Festival.
[Click here to read our interview with one of the stars of Glasshouse, Jessica Alexander.]
Hayley Paskevich: The premise of Glasshouse feels very unique, since it is a psychologically-driven dystopia. How did the idea for this film originate, and what were your big inspirations in creating its world?
Kelsey Egan: My writing partner, Emma, actually came up with the concept of this glass structure and an intruder. That was the very bare bones, but we very cheekily sort of wrote this script with a location in mind. She grew up in the Eastern Cape, and she knew about Pearson Conservatory from her childhood—it always felt like this enchanted castle to her growing up. She is also really invested into upliftment, and understands that there’s a huge creative wealth of resources in Eastern Cape that’s underutilized; so it was her dream to bring a project there. So we always had it in our imaginations as we were developing the concept. In formulating the concept and developing the story, we knew we wanted to do something insular and intimate about a family dynamic, and dystopian/genre content is something that I’m always drawn to. I identify as a genre writer, usually darker and more provocative work and looking at relationships in extraordinary scenarios. So we were looking for an angle that resonated with us on a personal level, [but] we knew this needed to be grounded sci-fi and accomplishable on a very low budget. We fixated on the idea of memory and how important memory is to identity, [which] was personally really interesting to both of us because of our own individual life experiences. Things that happened to us change us, and memories then undeniably affect who we are and our sense of identity. It’s all well and good to romanticize that—[thinking] everything that happens just makes you stronger—and you become more layered and deeper, but sometimes things happen that don’t necessarily change you for the better.
HP: Great answer. And that’s really cool that the glasshouse itself was inspired by Emma and her upbringing, because the story the mom tells about the enchanted castle is very much how [Emma] would have viewed it when she was a kid.
KE: It’s very much that but it’s also informed by this vestige of horror, which is really the haunting, permeating quality of colonialism in Africa. That’s the last Victorian glasshouse left standing—a gift from the UK—and it’s this relic of colonialism in this very contemporary South African context, right? So the whole film ended up becoming this allegory for colonialism: You have this beautiful facade, but there’s rot underneath seeping through. In looking at identity, we were looking at memory and cultural amnesia, again relating back to colonialism, and looking at the impact of trauma, how things that happen to us don’t necessarily change us for the better and how everyone has different coping mechanisms for trauma. We wanted to explore that in the context of this really intimate story where a person looks for a coping mechanism by oblivion—erasing the past so as to not deal with it—sort of the colonial head in the sand [by not] paying attention to the scars that we have caused.
HP: She’s literally choosing to keep the past buried.
KE: Exactly, exactly. Versus shouldering the burden of the pain of the past in order to protect everyone in the future. So there’s a lot of different layers to the story, but that’s generally the things that we were thinking about when we conceived it.
HP: And what was it specifically about The Stranger’s arrival that you wanted to be the catalyst to instill this sense of unease?
KE: I think the way a male energy inserts itself in a family dynamic. Not to be overly gendered, but it does sort of change things. Any new person in a pre-existing family group, or a very close dynamic, is disruptive—it just is. I think it’s interesting for everyone: We’re such social creatures, [and] we know how much just one person can change a group and upset a very delicate balance. But in terms of memory and trauma, what we wanted to suddenly play with, and what we hope is slowly revealed over the course of the film, is that this is an event that repeats. You think you’re looking at this unique scenario, but it’s actually a unique scenario that could have played out multiple times. We also wanted to look at the idea of [how] loss can be so traumatic, but your love and feeling for an individual can’t be replaced. If you erase your memories and aren’t fixated on the characteristics of that individual, can anyone replace it? I would argue that’s not true. It won’t work. When you want it to be the case so badly and you’re willing to trick or fool yourself into believing, which we see the Bee character do: Aided by her loss of memory, do you want to rob her of that happiness if she’s able to achieve that? Is that wrong?
HP: She has found that bliss, and she’s projecting her innermost desires onto that moment.
KE: Her reality.
HP: The three young girls — Bee, Evie, and Daisy — they’ve all grown up in this world, but they have very different perspectives. Could you briefly describe the way each of them approach things?
KE: Bee doesn’t see any value in revelling in pain or badness; she’s very much a character who lives in the present and wants to enjoy life. And I think right now, it’s very popular in contemporary society to embrace “#blessed” and celebrating the good. Whereas Evie is maybe more of a ’90s child, and she’s a bit more emo and really aware of the encroaching horror of existence.
HP: She’s more cynical too, I feel.
KE: Very much so, but she would say pragmatic. And I would argue that we all have sides to us; these two sisters are just representative of two different components or dynamics. But while [Bee] comes off as dreamy and ethereal, she’s quite fierce. She’ll do anything to preserve the ideal reality, because she has no time for the pain and horror of the bad; she won’t entertain it, because it hurts too much. And she finds Evie rolling around in the mud of pain is unhelpful, like that is no way to live and that’s her argument. Whereas [for] Evie, someone needs to do it, because it’s only by knowing the truth of what really happened that [she] can keep [everyone] safe. That’s sort of the argument posed over the course of the film: By the end of the film, you end up meeting in the middle of a combination of both but that in itself requires sacrifice and a big price associated with that. Daisy is actually more aware than the older sisters give her credit for, but she is a true pragmatist and nature’s child [that goes on] the path of least resistance that makes the most people happy. Like the ultimate pragmatist, she’s not as precious as Evie [and] more like Bee, but she doesn’t get caught up in the emotion of it all like the older ones do. But she’s also never been heartbroken, never suffered a horrible loss, never lost the love of her life. So she’ll get there. She’s still benefiting from the innocence of youth, so to speak.
HP: I do agree it is a character study of trauma with the ways these girls cope with what’s going on around them. And no spoilers, but Bee definitely does go to extreme measures in order to preserve that sanity for herself.
KE: And then, can you judge her? I think that’s the other thing: It’s very easy to judge, but when you’re experiencing that amount of pain [and] if you have a path in which you can have a happy life, would you deny someone [else] that? When you were watching it, did you feel more an affinity towards Evie or to Bee in terms of what felt like the stronger choice?
HP: I feel like Bee’s choice was made out of her own agency — no one told her how to handle things— but I would say Evie’s choice was ultimately [what] I found better, just because you’re dealing with something where memory is so subjective and you want to retain the truth. The whole thing with the family was wanting to retain the truth and authenticity of the memories, so I think Evie, in inheriting that burden of truth, made a very powerful decision.
KE: I agree. And I think it’s that question of “how much does truth matter?” that is at the core of this film. This to me is the strongest parallel to the pandemic, just the idea of definitive truth and the value of preserving it. We’re living in a world where everyone has their own version of the truth, which I find terrifying ’cause I always thought the truth is really easy to define and find.
HP: You’d think it would be so black-and-white, but everyone has this gray-area middle ground.
KE: Which is [what] we’re living with right now.
HP: Because you did shoot the film during the pandemic, [and] it’s implied that Glasshouse takes place years into our own future, I was curious what it was like to shoot a pandemic-focused film during an actual pandemic.
KE: It was a miracle that we shot when we did, and that it went as well as it did. We were so frightened that if someone got sick, it could cause us to lose shoot days and really impact the whole process. And then we were really worried about everyone’s safety: We had a COVID-19 Compliance Officer on set, had every protocol in place, and we tightly bubbled. Everyone was super cognizant of making sure that we were keeping everyone safe at all times. If anyone felt even the slightest bit not normal in any way, they would call production and not even come in, and we’d get them tested immediately. And everything about the shoot and the story is so intimate, like almost claustrophobic, which we really wanted to capture onscreen. The glasshouse was perfect for creating that feeling visually, but we were having that exact same experience off-camera. It was all of us crammed in this insanely hot glasshouse shooting for four weeks, so it was an interesting life-mirrors-art scenario. At the time, it felt insanely surreal but also like a gift. Everyone had come out of lockdown and was so pent up for a couple of months, so it was like finding freedom for the first time [while] getting to fuel all that energy into something we all really cared about. So it was an incredible experience, but very surreal.
HP: It does add another level of caution, because in the film itself, they have to wear suits, they have to stay inside the house—there’s so many protective measures they take. So I like how you said it’s life imitating art there.
KE: It’s very much life imitating art. Throughout the whole process of developing this film and shooting and post-production, everyone was like a little lockdown family, you know? ‘Cause we weren’t seeing anyone else because of the pandemic. So really looking back over the course of the birth of this film, everyone who was part of that process was the core group of people we saw for a year, which is quite something.
HP: That actually leads really well into the next question I had: As a female filmmaker, what excited you the most about having the chance to work with a cast of primarily women, and did the on-screen camaraderie established between them also translate to the set environment?
KE: The cast is so special, and we really could not have been luckier with the group of people we managed to bring together. The natural ease with which everyone fell into their respective roles, were there for each other, and just slotted in that family dynamic of support, right? Adrienne Pearce is just a force, she’s the ultimate craftsman in terms of approaching the craft of performance and has a lot of experience in theater as well as film. She was the ultimate matriarch, an inspiration both in front of and behind the camera. The rest of the cast is all so young, like they’re all 24 or younger, but their ability and their talent belies their years, and they were just so committed and devoted and all in. The way they all came together, and with the crew as well, was really special. In terms of the miracle that was the shoot, a big part of our process with the South African film industry is showing international financiers and distributors that we can deliver commercial content for the international market.
We’ve been servicing international productions that international viewers don’t even know were ever shot in South Africa. So we’re very, very good at making films for global audiences; we know how to do it, we know the recipe. But it’s much harder to develop one of those films from home and then attract international finance, to familiarize international buyers, distributors, [and] financiers with South African talent and casts. And one tool or method of doing that is having them star opposite international talent to sort of uplevel them in the eyes of the buyers, right? It’s the business of film. So we brought in Jess, who is a phenomenally talented rising star out of the UK, and married her with our South African cast. But everyone in the cast was doing this vanilla English dialect to be unplaceable, so Jess and all the South Africans had this accent. And it’s been so funny quizzing people who have watched the film [if they could] guess the nationalities of the cast. But you know, all the cast did such a phenomenal job in finding this neutral place. The whole goal for the film was to be unplaceable, because we wanted to maximize this relatability globally but also the story is in this futuristic unplaced setting intentionally. And in terms of the cast and their dynamic, [and then] bringing Jess in within two days, everyone was super tight. [Laughs]
HP: That’s awesome that it was so quick.
KE: Yeah, it was pretty cool. But working around COVID, she got in her visa paperwork the day before the UK embassy closed for lockdown. We got her back to the UK three days before the rules shifted again, so it was a miracle we managed to bring her out. It was like the perfect window to get her.
HP: The timing was really on your side there.
KE: We got so lucky, yeah.
HP: Was there anything you felt that was really special about getting to work with a cast that was a core group of women?
KE: I actually don’t think it’s fair to gender it, but representation is a thing and telling female stories is a thing. We all grew up watching and reading books that didn’t necessarily align with how we felt we behaved. [Laughs] That was more of an idealized version or what someone else wanted a woman to be, right?
HP: Right. it’s not as true to life and doesn’t exactly show the complexities of women.
KE: Correct, correct. In writing the film, it was really important that we stripped all that away and showed very unbridled, fierce personalities. These are human beings—all very unique, different characteristics—and this is how they all operate in this space. These are just people, right? And the whole reproduction angle is almost more of a survival threat than an identifying trait, if that makes sense.
HP: Like it’s a biological awareness and not something that society’s imposing on them.
KE: Exactly. We did lean into the Victorian costume period vibe, but more as a nod to the colonial allegory and the idea of the facade, [not] any convention or stereotype of women. And honestly, a lot of the costume choices were completely based on practicality; because if you’re in a super hot glasshouse, you want to be comfortable. I’m gonna be throwing on the lightest weight shift I can, I don’t want to be worrying about wearing multiple layers or different kinds of clothes. So we were trying to make it as true to life as possible. I think Mother is the most formal but even her wardrobe was informed by comfort, other than the ritual when they dress up a little bit.
HP: And it’s great that you mentioned ritual, because I found it interesting how music and art are used within the film in a way that feels religious. It does invoke a sacred traditional reverence as the family practices preserving sanctity of memory. What made you incorporate these little rituals of the songs and the chapel?
KE: Very much the use of ritual as memory aids, right? So hearing a song, for example, can almost work as a stamp of imprinting memory in your mind. We were using the idea of sound and physical cues as tools to preserve these memories, and they’ve built all of this even along like the paintings in the chapel. By painting their story, it’s a visual cue of memory— all of these are just tricks and different tactics to preserve their past.
HP: They’re like different triggers in a way, I suppose, something they can have in their mind to recall.
KE: One hundred percent, yeah. Like when you’re learning a dialect or learning a new language, you’ll have a phrase that you fall back to. But generally, tactile is best to imprint and then go back to whenever something starts slipping away.
HP: There’s that one line near the beginning of the film, and it kind of comes into play later too: “As long as we remember, we remain.” That very much encapsulates the importance of memory throughout the film, because memory is essentially what they view as the key to their survival and ensured stability within the glasshouse.
KE: And they only know their relationships are important, because they remember one another. You lose that, what are people, right? What do the relationships mean?
HP: Exactly. If they lose that, then everyone just becomes The Forgetters, who are just shells of themselves.
KE: Yeah. Emma had a grandmother who suffered from dementia, and I have a family member who suffers from short-term memory loss. It’s a really terrifying experience to speak to someone you love and be aware of things you’ve lost in them, because they are slipping away to an extent. I think anyone who’s dealt with a loved one suffering from dementia knows firsthand [that] it’s really tragic. And I think it’s something we all take for granted, but it’s not something to take for granted; it’s really a powerful thing in the mind that informs so much of who we are. So it was very close to home to both of us to explore this type of story. Our relationships are so important to us and to who we are and our quality of life, and we wanted to look at a world where you couldn’t take that for granted and make different choices accordingly. I think The Stranger really comments on that: When you realize that he isn’t affected by The Shred and that was a curse for him in some ways, because he had no way to remove the pain of the memories of losing everyone he loved.
HP: Right. It was the burden that carried with him, and those memories came into a space that was a sanctuary, where they were going off of their memories and their truth. So to have this unwelcomed intrusion would definitely stir up that disturbance.
KE: Did you find him to be a sympathetic character?
HP: There were moments I definitely did find him to be sympathetic, but then there were moments that I was very wary of his motives. [Laughs] Moments of sympathy, and moments of extreme doubt and questioning.
KE: That’s exactly what we wanted, so I’m thrilled. And the way that it ended, how did you feel about him in the end in terms of the choices he made for himself? Did you think it was forgivable?
HP: I think all the choices everyone made in the end, they felt were justifiable in their own minds. Because within their context and within themselves, I think they all felt that what they were doing was an ends-justify-the-means type of situation. That was very much how I felt about it.
KE: You don’t know how wonderful it is to hear that, because that’s exactly what we hoped would be the takeaway. We weren’t interested in any black-or-white scenario of good versus bad. I don’t think that really exists; it’s always shades of gray. We decide in the end what’s right and wrong. And I think in different contexts, what’s right in one context is wrong in the other and vice versa, right? I didn’t say that correctly, but you know what I mean. [Laughs]
HP: Since we were talking about memories, if The Shred was real, what memory of your own that you would not want to lose to it? One that really stands out as a significant memory that if you lost it, you would be devastated.
KE: Certain moments of interaction with people and animals that I love. I think it really all comes back to shared experiences, and there’s certain moments of connection that you have in your life where you are completely connected to another. Where you’re sharing a life, there’s something to that and that intimate knowledge of one another that’s priceless. I think it’s moments of those that would be horrifying to lose.
HP: There’s so much in those small moments of connection, whether it’s with a friend or family member or even a pet, that just not being able to have that to look back to would be really sad.
KE: I think those moments are what life is about, and that mutual recognition in those moments. So yeah, I wouldn’t want to lose that.
HP: Thank you for your thoughtful answer there. And my last question is, could you give us a few words that you feel best describes Glasshouse? To someone who’s really curious about the film, how would you encapsulate it in a phrase or a few short words?
KE: I was super excited when Fantasia described it as “sensual and savage.” Emma and I—and Greg, our producer who’s just amazing—[thought] this [was] the best description of the film! So I actually followed [that author/reviewer], because she really did such a beautiful job describing it. I think “sensual and savage” pretty much wraps it up—raw, provocative. ‘Cause there’s certainly some things that happen that make people pause, [the] exploration of trauma and strength of connection in a very tenuous reality.
HP: What a great descriptor. [Laughs]
KE: I know, right? We thought that was a huge compliment. But I’d love to hear what you thought, what words sprung to mind for you as well. It’s such a pleasure for us to get to talk to people who have started watching the film, because getting feedback is fascinating.
HP: I read that the tagline was “oblivion is bliss,” and that was a very interesting thing. Because if you think of that in the context of the whole film, is oblivion really bliss? Or is it an illusion?
KE: We were really excited about that tagline. [Laughs] It’s sort of the dramatic question of the film, right? Is that true? Or not? What’s the price you pay for that?
HP: Another word too that definitely came to my mind was subjectivity. You want to believe there is an authentic truth, but again, everyone interprets things differently and does what they believe is right with the truth in a way that distorts the truth. So truth and authenticity as well, I’d say.
KE: Yeah, I think that’s brilliant. Just all of your questions and everything that you’re talking to me about, it’s so exciting from the filmmaker’s point of view. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be like, “Wow, she really got it.” The film really is provoking all of the questions and thinking that we were hoping it would inspire.
HP: That’s so wonderful for me to hear too, because I did really enjoy the film. And thank you so much, Kelsey, for taking the time to talk to me about it today.
KE: It’s such a pleasure, and I’m so glad you liked the film. Thank you so much for covering it, I’m really grateful.