In RAGING GRACE, Joy (Max Eigenmann) is an undocumented Filipina immigrant who is struggling to do the best she can for her daughter when she secures the perfect job; taking care of an extremely wealthy but terminal old man. The new position pays well and guarantees a roof over their heads but very soon, Joy and her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) start to realize everything is not as it seems. Something is festering beneath the surface, threatening all they have worked for.
For the world premiere of RAGING GRACE at SXSW 2023, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with British-born Filipino writer/director Paris Zarcilla and producer Chi Thai. During their interview, they discussed everything from the symbolism of the Georgian house they found to how real-life events inspired the film, and more!
Thank you both so much for speaking with me today. I’m very excited to talk about this film. To start things off, what inspired the story for RAGING GRACE?
Paris Zarcilla: Okay, strap in [Laughs]. It was 2020 and we were all in deep lockdown; but of course, it was also a year of great racial chaos. We were seeing the rise of East and Southeast Asian hate, especially in London, for the first time in a long time, something that we thought had disappeared. While that was happening, simultaneously, we have a strong Filipino workforce in the NHS, but unfortunately, they were dying in droves trying to fight this thing. At the same time that was happening, we had a government who has a very toxic rhetoric towards immigrants, and it really, truly inspired a type of anger and rage in me that honestly felt quite dangerous.
A lot of this was compounded by the fact that I was, for so many years, living the wishes of my parents, which was to assimilate. To not be the nail that sticks out, don’t rock the boat, get good grades, and ultimately just sort of blend into the background. That had an enormous impact on me growing up, especially when it came to looking to identity. I had spent so much time seeking white approval and ignoring and betraying in so many ways my own culture just to try and fit in.
That year threw up so many things for me and I knew I needed to put that pain and that rage somewhere and that place was RAGING GRACE. I needed it to be, at first and foremost, entertaining, and to be able to move beyond a lot of what POC here in the UK are expected to do, which is to tell stories about trauma. We are often asked to mine our own experiences. But, I really wanted that transmutation of rage into something more powerful than rage. I wanted it to be about joy and celebration of the Filipino culture, Southeast and East Asian minority culture, and stuff like that. That was the inspiration for it.
Thank you so much for sharing that. When it came to the casting, what was the process like in bringing on Max Eigenmann and Jaeden Paige Boadilla?
Chi Thai: It was great. Jaeden we [had known] of. There was a film that Paris and I almost made, a short film, but that got scrapped with the first lockdown. Then he went away and wrote RAGING GRACE and I loved it. It was in many ways the film that we have today. When we got the funding for the feature film, we thought, okay, we’ll go out and look again. But Jaeden was still in my head. We knew she was great so we’d bring her back in and we’d continue to test her. We already realized that we’d probably have to work with a non-actor, so we were going to the community. We had a very prolonged casting, screen testing, and auditioning process, and Jaeden was just brilliant. She’s an incredible human, an incredible actress. She’s so smart. The wisdom and the intelligence she has [and] how she’s able to process very complex things [allows her to] render her performance in a way that’s very elegant and simple. She’s brilliant. I hope the world is receptive to her.
Paris Zarcilla: With Max, we also went through quite an extensive process when it came to looking for our Joy. When we first saw Max read, there was a sort of vulnerability there that really got me in my heart. But what was incredible as well is [that] I knew this was a film that very much lived within the horror realm and thriller, but it also had so many comedic moments and Max was able to really bring those moments out. I thought that was so important because you can ask anyone, Filipinos are very joyful people, very joyful individuals. She had so much capacity for natural talent. There isn’t a natural comedy [in the film], I never wrote any jokes, I didn’t write for it to be funny. It’s just that the absurdity that these characters find themselves in, there’s comedy in it. She was really able to push that.
Chi Thai: Her physicality, a lot of that stuff wasn’t in [the script]. It was very clear when I read the script the moments of levity in it but what Max gave is still a surprise when I read the performance on screen. The physical humor that she brings to the performance is so innate. The little mannerisms that she does you can’t actually write that stuff you have to embody it somehow, and she did and that was a gift that I didn’t expect.
Paris Zarcilla: She knows how to be heartbreaking, too.
The mansion that the film is set in is stunning. Can you talk about finding this mansion and bringing that confined sense of horror to it?
Chi Thai: I sent Paris all over the country to every old, big house that was built in the Georgian age. He had to go see them all. It is a chamber piece and the house is the world, the house is a narrative universe. It was actually really important to find the right place that had [that] sense. The film, partially, is a discourse on power. What is the world where we can do so much of that heavy lifting for us so we don’t have to point things out? There are so many of these houses in England and Paris visited them all.
The one we landed on was great in so many ways because of what it looks like. The scene where Joy first arrives and then Karen comes back and [Joy] gets all nervous and hides and the doorknob falls off the door, that’s for real. The house really was falling apart. So all of that was kind of real. It’s old. It has this faded grandeur and has so much history in it. And we didn’t just shoot there, but we lived there for a whole month while making the film. It was a very intense process.
Paris Zarcilla: I found it very difficult to live there. The design of this place is one that feels within the end days of the colony and imperialism. We are supposedly in the days of post-colonialism, but it still very much felt like we were living in that time. What was crazy is that for Chi and I to be in that house just 80 years ago, we would’ve been thrown in jail. To fill that space with our voice, with Tagalog, the Filipino language, to fill it with POC, it just felt so important to be there, but it was a very heavy presence and I think that really worked into the DNA of our production.
For some of us shouldering this very strange weight, honestly, it was uncomfortable but it served so well as a character of the actual film itself. It just happened to be a place that worked very, very well for the shots that I was trying to work in. Cinematically, it does so much heavy lifting. I also want to shout out our production designer/art director Amy Addison. I’ve worked for her for 10 years and she does so much to elevate any space that we’re in, even with the smallest touches. It just makes the biggest difference.
Chai Thai: When you’re sharing space, like you are working but you’re living together, you really want to choose people that it’ll be easy to spend time with. And with Amy, she’s just great to be around. She’s so easy to work with.
In wrapping things up, were the names Joy and Grace picked as a metaphor for the film?
Paris Zarcilla: Joy is quite a common name in the Philippines. But I just thought it was also so ironic to be carrying this name when there is so little of it in her life. Having Grace, for her, was a saving kind of grace. Having her saved her life in so many ways. She had this baby essentially against her will, but it ended up being the best thing in her life. It pushed her to try and be her best self but under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I really wanted them to be able to embody their names as they got towards the end of the film. That’s what we were really trying to push for.
The illegal or undocumented immigrant experience is often very horrific. It’s traumatizing. I really wanted to be able to move beyond trauma and into a space of happiness, celebration, joy, and grace. RAGING GRACE is something that I want us to be able to do as a community. We’re so conditioned to hold in so much of our feelings. Anger is something that quite frankly a lot of us aren’t used to expressing. But I feel if you are able to rage gracefully, I think that leads to something even more powerful. Healing. Happiness. Pride. A sense of belonging. But it all starts with being able to express that first.
RAGING GRACE had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. To learn more, check out our review here. Also, make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.
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