‘Sisters, you’re flowing through me!’ The director whose horror film channels centuries of female rage

Charlotte Colbert reflects on her debut film She Will, which sees a veteran actor channel the energy of women burned as witches against an ageing predator who groomed her decades earlier

It is not the usual way of things, a first-time director being granted an audience with Hollywood royalty. But that is what happened to Charlotte Colbert when a producer sent the screenplay of her psychological horror She Will (co-written with Kitty Percy) to Sigourney Weaver.

“It was crazy!” Colbert leans over the table, eyes popping. “I was flown over to New York to have lunch with Sigourney, who is this extraordinary force of nature. Incredibly tall, brilliant, et cetera.” Weaver loved the script, but the timing didn’t work. “We sort of had the choice of waiting for Sigourney to finish an enormous amount of Avatars – or finding somebody who would have more availability.” She tells the story with the timing of a standup comedian.

We meet at a restaurant in east London. Colbert arrives a few minutes early in a whirlwind of questions – “Am I late?” “Where have you come from?” “Do you want to eat something?” Her long blond hair is tucked under a black baseball cap embroidered with graffiti skulls. Dressed in black T-shirt and black denim flares, fingers weighed down by gothic rings, her look is half teenage skateboarder, half insanely chic fashion editor. She downs Diet Cokes and talks 19 to the dozen.

Colbert has popped up to London on the train from East Sussex, where she lives with her husband, the artist Philip Colbert, and their two children. Since moving to Lewes four years ago, she has become fascinated with the mythology and folklore of that part of the world. She even added a credit at the end of She Will, thanking “the spirits of Sussex”.

Is she a bit of a hippy? “I was always probably too angry to be hippy. Hopefully, I’ll age into a nice peaceful hippy.” She adds more seriously: “I think in some ways the film was probably quite cathartic. There’s things that are quite personal in it. You end up seeking answers and resolving issues in some weird way, then move on to the next one. Like a massive therapy session.” She throws herself back in the chair with a guffaw.

She Will is an angry film. It is a blazing and brilliant #MeToo revenge fable, although Colbert is reluctant to be drawn too deeply on that subject. A week after we meet, she emails me this in response to a couple of follow-up questions: “Time’s Up and #MeToo are important and serious issues, and this is just a small film. We focused on one woman’s story.” What she does say is that the film came from a “personal angle” – and she wasn’t alone. “It’s crazy how one in three women have been the victim of some kind of abuse. I think a lot of the people in front and behind the camera on the film had a sensitivity to the issues.”

She Will is the story of Veronica Ghent, who is a movie star of the old school – cheekbones, fur coat, the reddest lipstick possible, withering disdain. It is the role Weaver had her eye on, which in the end went to the wonderful South African actor Alice Krige, who deserves all the awards for her powerful and deliciously funny performance. Days after a double mastectomy, Ghent arrives at what she thinks is a solitary retreat in the Scottish Highlands accompanied by a young female nurse, Desi (Kota Eberhardt), only to find the place full of ghastly guests straight out of an Agatha Christie story.

Charlotte Colbert at work on She Will.
Charlotte Colbert at work on She Will. Photograph: Publicity image

The film’s plot from here sounds bonkers. The retreat is on the site of 17th-century witch-burnings. When Ghent wanders outside barefoot at night, she summons centuries of female rage that seems to be stored in the earth like energy in a battery. She directs that anger at the man who groomed her for stardom at 13. He is the legendary director Eric Hathbourne, played with odious charm by Malcolm McDowell.

I tell Colbert that I love the idea of women being able to tap into collective female rage whenever they need to take down a bad guy. “I know! The idea you’ve got a massive sisterhood in the earth that you can rely on; just take shoes off and put your feet in the mud and …” She flings her arms out. “‘Sisters, you’re flowing thorough me!’” In her excitement, Colbert’s ring goes flying from her finger and pings on to the floor. We recover it from under her tote bag.

She Will is as mysterious and unearthly as a fairytale. But its portrait of misogyny and predatory behaviour is uncomfortably realistic. There is a scene in which Hathbourne, interviewed on a chatshow, is grilled about his relationship with his then 13-year-old child star Ghent. He reaches for the well-worn predator’s excuse: “It was a completely different era then.” (This defence was trotted out by friends of Roman Polanksi and was the first line in Harvey Weinstein’s statement issued immediately after the New York Times exposé: “I came of age in the 60s and 70s ...”)

What drives Colbert nuts is how often women like Ghent are doubted when they go public years later: “When you get comments like: ‘Why now?’” She shakes her head. “People questioning why this person is coming forward 20 years later.” She sits up straight, getting into her stride. “Because it takes a lifetime to get over it! It’s not rocket science. It’s really fucking hard to confront something that’s broken you.”

She Will is a film with a complicated, chewy role for a woman in her 60s. I watched it last month, a couple of weeks after the Acting Your Age Campaign published an open letter calling for better visibility of female actors over 45. Colbert spent part of her childhood in France (her accent is now mostly London, with the occasional breathily accented vowel). “I don’t know why, but I think women come into their own a bit later in France. Look at Kristin Scott Thomas; all these amazing, gorgeous women. They’re not suddenly relegated to playing the grandmother.” That said, she finds the level of misogyny in France “bewildering”.

I want to ask Colbert more about her childhood. She is one of the eight children of James Goldsmith, the Tory-supporting billionaire businessman and Referendum party founder, who died in 1997. Her mother is the French journalist Laure Boulay de la Meurthe, with whom Goldsmith openly had a long-term relationship while married to Annabel Goldsmith – making Colbert a half-sibling of Zac Goldsmith and Jemima Khan.

There is no mention of her early life on Colbert’s Wikipedia page. Instead, it lists her short films and work as a screenwriter and multimedia artist – one of her video installations reinterprets Lucian Freud’s famous portrait of Sue Tilley. When I bring up her family, the fun and chattiness disappear.

Malcom McDowell in She Will.
Malcom McDowell in She Will. Photograph: Publicity image

“Oh no,” she says. Colbert is twitchy and chews her lip. Silence.

I wonder whether she uses her married name – Colbert – as a way of being her own person. “Mmm. Definitely.”

How did her childhood shape her? “All one’s experiences probably shape you in your relationship with the work.”

But is it difficult to find your own place in such a high-profile family? “Um. I dunno.”

Would she prefer not to talk about it? “Yeah. I’d rather not.” She leans forward, looking pained, fixing me with pale-blue eyes.

We chat for a few more minutes more, a bit half-heartedly: about the difficulties directing as a mother with young children; on her next moves.

But the mood is broken. As Colbert leaves, I feel slightly bad it has ended like this. A few days later, she emails to talk about, among other things, the computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier.

“It’s a strange time to be a human,” Colbert writes. “On the verge of the sixth mass extinction we are all grappling for meaning as we dance the last waltz on the Titanic. But!! There must be a but. We must all dance and dream and hope and try because there is no other choice!”

I’m not sure if it is Lanier’s idea or hers. Either way, “but” feels like a very Charlotte Colbert way to finish: ideas pinging around like rings in a restaurant.

She Will is in UK cinemas on 22 July


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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