Digital Channel > Interview: Director Michael Pearce Talks Beast

Interview: Director Michael Pearce Talks Beast

Having been forced to unexpectedly cancel his appearance here at HOME due to sickness, Director Michael Pearse instead answered a few of our questions regarding his new film Beast. Find out what he had to say below…

Can you talk about how the script for Beast developed? I understand that it formed as an idea whilst you were studying at the National Film and Television School and was then part of a collaboration with the Torino Film Lab.

After the NFTS I was continued to work on shorts and I was developing a few other feature ideas. But after a couple of years I landed on this idea and I wrote the treatment whilst I attended the Torino Film Lab. The project was selected to be part of the 2nd year Torino Film Lab programme and I brought some producers on board (Agile Films) and worked on the first draft of the script, which took about another year. Then there were nearly two more years of development as I got two more producers on the project (Ivana Mackinnon and Lauren Dark) and also started to talk to funders. When the BFI and Film4 came onboard there was more development on the script, in fact I was working on it up until the shoot, and sometimes whilst we were shooting. But during this seven year process from idea to finished film I wasn’t just focused on Beast, I was making some shorts and commercials so there was quite a bit of starting and stopping along the way.

The film is set on Jersey where you grew up. How did this inform the story? You capture the conservative and somewhat stifling atmosphere of the island with darker secrets: the Beast of Jersey and dark lore such as ghost stories, accounts of witchcraft and the history of the Nazi occupation.

The island had a huge impact on the film. The seed of the idea came from the Beast of Jersey case but the story is equally inspired from my impressions of the island as I was growing up. Jersey is usually portrayed in very quaint and picturesque way but I always felt it was atmospherically richer and had more to offer than that. I tried to imbue the film with my own conflicted feelings of the island, how it’s safe and idyllic and paradisiacal but also how it can be suffocating and you can feel trapped and alienated by the conservative atmosphere. I also felt it had a very unique landscape which was quite wild and a texture that was somehow set in the past and I really wanted to put it on screen and felt helped frame the story as a dark and enchanting fairy tale, and was great canvas for an elemental love story which is blossoming within a very nightmarish scenario.

You have spoken in previous interviews about wanting to make the space threatening and a desire for the film to not so much resemble British crime thrillers but to be closer in feel to French thrillers. Are there particular films that you looked at for inspiration or direction? Mark Kermode mention La Bete in his review. I detected something of Chabrol.

Hitchock was a reference – Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion and Marnie in particular, and yes Claude Chabrol, his film Le Boucher was a big reference for the story. But in terms of execution I saw the world closer to that of a Bruno Dumont film and the characters could have come from a Danish directors – Festen, The Hunt, Breaking the Waves. For tonal references I love how Badlands and Wild at Heart deal with very dark subject matter through the prism of a love story that is innocent and naive.

Despite flirting with several genres – thriller, suspense story, psychological horror, family melodrama – Beast also has the feel of a fairytale in certain aspects, specifically the sense of a woman facing different types of monsters as she gradually comes to power. What was it about the fairytale aspect that was of particular interest to you and was it a challenge to explore this direction in a contemporary work?

I only noticed it after writing the first draft of the script that all of these faiyrtale references and archtypes were embedded into the story and once I noticed I try to imbue it a few more references without being overt. I think that partly came about because I saw Jersey as a very fairytale environment and when I first read about the Beast of Jersey it shattered that illusion. It was the first time I realised that monsters do exist, they’re no just in fairytale books, they’re real people and they even exist in Jersey. Suddenly the world seemed like a much scarier place, and the incongruity between my fairytale island and the very real horror of those crimes stuck with me. I really love how myths, fables and fairytales tap into our collective subconscious and using ancient archetypes is a powerful way to explore deeper layers of meaning within your story. It’s as if you’re building your story upon the tectonic plates of our shared imagination. As Joseph Campbell says ‘myth is our collective dream’.

The film is strictly told from Moll’s point of view and what I love about Beast is that you invite the audience to identify with her but also destabilise this identification. Are you attracted to this complex relationship between character and audience?

I am generally drawn towards characters we have conflicted feelings about. Who we identify with but who also behave in a way that’s at the very limit, or just beyond, what we can imagine doing. I love films that put the audience in a place of jeopardy with regard to their identification with a character, where we’re made to be complicit, but leaving space to question the characters. My general rule of the thumb is if you haven’t found the positive qualities in you antagonist you haven’t looked hard enough, if you haven’t found the flaws in your protagonist you haven’t looked deep enough. Simple heroes and villains don’t exist, or if they do I don’t think they make fascinating film characters. I think it’s much more interesting to be seduced and challenged by the characters in a film, where the audience is uncertain what they feel and constantly calibrate their identification.

Jessie Buckley is undoubtedly one of the best young actors at the moment. How did you come to her work and what was it about her that made you think of her as Moll?

My casting director cast her in War & Peace so was well aware of her talents. When Jessie came in for the first time she just floored us with her ability to summon these very complex and raw emotions, suddenly you weren’t in the small audition room, you were totally immersed and transported into the scene. I also really responded to Jessie as a person, she’s very grounded, easy going and light, she’s goofy and witty and spirited and I felt like she was the sort of person Moll could have become if she grew up in different circumstances. It was a great combination of actor as a person, their ability, and the character.

The casting is imperative the more I think about it. Pascal is a complex character. Charming, threatening, diffident, handsome. Was it difficult to find someone with all these qualities and who would also have the palpable on screen chemistry that is so evident between Fleur and Johnny? Also, where did you find the jacket he wears on the film?

Yes Pascal is a chameleon that wears many guises so we needed an actor who had the ability to be a shape shifter. I knew Johnny could play a romantic lead but hadn’t seen his dark side until I saw Hangmen, the Martin McDonagh play, where he plays a sociopath. He also has a very enigmatic face, depending on his performance and how you light him he can appear tender, seductive, boyish, vulnerable, damaged, villainous, he’s got leading man looks but a character-actor’s dexterity. The chemistry between him and Jessie was just down to them, I had little to do with it, because they go along so well it made my job a lot easier. However I think if they didn’t get along I would have still cast them, my job would have just been more difficult. The jacket was found by my costume designer Jo Thompson. We wanted a lot of the colours in the film to be elemental – sandy yellows, muddy browns, sea blues, and we also wanted them to have an iconic look. It was an item we really wanted to function as a ‘hero jacket’, something that would be organic to the aesthetic of the film, practical (it’s actually a hunting jacket) but also be memorable and define Pascal as an important character.

You brilliantly contrast the two worlds of Moll and Johnny. Moll’s world is rigid and confined/Johnny’s is aligned to the natural world and resonates freedom. What choices did you make to accentuate the differences?

I want to utilise various aesthetics dependant on the emotional space Moll finds herself in. When she feels trapped we use static shots and slow tracks and zooms, the colour palette is more limited and muted and the editing is slower and more deliberate. We wanted to get a sense of oppression and that this was a woman trapped and gasping for emotional oxygen. When she feels enlivened and free, which she especially does as she falls in love with Pascal, we used more handheld camera work, vivid colours, organic environments, natural light and the editing is more impressionistic. Near the end she feels trapped by Pascal’s world so we keep the vivid colours and organic environments but use slower editing and work with static shots and slow tracks. The last act uses a combination of the two aesthetic approaches we used throughout the film.

The film isn’t period specific but it also doesn’t feel modern in terms of when the action takes place. How did this influence the aesthetic choices you made and did you drawn upon your childhood memories and growing up on the island in the 1980s?

I want the film to have a fable-like atmosphere to compliment the fairytale influences and themes. Though it is not a period film, I want to retain a certain mystery of era – none of the scenes take place in a strictly modern setting, the clothes, colours and art direction will have a timeless and richly textured feel. Only certain objects – cars, and televisions – give away its contemporary setting. And yes this also came from my memories of growing up on the island in the 80s and 90s, and how a lot of the décor in people’s houses and the bars and restaurants was kind of stuck in time.

To find out more about Beast and to book tickets, head here