WOLF – Interview with director Nathalie Biancheri

Believing he is a wolf trapped in a human body, Jacob (George MacKay) eats, sleeps & lives like a wolf, much to the shock of his family. This new Irish film from writer-director Nathalie Biancheri focuses on identity, instinct and the mental and intellectual battleground between authority & youthful free will.

Wolf is a fascinating idea. Where did it come from?
I worked on a documentary for quite a few years that I never made. It was about an Irish man who had a skin disorder that really affected his sense of identity. I started discussing these questions. Who are you? What makes you you, are we defined by our physical condition or by our desires? I’d been reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It’s this really interesting novel about someone who’s passing themselves off as someone they aren’t. In the book, he’s Black but light enough to look white. Again, that question of relationship and guilt came up. Who are we really? Who do we portray? Is it always our true self. I heard the story about this woman who thought she was a cat. I think it was a kind of a comical story. I was fascinated by these ideas. I didn’t see it as a comedy. I thought it was really interesting. I did some research and found out that it’s species dysphoria. It’s something that has many different layers. You can really believe that you are an animal and want to live like one. Or you can be someone who instead feels like they want to impersonate an animal. It can be about finding a way to belong or a physical need to be that animal. I looked at it for some time as a documentary, and I chatted with some people who had species dysphoria. These questions about identity kept coming up. I felt like a documentary would be so specific, and I didn’t really want to put myself in the position where it might seem like I was judging.

I started to see it more conceptually. I thought that if I jumped into the world of fiction, I could explore identity through the characters in a way that I find interesting and stimulating. By doing it this way, I was able to study the different types of dysmorphia. George’s character feels very much that he is a wolf in every bone in his body, but the German Shepherd, for example, doesn’t really feel like he is a German Shepherd. He’s projecting onto a German Shepherd. He finds these things that give him comfort, and he’s probably even found comfort in the institution. So, there are different approaches to the characters and their animal identity. I think this way gives the audience a chance to wander through their world and observe it and ask questions about identity, about who we are, about what defines us, without giving specific answers or judgment.

George Mackey is incredible as Jacob. How did you know he could be the wolf and the boy?
The truth is there was another actor attached to play the character. When I was writing it, he was the first person I had in mind. And then things didn’t work out, which often happens in filmmaking. It was tough to process the idea of casting somebody else. If you write with someone in mind, it’s hard to get over that. I also knew it was a huge ask to put an actor into a crappy room with all four lights and ask them to be a wolf. It’s one of the most challenging acting processes that I can think of. I had seen George’s work; he was very good, but I didn’t immediately think of him as the character. My casting director suggested him, and then I saw Ned Kelly and 1917, which are super physical roles. I thought maybe this guy could do it. We had a coffee. He felt very committed to it, he asked all the right questions. Instead of asking him to put a tape together, which would be the usual way of casting, I asked him to play the part. My idea was to have faith in an actor who I know is very good and then work together to create the character. Retrospectively George was the right fit for the character, and he was the best thing that happened to me. It was a difficult choice because I took this leap of faith by not planning every step that the character was going to do, not seeing what George could do with the character, and deciding to work it out together.

It is a challenging role. Did George exceed your expectations?
George more than exceeded my expectations. When I wrote the script, I knew that it was an intellectual script, but I almost forgot that this would be about physical performance. Because when you’re writing it, you’re creating the space, and then you’re creating the structures. When it came to the physical aspects, we pushed it down the line. When we started working with movement specialist Terry Notary, I realized how much of a big ask that it was. George had to be on all fours, and it’s not just about being on fours, but it’s about learning how to walk like a wolf. We were blessed because the pandemic shut us down. It put us on hold for a couple of months, but in that time, George worked and worked and worked. Where he started, he was a little bit awkward because, of course, we aren’t designed to move like wolves. His shoulders were too high, and his back legs were not low enough because a wolf has a particular stance. But he worked so hard, we would go out into the woods, and he would crawl, twist, and turn until he became the wolf. I have so many videos of him on my phone, probably hundreds of him training himself to be the character. When we were finally on set, I just thought, oh my god. He was able to create the essence of a wolf. It’s genuinely something I hadn’t quite realized how much I needed until I had it, but then when I did, it was just beyond what I expected.

There are mentions of trauma being a trigger for species dysmorphia in the clinic, but for Jacob, there is no reference to trauma. Why is that?
There was a bit more exploration about the characters in the original script, there was more of their backstories, but like any film you have to cut out some scenes. So, we don’t get as much of that in this finished film. There are varying degrees of species dysmorphia, and its cause isn’t always straightforward. Jacob has nice, normal parents. There’s no sign of trauma there, but he, more than anyone else, believes he is his animal. The German Shepherd puts on a costume, but it’s not like that for Jacob. The film isn’t necessarily about exploring trauma; it’s exploring that fundamental question, what makes us who we are, and what if you just don’t feel human? What if you really do feel like a wolf? Where does that leave you in the world? And what is the right decision to make if you are a wolf? That will have enormous consequences for how you live your life. Whereas Wildcat has trauma, and her cat is ultimately a defence mechanism. I really wanted to highlight that there are so many different identities, and that dysmorphia is complicated, and there isn’t just one type of it. It’s about what makes us human beings and the right way to live in your skin.

Tell me about casting Lily-Rose Depp as Wildcat?
I didn’t really know Lily-Rose. I knew she was a model. I knew that she had done some work. When I saw her, I realized she was so feline. I was almost seduced by her. I was worried about the physical role, and it’s so daring, and it’s so wacky. I didn’t know if she was the right person for us, but we met for coffee. Then she did some tapes for me. I wanted to make sure we could work together, so we met in Paris. We workshopped through some of the scenes, and she was brilliant. I remember rewatching the tapes later and feeling there were moments of truth and charisma even at that early stage. I hadn’t even cast George at that point. The first person I cast was Fionn O’Shea, who plays the German Shepherd. I saw his tape, and I instantly fell in love with him.

Fionn O’Shea is rising the ranks as one of our best young actors; what was it like working with him?
I have such a soft spot for Rufus, Fionn’s character. They are a bit alike. Fionn is very kind and caring; all our actors were really good. I wish that I had given them three hours on the screen each. But of course, you can’t do that with film you have to cut them down. Some great actors have just small parts in the finished film. One of the things about Fionn was that he likes to improvise, so I would play with that, telling a character to say something that wasn’t in the script. He wasn’t expecting it, and I just let him respond. Sometimes that was very funny. It was hard not just to burst out laughing and ruin the take. He has such a lovely approach to working, and he’s very instinctive, and his improv moments add to the film.

It is a big ask to get actors to act like animals. Did you workshop with them to help them shake off their inhibitions?
Yes, we did. It was essential for me to be able to have some time. We were all in a hotel for about three weeks before filming, which is rare on a low budget film. But we got the chance. We just started by doing games. I participated in the fun; I thought that if we would become this group that could let themselves go, they needed to see me being part of it. I wanted people to relax and be as silly as possible. It was about going back to play. On the first day, I asked George to lead and pick a game idea, and he’s such a leader he always leads by example. That was really great. You don’t often get that in the lead actor, but I remember that he was happy to guide the others; he was able to guide the younger actors and the more experienced.

I think the first game he picked was all be monsters, so we messed around and played and broke down inhibitions—I have a strong affiliation with cats. My film company is called Feline Films. But of course, Lily-Rose is a cat, so I couldn’t take that from her. I started as a fish. I was thinking about what defines us, and I really love the sea. I was on the coast a lot, watching seals, so then my fish developed into a seal, and I loved that they are peaceful, but they can be quite ferocious as well. I can relate to that.

Eileen Walsh plays the kind therapist versus Paddy Considine’s abusive doctor, but she is also very complicated.
She’s a very complex character. She’s as much a captive of this place. She is as dysfunctional as the people who were there. Anyone who chooses to exist in this sort of suspended reality must have something going on. The relationship with Lily-Rose’s as character Wildcat is very problematic. She’s afraid of herself and afraid of the world. She doesn’t necessarily like the sort of traditional forms of therapy; when she started working in the clinic, she enjoyed that things were different. But then, as those boundaries were shifting, and there is that darker side of it, she is nervous. She doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t know how to change it. She’s very codependent with Wildcat. There are a lot of problems between the two of them. In some ways, she’s like her daughter, and other ways, she’s like her pet. She shows that there can be limitations to interacting with human beings. When there are elements of violence and aggression, you have to choose to either stand against it, depending on your nature, you might be afraid of it, and she is afraid, so she is trapped by it.

You wrote, directed, and produced Wolf. Is it hard to be practical and creative at the same time?
I like to have control or at least a bit of control over my films. I like to take action and push for something if I want it to happen. I very much know what type of films I want to make. I don’t want to be patronized. I have to say I have a lot of confidence in Wolf. I’m not somebody who’s going to pat myself on the back and say that this is great, but I felt there was something original here. I thought it could be an absolute failure. For some people, the film won’t work, and for others, they really enjoy it and see something in it. We were lucky to get funding straightaway for development. We got funding from Screen Ireland and Polish Film Institute. We had sales agents fighting for it straight away. People are looking for fresh ideas. They were happy to take a gamble if it had the potential to be quirky enough. And the fact that Universal has picked up the film is incredible; to have a small indie film that a big company like that is willing to gamble on doesn’t happen too often. I am quite practical in general. I really admire directors, and I’m sometimes jealous of those who don’t care and say someone else will fix it. Do this, get this done for me. But I don’t have that in me. I like to be involved. I know when there isn’t enough money for something, and I can be quite practical about that. If I want something, I will accommodate our budget, and I’ll also know when I shouldn’t spend money on something. I’m like that in daily life. Why would you buy a dress for 600 quid when you only have 30 left in your bank account? Being a writer and director comes together quite naturally for me. My instincts have always been more about literature; I studied literature, I connect with writing and literature more than directing. But I’ve learned to direct and very much enjoy the process of creating and being able to bring it all together. Sometimes you write something, you have an idea, and you can never give it away. Wolf was like that for me. Maybe somebody would have done it better, but I just couldn’t give it away.

Both Wolf and your previous film, Nocturnal, have a lot of darkness. What is the attraction?
They’re very different films, but you’re right, there is a lot of darkness. What interests me in life, in humans, in literature, and even in actors are the moments of truth, the moments of ambiguity. As much as cinema wants to be glitzy and commercial, there’s also room for my type of film. I see my films like life. The plots might be fictional, but my characters aren’t always making coherent choices. That’s exactly how we are in real life. Do we always do everything perfect? Do we always get everything right? No. Well, apart from George Mackay, who is genuinely the most together person, but apart from him, I’ve never met someone who was not full of contradictions. How much do we pose in our daily life? How much do we perform? The idea of wearing masks is a massive theme in Nocturnal. We see a father in Nocturnal who is pretending, who cannot break through even at the cost of sacrificing relationships. So many humans are stifled by our fears. And it’s the same in this; George’s character wears the mask to protect himself. He tries to suppress it, be a boy, and be like the other kids. He puts on a mask to find a place in the world, but his true self is the wolf. It’s a question again of how we survive as humans. I have compassion for all human beings. Trying to solve complex ideas and survive in the world interests me. The films that I love most really explore characters. They hold a microscope to human behaviour. They examine our ambiguity and contradictions and explore humans without judgment or definite answers.

What was it like to have the film play at the Dublin International Film Festival?
We had a release in the US, which was really, really exciting, and it’s just crazy to have this small film shown in the States, but I’m so proud to be able to bring it home to Dublin because this is where we shot it. This is the film’s home. It is nerve-racking. I already know that the film is dividing people. Some people like it, and others dislike it. So, you have the sense that about 50% of the audience are just not going to feel it, whereas the other half love it. It’s strange knowing that. Many people have said to me that they have thought about the film and that they continue to think about it, which is good. It ticks the box of did we provoke emotions? I’m curious to find out how people respond to the film here. Will it be different to US audiences? Will Irish people see it differently? We had a screening in Poland because half of our funding came from there. I was nervous there too. Bringing it home is very special.

Umberto Tozzi’s Gloria features in a pivotal scene; was that a nod to you being Italian?
It always had to be that song, and at some point it was the English version of Gloria, but then I realized it had to be Italian. I am Italian, and I just had to have it in there.

Words – Cara O’Doherty