BEAST – Interview with director Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce’s commercial work is both BAFTA and BIFA nominated, he makes his film debut this month with ‘Beast’. In the film a troubled woman living in an isolated community finds herself pulled between the control of her oppressive family and the allure of a secretive outsider suspected of a series of brutal murders. The movie opens in Irish cinemas on April 27th.

What kind of journey was it to get Beast from script to screen Michael as you are writer and director?

It took a long time to develop the project because it took awhile to figure out the type of filmmaker I wanted to be and the story I wanted to tell and that’s not always self-evident you’re discovering that as you go and writing is a journey it’s not about a preconceived idea and executing it so the film shapeshifted quite a lot through the development at one point it was more of a genre film and then I read it and I thought it didn’t have the character depth that I wanted from it. It was a few years that I was working away at the script, the financing came together in quite an uncomplicated way because it was the BFI and Film Four but it’s not like they come onboard immediately it’s more of an extended courtship to get those guys on because when they’re on they’re really behind the project but there is a big queue outside their doors with hungry first time directors so as I was writing the script I was making sure that I was in control of the medium enough that I felt like my first feature could pack a punch. I also think making some of those shorts helped me to work with some of those financiers and once we got going it was a relatively short shooting process of 5 weeks, 4-month edit so is the case with many first features there are many years of build up and then a very fast execution.

What was the process of getting your cast together? You have Jessie Buckley who plays Moll, Johnny Flynn who plays Pascal and Geraldine James who plays the mother Hilary.

It was quite a while to find Moll we had a big sort of lead up time because we knew the role was going to be emotionally demanding to the actress and as much as the film masquerades having genre elements ostensibly it’s a character study so it was really a performance lead film and we had to get the casting of that right and I worked closely with our casting director Julie Harkin. We went out to a couple of big names maybe one, maybe two, I think just one and we didn’t get that person and then I was like what I’d rather get is an emerging actress who would come in the room and read and meet me a couple of times than get someone who is mid tier who wouldn’t ever meet me and would have to be made an offer and I’d have to watch every episode of their television series to try and figure them out and Jessie was really hungry for it and she loved the part and she came in a bunch of times and I look back and think how lucky we were to have her but she was fighting for the role. She brought this extra factor of warmth and naturalism, she’s very grounded, she’s someone who even if the character makes mistakes you’re still on her side and there’s a very strong authenticity running through Jessie because even if you’re shooting with her and she thinks a scene was under par she’ll say – fuck it let’s go again. It’s amazing how she’s constantly searching to ground her performance and we actually shifted our dates in the autumn and she wasn’t available because she was doing Taboo and we thought you know what let’s just shift everything for her. So even though she was an unknown actor we completely manuevered the film for her because this is what’s vital about this film.

It was much easier to find Pascal because we knew who we were trying to compliment once we’d cast Jessie.We’d seen a bunch of people but then I saw a play that Johnny was in called The Hang Man and he gave this performance that was very different from what I’d seen in his screen roles and I thought it was something so beguiling about someone who could tonally shift, that was such a shapeshifter that they could be sinister but they could be charming and could be the romantic lead or the antagonist and I thought you have Jessie who is so grounded and you have this other guy who is constantly changing with every scene made for quite a compelling combination.

With Pascal, you needed someone with a presence that is unnerving yet enthralling was it difficult for Johnny (Flynn) to find that equilibrium?

We’d had quite a bit of lead up time three months where, and I really valued this, we could meet and chat and skype and share movies and books and ideas and it felt like, and I was doing this with both Jessie and Johnny, we were stocking up each others subconscious. We were sharing all this material and questions. Actually, by the time we were on set we weren’t having very longwinded chats about a characters motivation. I’d written a five-page biography for each of those characters and even that was just a springboard for more things. With Johnny, it was careful calibration and we would do takes where he would try to charm Mol and we’d have another take where he’d try to charm another character. He’d found the character before we’d arrived to set and then he’d explore different aspects of that character so it wasn’t radical the changes and it felt like a highwire act and it was just about making sure the balancing was pitched in a certain way but Johnny is the kind of actor that likes to sculpt, he doesn’t want to do the same thing every take. He wants to find a new inflection a more interesting nuance and so he’s constantly sculpting away at the performance so it was just so enjoyable to have that process with him.

When we meet Mol she seems to be under the heel of her family I would go as far to say she’s a slave to her families whims especially her mothers and you’re rooting for her but then you learn about her violent past. Is she being punished from when she was a child up until the point we meet her?

Yeah, she committed a crime in her youth an I think that’s a very complicated challenge for a parent to know how to respond to that and the parents are quite conservative and they react in quite a strong way but I don’t think their job is easy. She’s commited this crime and she’s had her adolescence and her teenage years relinquenched from her and she’s been and adopted into the kind of moral framework of her mother and so she has missed a really fundamental stage in your development as a person and I think that happens in your teenage years where you experiment with different types of behaviour and that’s how you shape your moral character because you make a mistake and you go too far and you realise you’re not that type of person and you can’t do that and you need that type of experience to become an adult. She (Mol) hasn’t had it yet so now that she’s had all the choices made for her because of making such a big mistake so everything now is much more high-stakes for her. She falls in love for the first time but she’s going to fall in love like a teenager would fall in love, she’s going to make mistakes on a very grand scale because this is her first time making moral choices. I didn’t want the audience’s empathy to be too clear I needed to stack the cards against Mol because it’s not interesting to see someone be just a victim. We all identify with her as an outsider because we all feel like outsiders but we’re all very aware of our own abilities so hopefully, you identify with her character while still understanding she has got contradictions in her.

What was it like filming the nightmare scenes?

There was a certain approach that came to us from the film in general. You can make this type of film very cold and austere and forensic. There are great directors who I love that work with that approach like David Fincher. But I think I’m more drawn to telling stories from the subjective point of view and I want to know what it feels to be in that person’s skin so all of our choices kind of came from that idea. For example when Moll is trapped by her family or by the police the camera’s are on tracks and there are deliberate slow pans. When she is with Pascal and she is following in love it’s much more impressionistic and is predominantly more handheld and even the editing is out of continuity and we wanted to capture the feeling of falling in love or to capture the feeling of being trapped so there were decisions about where to put the camera or whether it was handheld. And the crazy thing about dreams even though we all do it and we realise the absurdity when we wake up when you’re living the actual experience they feel real and it doesn’t matter how rational you are as a person because they’re entirely emotionally subjective. I just wanted to do scenes that had that quality that you wouldn’t know, you’d be disorientated about whether it’s real or not. There’s a clumsy way of doing dreams where they feel dreamy but you the audience know it’s a dream but of course, for the character they wouldn’t know, they had to have a hyper-real effect. I wanted to make sure that they felt like dreams when they ended because if it felt dreamlike in the moment then we would be out of step with the subjectivity of the character because we would know something she doesn’t. For another film that might be fine because you may want to conjure a dream-like atmosphere but for this, it only works with a handheld camera because we wanted to make it visceral and intense but not fancy.

You speak about Beast in a lot of your interviews as a dark fairytale so I was wondering what story, in particular, you would go with because I would go with Cinderella if she wasn’t as squeaky clean as she believed herself to be?

Yeah, Cinderella as much as the domestic environment she is in certainly with the sibling rivalry. Also Beauty and the Beast in so much as she meets him out in the forest. Rumplestiltskin with how she escapes through her own ingenuity. Bluebeard is another but it’s not as well known in the UK but she’s saved by her brothers in the end. As well as that you have the Huntsman so I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to start with that when Pascal comes in but let’s see where we end up. Maybe we can use that cliché where he saves a damsel in distress, let’s start there and see what happens next. It was just me trying to imbue my story with some of those archetypes without being too literal.

Well, Michael, you can relax now all the festivals are done you can just sit back and watch the audiences enjoy your film.

Good advice, thanks, man.

Words – Graham Day

BEAST is at Irish cinemas from May 27th