For the release of the dark fairytale thriller, BEAST, Shannon had the chance to speak with director Michael Pearce about his debut film, the inspiration behind it, and exploring the depths of human behavior.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Michael, thank you so much for speaking with me today! I was blown away by your film, BEAST, and it’s easily become one of my favorites of the year. For those who may not be familiar with the film could you tell us a little bit about it and the inspiration behind the story?
Michael Pearce: The spark of the idea came from the Beast of Jersey case. He was a child molester who had evaded capture on the island for ten years in the 1960s. Even when I grew up on Jersey in the 1980s he was a spectre that continued to haunt the island. When I found out about him as a child it was a real loss of innocence moment, I suddenly realized that monsters do exist, they’re not just in fairytale books, they’re other people, that could even exist in a quaint and seemingly safe place like Jersey, they could be your neighbor. However I didn’t want to do a factual retelling of those events because some of his victims were still on the island. I wanted to write an original story based on fictional characters. I was fascinated that he had a wife that never new and I started researching women who were emotionally involved with monsters. So I conceived of it more as a dangerous love story than a crime procedural.
The more it developed the more it became important that the mystery surrounding Pascal is matched by our curiosity around Moll. And as you watch the film your relationship to her becomes more conflicted and we start to wonder is she a woman courageously standing beside an innocent man? Is she someone who discovered humanity where others couldn’t? Is she blinded by love and unknowingly in physical danger? Or is there a more sinister dimension to her – is she taking revenge on the people that oppressed her? And of course – could she also be a Beast?
I had also decided I wanted it to be more mythical in its aspirations than just be a contemporary crime drama. I realized the story began to have strong resonances with fairytales – a seemingly naive heroine, trapped in a oppressive home environment, ventures into the wild and meets a man that might be prince charming, or might be the big bad wolf. I continued to imbue the story with some of the archetypes of fairytales and conceptually framed it as the story of a woman coming to power. So whilst the film flirts with several genres – thriller, suspense, love story, psychological horror, family melodrama, and whilst it is a bit of all those things, it’s ultimately a dark and dramatic fairytale. Though because it’s for grown-ups there isn’t a simple moral lesson offered up at the end of the film and the heroine is as complex as the monster lurking in the woods.
Nightmarish Conjurings: BEAST is your feature film debut and you knocked it out of the park! What was it like going from directing short films to your first feature and what type of challenges did you face?
MP: I’ve made quite a few shorts so I feel comfortable on set and working with actors but I found this harder than expected. Your ambitions are very high but your resources are inevitably limited which means you can’t get the budget that you need, the locations that you want or the time you need to shoot. Time felt especially tight but I think many first-time directors feel that. So there’s always a discrepancy between your ambition and the resources you have, and with your passion, focus and energy you’re going to try and close the gap of that discrepancy as much as possible. You set yourself a challenge of aiming for a film that’s almost out of your reach because that’s how you get the best work out of yourself and everyone around you. A great film is made up of an accumulation of many great details, and this expectation, which can never be met, makes it tough on a day-to-day level, because you want every shot, scene, moment to be really phenomenal.
The film is strictly told from Moll’s point-of-view and while it invites the audience to empathize with her it also destabilizes their identification. I love cinema that creates a complex relationship between character and the audience. With BEAST, I never wanted to let the audience’s sympathies become settled. Moll is much more anti-heroine than damsel-in-distress and Pascal is someone that has a magnetic pull on us but is also someone of ambiguous morality. We’re constantly reformulating our take on them and I guess this is what distinguishes the film from others within the genre but was also an incredibly tricky balance to find on set and in the edit. If you sussed them out and emotionally disengaged from them too early the film wouldn’t work, equally if you weren’t presented with their flaws and challenged by their behavior then you wouldn’t buy the ending, it would have just been a card trick pulled on the audience.
Nightmarish Conjurings: One of the reasons the film works so well is because of the chemistry between Moll and Pascal. What was the casting process like and did you know you wanted Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn for those roles?
MP: I worked with a very good casting director, Julie Harkin, who has a wide-ranging knowledge of actors out there. For my film I felt it was important that they were trained actors (as opposed to street casting) and I wanted to see people perform it in the audition room (as opposed to making offers to actors who were too established to audition for a first time director). I saw lots of actors for both roles, which was quite a humbling experience because I saw some really brave and committed performances.
There was something very grounded and relatable about Jessie. She’s also very spirited and alive as a person and I thought it would be interesting to put someone like her inside the straightjacket of Moll, we would feel the character’s suffocation. I wanted to put her in the skin of someone who’s living in a prison. And she is also extraordinarily talented and has a shamanistic ability to conjure up very intense and complex emotions within seconds. Again it was my casting director who put forward Johnny Flynn. Initially I couldn’t quite see him in the role but Julie got me a ticket to see Martin McDonagh’s play, Hangmen, at London’s West End and I was blown away by his performance, it was so utterly different to how I’d originally seen him. It dawned on me that we really needed an actor with a chameleon ability to wear different masks because Pascal is something of a shape-shifter, he has to play the love interest, we need to really fall for him, but he’s also the potential antagonist of the movie and we need to be fearful and suspicious of him.
I rehearsed for four days with the actors, which isn’t much but it’s hard to do more than a week on a low budget feature. What was just as helpful was meeting my actors and speaking about the film and their roles and supplying them with material: research, character biographies, films, books etc. And during this time the three of us became good friends which built up a lot of trust, so when we go to set we were already tuned into each other, which also meant we could disagree with each other as much as it means finishing each others’ sentences. I always aim to generate relationships with my collaborators which is trusting and creatively kinetic, where you’re building on top of each others’ ideas.
Nightmarish Conjurings: In a way, I found BEAST to be very relatable and that’s probably due to a lot of the metaphors and themes playing throughout. Is there an underlying message that you wish audiences to take away?
MP: I don’t have messages or lessons to teach, I have aspects of human behavior that confuse and fascinate me and I want the audience to come along for the ride as I try to explore them. Of course first I want it to be rewarding exponentially, I hope you connect to characters who are complex, mysterious and challenging, and you’re drawn into their moral predicaments.
But beyond this some of the things that I want the audience to ruminate on are about the repressed sides of themselves – how well do you know yourself, what is your true nature, are you a truly moral person, or do you act morally because it socially benefits you. Moll is someone who made a mistake in her youth and is spending the rest of her life trying to prove to the world she’s a good person. But in the process she’s relegated her ‘animal’ instincts and has effectively abolished half of herself. As much as she now appears functional she actually operates on a kind of autopilot: existing, but not living, she doesn’t really know who she is deep down I really wanted explore different types of social masks and look at the Jungian concept of the shadow self, where our most animal instincts are buried: shame, lust, greed and revenge, and how we want to repress these, and how this is actually quite unhealthy. Moll’s journey is one of self-discovery, so in some ways it’s a coming of age film but on a more dangerous level. Through the film she begins to re-engage with her animal instincts, and because they’ve been suppressed for so long it makes her emancipation exciting, unpredictable and wild.
I wanted to imbue the whole movie with this idea – what’s presented to the world and what’s hidden, so every character presents a different social mask to the one buried beneath. You have the family that seem very wholesome but are actually very dysfunctional. Even the island itself seems very idyllic, quaint and safe but is actually teeming with a collective anxiety and of course has a dangerous environment because of the crimes being committed. The detective who is in love with Moll and so his motives for suspecting her boyfriend are questionable. And of course Pascal might be wearing the most beguiling mask – that of a romantic savior.
I also wanted the audience to reflect upon the power and dangers of falling in love. It’s an utterly arresting, enlivening and beautiful journey, but because it’s so powerful it can be deceitful, exploitative and damaging. And we’re susceptible, not just the emotionally vulnerable, we can all relegate our morality for love, we all use our imagination to create an object of desire, we all build a fantasy that represents things we need in our own life. Romance is projection; it’s not just a response to who someone is.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last, but certainly not least, along with BEAST do you have any other upcoming projects you are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
MP: I have a couple of projects that I am developing both of which are set in the US. One is similar to BEAST insomuch that its a female-led psychological thriller but it’s a very different subject and set in New York which is obviously a very different landscape. The other is a father/son crime drama set in the mid-west. I can’t say much more than that though.
BEAST will be released in select theaters May 11, 2018. For a list of theaters near you, click HERE.