Set in an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, Goran Stolevski ‘s YOU WON’T BE ALONE follows a young girl who is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit. Curious about life as a human, the young witch accidentally kills a peasant in the nearby village and then takes her victim’s shape to live life in her skin. Her curiosity ignited, she continues to wield this horrific power in order to understand what it means to be human.
Ahead of the theatrical release of YOU WON’T BE ALONE, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with writer/director Goran Stolevski about his directorial debut, where they chatted about how he avoided the restrictions storytelling can oftentimes bring, how that approach created a bit of an issue with uncontrollable elements like babies, and how the two main characters of the film reflect different aspects of his being.
This is such a beautiful, horror-enriched movie. So to kick things off, how did the story come together?
Goran Stolevski: So my background was mainly in just relationship drama, essentially, and I wanted to sort of do something where there weren’t any kind of limits on what kind of story I could dream up. Also, because I hadn’t done anything with a genre premise. I wanted to try to create characters in a genre premise, and then let the character’s feelings sort of shape the story, and if there were some conventions that lifted that, emphasize those, and then if some conventions didn’t really mesh with what the characters were feeling, just go past them. Again, just do something where I can just dream up a story, and not have a border around it.
And then, horror was the first instinct. It was genuinely instinctive. So anytime I’m talking about how I decided to do something, I’m always like, trying to pick it apart afterward of like, what…why did I do that? But I think with horror, you can have this supernatural element that is transporting, and it takes you to this other place as a viewer, so you kind of like, emotionally open and, hopefully, in a fun kind of way, experiencing all these feelings, but also it is of this world, and it can be about people’s feelings of this world.
Because I mainly tend to write from the perspective of women, because that’s the perspective that matches my brain is closely, it [was] just the obvious thing. That was an instantaneous thing. It wasn’t even like, Oh, should I do it? And [I] went from there. Eventually, in terms of research and historical, treatment of witchcraft, just the element that sort of made me go, “Oh, of course, that’s what it should be about,” was about how women we’re always routinely accused of taking the shape of another human being or an animal. I just thought what an amazing way to do that.
You have a slew of actresses playing essentially one role, and a few of them you’ve worked with in the past on short films. In casting for the film, were you looking for anything, in particular, between all of these women for these roles? How did you go about knowing what you needed?
Goran Stolevski: More in a general sense. Just a sense of rawness and sort of fearlessness? Like someone will throw themselves in a setting and let the story world absorb them rather than making it about themselves. Because I feel like with me, it’s not about me. I feel like the film is directing me, I don’t feel like I’m directing it, you know? I’m so looking for that kind of quality. And it was interesting that in the end, there were so many life parallels between a lot of the actors as well. They came from completely different parts of the world, which I was also really happy about, because I wanted the story to be universal, not just this esoteric, Eastern European thing, which is like, yes, it also is by default, but I still wanted it to be universal feelings.
And also like a few, especially a few of the more experienced actresses like Anamaria Marinca who plays Maria, and Noomi Rapace, of course, who plays the first life the main character invades essentially. With them, there is that quality where they can do extremely stylized worlds, but also extremely Euro naturalistic kind of [unintelligble], and both ends of that spectrum, they can make feel like it’s just actual things that are happening to them, make it feel real and impactful. It’s really hard to do that. Few people have that range, so I think that’s what I was looking for and gravitating towards.
With Noomi, I knew her work, obviously, from both ends of the spectrum. From Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, obviously, to just the Scandinavian drama she’s made. Lamb wasn’t made yet. Lamb was, when I was speaking to her, she was on set in Iceland and she’s just like, “I’m making this crazy movie, but enough about me.” [laughs] And then, I saw and was like, “Oh my god. That was what you were making!?”
What was the most difficult scene to pull off?
Goran Stolevski: Oh, anything with a baby. Yeah, the start and the ending probably the most. I can’t go into too much detail, I guess. But it’s honestly when you’re relying on narrative turning points being conveyed in the performance of a baby? Yeah, try that! Then it wasn’t the film directing or me directing. It was the baby directing. [laughs] And things like that. We’re also working on a very limited budget. And also, this movie kind of shapes itself into this kind of like visual language. And there’s things you kind of need to convey as a story. But I can’t just do a close-up of a random thing, because it just only sticks out. But how do you keep it coherent? And so, the final sequence was like, that was the one we had to go back and do again the next day to get a few elements to make things…get a few elements, the baby! Get the baby! [laughs]
Jumping off of like limited budget and everything, one of the most impressive aspects I think for me was a lot of the natural locations, one of them being the cave. What was it like finding these locations? Because that was incredible.
Goran Stolevski: It’s actually quite different from what was written. Originally, it was meant to be quite a small space and in a monastery, which was very common in that region. And then, gradually in looking at or even just thinking about how a lot of monasteries in that area are kind of built into these rocks in a few places, peppered across the region, and then just finding a monastery that was in a tiny cave, but it wasn’t appropriate for us. Because also the cave had to have a hole in the roof. There was all this other stuff in the story. I did not make life easy for me at any point. Yeah, I’m gonna write without borders and it’s like ah, I have to figure out how to make this. Oh, yeah, that part. So yeah, there were a lot of requirements.
And the cave was actually the only section of the story we had to travel away from the village we’re filming in, and the first time I saw the photos, I thought it was spectacular but inappropriate because I thought it was enormous. But then, when we got there in reality, I almost didn’t even go look at it because I was like, this is probably not going to work, because it’s the wrong kind of spectacular. But then when we got there, I was like, I can see the space. I can see how this could make sense with the character and yeah, it was just in a catalog of photos the location manager showed us. He was doing the scouting as well. And I remember him pausing before he came up because we were struggling to figure out a place, and he was like okay, I don’t know why I’m showing you this because I shouldn’t be showing you this because it’s going to like destroy my life because logistically it was very difficult for him. But thank god. He was great. Stefan, his name is Todorovic. He was like, I hate it when I show filmmakers this but here, look. All of this in like blunt-spoken Serbian, by the way. It’s hard to quite get the flavor of like [sighs]…
To wrap things up, this is such a fantastical movie combining horror,ow, fantasy, drama, etc. Outside of just enjoying the film and all of that, is there anything that you hope people take away from it?
Goran Stolevski: Well, one thing that moves me most is like, I speak to people who are like, oh, I can see sides of me in both of these two main women and going how would I react in that situation? Because to me that the two main characters are my brain split in half and it is that sense of hesitation. I kind of keep hesitating over which one I would end up as. But you know, there is this one character who wants to live the fullest life possible and just kind of has to go through cycles of suffering and abuse but still retains that sense of herself in the beauty and wanting to connect with people, even the people who are doing everything that’s awful to her. And, with the other one, that instinct is completely crushed, and she realizes in seeing this other person how much she’s lost and that tragedy. So, to me, it’s about what is the difference and I don’t think it’s definable in words. I think it is to speak on just purely the level of raw feeling. But yeah, when I watch the movie, it’s literally about that. The difference between these two people and the beauty and the tragedy.
YOU WON’T BE ALONE is now available in theaters.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity. All photos courtesy credited to Branko Starcevic / Focus Features.