Interview with BEAST director Michael Pearce
BAFTA nominee Michael Pearce’s striking film debut BEAST launched to wide acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated for First Feature at the BFI London Film Festival last year. A psychological drama-thriller starring Johnny Flynn and Jessie Buckley as a much-maligned Jersey couple facing up to dark accusations within their small island community, the film was released in cinemas late last month and Pearce came to Sheffield to answer an exclusive Q+A after its screening at Showroom Cinema.
Exposed film writer Anna Stopford took the opportunity to speak to the hotly-tipped director about the inspirations behind the setting of his first film and the connections he’d like it to make with its audience.
Being from Jersey, did you decide to make a film set in Jersey first and then settled on this story, or did you set out to make a dark, psychological film, and ended up back in Jersey? Which came first?
I wanted to do my first feature in Jersey because I have very strong impressions of the atmosphere there, but I needed a story. I was reminded about the story of the Beast of Jersey, and it reignited my childhood memories. The story made a strong impression on me because it was so sinister and so striking; there was a loss of innocence as I found out that monsters really do exist. As it was like folklore, a ghost story, it was both scary and exciting. It was great to have a true story that I could reshape, and also an opportunity for me to dig into my own childhood and magnify my own impressions of the island – the good and the bad. I could show the landscape that I love and explore the feeling of suffocation that being on an island creates. So it was a combination of wanting to shoot something there and then finding a story that had a big impact on me.
Beast has been described as ‘an adult fairy-tale’, is there any message, moral, or cautionary tale you wanted people to take away from the film?
I would be reticent to reduce it to a one-line moral. I didn’t want there to be a simple lesson that you can walk away from the film with; I want you to continue to wrestle with it after you’ve seen it. I like films where there are big question marks at the end where you have to continue to engage with it, which can sometimes be frustrating because you want to figure out the whole film. It can be weeks but then I’m happy that I had to keep working with it.
The film has made an impact internationally, and has been very well received by critics, but what is your personal benchmark for success?
The audience reaction – the premiere in Toronto was the first time I’d seen it with an audience. All the laughs and gasps and silences were in the right place, which felt like the rhythm of the film was working. Hopefully people would come out with different opinions, but it meant people were synced into the subjective experience of the film through the characters eyes, which felt very validating. I want it to connect with an audience, so they are enchanted but also engaged with the questions.
I found Mol as a character is quite ambiguous in her motives at times. As you have written her character, are you still capable of explaining her actions, or has she taken on a life of her own in a way?Yes, we have a very specific take for her. In the edit, we decided to take out bits of information – because it became a bit more interesting. We couldn’t take out too much, or the audience would just feel lost with the character. We had to find a balance, where you connect with her – but up to a certain point. You start in a place of strong empathy, and you end in a place where she is potentially an antihero. It’s interesting seeing where different audience members lose her and begin to question her actions, although some people stay with her right until the end. I’ve always liked characters that challenge that empathetic bond – because it’s too easy to make a character completely likeable and without flaws.
You’ve come from a background of making short films. How did you manage the transition to making your first feature length film? What are the main differences?
It was difficult, a short can be focused on something very small, like a moment, or a look, so it can be more lyrical or poetic. Short films feel more free and playful. There are more narrative and character expectations from a feature film. It needs more discipline, you need to think about structure a lot more, like the bond between the character and the audience. Especially with a thriller, you want to subvert expectations, place red herrings, and experiment with tension. There’s more mechanics involved in a feature film. It’s a different game, more serious, but also enjoyable. The stakes are higher, but that also means there’s a higher reward. Shorts only get seen by a few people at short film festivals really, with a feature length film, someone might go and see it because they liked the poster, or saw a review, so there’s an opportunity to reach a much wider audience.
I found the film very experiential and visceral. What was your reasoning and inspiration for this, and how did you achieve it?
I was adamant that I wanted it to be a hyper-subjective experience, that it would work on a very sensory level. Most films on this subject matter are very clinical, about evidence and crime scenes. They can feel like an investigation, like you are a detective accumulating evidence and focusing on facts. I wanted it to feel more inside out from the character, about what Moll is experiencing. I want the audience to feel invested in her, not like you are one step ahead of her. I really love directors that can put you in the skin of the characters, like in A Prophet, by Jacques Audiard – he’s so good at getting you to exist from within the character’s point of view, as opposed to looking down from the privileged point of view of the director, with a God’s view of the situation. I wanted to make the audience complicit in the journey that the character goes on. We used sound to give the film a very tactile quality, which helps the audience tune into the body of the lead character, you start to experience everything from their perspective. It works particularly for a thriller, because the tension is constantly there, but also a love story – I want the audience to feel his magnetic pull. I thought it was a good way to subvert the evidence side of things, and have it more about personalities and character.
Favourite film this year?
I really liked Good Time by the Safdie brothers, I thought it was so fun and irreverent. It’s a gritty New York crime film, and it felt very authentic, it had no sheen or polish – I haven’t seen that in a crime film for so long. Also You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay is able to find very lyrical moments within a brutal story and I find that collision fascinating. I also find Joaquin Phoenix so watchable. I like directors that have a very artful and poetic eye but are working with more pulpy material.
Beast is showing at Showroom Cinema until Thursday 10th May