Interview: Michael Pearce on Beast
Michael Pearce’s debut feature is a love story trapped within a horror film. Starring Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn and Geraldine James, Beast is a dark fairytale about an emotionally isolated woman who comes under the spotlight of an island community when she falls in love with a man who is suspected of a series of brutal murders. Film4 Online’s Stephanie Watts spoke to Michael about his inspiration for the story, and shooting his first feature on his hometown island of Jersey.
This is your first feature length film. How did you find the transition from writing shorts to features?
It was tough. It’s not just longer, it feels like a whole different medium in a way, and a different story structure, different type of dialogue with an audience, different expectations. It actually took a long time to figure out how to write within the feature format. I was developing maybe eight ideas after I came out from film school, but they turned out as 70-minute features, so to really think within the structure of a 2-hour movie took a while to understand. Film school was about learning how to make short films, to a certain degree, and then afterwards it was a whole new process about how to do the feature.
Did you draw on any real events from Jersey’s history to write the story?
It was loosely inspired by a true case. There was a guy called the Beast of Jersey who committed a series of really horrific attacks on the island in the 1960s. I found out that he had a wife that never knew [about his crimes], and I became really interested in women that were involved with men that are potentially dangerous; what they know, what they don’t know, what they’re trying to hide from themselves. I got more interested in this woman - maybe actually she’s at the heart of the story, she’s not just a conduit for this way in to explore this crime narrative. So it started with a specific case, and then that kind of grew from there and created its own momentum, and then at some point you let your subconscious create a lot. At least 50% of the ideas in the movie, I don’t know where they’ve come from. I’d have to see a therapist and do some post-diagnosis of the film and see where these ideas are!
How did you work with Jessie Buckley to develop the character of Moll?
She was a real collaborator on building the character. We didn’t have that much time to do rehearsals, but we had a lot of time in prep just to meet up, and we discussed movies and books, and we’d share ideas. I shared some of the research that I’d done on psychopaths and victims of psychopaths, and she did her own research, and it was constantly back and forth. It’s not like we went back and rewrote specific bits of dialogue or specific scenes, but the way that we’d execute them became so much more specific. Jessie really managed to find deeper layers in the character than I was aware of.
Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn have great onscreen chemistry.
Yes. We did a chemistry reading with the two of them, and I worried that that could be quite forced, and that the actors would just be really trying to get along because they want it to work out. But it was good to do it because it was just evidence of how natural they both were with each other. They instantly got along really well and they became really good mates. On set they were both very playful people, and they were extremely invested in the film and their parts. The three of us were throwing new ideas at each other, we were testing each other, we were trying to impress each other, and it became very kinetic. It’s the energy that the rest of the production fuels off of, and it kept them really alive every day. It was a gift for a first-time filmmaker.
How was it returning to your childhood home of Jersey from a cinematic perspective?
We only shot a week on the island, which was heartbreaking for me initially because I wanted to shoot every scene there, but it was just too expensive. But also, when we were recceing locations, a lot of the places that we wanted to shoot had actually disappeared. So it actually turned into a virtue because I could find some locations that were in the UK that had the feeling and the nostalgia of what I could no longer find in Jersey. I wanted to capture the time when I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I even looked at old family photographs from when I was a kid to try and re-engage with that moment and that atmosphere, and it was about trying to recreate that. I believed in this kind of esoteric approach of, if we film the landscape where I grew up, it will have a strong feeling.
The film seems to straddle a lot of different genres. Was that intentional?
I wanted the film to have a relationship with different genres, for it to be partly a kind of family melodrama, partly a love story, partly a psychological thriller, even going into psychological horror in some places. But I think ultimately, it’s a kind of character study. It’s not an investigation into a crime, it’s an investigation into a character, and we’re just using those different genre techniques to access that character in different ways. I talked a lot with my heads of department about how the film should feel hyper subjective. Moll is in every single scene in the film, we’re seeing everything from her perspective, so the sound design, the lighting, the music, the camerawork, the art direction, they’re all used to root us in her point of view.
Beast is released in UK cinemas from 27th April.