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Interview: Michael Pearce, director of Beast

During Leeds International Film festival, I had the pleasure of seeing Beastthe brilliant psycho-drama starring Jessie Buckley in a bravura performance. The film’s plot, in the words of its director Michael Pearce, is as follows: In a small island community, a troubled young woman falls for a mysterious outsider who empowers her to escape her oppressive family. When he comes under suspicion for a series of brutal murders she defends him at all costs and learns what she is capable of. 

I recently spoke to Michael Pearce about the film and his career so far.  

How helpful has the short film route into full length film been for you?

It’s been incredibly important. You can take different routes in – making commercials, music videos, documentaries etc., but short films taught me how to tell a dramatic story and how to work with actors, as well as all of the other aspects of filmmaking – art direction, lighting, music, sound design. Also financiers are understandably reticent to fund someone to make a feature if they haven’t seen evidence they can tell a story effectively in a shorter format. It’s not the only route but it’s probably the most common because of what you learn and means you have clear evidence of what you’re capable of.

What was your inspiration for Beast?

 I grew up in Jersey and I knew I wanted to make my first film there; it has a very unique landscape – scenic and wild – but it’s also quite conservative in terms of its values and its culture. As a child it was both freeing and a little stifling.

In the ’60s there was a child molester, dubbed ‘The Beast of Jersey’, who kidnapped and assaulted children. He evaded capture for ten years but eventually was caught. Even when I grew up in the ’80s he was still a spectre that haunted the island. It also had a powerful effect on my imagination; that darkness could hide beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect community.

However I didn’t want to do a factual retelling of those events, or tell a conventional police procedural. I was interested in exploring such a story from the close POV of a woman who might be intimately involved with a monster. So it became very important for me that the mystery surrounding Pascal is matched by our curiosity surrounding Moll’s psychological state: 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? Could she also be a Beast?

How difficult was it to get the backing to make it?

It was simple in some ways as it was just two financial entities – the BFI and Film4, but difficult inasmuch as it takes time to get your partners to believe in the project and support you. There was lots of conversations and script meetings before they fully backed the film, something like 18 months.

How has the film been received in your homeland of Jersey?

The film hasn’t screened there yet. A lot of friends from Jersey who now live in London have seen the film and really enjoyed it (if that’s the right term) and the Jersey media has been very supportive as the the film has been received well abroad and they’re proud of an Islander making something which is being celebrated internationally.

How strict are you about sticking to the script? 

Generally I stay pretty close to the script, I need it to work before we go into production. There’s already too many elements that could sabotage your vision as you start making the film that I think you need a very solid platform to work from. However I’m not, and don’t want my cast and crew to be, too beholden to the script, and you have to be responsive to what’s happening on the day. When I see opportunities to improve what’s on the page then I try to keep myself open to that as much as possible. I think a lot of my favourite directors are meticulous planners but are also have a healthy dose of creative spontaneity and it’s what gives their films a real sense of design and precision in the form but also a lot of life in front of the lens.

How did you create the character of Moll?

Lots of things feed into the mix, people I know which I take elements from, often photography, I will have a few key images that help route that character in a concrete and visual way. I will look at their characterisation – their clothes, likes, dislikes, class, status etc. and also dive in deep – their values, the specific experiences that forged them as a character. Ultimately a character is defined by their behaviour – what they decide to do, and that’s quite an organic process as you write. A character just decides to do something and that’s what defines them. My characters start as quite archetypal at the beginning and then I explore them through some of the above approaches and hopefully am able to discover a three-dimensional and unique character and bring them to life. Of course when you then cast an actor the character takes another transformation as they bring their own interpretation of who that person is.

What are the advantages of writing and directing as opposed to just directing?

 You know your characters, world and story inside out. This really helps when your don’t have the time or resources to execute what you planned as you’re able to improvise very quickly on set, and decide quickly what to focus on. I think even if you don’t want to write all of your films it’s a great experience for a director to write their shorts and first feature as you improve your story muscles and I think will be able to collaborate more effectively with the writers you work with.

What’s next for you?

 I don’t know yet, I’m reading lots of material, would love to find something set here and something set in the US. I think I’ll continue to want to make character-focused genre films that are emotional as well as brutal, but would love to do it on a bigger canvas.

Any advice for film students trying to make their way into the film world?

Watch films. Make films. I was very surprised at film school how uninterested some students were in cinema. I don’t think you have any real chance at making a career unless you’re deeply passionate about the medium. So I would suggest to watch as much as you can, get acquainted with the masters from every continent and every era and learn from them. And make short films, that’s when you take your theory into practice, you can’t get good at making films by just thinking about them. They’re the two, perhaps most obvious (but surprising how many people don’t do it) bits of advice – watch and make.

Thanks to Michael Pearce.

Beast is released on April 28th 2018. Image courtesy of Michael Pearce.