"We pushed each other to places beyond what we thought possible" - hmv.com talks to the team behind dark new thriller Beast
Given it features a director and lead actress making their feature film debuts, new thriller Beast is one hell of an introduction.
The actress in question is Jessie Buckley, who has since been seen on the small screen in Taboo, War and Peace and The Last Post. In Beast, she stars opposite folk singer turned actor Johnny Flynn, working with rising writer/director Michael Pearce.
Buckley plays Moll, a troubled young woman who falls for Flynn’s Pascal, a mysterious outsider who empowers her to escape from her oppressive family. But when Pascal is accused of a series of brutal murders, Moll is torn. She is desperate to leap to his defence, but is there more to the story?
The film on DVD shelves on Monday (April 20th) and is available to pre-order from hmv’s online store here. Back before it hits cinemas, we spoke to Buckley and Pearce about the making of this lean, troubling thriller...
When did you first have the idea for Beast?
Michael: “I had the idea about seven years ago. I was looking for what to do for my first feature and I was mainly looking at intimate character studies, similar things to what I’d been doing with my short films. I wanted to set it on Jersey and I’d remembered hearing about The Beast Of Jersey. He was this guy who’d committed a lot of hideous crimes in the 1970s. I knew that any biopic type thing would take a lot of time and money so I put it away and thought maybe that could be my third or fourth feature.”
But you went back to it…
Michael: “I thought some more about it and I came to think of it more as a platform, a way I could explore something more personal, look at my childhood and what I’d heard about this guy. That gave me the idea for the character of Moll, someone who was trapped on the island with this guy who was potentially dangerous and trapped within her family too. I fleshed out a 10-page treatment and I knew then that this had to be my first feature and that there was a way to do this without it being so expansive and set across multiple decades. Subverting a genre thriller and I could set it on Jersey.”
What attracted you to the script?
Jessie: “I’d never met a woman on a page like that before. She’s got this quiet rebellion going on in her, all the way through the script, she has this thrilling quality and I knew whatever journey she was going to go on I wanted to follow her. I felt sad for her, I felt thrilled by her, I felt scared of her, I felt angry for her, there was just so much to explore with her.”
Did you have any actors in mind when you wrote the script?
Michael: “You’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you write any role for a specific actor. I had a few photographs I used to work from, but they weren’t specific actors. I didn’t think about casting until pre-production and even then it was a long, long process. We saw a lot of actors for the role of Moll and it was an incredibly humbling experience. We gave the actors the most difficult scenes to do and some of them were really baring their souls to me. It was very intense.”
How was the process of getting the part?
Jessie: “It took quite a few months. I went in first with a casting agent, that was the first time I figured out I could actually do the part, it felt alive and it felt charged, saying the words. Then I was nibbling away at my agent ‘Is anything happening with Beast?’ and keeping the script under my pillow."
"I think they were after a big name, but I was persistent, I was adamant I wanted to meet Michael and talk to him. I got my way and we met up and I got the role. They were actually meant to start shooting in the springtime, but I’d just got Taboo, so they put it back for me.”
Were you struck by Jessie straight away?
Michael: “When she came in, there was something so natural about her, I liked her straight away. The character of Moll makes so many mistakes and I needed to cast someone who could carry that. That role is like an umbilical cord for the audience, it stretches and stretches and for some people, it’ll snap. I needed someone who could bring steel and evenness, the real Jessie is the opposite of that, but I knew she could do it.”
How did you find Johnny?
Michael: “He was quicker to cast. I saw him in The Hangmen, this Martin McDonagh play and I was struck by his versatility. Before that, I only knew him as the folk singer, a romantic lead and in the play, he played a sociopath and played it very well. Pascal is a shapeshifter. He’s the romantic lead and potentially the villain, he’s got to be charming, but vulnerable too.”
What was it like when Jessie and Johnny came together for the first time?
Michael: “We did a chemistry read and I did my best not to put too much credence on it, even if they didn’t get on, I liked them enough still to cast them. But actually they quickly became very good friends, they’re both very playful performers, they’re always looking for that extra layer and nuance. The three of us went to Jersey and I took them on this tour of the locations that had inspired the movie, so we had a lot of time together and quickly got tuned in to each other’s frequencies.”
Jessie: “I love him, we’ve become great friends and we built up a real trust as the process went on. We pushed each other to places beyond what we thought possible. We wanted to engage with the danger of the story and the love between these two people. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Jersey is a big part of the story, were you able to shoot there? Some places are keen to get themselves on film, but Jersey isn’t known for that…
Michael: “We were only able to do one of the five weeks of shooting on Jersey. It’s very expensive to shoot there, you don’t get any of the tax breaks you do if you shoot in the UK. We shot all the main exteriors, all the beaches, the cafes, the bars and then we did all the interiors in the UK. It meant I spent a lot of time trying to find places in London that looked like all these places from my childhood, but it ended up being very gratifying.”
It’s an intense watch, was it an intense shoot?
Jessie: “It was, but that’s mostly because we had a lot to do, a lot of exploring with the characters and not a lot of time to do it. I never felt tired, if anything I got more energy as the shoot went on. I felt like Moll was on such a journey of awakening and that never made me feel like tired. I just couldn’t wait to get back to work and unravel what the story could be. So it was intense, but it was gratifying.”
How did you find working with Michael?
Jessie: “Michael is one of the most exciting filmmakers around. He has such vision and such humanity in what he does, it’s not clouded by any sheen, it’s just about empowerment. It was both of our first features and we were both hungry to tell a story that was personal and raw. He was incredibly collaborative and open to suggestion, but also with a strong sense of what he wanted. It was a great crew to be part of, like a big family.”
What was the most challenging day on set?
Michael: “There were so many. We made it difficult for ourselves, we always seemed to be setting important scenes at particular moments in the day or gambling with the weather. There’s a scene where Pascal and Moll dance in the crashing waves. We had the day to shoot it, but we didn’t know if there would be any waves! Luckily, we actually ended up doing it in the middle of a huge storm, but that meant we had to invent a whole new way of shooting. So much elaborate planning went straight to hell.”
Jessie: “It was more time pressure. I had no idea how long it takes to set up a scene in a car, all the set up that’s required and we could only do two takes of most of those. You’d have to be ready to go straight away and we did those all at once. That was tough. But that energy is what drives the film.”
This film isn’t a gorefest, there are some grim moments, but you don’t see much blood or the violence is quite low-key, despite the crimes being talked about, how did you decide what you would put on film and what you wouldn’t?
Michael: “I decided quite early on that I wouldn’t show the murders or the victims. I wanted to open the film with the sites of the victims, where the murders have happened, that’s as close as you get to the crimes being committed. Opening with a big, sensationalised violent act is such a used trope in film and TV, it’s what gives you the thriller aspect and the tension. But I didn’t think we needed another movie like that. There’s hardly any blood. Except for the last scene. I wanted that to have a power and intensity. This isn’t a gory thriller, it’s an emotional thriller.”
Jessie: “There’s so much in this film that you don’t see. It’s a film about secrets. Moll doesn’t actually say very much and that works, it’s the things that aren’t said as much as the things that are. The violence and the emotional abuse is there, but it’s not on the nose. It’s a sensitive film, but it’s provocative too. Moll isn’t a victim, she engages with her vulnerability and has a hunger to get out of her numbness. I never thought of her as a tragic figure.”
There’s a big car crash during the movie, how did you find pulling that off?
Jessie: “I loved it! I don’t mind the physicality, both these characters are very physical beings, very feral characters. It was quite near the end of shooting and it was a chance to put all the stuff you’ve been living in your head into your body, that was cathartic.”
Michael: “It took a long time. Crashing a car is a health and safety nightmare, setting all that up is really challenging. It’s not an elaborate crash, we couldn’t afford it to be. By that point, we were four weeks in and Jessie could shamanistically summon these visceral emotions very quickly, so she didn’t need much warming up. With another actor, it could have been more challenging, but Jessie is so fearless.”
Did you it make you see the absolute carnage of other films and wonder how much paperwork is involved?
Michael: “It really did. But so much of making this movie has made me realise how difficult it is to make a film. The whole thing was a real baptism of fire. Your ideas are so huge and your resources are tiny. It's a battle to give the actors enough takes most days."