Beast Keeps You Guessing
Cast: Geraldine James, Johnny Flynn, Jessie Buckley
Director: Michael Pearce
Running Time: 107 minutes
Synopsis: Set against a background of an isolated Channel Island community, Beast tells the story of two damaged souls, Moll & outsider Pascal, who meet by chance after a birthday party. The attraction is immediate and palpable and Moll finds herself pulled between the control of her oppressive family and the allure of Pascal, a local poacher. Meanwhile, a string of brutal murders across Jersey has the island's inhabitants primed for a witch hunt. Moll and Pascal both already have black marks against them and Pascal is a prime suspect. With compelling lead performances from Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, Beast is a genuinely sexy British thriller that will keep you guessing until the very end.
About The Production
Beast is the debut feature of BAFTA-nominated writer-director Michael Pearce. A Stray Bear Films/Agile Films Production, it is produced by Ivana MacKinnon, Lauren Dark and Kristian Brodie, with the support of Film4 and the BFI. Beast has been developed and funded by Film4 and the BFI (with National Lottery funding).
Origins And Development
Beast was initially optioned in 2011 by Kristian Brodie (then Head of Development at Agile Films), "I was immediately impressed by Michael's attitude, his knowledge of film and obvious passion for storytelling," says Brodie. "When he pitched the idea for Beast, we knew immediately that it was exactly the sort of project that Agile needed to get behind".
Brodie worked with Pearce to develop the script over the next two years, a process which involved collaborating with Torino Film Lab's script development scheme Script & Pitch. The initial idea for the story had been brewing in Pearce's mind for years, and began to crystallise during his time at the National Film and Television School.
"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," says Pearce. "As a child it was both freeing and a little stifling."
Jersey, and the shadow created by the infamous Beast of Jersey, a child molester who had evaded capture on the island for ten years in the 1960s, bred in Pearce an interest in stories which shed light on the darkness hiding beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect community. This contrast between light and dark, good and evil, led to a fascination with true life stories about characters sucked into the slipstream of the dark lives of more sinister figures. Michael became increasingly interested in exploring a story from the close POV of a similarly conceived woman, who might be intimately involved with a monster.
"It was 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?"
Michael's interest in the wild and the tame expressed itself in the story of a woman straddling two worlds, seeking to find out where she belongs.
"The film is strictly told from Moll's point-of-view and while it invites the audience to empathise with her it also destabilises their identification. I love cinema that creates a complex relationship between character and the audience. With Beast, I never wanted to let the audience's sympathies become settled. Moll is much more anti-heroine than damsel-in-distress."
As he developed the script, Michael decided he wanted it to be more mythical in its aspirations than just a contemporary crime drama.
"I realised the story began to have strong resonances with fairytales " a seemingly naive heroine, trapped in a oppressive home environment, ventures into the woods and meets a man that might be prince charming, or might be the big bad wolf. I continued to imbue the story with some of the archetypes of fairytales and conceptually framed it as the story of a woman coming to power. So whilst the film flirts with several genres " thriller, suspense, love story, psychological horror, family melodrama, and whilst it is a bit of all those things, it's ultimately a dark and dramatic fairytale for grown-ups. It's the story of a woman who faces many monsters " those within her family, those out in the wild, and those lying dormant within her."
In late 2013 the BFI boarded the project, and concurrently Ivana MacKinnon and Lauren Dark of Stray Bear Films joined as producers to further develop the script and help finance the film.
"We were drawn to a script that had at its heart a bold, troubling female protagonist and her search to find a place in the world, and were excited about Michael's confident vision for the film," says MacKinnon. Over the next two years the script underwent further development, with the producing team working alongside the BFI. In 2015 Film4 joined the production, committing production funding. Film4's Sam Lavender was immediately drawn to the project:
"Michael's vision for Beast was clear and compelling from the first time we spoke about the script. We all wanted to support him in bringing Moll, and her view of the world, to life." Casting
From the start, the team knew that casting was going to be imperative, and that without the right chemistry between the two leads, the film would lack the focus and energy it needed.
"What I was particularly interested in with Moll as a character was creating the tension of a woman who has this muted masklike exterior and an inner fire that simmers just below the surface," says Pearce.
"We want Moll to escape the prison she has found herself in, but are concerned about the journey she is taking.
I needed someone who could also elicit the tensions and pressures going on behind Moll's eyes." Finding an actress who could encompass the damaged fragility and the ultimate strength of Moll was going to be a challenge, and casting agent Julie Harkin, (a long time collaborator of MacKinnon's), was brought on board to help with the search. Harkin emphasised the importance of casting someone who arrived in the role without previous baggage, allowing the character of Moll to flourish in her own right. All parties agreed that the opportunity for a breakout performance from an as-yet-undiscovered actress was exactly what the script was asking for.
Jessie Buckley had just finished shooting on the BBC's acclaimed production of War And Peace, and her stand out performance later drew rave reviews. Harkin, who had cast the series, was a very vocal cheerleader of Buckley's talents, and when she came in to read, her audition was spellbinding. Pearce recalls: "We did many, many auditions " it's such a performance driven film it was essential we found the right person. But there was something I was looking for that Jessie possessed " she's very grounded, natural and elemental as a person and as a performer. She's also extremely brave and committed which was necessary as the part demanded someone who would really jump into a hurricane, and Jessie dived in headfirst."
Buckley later told MacKinnon that she had slept with the script of Beast under her pillow for months in the hope of being offered the part.
With Buckley confirmed as Moll, the search for Pascal began. "For Pascal I was looking for someone who could be many things " charming, threatening, affably odd," says Pearce. "The character is both the love interest " the source of Moll's happiness " and the potential antagonist of the film."
Johnny Flynn, fresh from his award-winning performance in Hangmen in the West End, was the name on everyone's lips, and when he came in to read alongside Buckley, the chemistry between the pair was palpable. Flynn's striking looks belied the conflicting doubts Moll and the audience have about his character, and his compelling mixture of rough charm and playfulness meant that he was able to play Pascal as an inscrutable character who was impossible to pin down.
"Johnny has a disarming presence on screen " your eyes are always drawn to him when he enters the scene, which means he can be a very subtle, nuanced and detailed performer," says Pearce. "He could modulate his performance and shape shift throughout the film and keep the audience on their toes." The Shoot
From the very start, shooting on Jersey was central to Michael's intentions for the film " he recognised that the island of his birth has a natural beauty that couldn't be recreated or imitated elsewhere. "Jersey was a very idyllic place to grow up; it's incredibly safe, and very beautiful, with a stunning natural landscape. We never locked our doors and I was very free to roam about as a kid. But it also has a lot of dark lore " ghost stories, accounts of witchcraft and trials as well as the history of the Nazi occupation and real horror stories like the Beast of Jersey case. It always seemed so incongruous " such a safe and scenic island as the setting of these dark tales, whether real or imagined."
Due to Jersey's complicated tax status, shooting the entire film on the island proved prohibitively expensive, and after significant location scouting, the decision was made to shoot the majority of the interiors in Surrey, where the domestic architecture and interiors closely matched those of the prim and proper world of Moll's family home, with a week-long shoot on Jersey to capture the natural beauty and romantic wildness of the island. Surrey represented "Hilary's world" whereas Jersey was "Pascal's world" – with Moll torn between the two. Shooting began in July 2016, with four weeks in Surrey and one final week on Jersey. The film was blessed with amazing weather, creating the endless summer feel Pearce had been looking for. He was keen that the darker thriller elements of the story, which traditionally sit more naturally in wintery weather, were set against something more summery and light.
"I didn't want to use the island as a 'character in the film'. I didn't want to draw suspense from the landscape, but instead to use the scenic settings " a summer fete, breath-taking cliff tops, unspoiled beaches " as juxtaposition to the horrific crimes being committed. In a way the film is closer to rural French thrillers in that respect, than British crime films. It was about making the safe spaces threatening " a sunny idyllic island, with an unseen darkness beneath."
The shoot was ambitious, with two heavy stunt days scheduled to capture the final moments of the film, where a car is rolled. Michael's crew was made up of previous and new collaborations, some building on his shorts, others fresh relationships. Michael Pearce On The Aesthetic Of The Film
"Though the film isn't period-set, I didn't want it to have a contemporary feeling or be too specific about exactly when the action takes place. I wanted to create a more timeless and nostalgic feeling. I felt this would create a visual platform for the fable and fairy tale qualities of the story to resonate from. So with every aspect of the visual approach " art direction, costume, lenses, colour palette etc. " I was drawing on my childhood memories of growing up on the island during the eighties, and trying to endow the film with that atmosphere. With my HODs, we collated masses of photos and images that helped us create a visual universe that was atmospherically and emotionally rich whist still being grounded and unaffected. We tried to create two distinct worlds: the 'prison' Moll finds herself in " her family environment, her interactions with the police and the community " and the more liberated environments of Pascal's world.
One was stiff, formal and suffocating, so we used geometric production designs and steady camera tracks, slow zooms, formal compositions, The other was more organic and fluid " we shot everything hand-held and gave everything a natural texture. We used a similar approach with the editing " it's more deliberately paced when Moll is trapped and much more impressionistic and looser when she's with Pascal."