Michael Pearce’s directorial feature debut Beast (2017), a mix of dark fairy tale and Jungian psychological fable. tells the story of Moll (Jessie Buckley) who, still living at home, feels suffocated by her family and little island community. A chance encounter with the free-spirited Pascal (Johnny Flynn) reinvigorates the young woman. What begins is an intense love affair, but when her lover becomes the prime suspect in a series of brutal murders, Moll finds her independence and newfound freedom threatened, as the suffocating isolation preys upon her once again.
In conversation with PopMatters, Pearce discusses the discrepancies of the filmmaking process and the necessity of the fallacy of perfection. He also reflects on the subservience role of the theme, looking to the Jungian shadow complex and the filmmaker and audience’s transformation through respectively.
How did the expectations of your feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
Well, the making of it was harder than expected. I have made quite a few shorts, so I’m relatively experienced of working with actors and a crew, but you always have to have very big ambitions for your debut film. You really want to make it count, but your resources are inevitably going to be limited to some degree because you can’t get the budget that you need, all the locations that you want, or the time you need to shoot. So there’s always a discrepancy between ambition and resources, and it’s one that you are trying to limit every day.
You work as hard as possible just to meet your ambitions, but that discrepancy and feeling like you don’t have enough time is tough, because you want to set the bar really high for yourself. It’s like you set the challenge that’s almost out of your reach and you just want to keep grasping for it because that’s how you get the best work out of yourself. But that only makes it tougher on a day-to-day level, because you want it to be phenomenal, for every shot to be really special — every moment and scene — because accumulatively a great film is made up of many great moments and details.
You only have a certain amount of resources and time, and sometimes reality just throws you a punch, and things go wrong. It’s hard to make a film and so I found that tough and the stamina that you need to start each day because you have to find the passion, enthusiasm, and belief to help guide your cast and crew to try to attain that. So just the resolve you need is certainly tougher than expected.
I recall Peter Jackson saying how he felt Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) was perfect until that first shot was in the can. As storytellers, is there a discrepancy between what we envision versus the actuality of the work, which requires a compromise? And do you consider there to be a need to shed the irrationality of the pursuit of perfection for a more rational expectation?
It’s not possible because there is, of course, subjectivity. But I think trying to attain it almost generates a strong work ethic, and a focus which is necessary to create something that is imperfect. Or let’s just say it’s different from how you initially were planning it. But it is going to generate a certain attitude, a feeling, passion, and commitment that will get you to an interesting place. It might be different than you originally conceived, and I think sometimes there is a discrepancy between what you originally planned and what you do end up with.
I see shooting and the set as a very creative space, where I don’t want to just execute what my original plan is, but I want the actors to come in and surprise me, to continue to revitalise the project. For me, it would get a bit stale if we just turned up and were able to execute my plan because then I don’t know if the scenes ever fully come alive. It’s when my cinematographer and I noticed another opportunity, or sometimes if we’d been backed into a corner and we had to throw away a more elaborate plan to find something new, or if the actor discovered a new nuance, another layer to play, that’s what’s exciting to me.
So wanting to capture perfection is almost just a part of the process and then not getting there, but somewhere else. I realise that’s okay because you want to submit to it, and a film is a living and breathing organism that is shaping itself, as much as you are shaping it.
I would continue to use this method, but it’s just that it feels tough every day because you’re wanting to get one thing and end up somewhere different. Sometimes you realise you ended up in a stronger place and with the release of the film, it has actually exceeded my expectations. We premiered the film in Toronto in September and it was quite a long edit for us. Well, it’s not really long, but maybe for a film of this budget, it was close to six months.
You’re a bit snow-blind by that point; you don’t actually know what you have on your hands, and so there was a high level of anxiety when we sat there in the cinema premiering the film with 1,200 people. It was the first time it had been exposed to the world and there was an embargo on reviews until the final credits came up. You are very neurotic, and I was recutting the movie in my head and tinkering with it. I thought: Oh maybe we should cut that scene, maybe we should lift up that sound level, maybe we don’t need that music cue. Yeah, I was just in this very anxious place wanting it to be perfect, and mercifully the reception to the film was great. The reviews were positive and the audience really connected with it, which puts you at ease because there’s no such thing as perfection. You want the audience to meet the film halfway and you can never predict their reaction.
The moment when you hand over the film to the audience — and it’s up to them to decide whether they connect or they don’t, reject it, or embrace it — is always going to be a moment of uncertainty. I don’t know how many people feel completely confident that it’s going to be a slam-dunk because there’s always going to be a moment of uncertainty about what you’ve made, which is also an exciting moment, because you can’t predict it.
Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he explained: “I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they’ll pick a story and then say: ‘What do I want to explore?’ I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it.” Each storyteller takes a different approach, but to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
I have some of them up front and I generate a loose story that kind of services the theme. But then it goes through another process, where once I have the story laid out, I dig deeper into the characters to try to flesh them out and excavate the most interesting versions. Inevitably, the characters take on a little bit of a life of their own and they end up reshaping the story, or the themes cannot fit within the parameters I have set up and they want to do something different. So I have to then reengineer the story around what these characters want to do, and once I have built these characters they then take precedence. I want their behaviour to be surprising, interesting, and truthful, and the story has to come in second place. It has to be moulded around their behaviour and inevitably the theme will have shifted somewhat, and then I’ll look at the final script, and sometimes there is a bit of a difference.
So I start out with a theme, I write a story to service it, and then I develop the characters, and hopefully, they become more rich and three-dimensional, and gear the story in a different direction. And I realise that’s just part of the process, and if I claw onto my initial theme with my fingernails, it’s really going to weigh down and stop the project from blossoming in its own way. I think that’s okay, and I’m very happy to let the characters dictate where the theme goes. If I were to look back at my original document from seven years ago, I’m sure I’ll find different ways of summarising the film, whereas now it is: Oh, this is the film I made. It’s a bit of both; it started out with one, but then I very much feel I am open to the process of how it develops.
What resonated with me strongly and is very much a part of the human experience is who we want to be versus who we actually are. And extrapolating further is how we see other people, specifically who they are versus who we want them to be. Whilst not necessarily the heart of the film, it is a main thematic driving force and one that taps into a fundamental aspect of the human experience.
I think that’s an elegant way to talk about some of the central themes — who you are, what your nature is, and how you present yourself to the world. We talked about social masks a lot and I shared books and articles with Jessie about the Jungian concept of the shadow self, which is where our most animal instincts are buried: shame and lust, greed and revenge, and how we want to repress these. But it’s actually quite unhealthy to repress them; you’ve got to engage with them.
I was telling Jessie that Moll is someone that has muted the animal part of herself so much that all she has is the social mask she wears. So she has abolished half of herself — this is someone who really doesn’t know who she is. The process throughout the film is Moll re-engaging with her animal instincts, and that’s an exciting and emancipatory, and very dangerous journey she goes on.
Jessie Buckley and Michael Pearce on set (photo courtesy of Altitude Film Distribution)
We talked about social masks and how people want to be presented, and the duality of that. So you have an island that seems very idyllic and quaint, but you have these crimes that have been committed. You have this house with this family that is presenting a very wholesome, affluent, and upright image, but behind the curtain it’s dysfunctional. Moll’s mother — who seems very charming and whom there is something graceful about her presence socially — is very hostile towards her daughter. And then you have the man she falls in love with that may be prince charming or he may be the big bad wolf. I certainly think it’s interesting to think about it as whom you want people to be, and even the process of falling in love is partly a response to a person and who they are — at least 40 percent of it, and we are all guilty of this; it’s an imaginative act. You are somewhat building a fantasy and they can represent things that you need in your own life.
Pascal represents for Moll freedom and escape, animal instincts and impulsivity, reengaging with her shadow self that she has not had that of much in her life. Romance is projection, it’s not just responding to who someone is. People become representative of qualities that you also want to possess and I think it’s an interesting way to think about the film. But yeah, that nuance of Moll, it’s not that she’s even hiding, because she might not know who she is deep down. She’s repressing that realisation because she’s scared of who she might be, and so it’s better not to engage with it and to just keep it buried.
Storytelling has a dual inclination as both entertainment and parable, or cautionary tale. One of the striking aspects of Jung’s works to my mind is not just the expression of a need to confront the shadow, but how this complex is fertile and can positively feed our consciousness. To my mind, this film is an example of storytelling as a means to educate and inform us about ourselves and our world in as much as it attempts to entertain.
Yeah, that was certainly a part of it and it can seem like there can be a negative side to being a person; there are these qualities that have negative characteristics because some of them are like vices. Jung’s thing was that it was more unhealthy to repress them than to honestly face and to integrate the shadow into who you are; otherwise, you are muting half of yourself. It’s interesting that you pick up on it because we try not to talk about this — it seems a bit heady if I am in a Q&A and I start talking about Jung or Freud. But it’s helpful that I could explain the character to Jessie and she could dig into some of that.
There are guilt-laden aspects or traits Moll has repressed for so long that she has pathologically been trying to present a positive image of herself. It’s to the point that she has abolished half of who she is as a person. These universal archetypal features of the human psyche, they are a part of being human. It’s as much about the dangers of — if you only engage with the animal side of yourself with someone like Pascal, secretly, yet to just repress them, you deny expression to that part of who you are, which becomes equally dangerous.
I’d say the family in the film, especially the mother figure, is pathologically repressive of the shadow self to the point that she cannot live an authentic life, and so Moll is suffocating. And we really wanted to get the idea that she’s suffocated, not just imprisoned on this island, in this house, within this dysfunctional relationship, but she’s emotionally asking for oxygen because every day is performative by not being able to act authentically. So they were definitely the things I was talking with the actors about, and I love the idea of the film being a parable.
I always respond to films when there’s slightly more of a mythical dimension, whether they are tapping into a fable or in our case, a fairytale, or whether they are biblical. They are heightened out of the day to day, and in this film is a police investigation. Some of my favourite movies, whether that’s Badlands (1973), Wild At Heart (1990), or Stalker (1979), there are other archetypal story frameworks that they are touching on. Also, how Joseph Campbell would look at myths through the ages, and how characters represent archetypal forces that we respond to very deep within our psyches. They were certainly part of the conversation and what we were trying to build on in the film without being too literal about it. We also just wanted the characters to be living and breathing, to get to live on their own accord, but these were the platonic plates we were building upon.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
I shot my film in what felt like a baptism by fire and I came out maybe, I wouldn’t say calloused, but a bit hardened and a bit more inured to the challenges of filmmaking. I had built up some thicker skin, which is necessary because I’m sure it just gets harder and harder, and the bigger the film is, the greater the challenge. So you do go through that process and of course, you want to hold on to your sensitivity as well, and you are trying to maintain who you are and what makes you. I think you become a bit more robust by the end of it because you have been through a few battles, and yeah, I love the idea that an audience can go in to watch a film, and then come out an hour and a half or two hours later and have incrementally shifted in a slightly different direction.
I certainly feel that films have done that to me, and sometimes it’s incremental and you might not be able to literally pinpoint it, but they have had an effect. I love movies where the effect might not be immediate, one you can’t measure, but it’s reverberating through you in the days, the weeks, or the months afterward. I have certainly seen movies that I felt confused by and I actually set out to do that a bit with Beast. I wanted to give an ending that provoked complex reactions and you’d have to go away and think about it and work on it to really understand it.
I always liked the quote from [Jean-Pierre] Melville, where he said he liked viewers to come away from his films unsure whether they understood them. He wanted them to leave wondering and ruminating, and so it’s not just that you come out of the cinema at that moment the credits roll and you feel a very strong affirmation: Oh I now feel like this, or this is how I feel about the film. You want it to be like [laughs] the film has given you a virus and is continually working away at you. Most of my favourite movies have done that, and that’s why I keep returning to them because I know they had an effect, and I’m drawn back in because I want to gaze and figure them out.
Beast is released theatrically in the UK on 27 April 2018 by Altitude Film Distribution.