Michael Pearce: Taming the Beast

August 4, 2018
British writer/director Michael Pearce discusses his much buzzed-about psychological thriller Beast.

One of the hottest films on the festival circuit is now slowly approaching its cinema release in Australia. Michael Pearce’s Beast announces the arrival of future talent, both behind and in front of the camera. “We had a really good casting director, Julie Harkin, and she was able to put some great people in front of me,” says Beast’s writer/director Pearce. “It seems unbelievable, because she’s such an insane talent, but it was Jessie’s [Buckley] debut film as well. She’s done TV and theatre. That was very serendipitous in terms of casting someone just as they’re about to pop. You’re in this experience of the first film together, and you’re jumping in the deep end.”

Since Beast, Jessie Buckley has scored the main role in BBC’s gothic mini-series The Lady in White; a supporting role opposite Renee Zellweger (as Judy Garland!!) and Michael Gambon in the feature film Judy; the lead role in the sure-to-be-a-hit Wild Rose as a wannabe country singer opposite Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo; and a supporting role opposite Robert Downey Jr. in the blockbuster The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.

In Beast, Buckley plays Moll, a troubled young woman in an isolated community who gets too close to an enigmatic potential murderer whilst under the control of her own oppressive mother, and a father suffering from dementia.

“I was drawing from my childhood in Jersey,” says Pearce, who grew up on the largest of the Channel Islands, between England and France. “How safe it was, how great my childhood was; it was such a quaint place to be as a kid, but it also had tragedies, and there were dark stories. I was really struck by how incongruous that was.

“There was one particular case called The Beast of Jersey, who is like a serial sex attacker in the ‘60s. Even when I was growing up in the ‘80s, it was still a spectre that haunted the island. It almost became folklore for us as kids, because it just seems so horrific. That was initial inspiration. And then I was like, ‘well, maybe it’s about a woman that might be involved with a psychopath.’

“Let’s make her more interesting than this monster that’s lurking in the woods. Maybe she’s got some dark secret of her own. I just thought, it’s interesting if someone committed a crime or made a mistake, and you carry that around; you could be shackled by that guilt. I was interested by someone who’s been oppressed by her own guilt, and having her guilt used as a weapon against her by her family.”

Beast’s early reviews have referenced the film’s fairy tale allusions, which Pearce confirms was no accident.

“It’s about a seemingly innocent protagonist growing up in a small quaint village-like environment, trapped with an oppressive family, and she ventures out into the wild and she meets a character that might be Prince Charming, or might be the big bad wolf…”

Michael Pearce’s journey to making his feature film debut is as interesting as his ideas behind the film’s premise. He studied at the National Film and Television School in London. “I got in the second time. I was interviewed by Lynne Ramsay [We Need to Talk About Kevin], she’s a hero of mine. A lot of my collaborators, my DP, my editor, my sound designer, my production designer, we all met at film school. We’ve made a lot of shorts together, discussed and argued about cinema, we’re really tight friends. I don’t know if that’s unique to making your first movie, but it felt like you have a little family, and because it’s your first film, the schedule’s really tough, there’s so many challenges, but when you have a group of people along the way, you can get through it together.”

Initially aspiring to be an artist, Pearce first went to art school, which is where he made his first short film. “It was terrible, but I realised that cinema incorporates literature, performance, photography, music and sound. It dawned on me the amount of ways that you can express yourself. A teacher gave me some old films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I remember watching Seven Samurai and my mind was blown.”

It took six years of writing and rewriting, and putting the pieces together to commence production on Beast. “During those years I started doing commercials,” Pearce says. “There is a great legacy of directors coming from that world, because they shoot so much, and they try out so many ideas. My favourite director, Jonathan Glazer [Under the Skin, Sexy Beast] comes from that world.”

Beast is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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