Beast director Michael Pearce: ‘I kind of felt that we’d reached peak murder mystery’

Beast is a Jersey-set serial killer thriller with fairy-tale rhythms. Director Michael Pearce talks to us about playing with genre and taking inspiration from David Attenborough.

Jamie Dunn

Beast (2017)

Beast (2017)

The first feature from Michael Pearce, Beast is the latest in a string of striking British debuts set far from the madding crowd. Other recent examples of this mini-wave of rural films include Francis Lee’s moving gay love story God’s Own Country, set in the windswept Yorkshire hills, and Hope Dickson Leach’s fine-grained family drama The Levelling, which takes place on a dairy farm in the aftermath of the 2014 Somerset floods. As in those films, place feels fiercely intertwined with character in Beast.

The setting here is the dramatic coastline and inland of Jersey, where Pearce grew up. “It’s quite unique as a landscape,” the 36-year-old filmmaker says of his former home when we meet on a bitterly cold Sunday in Glasgow on the morning after Beast’s Scottish premiere at the city’s film festival. “It’s really close to France: you can see Brittany and Normandy, and a lot of the boat names are French, while some of the older people speak a dialect of French. Ostensibly it’s British and it’s under Her Majesty’s domain, but it stands apart from the UK and there’s something that felt very different and stifling about it growing up.”

Beast (2017)

Beast (2017)

Similarly on the periphery is Moll, the 27-year-old woman who is the focus of Pearce’s film. Played by Jessie Buckley, she’s the black sheep of her prim and proper middle-class family, which is dominated by her overbearing mother, played by Geraldine James.

Pearce likens his protagonist to a fairy tale character. “[Moll] lives this Cinderella-like existence, where she’s emotionally overlooked and she’s kind of gasping for emotional oxygen,” he says. In this analogy, James makes for a convincing Wicked Stepmother, while Moll finds her Prince Charming of sorts (or is he the Big Bad Wolf?) in the form of Johnny Flynn’s Pascal, a ruggedly handsome poacher who rescues her from some unwanted male attention near the start of the film.

“A lot of fairy tales end with the chivalrous prince saving the damsel in distress,” notes Pearce. “We thought maybe we could start the movie there and we’ll give it more of an ambiguous slant. You don’t know initially if Pascal is a good guy or not, and you keep hold of that feeling.”

Jessie Buckley and Michael Pearce on location for the production of Beast (2017)

Jessie Buckley and Michael Pearce on location for the production of Beast (2017)

The reason we’re suspicious of Pascal is that there’s a serial killer at large on the island targeting young women, and Pearce doesn’t offer up any other plausible suspects for the crimes – Broadchurch this is not. “I kind of felt that we’d reached peak murder mystery,” says the director. “I could have given a deck of suspects and then it would have been about, is it this person or this person? I’m not really interested in drawing tension out of that question.”

Instead, the film joins the ranks of sleeping-with-the-enemy thrillers in which the female protagonist becomes romantically entangled with a potential killer – a rich lineage that includes Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1970), Richard Marquand’s Jagged Edge (1985) and several Hitchcock films. “I wanted an investigation into this female character, and for you to be thinking, does she know? Doesn’t she? Is she blinded by love? Or is she more courageous than I am because she’s standing beside someone she loves and she sees their humanity?”

Pearce describes Beast’s filming process as being pleasingly collaborative. “It’s amazing if you open up that door as a director, and you want to engage your actors into being filmmakers, not just performers performing your dialogue,” he says. “It can become creatively very connected and you start to build and feed off each other’s ideas.”

Appropriately, it’s at this point that Beast’s lead Buckley, who’s been at the adjacent table enjoying rounds of toast and raspberry jam, joins in the conversation. “There was a real energy on set,” she adds. “Moll was an intense character but I never felt drained while playing her. I felt enlivened, and I felt that Michael was too. It felt like you were constantly adding new colours to the canvas and things were just coming to you. You were alive to what was happening around you instead of being stuck in a mindset.”

Beast (2017)

Beast (2017)

So far Pearce has described Beast as a love story, a thriller and a fairy tale. He throws another genre in for good measure, and the clue is in the title. “I wanted people to [think of the characters] like they’re animals. Whether subconsciously or consciously, I wanted to remind the audience that these are homosapiens, a species that are constantly trying to negotiate lots of big moral predicaments. I like films that remind us that we’re a species and we’re essentially advanced apes that grew up.”

Capturing these homosapiens in their natural habitat is the talented cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who shot Paul Wright’s evocative psychodrama For Those in Peril (2013) and Gerard Johnson’s searing crime picture Hyena (2014). “I was talking to [Ben] about how we should shoot the scene, for example, where Pascal comes in and saves Moll with the gun,” recalls Pearce. “I said, ‘this is a wildlife documentary, we’re somewhere on the Serengeti and these are two different sized animals with different statuses.’”

“So you’re David Attenborough lurking in the bushes?” laughs Buckley.

“Yeah, totally,” says Pearce. “He’s as much a reference as Tarkovsky.”

We mention above that Beast belongs to the recent run of extraordinary British films in rural settings, but Pearce’s inventive use of genre separates his debut from the social-realist styles of Lee and Dickson Leach. A closer comparison is the impressionistic and internal cinema of Lynne Ramsay, where a touch, a look or a glance can transform a familiar genre trope into something more personal and poetic.

“My deeper taste is for films that root the audience into the subjectivity of the character; to be in a full immersion,” says Pearce. “That’s why I like people like Ramsay and Jacques Audiard so much. [Audiard’s] not making a statement film about crime in Paris or the French prison system. Within the first three shots of his movies, you’re locked in. I’m always struck by that – that cinema has the ability to take you inside the skin of a character.”

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