For his debut feature, Beast (opening in select Canadian cities on Friday, June 15 and expanding in the coming weeks), British filmmaker Michael Pearce decided to tell his story of murder and romance in a place he’s well acquainted with: his hometown on the island of Jersey, located in the Channel Islands; a place of great wealth, privilege, class division, and a few opportunities for the people growing up there.
Although he admits in our interview over the phone last week to promote the film’s upcoming release that he found living in Jersey both freeing and stifling at the same time, Pearce’s goal with Beast was to tell a story about shifting empathies and allegiances within socially calcified communities.
A mixture of suspense, romance, relationship drama, and character study, Beast follows Moll (played by Jessie Buckley, in a performance that has garnered the young actress near universal praise), a 27-year old woman who has grown frustrated by a lack of stimulus and options in the island community. She sticks around mostly to help her ailing father, constantly finding herself under the thumb of her domineering mother (veteran actress Geraldine James). On the morning after her birthday, she meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a member of the island’s agrarian class and decidedly an outsider within Moll’s normal social circles. They fall quickly in love, but there’s a good chance that Pascal is the prime suspect in the disappearance and murder of several young women on the island. Despite the accusations, Moll stands by her decision to take up with Pascal, inviting the audience to question if the otherwise outwardly refined young woman is actually much closer to the sometimes volatile temperament of her lover than they might have initially thought.
Pearce based his twisty moral thriller in part on the real life case of the Beast of Jersey, a pedophile who operated within the otherwise sheltered community for over a decade during the 1960s before being caught. But while that true life tragedy was a kernel of an idea for the writer-director, Pearce was more interested in telling a complex story of love and devotion within a community that he was well acquainted with; one that hadn’t been previously depicted in British cinema in much of a critical or skeptical light.
We chatted with Pearce about his personal connections to Beast, creating a depiction of two marginalized characters within a homogenized community, his collaborative process with the actors, playing with an audience’s sense of empathy, and the film’s depiction of privilege and social structures.
Beast is largely the story of a young woman who has grown up in this kind of sheltered, stifling sort of lifestyle and has realized that there’s nothing left for Jersey to offer her. You grew up on the island, yourself, so how much of your own experiences did you put into the character of Moll?
Michael Pearce: I definitely went through similar stages in my life growing up, and I really wanted to engage with that. But for me the main thing that I wanted to do is to show how the landscape becomes a part of that kind of personality. Traditionally, in British cinema, such landscapes and cultures are depicted a bit softer and more bucolic, and I wanted to do just the opposite of that, because if you live in a place like Jersey, you know that the image that’s often depicted isn’t true to the emotions or experiences. I wanted something a lot more genuine. There isn’t very much art or cinema on the island, so it’s always paradoxical to really portray such a location that you know so well as an artful sort of place.
I always felt trapped by it, which was why I left as a teenager with hopes of being in a place with a bit more diversity. In some ways, the island is a bit of a backwater, but it’s a kind of refined backwater.
I think that distancing effect really extends to the casting of Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn in the roles of Moll and Pascal, because compared to everyone else on the island, they stick out as looking completely different, especially with regards to Moll’s shockingly red hair and Pascal’s scruffiness. Was that an intentional decision or something that arose naturally from the casting process?
Michael Pearce: Actually, that was just a happy accident. (laughs) They definitely looked out of place, which was great from a storytelling perspective, but really I just looked at their level of talent above anything else. They reacted so well to each other and to their surroundings.
I’ve often heard people characterize this as a genre film, and in some ways I guess it is, but it’s more of a character driven investigation into the hearts and crimes of these people. The film really rests on their shoulders, and I never wanted to make my job or their jobs any harder by trying to make them fit into any sort of specific criteria for them to pay attention to.
I’m sure that subconsciously, though, something set in with them, because I remember on set – within the first two days of shooting – I remember looking at Jessie and Johnny in their costumes, and suddenly that’s when I started to notice the different layers and textures to these characters. They’re not overly refined people, but they have their own set look that runs counter to everyone else there. Pascal is someone who clearly stands out, but Moll, despite her background and upbringing, has a roughness to her. She’s not a grouchy person, but she’s a very earthy kind of person. They aren’t keen on pretending to be worldly or sophisticated, and both would vastly prefer getting their hands dirty, and that’s definitely a reflection of who Jessie and Johnny are as performers.
But no, I never thought about this at first, but it’s definitely subconscious, which works when you want to depict to the audience that these two main characters are kind of categorized by the people around them as animals. No one likes the idea of these two people together because there’s something untamed about them as a couple, and there’s something very primal about the chemistry between these two characters. But this was totally accident, and not something that I was very particular about from the beginning.
There are a lot of moments in this film that has a lot of quieter moments that need to be shown more than they need to be scripted. For example, there’s a great scene right at the beginning of the film where Moll is clearly unhappy, and she’s practicing this fake smile that she’s going to put on for the outside world. These are the moments that really establish for the audience a chance to know when Jessie and Johnny’s characters are troubled or threatened by someone. What was it like creating those moments with them?
Michael Pearce: When I first started out, I made sure that I was trying to be incredibly precise in the script, which is the best starting point that you could have. I didn’t change much in terms of the emotion, and I tried to stick as much as possible to the shooting script. The script was very precise about what these characters were thinking. I think if you were to just read the script, you would get a very vivid depiction of the emotion of the characters in every scene.
By that same token, I never wanted anyone to be completely beholden to the words on the page outside of those emotions. If there was a chance to showcase something that was true to the characters and true to the emotions, I wanted to give the actors every opportunity to discover new layers to these characters. There was always a chance to discover more, and I welcomed that, and I think the more developed that a script is from the start, you can really raise the platform or starting point for your actors on the day if they want to look for other layers.
I feel like it’s quite alienating as a director to just execute what’s on the page every day. At the same time, trying to find everything you need on the day isn’t particularly welcoming, either. I think having a very particular and focused approach allows you to start shooting and to then discover more and more about a scene. You need to be emboldened by and open to new ideas, because like anything else, if you study something long enough like we all had, you do start to see those new layers forming.
I always wanted to encourage the actors to explore because I wanted it to feel genuine. I wanted them to be honest with me if the script was working or if they wanted to do something. I tried to get as close as possible to the page, but we were always hunting for those ideas that might have had the most promise. When you put this script in front of an actor and then that actor does a scene with another actor, there’s a whole other level of alchemy there that wasn’t present when I was writing the script. Now there are so many other dynamics in play that it seems foolish not to use the input of these great people. When you collaborate, you can find things new and exciting that can’t be seen in the distance. I was always surprised by things we would find together.
The film is always playing with the empathy of the audience, and making us question if Moll is the same kind of person as Pascal or not. There’s always a shadow of doubt in that relationship. During the writing process, how difficult was it to strike the right balance between making people understand Moll and being confused by some of her actions and reactions?
Michael Pearce: It really comes back to this general philosophy that I have where I don’t like to portray people as either heroes or villains. I feel that putting people into such categories doesn’t allow much room for complexity, contradictions, or paradoxes that most people tend to have, even at their most extreme. You can’t really empathize with someone who’s very cut and dry because you haven’t had to work very hard to understand them. If you don’t see the flaws in your heroes, you haven’t gone deep enough to uncover them. And if you see someone as a villain, they could have a certain charm to them, even if that’s the charm of a psychopath. Every villain has flaws, too, and they have cracks. I’m always trying to find a richer quality in my protagonists and antagonists because that’s what interests me as a storyteller.
The plot mechanics of a serial killer drama work best if they’re an investigation into the character of the people in it. I wanted the film to always have a challenging moral objectivity to it. The film is really about identifying these flaws in people and seeing where they take them. You don’t want to court convention or moral judgments. You want this to function on a more intuitive level. It goes back to the comparison of these two characters to animals. I think that really informs how the characters are viewed by outsiders versus how they view themselves.
We make our judgments on who we identify with in life on a very emotional and intuitive level. It’s not really based on reasoning, but more on animal instincts, and probably much more than we would like to admit. That’s interesting to play with when you’re making a film about a character who’s choosing to believe and protect someone while suppressing any potential doubt they might have about them. I wanted the viewer to connect with Moll, but to also fear for her mental well being, and to dread what might be lurking inside her. I wanted her to be a character that you could empathize with but also be uncertain about. I wanted her to engage in this sort of manipulation of sympathies with the audience, where they might be compelled to shift their allegiance. You’re able to create an intimate moment between the character and the viewer, but you also get a chance to destabilize that sense of identification that you might have with her.
That was what we were always trying to play with because the film doesn’t feature any clues, or evidence, or subplots as to what the nature of these crimes are. It’s a film that’s more about why you identify with someone and where you come down on this moral question about whether or not you could defend someone that you were in love with no matter what the truth of the relationship was.
There’s also something really interesting that this film has to say about privilege, and how the people of this community haven’t really had to confront anything as horrible as a string of murders and disappearances before. Similarly, any time someone like Moll tries to push back against the established order of things, the people around her tend to be taken aback or act like they’ve been emotionally hurt. Was that something that was on your mind when you construct this sort of violent love story that’s taking place in such a privileged, stifling place?
Michael Pearce: Yeah. It wasn’t the main subject line, but it was definitely a B-subject line, for sure. There’s a lot in here about status, class, and power, and looking at the particularities of how those manifest in Jersey. You’ve got different levels of power on the island. You have an extremely wealthy class there, which is why Jersey is known for being a tax haven. You have a lot of millionaires that have Jersey properties and accounts, and while they might not feature into island life every day, they have a dominant presence. The everyday dominant class, however, is the upper-middle class. They’re the established class there, and they sort of function as the moral authorities. I always found something quite frightening about how little doubt these people had their authority and place in the world when I was living there, and that’s definitely a part of this story. They were the ones who constructed and controlled the social framework of the island.
Below them was a small portion of everyday middle class people like you would find anywhere else around the UK. Then below that you had this kind of agricultural class; people who worked on farms that would often have large Nordic and Portuguese influences and their own social structures. In their own ways, they keep their own very specific sort of social orders.
But when it comes to Moll’s family, there’s a head of the household that very much adheres to that sense of being a moral authority, so much so that she’s even able to turn Moll’s brother and sister against her with very little effort. That’s what you get from the creation of such structures and hierarchies, and I found that quite fascinating.
And when Pascal comes, he’s from this almost foreign, working class background, and it’s something that upends everything. Jersey itself is quite peculiar because most people are very British at heart, but there are very clear dividing lines of status. There’s such a difference in income between most people on the island that it creates these fault lines between classes that only become pronounced. For Moll to go along with Pascal, it’s both an act of rebellion and a perceived transgression. She’s crossing a line in the sand.
Some of that actually came from nineteenth century literature, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Wuthering Heights, and how they used class paradigms to look at a rebellious romantic relationship. They’re about acts of rebellion because class boundaries are being crossed. Moll’s crossing of a class boundary isn’t only raising questions about established social norms, but also moral ones. It’s a mixture of rebellious acts.
Beast opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Ottawa at ByTowne Cinema, and theatres in Montreal and Vancouver on Friday, June 15, 2018. It expands to theatres in Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, and Waterloo on Friday, June 29, and to Regina and Saskatoon on July 13.