NFTS graduate and BAFTA-nominated writer-director Michael Pearce captivated students with a sneak peek preview of his acclaimed feature debut Beast ahead of its release recently, followed by an inspiring masterclass about dedication and perseverance, and the importance of performance in filmmaking. Beast, which stars Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn and Geraldine James, has been praised as “A fantastic feature debut by Michael Pearce, with its dark subject matter, stunning cinematography, ominous score and brilliant cast combining to produce a wonderful, brutally thrilling, piece of filmmaking”
In discussion with NFTS Executive Producer Venetia Hawkes, Michael began by opening up about his journey to making his first feature film - ten years after graduating. “I’m a slow learner!” he laughed. He revealed that during his years studying, and for a significant time after, he worked in bars and as a street fundraiser for charities to support himself while he developed his film work. He explained how throughout this period he applied to numerous short film schemes but without success; “It made me realise how intense the competition was and how tough the industry was, and I really questioned whether I wanted to go down that road”. But he persevered and used the time he had to work on shorts.
His short film Rite was nominated for a BAFTA and resulted in him getting an agent. His next short Keeping Up with the Jonses was also nominated for a BAFTA. Michael explored working in television, but found it “was quite competitive, and there were shows I wasn’t fully interested in to commit to, or I would only ever get through to the last round, I couldn’t quite crack it!” He said working on commercials “really helped, they pay really well and you can do one in a month - it really helped free up a lot of time so I could focus on my ideas”. He says: “For me it was a bit of a journey, I had to make a few more shorts and think about what type of filmmaker I wanted to be.”
Venetia asked Michael whether he always knew he wanted to write as well as direct his first feature, he answers: “Learning how to write, or at least going through that journey, helps you as a director. For me, it felt necessary to write a lot of my shorts, and to write the first feature because I needed to have that experience. Beast is set in Jersey, which is where I’m from, and it’s loosely based on a true story I knew as a kid, so I wanted to go on that journey by myself - but now I’m really eager to work with writers in different capacities”, Adding: “I worked with a few writers after graduating and I really get a lot out of that, how kinetic that can be, it’s so collaborative. You can really miss that when it’s just you and a blank page.”
One of the most gripping aspects of Beast is the character performance, Venetia asked Michael about working with actors and the importance of performance. He answered: “The films I always remember, or that mean a lot to me, are the ones where the performance is really strong. The actor and the performance are the raw material with which you make your film” Adding: “As much as the film was trying to masquerade as a genre film, ostensibly it was a character piece, or it was trying to be some kind of investigation into a character as opposed to an investigation into a crime”
He continued: “In terms of working with actors, I suppose there’s often a misconception that as a director you work with an actor between takes and you say some magical thing and they are suddenly able to ‘get it’. But the more you think about it there are so many stages to directing; when you’re writing a script you’re at that point already directing an actor. A script has to have layers, a good actor is playing the kind of sixteenth layer of a line, it’s in the script, that’s where you’re starting to direct.”
Venetia told Michael one of the things she loved about the film is the attraction between the central characters and how much she wanted their relationship to work, and mentioned that one of the most noticeable things was the lack of nudity in the intimate scenes, admiring it as a conscious choice not to need to show the female character naked to be able to portray that passion. She asked Michael about how he developed that central relationship and creating the feeling around them.
Michael said: “I really wanted the audience to have that empathetic bond with the characters and feel complicit in the journey that they go on. Films about this type of subject can be so procedural and clinical and I thought I hadn’t seen many that was from an emotional point of view. I thought about it as a kind of warped adult fairy tale, I wanted to get the audience close to and identifying with the characters but also give space to question them later.” Michael says he did a lot of research into psychopaths and one of their most prominent traits was their charm. Commenting: “In most movies I know who the bad guy is before the character does and I think ‘why aren’t I being charmed by these types of people?’ I wanted the audience to be charmed, to really question who the killer is.”
He continued: “I never saw the film as being about a sexual journey, it was more about an emotional explosion, the passion of a first love. I thought that this just has to be a film that’s more genuine and emotionally invested.” He added “We were trying to create images or ideas that would capture the feeling of falling in love. One of them was Moll and Pascal dancing in the waves and there was something so elemental in that moment. Those moments captured more feeling than a really explicit sex scene.”
Sound design is one other important aspect of Beast. Venetia asked Michael about how early he thinks about sound design and how he used it to create such a striking atmosphere for the film.
“I don’t think about sound at the beginning stages, I want to get the story right. With Beast we wanted to be in such a hyper subjective space, we’re only seeing it from Moll’s eyes and we were quite interested to work in a more sensory way with the sound. Generally, across the departments, we tried to build a framework where when she’s with her family or trapped by the community she’s going to be very suffocated, we tried to make sounds that were unchanging, synthetic, inorganic. When she falls in love with Pascal the sound are more organic, elemental and texture. We wanted to embrace how Jersey is quite a scenic place and that being quiet incongruous to the crimes being committed, so we had to find other strategies to make it quite tense. We got rid of some sounds and amplified others to use it in a more expressive way, it was a delicate balance, we wanted it to be on that edge where it can have a big impact and it being noticed. I’ll go and see a movie and think wow it’s so intense, and I watch it back and realise the sound did like 50% of it but I didn’t notice the first time. It can influence you so much and sometimes way more than any image can.”
As the session opened up to audience questions, one student asked Michael about his use of music in Beast.
“We tried a couple of different routes, and at the beginning it was more explicitly genre in a way, but it really wasn’t working and I struggled to think why - because it was good material. I realised it was because genre music comes from the point of view of the filmmaker, you know something before the character, someone’s walking into a dark room and you’ve got this ominous music, the filmmaker is saying ‘look out…something is going to happen’ and the character doesn’t know, it creates suspense in that way but that didn’t marry up with what the intention of the movie was. So we thought we would make it more visceral, I suppose it was trying to find a more animal, sensory score, as if it came for the guts of the character. I thought we had enough seduction going on aesthetically with the cinematography, the landscape and the weather, we didn’t have to beautify the score, we could let it be quite intense, which is when I felt it started to work more.”
Another student was very keen to know about casting, and how he came to choose Jessie Buckley (currently starring in BBC drama The Woman in White) and musician and actor Johnny Flynn for the lead roles.
“It was quite a humbling experience for me, to meet with such talented actors. Jessie was very grounded and authentic, and so relatable as a person, her personality gets you right away. She’s the kind of person I thought Moll would be if Moll didn’t grow up in her family … So it was partly my reaction to her as a person, and also just how good she was! She’s able to summon these big and tense emotions instantly, we just thought that we were so lucky to have her, and she was really a gift especially for a first time director. I look back and just think I never would get that level of commitment elsewhere. And Johnny, I went to see him in a play called the Hangmen in the West End and it was a really transformative performance, he had all these shades to him and I came out of the play and I thought ‘wow, maybe the most interesting thing about the character of Pascal is that he’s a shapeshifter’. There was a lot of chemistry between them, they gave so much and it was really a blessing. It was really special working with those guys.”
Finally, Venetia asked Michael what he’s doing next, he revealed “I’m attached to two projects in the US, it is a big jump and I was surprised but it’s a great feeling after just finishing a feature. I’m excited to see how it goes!”
Beast is in cinemas now, distributed by Altitude Films. NFTS graduates on the film alongside Michael include Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, Production Designer Laura Ellis-Cricks, Editor Maya Maffioli and Sound Designer Gunnar Oskarsson.