by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
When you start studying plot structure, it becomes harder and harder to be surprised by a film. You start seeing turning points and act breaks everywhere you look. That’s what makes Beast so refreshing, in a wonderfully dark and terrible way. Watching this film, I was kept in suspense from the first scene to the last. I must have burned a thousand calories watching this intense, beautiful film.
Making its premiere at TIFF and also showing at Sundance and BFI London Fest, Beast is the feature debut of writer/director Michael Pearce. It follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who falls in love with a man (Johnny Flynn) who helps her break free of her caged-in life, but when he becomes the prime suspect in a series of grisly murders, she’s left to figure out what she believes – about him and herself.
I had the opportunity to speak with Pearce about how he developed these characters, this unique story structure, and what he learned along the way. (No spoilers.)
Angela Bourassa: Going back to the beginning of the writing process, did this idea begin with character or plot?
Michael Pearce: A bit of both. I guess my process is, I have a theme – something that I want to explore, something about human behavior – and I develop a story that allows me to interrogate that theme, that bit of human behavior, from different angles, and at that point the characters remain quite archetypal as I work out the story. Then once I’ve got the story mapped out, I’ll start excavating the characters. I’ll start digging out – sort of frustratingly – who these characters want to be. You know, three-dimensional, living, breathing things. And they’ll inevitably want to go a different direction than the story that I’ve mapped out, and I’ve got to then re-engineer the story to match what they want to do. So then it goes back and forth between story and character until they’re kind of the same thing.
Angela Bourassa: Is that what happened with this story?
Michael Pearce: Yeah, I had one story mapped out, and then I dove into the characters and they wanted to go somewhere else. And the theme also changed. Characters always have precedence over my initially conceived theme or thesis or whatever, because I don’t want to make a film that just uses characters as figures to explore something. The story always needs to be in service to the characters. If you develop an interesting character and are true to that character rather than forcing them where you want them to go, they will always take you to an interesting place, even if that place isn’t what you originally conceived.
Angela Bourassa: That actually leads into my next question, which is about structure. Because with this story, I was really amazed that I never knew what was going to happen next. I kept thinking, “Oh, well this is going to happen now,” and I was always wrong, which was wonderful. So I’m curious, did you start with the basic three act structure or did the structure evolve more organically as the characters told you where they wanted to go?
Michael Pearce: Well, I like structure. I do my own little graphs and create my own specific architecture of how I think of structure, and that kind of changes with each project. But with this, it’s basically a five-act film – it’s got the first act and the last act, and then the middle is too big to be conceived of as one act, so I break it down. But anyway, I piece it all together in own specific way, and I have these ideas that make sense to me, but I doubt they’d make sense if I showed these documents to other people. But it comes out in the evidence of the draft.
I try to write a draft and then forget that I’ve written it, and then read it to see what the effect is. Sometimes you’re able to execute something quite closely to what you conceived, and sometimes it just doesn’t work, and you’ve got to engage with the material as a reader and as an audience member as much as you do the writer who’s trying to execute an idea. I think if you’re just “the writer,” you’ll always fool yourself into thinking that it’s working, and it’s really hard, but I think it’s really necessary to try to trick your brain into being the audience and be honest with where it’s working and where it isn’t. So trying to flip my perspective and just react honestly, that always helps me calibrate how the script is working.
Angela Bourassa: How many versions of the ending did you go through, or did you always know how you wanted it to turn out?
Michael Pearce: (Laughs) Quite a few. I mean, it was always climactic, to some degree. I have this thing – even though my tastes are quite arthouse in terms of films that I like – but I get this frustration that sometimes the endings in arthouse films are so oblique and sudden, and I’m not always convinced that it’s a brave creative choice. It’s just a trope that works for certain audiences. And I felt really strongly that this is a fairytale, it’s a myth in some ways – it needs a mythical ending. It needs to be climactic, and it needs to operate on some kind of heightened reality. The lead character needs to confront the monsters out there and inside her head, and it needs to be quite big.
So there was always this idea that it needed to be climatic, but there were lots of different variations that we explored quite a bit. At some point we landed on this ending, and then in the edit, we took out quite a bit of dialogue to make it more mysterious, to leave more open to interpretation and leave people with more to wrestle with.
Angela Bourassa: Can you tell me about your use of smell in the story? How did you come up with that theme and how did it play into the story for you?
Michael Pearce: I was just trying to find a unique way to help explore the love story and to capture that feeling of falling in love. One way was to make it very elemental. So, for example, when she leaves her family and decides to move in with Pascal, there’s a scene where they dance in the waves smashing against the wall. I searched for what image would capture the feeling of falling in love, which can be very elemental in a way.
And then I was looking at comparing ourselves to animals. We always forget that we’re animals – we forget that we’re a particular species of primate, because we’re so wrapped up in our own uniqueness that we never engage with that reality. So I thought that might be the way to look at the love story. You know, we look at the aspects of falling in love through the prism of our species – we think we fall in love with someone because of the nature of their character or how sophisticated they are, how wise or how passionate. But actually we forget that we fall in love with someone because of the specific oxytocin that’s released that we chemically respond to.
Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)
Michael Pearce: And that’s a huge part of love, but I never see that really being explored in film. I like that the title references the fairytale element, but also the characters as animals. We can look at the characters as feral creatures in an over-domesticated world who have decided to go back to the wild. And there’s something about Jessie (Buckley) and Johnny (Flynn) that’s quite animal in their performance. Johnny’s a bit like a big cat.
So, I don’t know, I really like the idea of smell and them touching each other, stroking, just always being magnetized toward each other’s bodies – and it didn’t have to always be explicitly sexual, it could just be sensual. And I think Moll (the main character) is being sincere when she tells him the reason she fell in love with him was because of his smell, and I think she’s being sincere when she tells Clifford the reason she doesn’t like him is because of his smell.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great. Ok, I just have one more question for you, which is something I like to ask everyone I interview. What do you wish you knew when you were starting this project?
Michael Pearce: Oh wow, that’s a big question… I guess, I wish I knew that it was going to be necessary to embrace my instincts. I was very specific when we went into the filming about how I wanted to direct this. I had my shot list, and it was very specific, but quite early on we realized we weren’t going to have enough time to shoot all the scenes and to get that many takes and to get all of the shot’s I’d mapped out, and it was quite painful to let go of that.
But by the third or fourth week – about midway through – I kind of submitted to the process and just embraced the energy. I realized that I had to set all my elaborate plans aside and work from my instincts, and that was something that I really enjoyed. I’d written the film over a seven-year period, and when you know the material that well, your instinctual decisions aren’t just spurt of the moment. They’re informed by a seven-year decision-making process, so I wish I would have adjusted to that more instinctual approach earlier and not lost so much sleep over it.
BEAST is showing in select theaters now.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.