An Interview with Michael Pearce By Daisy Leigh-Phippard
‘I knew I wanted to go film school,’ Michael tells the sea of audience in front of us. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, I wrapped my graduation film the previous day, and now I’m sat beside my partner in crime A.K. McCallum at the front of the lecture theatre, a massive screen that just played our guest’s debut feature behind us. Now, director Michael Pearce tells us about why he came to the Arts Institute in Bournemouth (now AUB)to study his craft; ‘it was practically based, and you could specialise. I think a lot of schools are either not practically based oryou don’t get to choose your specialisms’.
After graduating, Michael went on to apply for the National Film and Television School and was accepted in 2006. NFTS ‘was great because it was two more years of just making more and more shorts. Getting mistakes out of my system, being inspired by other filmmakers. […] I just knew I needed to continue to make shorts and let them get incrementally better until I got to a point where I could believe I could make a feature now’.
Beast, Michael’s debut feature premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and recently won Michael and his producer Lauren Dark the 2019 BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. ‘It was seven years, maybe, from the initial idea to on-set,’ he explains. ‘And through that I was doing short films and some adverts – just trying to survive in London’. With several other shorts and features in development, Beastwas what ultimately came to fruition first. ‘Some of them weren’t ambitious enough, some of them were too ambitious’.
‘I suppose when you’re making your first film there’s a lot of anxiety about what kind of filmmaker you want to be. You know when you go out with your first movie people are going to see you as a certain thing. […] I was kind of transitioning from having really arthouse tastes to falling back in love with certain genre films. I’d written a version of the script which was pure arthouse, and it just wasn’t where my head was at. And I needed to get that out of my system. And then I wrote another draft which was more explicitly genre – it kind of read as a horror – but it didn’t have the complexity that I wanted. So, frustratingly, I needed to get those drafts out. To read them and go, ‘okay, it’s not that thing’’.
Beast is set on the island of Jersey were Moll, a woman seemingly trapped by the idyllic expectations of her family, meets a stranger, Pascal, who might be dangerous or might help her escape her life. But as a series of crimes that may or may not be tied to her prince charming arise, she has to choose if she’s on the right path. ‘I wanted to distinguish it from being a contemporary British crime film. They always seem miserable,’ he laughs. ‘And I wanted it to be more seductive, more like a fairy tale. So, my reference points were closer to Badlands, Terrance Malick films, or Wild at Heart. It felt like the universe was slightly heightened. Still one foot grounded in reality, but something was amped up’.
The film’s story is loosely taken from true events on Michael’s native island of Jersey in the 60s, where the area was terrorised by the nicknamed ‘Beast of Jersey’ who would break into people’s home, kidnap children and assault them in the woods. ‘They eventually caught him, and he had a wife and kids, and was a functional member of the community. Even when I grew up in the 80s on the island, he was still like… it was almost part of the folklore, the Beast of Jersey. Kids would tease each other, ‘don’t go in those woods, it’s where the Beast of Jersey attacked someone.’ He was the bogeyman’. As it did on the whole island, the events had a lasting impact on Michael. ‘It was the first time that I realised that monsters did exist and not just in fairy tale books’.
The film would of course not be what it is without creatives for Michael to work with. ‘I always think, as a director, you want to be meeting your Heads of Department with an abundance of ideas. […] You want to stimulate them to go way and have a think, to then come back at you with hopefully more developed ideas than what you gave them. Then it’s like a creative ping pong in some ways, and you’re just throwing it back and forth’.
Many of the crew including the cinematographer, editor, production designer and sound designer were all friends of Michael’s from NFTS. ‘That was great for them to come on this because we’d spent like a decade talking about movies and arguing about movies, making stuff together. It really felt like a unit. […] You can find that at film school, like a little mafia of people that you trust and have got similar aesthetic sensibilities. I think that ends up going a long way. Relationships can sustain for years after you’ve graduated’.
I ask about how Michael worked with his female producers on Beast, since I’d heard he’d used them to look over Moll, and we get into chatting about other barriers of understanding and how to overcome them. ‘It can only benefit you by being curious and asking people. […] You’d think that people would do it as standard, but it’s surprising how much people don’t do it. They feel like it’s a criticism on their talents to engage with certain questions, whereas I think… I don’t know, the best directors are usually the ones who are the deepest researchers’.
‘In a way, the preparation sets you free as well as well as giving you a good idea. I become very meticulous about the way I prepared a film’. In preproduction a director will develop storyboards, shot lists and script breakdowns, but sometimes you go to a location or the weather does something unexpected. ‘If you realise that maybe there’s a better idea you can capitalise on, it’s fine! You always park the preparation and you can roll with your gut instinct. I think on my feet better when I’d prepared another idea in advance’.
‘Every director should have some non-negotiables that you’re like ‘this just needs to be done, the story will only work if we do this’. […] And there’s certainly always stuff that you’re going to have to let go of. There’s no short answer on that, it’s always a painful process’. Anna, beside me, asks what Beast’s non-negotiables. ‘Well, I abandoned a lot of them, so they were quite negotiable in the end,’ he laughs with us. Shooting on film and filming in Jersey were all things that had to be adapted. ‘There were scenes that were going to be quite difficult to pull off, like swimming in the sea, killing the rabbit’.
‘That became like a massive thing in the end,’ Michael divulges. ‘I felt that you really needed to see the rabbit injured, but still alive, before she kills it. It’d be too much of a cheat seeing a live rabbit and then you just see her hit a dead rabbit. It became so difficult to pull off that we almost abandoned the scene in preproduction. The only idea we could come up with was CGI, which we couldn’t afford to do, or an animatronic rabbit to lay there and breathe. Eventually, after calling around, we found a vet who could hypnotise a rabbit, so it laid in a semi-coma for ten seconds’. There’s a moment of silence before the audience bursts into laughter, us and Michael joining in. ‘Which was totally legit, and it’s fine – the rabbit survived. We had like ten seconds to get that one shot’.
‘To be honest, I’m quite a masochist when it comes to script development. There’s definitely some friends of mine, writers and writer/directors, who see it as they’re going to write theirstory and if anyone gives them any feedback, negative or supportive, they’re just trying to jeopardise their vision. And I don’t see it like that’. In the search to find producers for Beast, Michael turned down people who immediately accepted the script when he felt like it wasn’t ready. ‘If I feel like someone has notes, I want to address them for the most part. It’s a painful process, but I’d rather go through all the pain in the scriptwriting than in the edit room, because then it’s too late’.
And, of course, writing the script is the hardest part. ‘If you’ve written a good script, it’s not like base camp of making a movie, you’re almost halfway up the mountain’. When asked by the audience about how he goes about finding the stories he wants to tell, he explains, ‘when I’ve come up with a script it’s like some kind of chemical reaction between probably three ideas: an image, a character, maybe some kind of theme. And I need those three things to work. […] I’ve had ideas that haven’t worked for ages and then had that eureka moment because I’ve found the character in another place. It’s very visually based, often looking at photography books, or it’s a landscape’.
‘It needs to be a theme that I think is complex enough that it’s going to interest me for many years. And that’s usually something that I’m confused about where I stand on’. If you know where you stand, what’s there to discover? ‘Like [in Beast], it’s what would you do if you needed to escape your life? And you met someone you fell in love with, but maybe you were finding out they were compromised in some way. Would we all make the right decision and push that person away? Or… my gut instinct is that we’re guided more by our emotions, and that we’d fall in love with the person more than our morality. […] We don’t make decisions in a rational way. That was something I wanted to explore’.