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’.
Double win for Bournemouth Film School at 2019 regional Royal Television Society Awards
Bournemouth Film School has three graduation films nominated at the 2019 Southern region Royal Television Society Awards. BA (Hons) Film Production short 'Zebra' from director Billie Appleton was nominated for Best Student Drama, while two BA (Hons) Animation Production shorts were nominated for Best Student Animation; 'Anna' and 'Nine Coo Five'.
The Awards ceremony took place at the Guildhall Winchester on Friday March 8th, with a number of universities and regional mainstream networks such as BBC and ITV.
In 2018 the Best Student Animation category also had two Bournemouth Film School graduation films nominated, 'Liv' and 'Vida', with 'Liv' taking home the win. This year 'Anna' won over 'Nine Coo Five' and Bournemouth University's 'Somnia'. Judges described 'Anna' as being a "powerful animation which delves deep into the world of dementia". Fellow nominee 'Nine Coo Five' was described as reminding us "to persevere when times are tough and that the art we create serves to inspire, enrich and connect with others." The Student Animation Award was this year sponsored by Woodcut Media.
Student Drama at this year's RTS Southern Awards had three films from three separate univerisities in contention for the prize. The University for the Creative Arts and Wiltshire College were nominated against BFS's 'Zebra' from director Billie Appleton and producer Rachel Carvill. 'Zebra' won the category with the judges commenting the film as being a "taught drama" that is "well shot" with "excellent screenwriting".
Winning films 'Anna' and 'Zebra' will now compete at the National level at the main Royal Television Society Student Awards later this year.
From Banned Kenyan lesbian drama Rafiki to BAFTA nominated short Wren Boys. Looking back on Iris on the Move 2019
Iris on the Move's stop in Bournemouth at the Bournemouth Film School was an ambitious project from the jump. After organiser Lewis Bayley only met Iris Prize creator and festival director Berwyn Rowlands in November 2018, the festival events were set in motion immediately and were turned around in less than three months time.
Iris on the Move was picked to take place in February as part of National Student Pride and LGBT History Month 2019. The 4 day festival showcased countless short films from 2018's main Iris Prize festival, along with 2 feature films and a Bournemouth Film School showcase screening of it's best LGBT+ graduation films.
Behind the Scenes of 2016 BFS Graduation short 'Silver Studded Blue'.
The first day of the festival's events began with an open lecture with Dr Andrew Vallance and Clare Cahill, dubbed 'Queer Spaces', where the two academic staff discussed the concept of queerness and its history; including its most recent resurgence. The open talk was open for audience discussion and the participation of students and attendees really responded to the importance of reclaiming the term 'queer' to move away from binary box ticking of gender and sexuality.
The 'Queer Spaces' talk was followed by a Best of British showcase from the top 4 films of the 2018 iris Prize category. Half of the showcase were documentary shorts and the other two fictions. The winning film in Best of British at Iris Prize 2018 was BEYOND 'There's Always a Black Issue, Dear, a documentary from filmmaker and photographer Claire Lawrie, which explores the role of black British people in the LGBT+ movement, who have often been airbrushed from Queer history. The showcase also included the BAFTA nominated fiction Wren Boys, which follows an Irish priest and his nephew and they travel to a prison in Cork the day after Christmas.
The creators of Wren Boys, director Harry Lighton and producer Sorcha Bacon, gave a lengthy Q&A in two halves to attendees. Delving into their careers and future projects, advising students on breaking the industry and their creative process. Current final year students Daisy Leigh-Phippard and Anna K. McCallum conducted the Q&A segments, one to a larger audience in the main theatre and a follow up interview with a smaller select number of students.
The early evening of day one saw a curated programme of shorts exploring varied forms of Intimacy, including the TIFF award- winning short film Pre-Drink which sees the complication of a longtime friendship when the two friends, one gay man and one transwoman, decide to get intimate.
The opening night feature film screening of 1985 from director Yen Tan starred a stellar cast including Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen and Michael Chikilis. The 1980's based drama was shot on stark black and white film and follows a closeted gay man's return to his home town of Texas in the midst of AIDs epidemic.
Day 2 of Iris on the Move Bournemouth kicked off with a morning talk on submitting short films to film festivals with Iris Prize creator and festival director Berwyn Rowlands. The talk gave an insight into the submission, selection and programming process and advised final year students on their festival strategy for their upcoming graduation films.
Following Berwyn's talk a showcase of films curated under the theme of Gender & Family screened. This was the proceeded by the 'Youth' showcase which was curated by a group of young programmers. The screening included Mrs McCutcheon, an Australian drama following a young boy wanting to wear a dress to school. The colourful, heartwarming short film become an instant audience favourite at the festival.
Still from Mrs McCutcheon (dir. John Sheedy)
The festival discussion panel was made up of a diverse group of filmmakers. Dr Nick Bamford, a TV and Theatre producer and director, and author of Directing Television (2012). IndieWire Award-winning music composer Victoria Wijeratne, who has made a name for herself composing scores to a plethora of LGBT+ short films both fiction and documentary, and composer of feature film The Liability starring Jack O'Connell and Tim Roth. The third panel member is Bournemouth Film School graduate Ruby Parker-Harbord, whose graduation short film Missed Conceptions has gone on to be screened at a number of festivals in the UK and abroad - including Europe's largest LGBTQ+ Film Festival and BAFTA accredited festival BFI Flare in London. The chair for the panel was Iris Prize director Berwyn Rowlands who lead the discussion from asking the question 'what story do I tell?' through to the controversial issue of casting LGBT+ roles.
The final event of day two was a programme of LGBT+ Bournemouth Film School graduation films. The four film showcase included a poetic exploration of gender in Silver Studded Blue from director Niamh Farrelly, animated short The Queen's Tale by Sarah Horns and Nathalie Sandstad, real life inspired Missed Conceptions from one of our panelists Ruby Parker-Harbord and Bleach from director Jesse Lewis-Reece - which was nominated for Best British Short at the 2018 Iris Prize festival.
The final day of guest events began with an overall Best of Iris showcase, which included the best shorts from the previous two days with the addition of the Iris Prize winning film from 2018 - Three Centimetres. The other three films were Mrs McCutcheon, Wren Boys and Pre-Drink. The screening was followed immediately with a Q&A with Lara Zeidan, the writer and director Three Centimetres, who explained the making of the film and the two year journey from initial script to shooting. Our student interviewers Anna K. McCallum and Daisy Leigh-Phippard conducted the Q&A once again. (Their full interviews from Iris on the Move 2018 will be published in BUMF magazine later this year.)
The day ended with a busy evening screening of the controversially banned Kenyan lesbian drama Rafiki from Wanuri Kahiu. The screening coincided with the date of Kenya's high court decision announcement on repealing the 89 year old law criminalising same-sex relationships, however the decision was pushed back to May. Rafiki follows Kena and Ziki, two daughters of opposing political candidates, as they fall in love.
Still from Rafiki (2018) dir. Wanuri Kahiu
A drinks reception followed the screening of Rafiki where G&T's were served, courtesy of the festival sponsor Pink Pepper Gin at Audemus Spirits. The event topped off three days of exciting screenings, talks, guest visits and discussion.
The final day of the festival was 'Second Chance Saturday' which gave everyone chance to see their favourite showcases again or to catch up with any films they may have missed.
Film Production course graduate Michael Pearce won the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut for a British Writer, Director or Producer at the #EEBAFTAs on Sunday 10th February 2019 at the Royal Albert Hall. He took home the award with his producer Lauren Dark for his debut feature 'Beast'.
Their film was also nominated for Outstanding British Film alongside 'MCQueen', 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and Yogos Lanthimos' 'The Favourite'.
The 2019 BAFTAs was not the first nomination Pearce had received in his career. In 2014 he was nominated for Best British Short for his film 'Keeping Up with the Joneses'.
You can watch Michael's win and acceptance speech below.
Final year BA (Hons) Film Production students were treated to an exclusive Q&A with the British film directing legend Mike Leigh OBE during their Industry Day at the BFI Southbank.
60 final year BA (Hons) Film Productions attended the Industry Day at the BFI which began with a 6 person Industry panel chaired by course leader Jonathan Carr. The panel was followed by a networking session for students to meet the panellists, which included representatives from ScreenSkills and BBC Films.
A Q&A with BAFTA Fellowship winner Mike Leigh OBE followed and ran for 90 minutes, with the British directing legend going into detail ofhis lengthy development process and commitment to realism through performance and the lens. Mike Leigh has directed many iconic films since his feature debut almost five decades ago, including the 1993 Naked, 2004’s Vera Drake, 2014’s Timothy Spall lead Mr Turner and his most recent Peterloo (2018).
“Mike Leigh’s work speaks for itself and always has, but to have Mike go into detail of his extensive development process was undeniably useful and intriguing for everyone in the room I think. His appreciation for film craft and all specialisms that collaborate in creating Film was important for everyone to hear. Mike is a unique, unapologetic filmmaker with a strong belief in never compromising the story or its purpose. A great guest speaker to follow up last year’s brilliant Edgar Wright”. -Lewis Bayley, BFS Industry Liaison
The Industry Day ended with an Alumni networking event where final year students got the opportunity to meet and build connections with past graduates of the film course. The well attended event, with over 150 present, was created to further build our alumni network, which has been a springboard for many new graduates in landing their first roles.