Character Excavation

Michael Pearce is a Jersey-born filmmaker who made his name directing several shorts including Rite (2010) and Keeping up with the Joneses (2013), which was nominated for a Bafta for Best British Short Film. He makes his feature debut with Beast, a Jersey-set coming-of-age tale starring Jessie Buckley as Moll, a young girl who becomes embroiled with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), an outsider who may harbour a dark secret.

ASFF: What was the seed for Beast?
MP: It was loosely inspired by a true case. There was a guy called “the beast of Jersey”, who perpetuated a lot of really horrific crimes in the 1960s. He got away with it for ten years and it made a big impression on the island. Even when I was growing up in the Eighties, he was still a spectre that haunted the island … it was like the loss of innocence moment you have when you realise monsters do exist.

ASFF: How challenging was it to inject a fresh spin on these tired “serial killer” movie tropes?
MP: I thought if we focused on a woman who is usually on the periphery of these stories, and we don’t show any murders or the drama of the police chase or any procedure [that could work]. What we have is an interesting moral conundrum. She falls in love with a guy and she defends him and he might not be what he seems. Her passion and her morality is colliding together.

ASFF: It’s also a twisted coming-of-age love story, right?
MP: It’s really an excavation into Moll’s character. There are multiple interpretations of what’s happening. Is she a woman that’s blinded by love? Is she a woman that is courageously standing by an innocent man? Does she think she knows he’s committed these crimes and she’s defending him to take revenge on this community? Is she the beast? These are all legitimate interpretations.

ASFF: How long did it take to find Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn to play Moll and Pascal?
MP: It was a long casting process and we saw many actresses for the role of Moll. There was something very specific about Jessie. She’s very grounded, authentic and unfussy. I felt she was a person Moll would be if she’d grown up in different circumstances. I saw Johnny in Hangman, the Martin McDonagh play. He’s a shape-shifter in that: charming, funny dangerous. And this is Pascal. Sometimes he’s like a lion stalking his prey; sometimes he’s a wounded animal and he seems quite vulnerable.

ASFF: How much did you shoot in Jersey?
MP: One week in five. The rest was shot on the border between London and Surrey. It’s really expensive to shoot in Jersey. There are no tax breaks so you effectively lose money shooting on the island. It was quite heartbreaking for me because I’d written every scene with a location in mind. And then it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to shoot any of it there. I had to be really adamant that we shot the main exterior locations on the island.

James Mottram

Beast opens in cinemas on 27 April. For more details, visit Altitude Film.

1. Trailer for Beast. Courtesy of Vimeo.