Interview – ‘Beast’ director, Baltasar Kormakur, and producer, Will Packer, on creating an immersive thriller

Recently widowed Dr. Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) travel to a South African game reserve managed by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copely), an old family friend and wildlife biologist. However, what begins as a journey of healing soon turns into a fearsome fight for survival when a lion, a survivor of bloodthirsty poachers, begins stalking them.

Leading up to the release of Beast (in Australian cinemas August 25), Universal Pictures gave me the chance to sit down with the films director, Baltasar Kormakur, and producer, Will Packer, to discuss how they both wanted to work with Idris Elba, and how they created an immersive thriller set in the South African bush.

Nick: When we spoke last you mentioned that you’re in a current phase of showing your son lots of movies that you enjoy and spending time with him watching movies. So, I’m actually very curious to know have you shown him Beast yet? And what did he think if he has?

Baltasar Kormakur: Oh, unfortunately, he was gonna come out here and see it here with me in America, but it didn’t end up happening! He was devastated!

Nick: I’m sure he’s going to love it. And congratulations on the film. I was genuinely in awe watching your long, one-take shots throughout the film. What is your ultimate goal, as a filmmaker, when executing these incredible scenes?

Baltasar Kormakur: Well, in this case, I was mostly trying to create this kind of immersive, visceral feeling that you’re stuck in the POV of the characters. So, anything that comes at you, you can’t get away from as an audience, you’re stuck there with him. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And also, because it’s an organic movement for the story. It is not plot driven, like one thing happens, and then the next, and so on. I have to, you know, find a way we can stand still and then it creates that kind of feeling that you are on that journey with them.

But also, I think in the beginning, I wanted to have a style going throughout the movie that also created the family energy and dynamic, that they’re kind of moving as one and find that chemistry in the shots. I think it helped that a lot too, I found it extremely exciting and also a challenge! I love doing this! I never want to have the film “showy”. I actually want people kind of forget themselves in it, and then realise this still the same shot. The pace that builds up and then suddenly it’s almost like get pulled into a tunnel. ‘Fuck, what am I doing? I gotta get out of here!’ And suddenly, you’re stuck in the shot.

Nick: A lot of that tension, like you said, is about the family drama and caring about them in this situation. What was important for you as a director, that you wanted your cast to get right to have the audience care for them so much?

Baltasar Kormakur: For me, family is the most important thing in my life. And in all honesty, this is not me pretending I had different experiences earlier on, and I’ve come to that place now. And partly because I had a family breakdown, in a way. It was after a long marriage and everyone kind of falling apart and you know, I don’t want to go too deep into it. But, what I had to go through, to get it back on track and rebuild the relationship, that’s what I want people to care about here.

Nick: If I’m not mistaken, Will [Packer, producer], this seems like the first time in your filmography as a producer that you’ve had part in an animal/survival thriller. What was it about Beast that attracted you to bring this project to the big screen?

Will Packer: Yeah, for sure. I haven’t done this before, but that was one of the things I liked about it. It was the challenge of it. I’m a fan of that genre, but I hadn’t done it myself. So, I embraced the challenge. I knew it was gonna be tough because to do these, I think they have to be very realistic. I think you got to feel like you’re in the moment. I don’t think you can have something pull you out of the immersion, or else the movie doesn’t work. And that can be, you know, the performance of your actors, or the animal has to look real, very realistic. The tone needs to be tense and taut. I think if you don’t do that, then it doesn’t work.

Nick: You’ve worked with Idris a few times before Beast, what made him the right guy for this movie in your eyes?

Will Packer: Yeah, we’ve done six movies. This is our sixth movie together! So, he’s a frequent collaborator of mine and one of my best friends in the business, he and I are close. We got a shorthand, a great camaraderie. I think what made him right was his ability to handle various depths of emotion. Because it’s not just a movie where you’ve got “big dumb action guy” and “big, dumb animal”, let’s have him fight and see what happens. That’s not the most interesting version of the movie.

He’s a complex character. He is estranged from his daughter’s and they are in pain. The matriarch of the family, their mom and his wife has died. He was separated at the time and he feels a lot of guilt for the fact that he wasn’t there when their mother died. The girls blame him. His oldest daughter is on the cusp of womanhood. She’s very angsty. So, he’s dealing with all of that. He’s a man that’s in search of a relationship with his family and this is all before he gets dropped into the African bush, and has to go into survival mode. And so, Idris has that range of skills that allows him to portray both very accurately, not just the challenges of dealing with the emotions of his daughters.

Nick: You brought up the African bush there and location plays such an important part in this film. What was it about South Africa that you felt was the perfect place to tell this story?

Will Packer: We shot in Cape Town on stages there, but we actually shot the majority of the movie in the actual African bush in a region called Limpopo. The closest real major city was about five hours away. We were so far out! That was a very different experience. We had the crew in tents and in huts, and they were amazing, the cast was amazing! But, it was definitely one of those things where you had to keep your head on a swivel, because you’re out there with the real animals. So, we have our movie that we’re making and the animals don’t care anything about the movie. And if you step on the wrong snake… goodbye! You’re literally out there with all versions of poisonous snakes and rhinoceroses, and cheetahs and actual lions – you’re out there in the real bush. Itmade for an interesting challenge, but it also made for scenery that you just can’t duplicate in a computer and that’s what we wanted.

Thanks to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with Baltasar and Will for Beast! Check the movie out when it releases in Australian cinemas on August 25.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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