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Michael Pearce • Director

“I didn’t want to exploit the victims’ story”

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- Director Michael Pearce discusses fairy tales, serial killers and going back to Jersey to make his debut feature, Beast, which has just had its UK release

Michael Pearce  • Director

Michael Pearce graduated from the National Film and Television School in the UK a decade ago. His strategy was to make short films until he felt confident enough to make a feature film that would make a splash. His approach has paid off with the psychological thriller Beast [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Michael Pearce
film profile
]
, which tells the story of a woman who is involved with a man suspected of being a serial killer. Beast was developed at the TorinoFilmLab and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It is being distributed by Altitude in the UK and went on general release on 27 April.

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Cineuropa: What made you want to set a film on Jersey?
Michael Pearce:
I’m from Jersey, so it’s returning to the place where I grew up. While your first film doesn’t have to be autobiographical, returning to some aspect of your roots can be really helpful. Whenever I go back to Jersey, I always have so many impressions about the island that I can utilise. By filming in that landscape and mining my own experience, I amplified this kind of fairy-tale archetype, which I thought was the best way of getting those feelings on the screen. There was this guy called the Beast of Jersey, and he had a profound effect on my childhood imagination.

What research did you do about the Beast of Jersey, the serial rapist and paedophile Edward Paisnel, who terrorised the island for a decade, kidnapping children from their beds until his arrest in 1971? How did it affect you personally, given that you were born after he was arrested?
His wife wrote a book about the experience. There are about two or three books on him, and I read them all. For me, Jersey was a fairy-tale environment, and it seemed incongruous that these crimes had been committed there. It was the duality of the island being quite safe and knowing that these crimes had been committed there.

Were there any other serial killers that you researched?
I did a lot of research in the British Library about Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway and Jeffrey Dahmer, and there was also Ian Huntley as a source of inspiration. It was sort of an amalgamation of these different true cases and then the characters that I invented myself. Some of the families of the victims of the Beast of Jersey are still around, and I didn’t want to exploit their story.

Beast brings to mind Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam in that it’s about the fear that news of a serial killer creates, rather than the murders themselves. Why did you decide that Moll (Jessie Buckley) would be the focus of your film?
It’s one of my favourite Spike Lee films. Now that you say it, it makes sense. So much of the focus of that film isn’t on the murders, but on young people growing up. Pretty early on, I wanted to focus on this woman who is potentially involved in a relationship with a psychopath because usually these characters are very much on the periphery of the story. The focus is usually on the police and it’s a procedural, or it’s on the killer, or both. I wanted her not to be just a conduit to look at this crime; I wanted her to be legitimately fascinating. 

How did you make her more interesting?
I started to ask more questions of Moll and started to think about the types of prison that she finds herself in. She’s trapped on this island, and this creates a kind of suffocation, and she’s further trapped in this dysfunctional family and, in particular, a hostile relationship with her mother. Then she’s also trapped by her own guilt. Also, is she a woman who is courageously defending an innocent man, or is she blinded by love and sort of being wittingly manipulated by a psychopath? Or is there some darkness in her that is drawing her towards him? Is she befriending him because it’s an opportunity to take revenge on a community that she feels oppressed by? Is she the beast? It’s masquerading as a crime film or psychological thriller, but ostensibly it’s quite a character-driven film.

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