Beast is a new action-thriller from Iceland director Baltasar Kormákur. I recently had a chance to speak with Kormákur and one of the film’s stars, Sharlto Copley, about the project…
Matt: The long, continuous shots stand out and they do a great job building tension in key scenes. Can you take us through that thought process?
Baltasar: That’s exactly why I used it. I wanted to create a more immersive, claustrophobic feeling with you being stuck there with the characters and see things coming at you. I didn’t want to cut to them and tell audiences what was going to happen. I started with the shot where the lion attacks for the first time and hits the window. That’s where I started the thought process in the prep. I was thinking about that shot and how we could make the most impact. I then started to work that throughout the film with some quieter scenes in between to give it a better flow.
Matt: Are the longer takes more difficult to shoot?
Baltasar: Way more. You need a crew who is totally with you and actors that are ready to work it out with you. The first few takes are always going to be awful but you have to be shooting the whole time because you don’t want to miss “the one”. I think it’s very rewarding once you get it. There’s a shot in the beginning which is 5-6 minutes which is CGI lions interacting with characters – it’s a lot of prep but it was a great high when we got the shot. We’ve seen films in this genre but we haven’t seen them shot like this and so I wanted to take the idea of a blockbuster and add a different taste to it and see if it would work.
Matt: Action movies often fall into the trap of having characters do dumb things to prolong the story but here, I really liked their smarts and the rational way they speak and go about things. Was that all part of Ryan Engle’s script?
Baltasar: Some of it was. I did work with Zack Snyder as well who isn’t credited. Being there on the ground in Africa helped inform so much of what you do and say in the end. The singing in the car was just made up while we waited for the next shot. I was “hey guys, that’s family, let’s use it.” Ingmar Bergman said something that’s always been close to my heart – “the more you prepare for a scene, the more you can let go of it and meet what is presented to you on set.” It’s never going to be as you imagine in your head.
Matt: Idris Elba is very good – a role that requires him to be physically strong but also emotionally vulnerable at times. How did he become involved with the project?
Baltasar: It was very early on. He loved it because it was different from what he’d done previously. He was the right choice for me because of exactly what you said. There aren’t many movie stars of that calibre who have that mission as actors. He also has a physicality which you can believe in the end.
Matt: Shartlo, You’ve made movies across the globe but getting to shoot a big Hollywood production in your home country – it must be pretty cool?
Sharlto: It’s fantastic. You get very few opportunities to do it. This one was very personal to me with the poaching theme and wildlife stuff. I love being in the bush, being in the wild. It’s something I wish I can do more of. They said I can play a character hosting Idris and his daughters and in real life, you can basically be the guy from South Africa that hosts everyone from Hollywood, and you can stay in a game lodge where you’d be normally be paying $5,000 a night and stay for a month and half and do safaris on your off days. I was like “are you kidding me?” Of course I’m going to say yes.
Matt: Baltasar Kormákur has crafted some wonderful long, continuous shots in this movie. Does that make the rehearsal and shooting process any different from the perspective of the actors?
Sharlto: It really does. I’ve never done anything like that before to that degree. There’s a scene where I engage with the lions which is 7 minutes long and we spent a day rehearsing it. You then get three chances to do it right at the end of the day. It’s a totally different way of working. I love the freedom of being able to mix it up and change lines. We had to do that up front in the rehearsal – “what if tried this, what if I tried that?” We’d nail it down during the day.
Matt: Without giving too much away, you’re playing a badly injured person throughout much of the film. Is there a secret to doing that? I must say that I felt your pain at times.
Sharlto: On the days when I wasn’t working, I would ride a mountain bike through the safari park by myself. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done and I was terrified all the time. When I got back, the fact I was still alive would be the most unbelievable feeling. You’re reminded of how vulnerable you are and many humans won’t experience that – being in the wild with nothing to protect yourself. A buck could lose it’s cool and panic and kill you… let alone the things like lions that are designed to kill you.
I’d be in that space about understanding how vulnerable we are and it therefore wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine myself being with a lion. I actually got chased down by a black rhino. If they see something they don’t know which makes them uncomfortable, they just start running at it. When they can see, which is about 3 metres away from you, they decide if they’re going to hit you. I was trying to get off the bike so I could throw it at him, and then I tried to sound assertive by doing a Steve Irwin “no boy, not too aggressive” and he decided to turn away.
Matt: I like the connection you build in the film with Idris Elba and the way you both come across as old friends. Did you know each other at all before the movie?
Sharlto: I did not. We hadn’t met. We had a very similar energy. When you have that, I think it’s much easier and I think our acting style is very open and accessible. It was a real pleasure working with someone so phenomenally impressive. There was a scene where he acts drunk and it was during the first take where I zoned out of my character and thought “that is a fucking amazing drunk performance… what is this guy doing?” He’s just really good.