Director Baltasar Kormákur is known for a certain type of movie: Natural horror films that pit the lead characters against the wrath of Mother Nature in a thrilling survival saga. Take 2015's Everest (man versus blizzard) or 2018's Adrift (woman versus sea), and now Beast, which pits Idris Elba against the king of the jungle.
"It's just who I am, I guess," the Icelandic filmmaker tells A.frame of what attracted him to the genre. "I spend my summer vacations in the mountains on my horse, which most people would consider as hard work. I love going through glacial rivers and stuff. And I wouldn't mind making a film in one room with two characters having a fight — that's a survival story too — but this is who I am. This one was a little different from the others, too. It's more genre."
In Beast, Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, a recent widower who takes his teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) on safari in his native South Africa. Visiting a game reserve managed by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), the group finds itself hunted by a rogue lion, whose pride has been slaughtered by poachers. In revenge, the apex predator has now set its sights on man.
In the wrong hands, the man-versus-beast premise could make for a fun but schlocky B-movie. Kormákur had something more cinematic in mind, taking inspiration from films like The Revenant ("The bear attack in Revenant was a reference between me and Idris — we wanted to be that realistic") and the Soviet anti-war film Come and See. "Hollywood films can be quite slick and removed from any reality," he says. "I like to take them and put their face into the dirt a bit and dirty them up. But they do also have this large-scale entertainment value, which I think is great."
Kormákur's approach to Beast was to tell the story from the perspective of the characters using oners — lengthy, uncut shots — so that, when the lion attacks, the audience is also experiencing it right alongside them. A single oner in a sequence is a challenge, but shooting the lion's share of a movie in uninterrupted long takes requires extremely elaborate preparation and, of course, the complete cooperation of a well-coordinated cast and crew.
"Challenge is what I thrive off," the director says. "In some ways, being a challenge junkie and never making it easy on yourself; you just go in head first."
Oscar winner Philippe Rousselot (Best Cinematography for 1992's A River Runs Through It) served as the director of photography on Beast, and Kormákur recalls, "He'd never shot like that. And he's 75! When I told him, he was very open and honest, and said, 'I don't know how to do that.'" So, they figured it out together, alongside South African Steadicam operator Dale Rodkin.
"Sometimes, it surprised you how well things went — once we got into it, and it started flowing, and the shots got better and better. And suddenly, we did a full page in a couple of hours," he explains. "The shots got better, and then, the performances got better, and then, boom! The whole thing works and we don't have to edit. It's done."
"I like to take [my movies] and put their face into the dirt a bit and dirty them up."
"It was often three, four, five-minute one-shot takes. We had, like, a seven-minute take!" Copley recalls. "You'd rehearse for hours, and then, try and keep it fresh, and real, and immersive. That's real credit to Balt and the Steadicam operator that we had. You really feel the pressure on these long takes though. Everyone's been practicing the whole day and if you're the guy to blow it at five minutes, it's like, 'We're doing the whole thing again, because of me!'"
And then, there was the lion. Or there wasn't the lion, as it were.
"The lion is literally just a guy in a high school mascot suit, but no fur. It's a gray leotard, two plastic paws for gloves that are the real size, and a hard-shelled lion head on him," chuckles Copley. "It was a dude looking through one of those gauze things somewhere in the neck, like they do when they're at Disneyland or wherever."
The film was shot on location in South Africa, but no actual lions were used during filming. The production had a lion on set in reference photos. "My son shot that," Kormákur laughs. "I put him in a cage next to a real lion." The titular beast in the film was created in post by Oscar-winning effects studio Framestore.
"We did everything in our power to push this as far as possible," Kormákur says. In the end, that was perhaps the greatest challenge of the movie, because the whole film falls apart if the CGI isn't right. "The closer you get to good, the worse it gets if it isn't great. The last five percent is what it's all about — the breath, the spit, the blood, the nails, every detail. You sound like a mad man when you're working. 'More, more!'"
By John Boone