A family goes on African trip. Things go wrong. Family must survive versus a killer lion. The plot behind Universal’s newest summer film “Beast” is exceedingly simple, yet its simplicity is what attracted Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur to the project. For him, the story of a lion-gone-rogue allowed him to flex his genre filmmaking muscles.
“I didn’t think about it then, but when I read the script, I thought, it’s a simple story. But it allows for a lot of filmmaking,” says Kormákur, who previously went undersea for “The Deep” and to Nepal for “Everest.” “I can play with this, I can push it a little bit and do something a little different with it. Because it’s not so plot heavy and complicated. And there are not too many characters that you have to introduce. And I liked the idea of doing something more genre.”
“Beast” is a thriller that pits Idris Elba against a lion in the remote African desert. After Elba and his two daughters are attacked by a man-eating lion, they must survive against the odds and find their way back to civilization. Alongside Elba, the film also stars Sharlto Copley, Leah Jeffries and Iyana Halley. “Beast” stands at a lean 93 minutes long, making it one of the summer’s tightest blockbusters. When asked if Kormákur was ever tempted to take the film longer, he replies with an emphatic “No.”
“You need a really good reason [for longer runtimes],” Kormákur explains. “It’s very counterproductive in my mind when entertainment is getting so long that it’s not entertaining anymore… What attracted me to the film is the momentum. It’s not plot heavy, it’s just you follow people into this journey. And you have to be in the momentum throughout. And then it’s over. And that, you don’t want to stay in for too long.”
Momentum and immersion were driving forces behind much of Kormákur’s directorial decisions, including the heavy reliance on long one-shots.
“The idea behind that is I wanted to create this feeling that you’re stuck with these people,” the director said. “You’re in their perspective. You can’t see the lion unless they see it. And of course, that made it as complicated as possible, but I’m a challenge junkie!”
Kormákur sat down with Variety to talk about the difficulty of shooting on location in South Africa, how he and his team pulled off the film’s long one-shots and his relationship with Elba, who he says is his “brother from another mother.”
What brought you to this story?
Well, funnily enough, I was in middle of a COVID situation. We made this video for Netflix that went around and was shown in American television stations about how to shoot in COVID. And Universal wanted to know about and get their hands on this video that I made for Netflix! And in that conversation, they asked me — because I’ve made films with them before — what are you up to now? And I said, “Do you have something?” And then this piece came up!
I loved the idea of getting out of Iceland and into Africa. I didn’t think about it then, but when I read the script, I thought, it’s a simple story. But it allows for a lot of filmmaking. I can play with this, I can push it a little bit and do something a little different with it. And there are not too many characters that you have to introduce. Then, when I was getting ready to go to Africa, I went to my parents to say goodbye and I told them about the project. And my mother said, ‘Wait a second.’ She goes down to the basement and takes out this folder. Apparently, I had been cutting up pictures of lions in Africa since I was 6-years-old. So I didn’t realize that deep inside there was a childhood dream to go to Africa and make something there, especially about lions! For a while, I was going to be a veterinarian. And then I strayed off path and became a filmmaker. Life happens!
What was it like shooting this movie? You’re in Africa, and you have large parts of the film in a car and in a singular setting. What was the difficulty in completing those shots when you’re in such cramped spaces?
It’s very, very difficult. Especially because I decided to go for long takes. And the idea behind that is I wanted to create this feeling that you’re stuck with these people. You’re in their perspective. You can’t see the lion unless they see it. And of course, that made it as complicated as possible, but I’m a challenge junkie! I love to challenge and figure this stuff out. And they were very generous in that they went with me both on the one shot idea and that I don’t want to have everything looking the same in the film. That’s why I wanted to have this more discerning look in the beginning, and then driving into the savannah. And then we had our headquarters in Cape Town, which is like another 2000 kilometers. But that’s also part of what I really wanted. People go on a journey. And then something starts going wrong. And then so on and so on. Nothing is planned, it’s organic how one decision is taken after another. I think you can do that when it isn’t plot heavy, you know. So you can make even the wrong decisions lead you. And then the next one, the next one, and suddenly you’re in this incredible trouble.
There are lots and lots of one-shots in this film. What was the difficulty in getting those shots in a cohesive manner?
Of course it was really hard. For example, the first really long one was the first lion shot, when he embraced the lions. From when the car stops to the drive away, that is one shot. And there’s no stitch in it, by the way. It was a two day shoot, even possibly three days because it’s about five or six pages. So I started shooting parts of it. And then another part so I could put it together. And then at the end of the second day, we kind of had it. I said, “Okay. Let’s go for the whole thing.” I could see the actors go like, “Fuck.” This is crazy, but let’s just try it! And this is with the lions and everything coming into it and interacting! And I remember when we shot that the first time — after two days of shooting and rehearsing — the first one was just perfect. That’s the one that was in the cut. It gave everyone so much tickling energy! It’s almost like being on stage in a way. It just keeps on going, keeps on going. And there’s a charm to it.
This film also has a fabulous runtime of about an hour and a half. What made you want to keep it so tight? Were you ever tempted to take it bigger?
No, never. Because you need a really good reason. For me, it has to be a story of decades or something to justify the length of some movies. Especially when they are entertainment. I have done TV and episodes now, and that’s different because you can put any plot in there. And you can have characters that are horrible, and then you start liking them. A movie is a very tight frame. You go to the cinema to be in awe. I think that my first cut was, you know, 110 minutes or something.
It was very interesting because my editor — who was great, Jay Rabinowitz — was sitting in Iceland and editing the movie, and he edited it all up. And I was like, “What are you doing?” “Well, I was editing, that’s what I was hired for, right?” I said, “Ok, put it together now the way it’s shot.” And then let’s edit the parts and find the balance. It’s courage also to go with what you decide. Sometimes you start with something and you just get off the track. You lose what you set out to do, and it becomes in between. I wanted to at least try the film as it was shot. Let the long shots live as long as we can, and then we can see where there are places that we need to tighten up.
Idris Elba is an all-out movie star in this film. What was the casting process like? When did you know Idris was your guy?
Well, the studio had already been in talks with him about making this. But we had been talking about another movie earlier, so we had met. We really liked each other, and we had been in touch about a couple of things. But it hadn’t come through. So when this came around that, “What do you think of doing this with Idris?” I think, “Yeah!”
First of all, I think he’s perfect for the role. Idris is a rare actor in that, he is a movie star. A full-fledged movie star, in my mind. He has that charisma, he has the charm. The sex appeal, you know. But he’s also a really fine actor, you know. And for me the scenes when he’s really drunk and talking to his friend, that’s where you really see that he is so soulful and has a lot of depth. And that, for me, is the best of situations. And then we have similar similarities in our lives, you know. We do joke about being brothers from another mother. From a different country. We find that there’s a lot in common.
What were some of your influences — whether directors or specific films — that inspired you when making this movie?
Well, I would say I actually was looking more to, like, “Come and See.” The visceral-ness of that movie — it’s a Russian movie from way back. I just like seeing somebody going through it and you are with them. It’s done differently, but really effectively. It affected me when I was 20 when I saw it, and I always have held that movie in high regard. You can just feel and smell and taste everything. And then, in some way, Alfonso Cuarón in “Children of Men.” The way he shot that, giving these kinds of long shots and the energy of them. Not only long shots, but it’s the energy of them. So these are my references.