Writer and director Nathalie Biancheri released her debut Nocturnal in 2019, which caught my attention and marked her as one of the directors I’d love to talk to about their craft. Her second effort Wolf explores the dark and unusual subject of species dysphoria, as the protagonist, played by George Mackay, believes he is a wolf stuck inside a boy’s body. I was fortunate enough to chat to the filmmaker about this piece…
As Wolf is your second feature film, was there anything in particular that you’d brought forward into it from the learning experience that came with directing your debut?
Wolf was such a crazy, demanding, and very insane film from a performance and directing actors’ point of view, so I think it was really reassuring was to have made a first film before going into it. I think what was what was amazing was to have had that first feature even though it was very small. Knowing that it was possible somehow, and not having this unknown of making a feature film and the absolute fear that comes with that was great.
It gives you a bit of confidence, though, that you know, that you’ve been through it before…
Yeah, I think that’s a huge thing. I didn’t go to film school and my shorts were always made quite haphazardly – I’d always produce them myself and even if I had grants, I was always the one organising the budget etc. I didn’t really know anything about schedules and having a proper production from start to finish so I learned that from the first one (Nocturnal) on a professional level. So going to the second one, I think that was probably in a way the most reassuring thing and collaborating with a few of the same people helped, like my cinematographer who I think is outstanding. His last film has just won the Jury in Cannes; he’s young, super talented, and a fantastic DP! With Wolf, we already had like a shorthand we understand even though that it doesn’t change the fact that maybe we argue a lot on set. There is like a creative complicity between us and with the editor as well, in knowing each other’s rhythms and tastes.
With quite an out-there premise, did this make it a hard sell when trying to get it made or is there an open-mindedness to works such as this?
It was actually an easier sell! First of all, I think, to an extent, I knew the film I wanted to make and for people who might love it or hate it, and for the flaws that I see in it, it is still the film I wanted to make, actually. When you’re sort of pitching on paper, as much as I had detailed mood boards and a script, each person can interpret it to be what they want. So, I think it was the fact that it has such a kooky premise, people didn’t really know how to give notes on it, and were quite seduced in some ways by the world. Nothing is easy, but we did get funding quite quickly and Screen Ireland supported the film almost instantly. We were in a quite a good position, asking people to sort of take a leap on something which felt quite daring. And oddly, I think you’re almost in a better position than when you’re looking at something like Nocturnal, which has been seen has been done already in a sense.
Being the writer AND director, does the script idea come before the style of the film you want to make or vice versa?
I’d say it starts with the script. I’ve always thought I’m more of a writer than a director, but then, who knows, actually, if that’s true. My background is in literature I probably read more than I watch films. I think it’s always that kernel of a thought, which kind of triggers you. With Nocturnal, I had just finished rereading Lolita recently and I was thinking about the ambiguities of those relationships and that need to seduce, or seduction as a counterbalance to loneliness. I got the script and projected those ideas onto it. The visuals are sort of shaped on that basis, from the themes that I’m exploring.
With Wolf, I’d read about species dysphoria, and I thought was such an interesting phenomenon. I hadn’t heard about it. A lot of comparisons have been made with gender identity, which is absolutely valid, but I think some people think Wolf is just a metaphor for that. Funnily that wasn’t at all the starting point for me. I’d been working on a documentary film about race, and about a man who was born into one skin, and then his skin changed and whether or not you are defined by, you the skin you’re born with or not? Those are the intellectual triggers for me, and I started interviewing some people who had species dysphoria and found that some people really felt that they were an animal. I guess this is a bit of a longwinded answer but this is where it comes from. What makes up an identity? What are we as human beings? What forms us? That kind of open question is what I wanted to explore through different characters and through different possibilities. The world came through those characters; the isolating clinic, the glass, and the sense of austerity. We played with the idea that everything is synthetic, and then more themes open up. It’s like our contemporary world, with iPads and how every second person you see in any tourist site ever is sort of looking at things through their phone as opposed to their eyes. I always say there’s a kernel, and then it builds from there.
Visually it reminded me of Green Day’s music video for Basket Case which takes place in a similar type of bleak institution. I’d read that they filmed it in B&W then added the colour in afterwards. There are also similarities I guess to Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster. What were your influences for the unique look of the film?
There’s a Russian photographer called Alexander Gronsky, who captures these sort of suburban Moscow landscapes with buildings and fragments of humans and wide shots. He was quite a strong influence on the aesthetics. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time in Poland; it was a Polish co-production, the DP is Polish, so in my mind, it always had that Eastern European vibe. We shot in Ireland so the look I wanted was quite a stretch, and we obviously didn’t have the budget to build a location around it.
I was searching for locations and then found this abandoned hotel and as soon as I saw this space, I thought ‘this is perfect’. Even though it wasn’t Soviet, it had this oddness, and a lot of glass and when I returned with my cinematographer, he just started taking pictures in the space. When we were looking back at them, we thought there’s an air of an aquarium to it with these glass corridors and that influenced the grade to bring in the blues and the colour palettes develop from there. I’d been to quite a few high security psychiatric hospitals and so that idea of this sort of slightly false happiness with use of excessive colour, joviality, and that playfulness which I think is often more jarring than just something dark and austere.
An aspect of the film that really stands out is the physical, animal-like performances of the cast, and in particular from George Mackay who does an incredible job. How did you go about getting this right?
Very early on, I realised I needed a movement coordinator, and I never worked with any before. I didn’t even know where to start. The only reference I had for incredible physical performance was Ruben Östlund’s The Square; there’s this wonderful scene where the performance artist takes over the room. I thought I’d try to contact their specialist Terry Notary and I think it was my producer, funnily enough, that said ‘Oh, I think he’s actually a real Russian performance artist’. Anyway, I found his email and I just wrote him an email sent him the script. He was so enthusiastic and was such a team player from the start. He loved the script and I think he quite enjoyed the process of doing it, because he comes from The Planet of the Apes and huge productions like that, so I think he quite enjoyed the idea of doing something so much smaller, scaled down and intimate. He’s just really, really good at his job and I think all the actors benefited immensely from working with him. It was a fascinating process.
Paddy Considine is one of my favourite actors and I was lucky enough to speak with him years ago when the premiere of Macbeth was held in Edinburgh. He brings such volatility and presence to his performance. What impact did his experience have on set?
Well, he kept himself quite distant from everyone on set actually. He’s not method in any shape or form, but he has quite a different process to George. He’s maybe more aligned to what I’m used to, which is intense intellectual collaboration. He’s obviously brilliant and I also have always been and will always be a fan of his work and think he’s just hugely talented. But funnily, I think not only because of the nature of his character, but also because of COVID restrictions, he was quite removed and I think almost like involuntarily taking on the role of the Dr Mann. We were all bubbled in a hotel in Ireland which was where we lived and we weren’t allowed to travel anywhere. We were the first production shooting in Ireland after being shut down so everything was an experiment and of course we had to be super careful. Within this very particular way of working and living, we didn’t see that much of Paddy in our spare time so I think he inhabited that figure slightly.
What’s next for you? Are there any other projects on the horizon?
Yes, I’ve been writing something for a while and I think it could be a film which has a lot of potential. It’ll be a question of finding its core, and having been through a number of changes myself, we’ll see how it transpires. It’s loosely inspired by a real situation and is about a woman in Japan, where you can rent family members. Werner Herzog actually did a documentary about this a few years ago. It’s a fascinating concept where, say a brother dies, you can rent someone to step in to appease the grief or for an event or party. It is the story of a woman set in the unspecified US but in a world where this is an accepted thing that’s happening. She has rented a fake partner and it’s about the consequences of this.
Looking at Nocturnal, Wolf, and potentially your new project, there appears to be a recurring narrative in how they all centre around very complex relationships. Is there a consciousness to this thematic thread through your body of work?
It’s never written consciously, and it took me like a while to see the connection between those films. What I didn’t realise, is that they all sort of end in the same way. There’s two people being separated by something, which is slightly depressing, and that’s evident in the next on as well. I think I’m fascinated by humans and their incongruities and the paradoxes of how we behave.
Maybe a simpler way of putting it is that there are often films about people that are in some way wearing masks, and films about their relationship with authenticity. In Nocturnal, the protagonist pretends to be someone he isn’t because he’s so unable to confront his real self and in Wolf, many of them are putting on a mask that they actually don’t necessarily believe in. Do they all believe they are animals or do they find solace in being institutionalised? George is masking himself to not be himself so and then in the next one, someone has created an entire fiction of her life to avoid sort of confronting herself. I think our society and social media lends itself well to this type of exploration of how much you can portray yourself fictitiously?
If you could choose three stars from any era, alive or dead, to star in your next dream film, who would they be?
Well, for sure, I find Joaquin Phoenix endlessly watchable so he’s definitely at the top of my list of people I would love to work with. Another person I would absolutely love, love love to work with is Michael Fassbender. I think he’s amazing. I’m thinking of Hunger and Fish Tank and how exceptional he is in those films. Recently I’ve found Claire Foy to be a very interesting actress, so she’s definitely someone on my radar, for sure. There’s so many heroines and heroes and I guess a few of them might be quite intimidating as well. For now, those are the three that come to mind!
It’s interesting that you chose Joaquin Phoenix as I think that Cosmo Jarvis (who Nathalie worked with in Nocturnal) is similar in the way he presents himself on screen. I’m always interested to see what he’s doing next!
I agree and thought he was fantastic in Nocturnal. I’m really curious to see an Irish film he’s just done with Antonia Campbell-Hughes (It is in Us All) which premiered at SXSW! Someone else I should mention that I’ve been a big fan of for years is Tilda Swinton. I thought she was just amazing in both parts of The Souvenir! I was so impressed by how she radically changed for that role, and even though it’s quite a small part, it’s so precisely done and so different to the anthropomorphic oddness that we might associate her with. Going back to George Mackay for a second, I think he’s proved that he has enormous versatility as an actor and even though people might love or hate the movie, most people will take him seriously and that’s a feat in itself!
Wolf is released on digital platforms in the UK from Monday 22nd August 2022