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Baltasar Kormákur is no stranger to the devastating power of Mother Nature. The Icelandic filmmaker previously "braved" the elements in 2015's Everest, which depicted the 1996 tragedy in which eight climbers perished on their journey to the top of the world's highest summit. This concept of barely staying afloat in the face of awesome forces way beyond our control has been something of a running motif throughout Kormákur's career thus far — not only with Everest, but also with 2012's The Deep and 2018's Adrift.
"You can’t blame nature, that's the one thing I learned living in a country like Iceland," the director tells SYFY WIRE during a recent conversation over Zoom. "There are volcanoes and [inclement] weather and you can't blame it — you just have to find a way to live with it and find peace with it. I think we aren’t always great with doing that."
Kormákur further explores the idea of what he calls the "rawness of reality" in Universal Pictures' Beast, another man vs. nature thriller, which stars Idris Elba (Three Thousand Years of Longing) as Dr. Nate Samuels, an American physician fighting to protect his two daughters — Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) — from a giant, man-eating lion while on a perilous journey across the unforgiving savannas of South Africa. "I liked the tightness and the timeframe of it. It didn't have like a heavy plot or something. It was more about the journey and the momentum of it," Kormákur explains.
Drawing inspiration from gritty and brutal examples of cinema like Elem Klimov's Come and See and Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, the director hoped to avoid a romanticized depiction of the awe-inspiring dangers that await you in a true circle of life situation. The Lion King, this is not. "It’s [about] giving a full experience, but not the Out of Africa experience," Kormákur explains, referring to the Oscar-winning classic with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. "Not this beauty, it’s more like you are going through it with the cast ... That's what I was looking for and through this kind of style, trying to make it a more immersive and intense experience."
The goal, he continues, was to achieve a more "visceral" cinematic adventure within a well-established genre. "I was looking for, ‘How we make this an experience that differs a little bit from what you've seen from movies of this kind?’ One of the things was to make the shots oners and create this atmosphere that you're stuck inside the shot with the actors, and there's something coming at you, which is unusual in these kind of movies."
While the lion waiting to pounce had to be a fully digital creation for obvious reasons, Kormákur still wanted the animal to feel as authentic as possible. This involved input from actual lion handlers "and, of course, our own studies of lions with the VFX people ... I didn't want the lion to do anything that lions don't do in nature ... We studied so much footage, endless footage, and sourcing that." The more he researched, however, the more he realized "how vicious" big cats can truly be.
"They go as far as eating other lion’s cubs ... It’s just the real world, and there's no, there's no cutting around edges," he says, going on to acknowledge that most recorded attacks on humans are the result of us "taking the lands away, they're put into a corner, the poachers are attacking them ... I think studying this gave us a deeper understanding about the the poaching culture and what's going on there. We tried be as truthful [as we could] and not always simplify it, because it is a complicated world."
South Africa native Sharlto Copley rounds out the tight-knit cast as Martin Battles, a wildlife biologist and an old friend of the family. "He brought authenticity to that role," the director says. "I’ve been a fan of him since District 9, I loved the wildness of his character and what he portrayed there. He’s not an educated actor or trained as an actor, so I like that. It just brings a totally different energy. And [him] being from South Africa, it always helps in any conversation to what is real and what isn’t."
Production on Beast took place on location last summer against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which "was raging all around us," Kormákur remembers. While the shoot did encounter some minor "issues" with regards to the global health crisis, like most every other TV and film production at the time, Kormákur notes the isolation and shutdowns also frayed nerves among the crew — not to mention the eeriness of shooting in such remote locales.
"I think it irritated the crew most that the bars were closed, so they couldn't go to the bar after the shoots," the director says with a chuckle. "I didn't mind. I don't drink, so it wasn't a problem for me." The elements were another issue, "being so far out in the bush," he adds. "The nights of Africa are pretty cold and weirdly, they get under your skin."
We'll take frigid temperatures over a lion's fangs any day.
Based on a story from Jaime Primak Sullivan (The Baxters), the film's screenplay was penned by Ryan Engle (Rampage). Kormákur produced the feature alongside Will Packer (Girls Trip) and James Lopez (Night School). Primak Sullivan and Bernard Bellew (T2, Trainspotting) are executive producers. Beast pounces on the big screen next Friday — Aug. 19.