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Parallel Lines & Missed Beats: Director Nathalie Biancheri on the physicality and philosophy of Wolf

Interview by: Isabella Vega Art by: Brekken Selah

Nathalie Biancheri is perhaps one of the greatest director-writer combos of our time. The Irish writer and director, known for her acclaimed feature film “Nocturnal” (2019), embeds her specific brand of simultaneous brilliance and empathy into each work she creates. With her latest release, Wolf, she continues to carve out a haunting softness in a space that seems almost untouchably formulaic.

Wolf, premiering today in theaters nationwide, centers around the story of Jacob (George MacKay), a boy who believes himself to be a wolf. As his animal-ness begins to intercept with his daily activities, he is sent to a facility to cure his ailment, where he meets other patients, including the enigmatic Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), with whom he creates a deep infatuation. Once at the facility, he must make a choice: give into the humanistic demands of the doctors surrounding him and the notoriously cruel “Zookeeper”, the man who runs the facility, or renounce love to live in his true nature.

Biancheri sat down with our editor-in-chief, Isabella Vega, to dive deep into the creation of a relationship between polar opposites, how George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp’s commitment to their roles changed the film’s ending, and the impact of Nietzche on her writing process.

Isabella: I’ll start off this interview with a simple question - why did you write this film?

Nathalie: I had seen a news piece about a girl who thought that she was a cat, which mentioned species dysphoria disorder. I thought it was quite interesting - I didn’t know anything about species dysphoria, so I started looking into it. I realized it was a growing phenomenon, mostly around teenagers.

I very briefly dabbled with the idea of making a documentary about it, but then I realized I didn’t want to explore this condition in our world and have a point of view on it, I wanted to explore the questions and themes that arose from it. I was thinking about someone who either chooses, in a way, to feel that they are an animal through costume or speech, or maybe, someone like Jacob, who just really really feels it, and has no real way of pinpointing where it comes from.

I thought to remove it from reality, and create a fictional world - an institution which cures this disorder, and combine these two different realms. One in which is embodied in Wildcat, who declaredly is not a wildcat but really an institutionalized and fragile girl, but also, a lot of the other characters, like German Shepherd and Parrot, who choose to return to the institution and play into those versions of themself. And then we have Jacob’s character, who doesn’t have a self narrative, who just feels it entirely.

Isabella: My favorite film is Little Women by Greta Gerwig - it was the first movie I thought of as an art form and the first time I had seen not just a female director, but an empathetic director in the MeToo era. I remember a critic at the time mentioning the magic of how Gerwig loved each of her players individually, and gave them the time to shine on screen. I would like to echo that statement onto you - the way you are able to make every character fully-fledged and have their individual screen time is remarkable. We see this with Wildcat not being relegated to the supporting “manic pixie dream girl” role, and Rufus and Parrot’s story being equally heart-clenching. What was the writing and casting process like for creating these characters that are equally compelling and empathy-inspiring?

Nathalie: First of all, thank you so much for your kind words for the film. From a writing perspective, it was built in stages. I knew I had a central character, and I knew I had a few other characters I wanted to introduce. I didn’t want to spoon feed my audience, per se, a point of view, like “These people are definitely not these animals”. I want them to take what they want from it, but in my mind, they definitely did have a very different relationship to their animal selves than Jacob. When I started writing it, I had more of a looser structure and concept, a few themes I wanted to explore that were embodied in those characters that I gave arbitrary names to, like “German Shepherd” “Duck” “Parrot”. The second phase was figuring out who they were and, oddly, having decided on their animal before I decided on the character. I was thinking that I wanted each of them to be very individual. Surrounding each of those characters, I started imagining their story and relationship to their animal and their “trauma”. With Jacob, and with Wildcat, I think that’s expressed much more clearly. It was very fun, challenging, and interesting to pull back and try to create them and bring them to life. Jacob was the one I knew the least, and I was very honest with George [MacKay] about that when I casted him, that there were many question marks for me about him and who he was and what it felt like to be a wolf. I think that a lot of that was done once we started working on the character, more than with the writing. Morphing into the physical side of the character and really becoming very animalistic, wolf-ish, and embodying that. Then we question “Ok, if a character feels this way, what part of them is human, still? What needs does he have?”

Isabella: Whilst I completely respect and understand if you want to keep this purposefully ambiguous and up to interpretation, I can’t do this interview without asking you about this: throughout the movie we see a child as a patient at the clinic. As I saw him playing with the duck and quacking, I couldn’t help but think “he must be thinking he’s just playing pretend”. Why was it important to you to show the presence of a child in this situation? Was it meant to show the absurdity of it all?

Nathalie: In the original script, which isn’t all that different from the final cut, the film was slightly more of an ensemble piece because I was quite intent on differentiating Jacob from the other patients, in a way that is a little less clear now, because it is so much about him, and the other characters fall into these question marks. Duck, the little boy, was one of the characters whose backstory was supposed to emerge. He has a speech impediment, and he connected with the duck because the only word he was able to say clearly was “quack”. Being so young, he did interact with the circumstances quite differently. At the same time, it was more clear with the more extended version of his character, that his kinship wasn’t a choice, he simply couldn’t speak, and the only comfort he found was in his pet duck. With Senan, who played Duck, I gave him a rubber duck and helped him understand why the character acted this way and we worked on what it was like to speak with a speech impediment. The film also reflects on institutionalization and parental roles in this, like when Rufus is sent back to the clinic. I exclude Jacob and his family from this, because his parents are very caring and present, but there is this binary where there are quite a few forgotten kids, like Duck, where maybe they were a hindrance or maybe their parents didn’t know what to do with them - not having the time or patience or understanding, or not getting to know their kid enough. I thought it was important to have a child there because it is clearly a giving up on someone.

Isabella: One of the most striking aspects of this film is the physicality of it - the way each of the actors are completely able to transform into this complete other species, in a sense, playing two characters. In the most objective way possible, I think that George has such a beautiful body and knows how to use it so wonderfully. I know you’ve spoken quite a bit about the workshopping it took to get the actors physically in their roles, but what was it like to direct the movements as they have both human and animal roles?

Nathalie: It was a huge learning curve, very interesting, and very different than anything I’d ever done before. I come from dramas and documentaries, and I never went to film school, so I don’t have much experience working in this type of film. Luckily, I had an amazing movement specialist, Terry Notary (Planet of the Apes, Avatar), who did groundwork with breaking into an animal and gave huge confidence to the cast, as well. He’s a wonderful actor himself and has done some of the best scenes ever, one of them in “The Square” where he performs as an ape, which is mindblowing. I think that knowing that gave a lot of security to both the actors and me going into this unfamiliar terrain. I worked very closely with Terry on everything, everything was a discussion, I was always present at the workshops, either filming or intervening or just observing. What I was able to do was, I hope, gage a sort of truthfulness and see through his eyes, as a man who spends so much time emulating these animals and teaching people how to emulate animals, what he observed as truth. How you open the door as a person, how you sit down, where your intention is. It was so interesting for me, and I think valuable as a director where you’re constantly peeling away the layers of performance to just find truth - granules of things that people empathize with or are interested in or can relate to.

I never saw the human side and animal sides of their performance as separate things, because when you’re directing a performance, things are easier because you’re not looking at things like ‘well, is the scapula more inserted’. Even with George, yes, we did loads of work on the truthfulness of a wolf, and how he moves, and a lot of this was technical, but at some point, you’re looking at this screen, and it’s not technical, it’s an essence. It’s that something of a wolf. Sometimes it’s just a tiny movement, or a pause, or a moment of silence, or a look, or even just the intention of a look, that really gives you that animality. When you’re looking at the scene, you’re really just trying to peel away what is truthful, and you don’t really know what that is. Sometimes you’re directing an actor, and it can be frustrating, because they ask “Well what do you want me to do?” and you’re like “I don’t know!” I can’t tell them what I want, I can just tell them if I believe it, and if it catches me.

A long answer to say, it was a mix of planning and technicality and the patience to observe and observe and observe. Finding truth in both the “borrowed” animalness and their human souls.

Isabella: I love how you mention that it became a subconscious expression of the animal, because it was ingrained in them as they were acting - that’s incredible. I wanted to highlight your directorial choices in this film. The two scenes in particular I wanted to mention (my favorite scenes in the film) are the scenes of Selina and Jacob as they share their first memories alone on the rooftop, and the scene of Jacob lying on the indoor grass as the doctor speaks to him. There were no cutaways to the sky or land around them - just their faces as they were explaining, almost a few seconds longer than the average shot time. Because of this, we, as the audience, are almost jarringly forced to reckon with the humanity of the subjects of this film - take in every single sliver of emotion they were pouring out into our hands. Why was it important for you, within this story that treads the line between animal and human nature, to show such an overt display of humanity?

Nathalie: It is so interesting that you liked those scenes because the favorite scenes are usually the ones on the roof or the more “animalistic” ones, so it’s really nice to see that those ones grabbed your attention so much. With Jacob, we hear him speak so little, and we see him say so little about himself, so that scene is one of the most important for the character, and one that I also really love, because Jacob is a wolf. There’s this questioning throughout the film of “is he? Is he not? To what extent is he?” which is left unanswerable, but I know that he is mostly wolf-ish in all of his desires and intents and self. But, he is also a boy, he is, and he’s also profoundly lonely. I think what connects him and Wildcat, which is both animal and human, if you want to create a distinction, is the need for companionship, because even wolves are pack animals. For me, that scene was a chance to do two things: with staying so close to him, it was a chance for us to have an opening into this character, which we rarely have, and I think he did a beautiful job in that first memory and going there, as did Lily. Wildcat is oddly more hermetic than usual, and starts off very closed off, and gradually opens up.

The other thing was to illustrate the idea that, for me, these characters have always had different beats. They never have the same rhythm, except maybe during their rooftop scene when they circle each other as animals, but even then, she breaks away. I’ve always thought of them as on different trajectories, and the only thing they share, ultimately, is a very desperate need for companionship. Funnily enough, when I directed that scene, I spent a lot of time with them rehearsing. We did some takes with their eyes closed, and eye lines became quite important to me, because I wanted to reinforce the sense of missed beats between them. That they’re always trying to connect, but they never quite reach each other. In one take, I was sitting, basically, on top of their legs, and I would touch George when he had to look away, and touch Lily when she had to look away. I think actors, humans, everyone searches for connection, so in those intimate moments, their natural instinct would have been to look at each other. When I would watch them before we tried this technique, they would always tend to connect on those moments of intimacy, and I realized that intimacy was too much for those characters to really have. I wanted to go into those spaces with each of them, and have them miss each other, miss each other, miss each other. This kind of touching game was very interesting because it went against the natural instinct to form a bond, and, I felt, enhanced the loneliness of them in that moment despite being very close. That’s also why I stuck so close to their faces, to create this rhythm of, he turns, and she’s looking away, and when we cut back to him, he’s looking at something else. They’re just quite touching and yet, they can’t meet. The scene ends with her asking ‘What’s so great about the forest?’ and he just looks away, because...she can’t get it. I think a part of him, and maybe a part of her, too, knows at that moment that they’ll never be together.

Isabella: In your TIFF panel with George and Lily-Rose, you mention that the love between them isn’t really a romance. I took this idea into the movie with me, and I see how present it is - when Selina and Jacob dig a hole for the dog, and there’s the moment they look at each other with an understanding, something that in any other director’s lens would be romance. Also, the prison escape scene, where Selina cups Jacob’s face, but Jacob is so in his “animal” state, he bolts out of the cage. It's not the romantic love we’re so accustomed to seeing, but something like the understanding that two children share while playing on the schoolyard. Can you tell me the process of cultivating their relationship from writing to Lily-Rose and George’s respective portrayals?

Nathalie: What I kept in mind while writing was the idea of parallel lines and missed beats. Parallel lines was the metaphor I used the most when thinking about them. I had to imagine these two creatures, that I love so much in so many ways, and I want both of them to come so close, but never touch. I think that dance they do on the roof mirrors their greater relationship, which was, always getting this much, but not quite being able to reach and connect with each other. In the scene we mentioned earlier, on the roof, they speak through missed moments and missed eyelines and missed understandings. I tried to play with that as much as possible in the writing, to bring them closer where they were both close as humans, or both close as animals, when he bought into her performance [in the dance scene], and she felt that she could be a cat in that moment, and then pull them away.

When I started working with Lily, it was very much a process of...there was a more human understanding, because her character is so much more human, but understanding the way that you can be infatuated by someone, and fall sensorially in love, but also be afraid and know you wouldn’t manage to sustain it, really, because there’s something about them that is too much. She had to find that fear, that sort of childish fear and naivety of the character whenever they got too close. With George, it was funny, actually, he believed in the relationship.

Isabella: Oh!

Nathalie: Yeah, he did. And I...

Isabella: And you broke his heart!

Nathalie: Yeah *laughs* I did, I did break his heart. It was very interesting because he understood the character so well, and I knew that I didn’t believe in the relationship, so we had to find a way to collaborate. On an intellectual level, if you look at his character as a boy, yes, he could fall in love with Wildcat, but when he discovered the wolf that much - what it meant to be the wolf and feel so alone in your wolfishness and be so different to the other characters, I think, it just ran its course. The relationship is between him and himself. Between the wolf and the boy and not him and Wildcat. As everything was with Jacob, it was quite a discovery as we went along.

Isabella: I also wanted to mention the final scene in the film. As Jacob is finally escaping the facility, completely in his wolf mindset, Wildcat holds him back - she brings up all of these very human and rational ideas of why they can’t live alone in the woods, and even kisses him, but he’s so far gone that he stays the wolf. I can definitely see that turmoil between animal and human, especially in Lily-Rose’s performance, where she’s absolutely breaking down. What was it like filming that scene?

Nathalie: It's interesting, I owe George a lot in that scene. From the very beginning, I knew Wildcat and Jacob weren’t going to end up together, and the ending scene would be very much this battle of wills for him, where he’s renouncing love for his version of freedom. As I wrote it, and got to know the character better, and asked George to do the role, I knew that the love was never love for sure, more clearly than when I first thought about that scene and what I wanted.

But originally, Jacob had a lot of dialogue, and was supposed to interact with Wildcat a lot more. George and I had discussed it at length before, and I was like “remember, you’re wolf and boy, this is the boy, and the wolf is pulling you”, but George was like “Nathalie, I feel the forest. I’m out there, I’m gone. She’s a thing of the past already.” The truth is, your actors, if they’re good, they’ll always know their characters better than you do, by the end of the film. He was completely right, and we decided to just chop off the dialogue. It became sometime much more animalistic and simpler from his point of view - the call of the forest at the cost of being heartless.

I think that was interesting for Lily, whose character was in a huge distress from having left Dr.Angeli behind. The more that George just didn’t respond, the more that fueled the desperation in her because he was already gone. One thing led to the other and it all contributed to the intensity of the moment. Trust your actors, if they’re good, they’ll know your characters better than you do.

Isabella: My favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, proposed a dichotomy on having to balance your Dionysian and Apollonian sides - Apollonian being the logical and rational part of ourselves, and Dionysian being the irrational and abstract part of ourselves. Throughout this movie, I was thinking of this in terms of Selina and Jacob, with Selina being more rational with lapses of irrational behavior (a human core), and Jacob being more irrational with lapses of rational behavior (an animal core) - this is shown in their “full animal” scene and in the final escape. Why did you want this very distinct parallel to occur between your leads?

Nathalie: These two Nietzschean concepts were intrinsic and essential to what I was trying to explore, and guided my process. The other characters, despite being an animal as an instinctive thing, have chosen to be an animal, which is that irrational intellectual choice, a choice that has been driven by factors which have forced them into it. With Jacob, his animalness is pure instinct, and his rational side does the opposite. That tension was, for me… of course, the Zookeeper is the antagonist and there are many obstacles, but, for me, in a film that is so contained and all takes place in one location, I felt like there needed to be a very central tension, and it really couldn’t be Jacob needing or not needing to escape. It had to come from a more existential battle. With those two pillars in mind, the question is, yes, we have these two sort of “polar opposites”, but in each character, there’s a piece of that polarity. Jacob has a bit of that boy, of that human, because he is, effectively, and has lived that way for most of his life. Wildcat is definitely a girl, and definitely very human, and fearful, and ultimately so concerned with her self-preservation, because she is a product of the institution’s environment. She also, as all of us do, has instincts - the possibilities of what we could all be, in that more instinctive side of ourselves. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they think of the movie as quite a sad film, and I’ve never really thought of it that way. I suppose that sadness can come from following your true self and so on, but what is that self?

A Special Thank You to Focus Features for helping produce this content.

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