Interview: Michael Pearce talks Encounter, Riz Ahmed and following Beast
James R | On 05, Dec 2021
This week sees the arrival of Encounter, a new sci-if thriller from Beast helmer Micheal Pearce.
Starring Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer, the film follows a decorated Marine who goes on a rescue mission to save his two young sons from a mysterious threat. As their journey takes them in increasingly dangerous directions, the boys end up having to leave their childhoods behind.
Written by Joe Barton and Pearce, the film co-stars Rory Cochrane, Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada. It had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival in October and is now playing in UK cinemas before landing on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 10th December. (Read our review here.)
We sat down with Michael after its UK premiere to talk casting and balancing character with genre thrills:
After the huge reception for Beast, how did this become your second film?
It was a script that had been around for quite a few years. And it always had a lot of love within the UK, and some other directors were on board and then came off, it never quite got off the ground. But people just always believed in the project. A director had just moved on, and they were sending it out to directors. It was soon after Beast came out, so I was on a lot of production companies’ radars. I was looking for something that was, like, a new genre for me, and a sort of more ambitious challenge, but still trying to find something that had one foot in being a complex character study, and one foot in a kind of elevated genre film.
What was it about Joe Barton’s script that got your attention?
I saw that potential. And I also identified with the family dynamic between the father and the two young sons, because it’s kind of my family dynamic, having a younger brother and a single father for most of my childhood. It was also an opportunity to film in the States, which was obviously a foreign country to me, but I could bring my own upbringing into the film, put it into the script as I did a rewrite. I was trying to hold on to a lot of the things that I was exploring in my first film, in terms of character where character films and genre films start to meet and overlap.
The cast is great. How did Riz Ahmed become involved?
Casting is probably the worst part of filmmaking. Because it’s a bit that you have least control over, you know, you’re at the mercy of the process. If you’re Christopher Nolan, it’s a different story, because everyone wants to be in your movie. But if you’ve only made one film, or you’re starting out, it’s much harder. So I met a couple of actors, had some interesting conversations. And around that time, Riz’s agent had come across it and Riz pitched to be in the film. So it was a strange dynamic where I was, you know, finding the casting process, knowing it was gonna be difficult. And then quite soon into it, I had a great actor pitching to me why he wanted to be in it. I think it was just at a moment where he’d come off of Sound of Metal and stretched himself so much on that. His people around him were like, “You’re not just a leading man in cool indie films, you should be the leading man in medium budget films. You’re not a supporting character in medium budget films anymore.” So it was just the right moment. He just connected, he understood the character really well. It was quite simple in that way, like he understood the pathos of the character.
And then Octavia Spencer came on board…
She was someone that I kind of wrote the part for, which is really dangerous, because you never get to cast the person that’s your first choice. And that was just a case of luck. I sent her the script and I wrote her a letter. And I told her, “Look, you have to be in this film, because I’ve written this part for you.” And so I don’t know if that convinced her or the script, or she was just free. She got in touch she was talking about the character, so that was great. And working with the two of them. It just was a real joy.
They come to the set so prepared, they’re really seasoned actors. Riz’s technique is to come to the set very prepared, he does a lot of deep research, spends a lot of time talking to Marines, you know, doing workouts with Marines. He completely changed his whole physique and stayed in character and kept his accent throughout the whole production. But then when it comes to set, he doesn’t come with any predetermined ideas. He wants to be really alive in the moment. And so it’s really striking thing to witness someone that does so much prep work and then as soon as you say action, they’re really available to whatever happens, which is great. And then Octavia just makes everything easy. Like working with her is the really fun days on set.
Then you’ve got the challenge of casting the two boys as well – how did you get that chemistry between them?
That wasn’t much rehearsal time because of the Covid-19 pandemic – we couldn’t bring people together much and we couldn’t hang out too much. We did a bit of it outside. but it was really important in the casting process for them that I was trying to find kids that felt that they were going to have a warm energy – some kids can be just as selfish as some adult actors on set, or some can be more precocious. I just had an intuition that they were going to gel really quickly. The three of them are just really, without being cheesy, very kind-hearted people. And so I felt that was going to be the family dynamic that was going to come together quite effortlessly. I’d spent a lot time auditioning the kids and also just getting to know them over Zoom and WhatsApp calls. And the two good kids got along very quickly on their first Zoom. Once I started talking about some toy or cartoon that we were both playing, I couldn’t shut them off. And they were just already like best friends. And Riz has a very generous and nurturing energy. You know, there’s another way we could have played it, where he would have been a bit more withheld from them.
From Beast to this, you’re great at balancing genre and character – which comes first for you as a way into the other?
I try to think of the genre as servicing the character, rather than the other way around. So like the beginning, it’s using sound as an empathetic tool to get inside the head of the character, rather than the film feeling like a pastiche of different genres. So you know, the score in the film is pretty consistent throughout, it’s using real instruments and kind of detuning them and warping them so that they sound otherworldly. But it’s not like, you know, we have a sci fi score and then we have a horror score. In fact, from that first bit in the film where the meteors are coming down, it’s essentially the same ingredients in the very last scene as it is at the very beginning – we’ve tried to make it sound threatening. And at the end, we’re trying to make it sound like blanket of something compassionate, trying to protect the characters. So we did it from the character’s point of view.
We tested the film a lot. There are some films that you can be as a director a bit cynical about wanting to test it or show it too much, you know, that this is my vision. But because it’s playing with different genres and points of view, we wanted to know what an audience felt. So, you know, we tested a lot of audiences and did focus groups to find out where those moments are that landed and try to refine them so that an audience was orientated through the story and kept that thread and that emotional connection.
What’s next for you? Is there another genre you’re eyeing up?
I feel like I want to step into a dark, brooding crime thriller. Like I recently watched A History of Violence and I love how sparse and elegant that story is, and how pulpy it seems, but it’s got a very deep philosophical themes underneath. That kind of 90s David Fincher, early 2000s Cronenberg, something in that realm.
Encounter is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.