Man vs. Beast: Baltasar Kormákur Pits Idris Elba Against a Rogue Lion in Universal’s Thriller

Photo Credit: Lauren Mulligan/Universal Pictures

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur is no stranger to the dangers of the natural world. In 2012’s The Deep and 2018’s Adrift, characters fight for their lives against the open expanse of the sea; in 2015’s Everest, it’s the titular mountain taking people out. And in his latest, Beast, it’s a rogue lion, angry and violent and angling to kill visitor Nate Samuels [Idris Elba] and his two daughters [Leah Jeffries, Iyana Halley]. In theaters on August 19 from Universal Pictures, Beast looks to close out the summer season with a roar—providing the visceral excitement that Kormákur, speaking to Boxoffice Pro while in post-production for the film, says deserves to be seen on the big screen. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you come to be involved with this film?

It was during Covid. I became a little bit of the Covid king—I don’t know if you read about this. I started production before everyone else did [on Netflix series Katla, filmed in Iceland]. I created this color-coded system and ended up doing interviews with The New York Times and everyone about it. [Filming in the first quarter of 2020, Kormákur came up with a color-coded armband system so they could shoot safely during the pandemic.]

I was talking to Universal, sending them the teaching videos we’d made. It’s not what I planned for my life, to become a Covid instructor! They asked for information on how we were doing this. [Universal Pictures president] Peter Cramer called me, and he said: “What are you doing, by the way?” And I said, “Well, what do you have?” He sent me the script for Beast and a couple of others. I instantly responded [to Beast]. I loved the idea of doing this in Africa—and I made it very clear it would have to be [shot in] Africa.

Also, [there’s] my fascination with lions, which actually goes pretty far back. I didn’t realize. I was at dinner with my parents, and I told them about what was coming. “Oh, that’s interesting,” my mother said, and she went down to the basement and brought up a clipping book from when I was a kid. It was way before the internet, by the way. Clippings of lions in Africa! Apparently when I was 6 years old [I was] planning on becoming a lion specialist in Africa.

So it was fated that you would direct this movie.

It sounds like it. I’d forgotten that, but my mother hadn’t. These things live inside of you, and you can’t really explain. Your instincts go, “Yeah, I would enjoy making that. That’s interesting.” I’ve been away a little bit dealing with some personal issues, and I kind of wanted to get back in the big game.

Was “big game” an intentional pun or an unintentional pun?

[Laughs.] Unintentional pun. I mean, back to making a big studio movie, because I’ve been at home for a while, sorting my stuff out and doing local productions.

There’s this really good Tom-Skerritt vs. lions movie from the ’80s called Savage Harvest—have you seen it? If you’re into killer lion movies …

No, I have not. I haven’t even seen the famous one, The Ghost and the Darkness. [Editor’s note: That 1996 film is based on the true story of a pair of lions picking off railway workers in the late 18th century.] I saw a lot of comments regarding the trailer: “It reminds me, in a good way, of the vibe of The Ghost and the Darkness.” There’s no relation [between the films], except that there’s a lion.

I really like the idea—which is probably better explained in the movie than in the trailer—that this is a lion that has gone rogue because of our behavior. Basically, we are poaching [the lions] and leaving them without prides. I think it’s a metaphor for all environmental crises that we have. We might be drinking with paper straws, but not everyone is doing that. The tsunami that’s going to hit us, it’s not going to pick [those people] out and say, “Oh, you’re the paper straw people, so you get a pass!” No. They just take it all out. And that’s what this lion does. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a poacher or a safari tourist.

You’ve done man vs. nature movies several times before. What appeals to you about that theme?

I come from a country where you’re reminded almost daily that man vs. nature is a real thing. I’ve lived in Iceland since I was a kid. We have volcanoes erupting every now and then. I might be exaggerating a little, but going to school as a child almost felt like a survival movie.

What I also love about [the concept of Beast] is, it becomes existential. People are animals, and in certain circumstances the animalistic elements come into play. That’s when you really find out what you’re made of. I breed horses in Iceland, I’ve been [doing that] since I was 12. I was a judge and a professional rider for a while. That’s how I supported myself when I was in theater school and studying drama. I’ve kept doing that, and I travel the islands of Iceland almost every summer. I’m actually planning on doing that as soon as I’m done with Beast. We’re by the volcanoes, and we are in this crazy landscape. You learn [that] it’s not the macho guy who’s always going to be strong. It might be a tiny woman, someone who’s just mentally incredibly strong in these circumstances. That’s what is fascinating to me: It’s about your mental strength. Of course, physical strength is important in some circumstances, but mostly it’s about endurance and how people deal with those kinds of circumstances.

When I was doing Everest, I learned about how a woman might be much stronger than a man [when it comes to making the ascent], because of the way our bodies are constructed. But we always have this idea [about some] incredible, athletic man. And of course, Idris looks like one. But in the end, in [Beast] it’s more how the family becomes stronger, and that gets them through it.

I feel like I kind of know what to expect from Idris Elba in hero mode, but I’m excited to see how his character’s daughters play into the whole situation.

It is [about] the daughters, and we’ve tried to make them as realistic [as possible]. We don’t want them to be, like, [roundhouse] kicking a lion or something, like you’d see in some kind of fantasy world. Their courage, their wit, and their family strength come into play. What is more surprising, probably, is the element in the beginning [of] how wounded Idris is. [Eventually] he hits hero mode, which is a part of this genre. You have to face your fears in the end—if not, you just have a loser being eaten by a lion, which nobody would be interested in.

Where did you shoot? And how long did you get?

We shot for three months in Africa. Mostly in [the South African province of] Limpopo, which is by Mozambique. Kruger National Park is very close. Basically, we were waking up to lions roaring, and I got attacked by an elephant, and, you know …

You got attacked by an elephant?

Yeah. First, with his trunk, he threw a rock at me. I was like, “What are you doing?!” And then he just came charging at me and I had to stand him down. I didn’t get hurt, and he didn’t connect with me. It’s an interesting situation. You’d hear rhinos, or you’d hear elephants breaking trees behind your cottage the whole time. But then we also [shot in the] Northern Cape, which is by the Namibian border, a beautiful area, more desert-like. We had a couple of days in the studio and a few days in Cape Town [South Africa]. We did the whole circle.

Did you work with any actual lions? They looked so real in the trailer, which I guess is the point.

That’s great, because, between you and me, there are no real lions in this movie. We are at that place in film [history] where you cannot use those [animals] for shooting. We did have a lion as a reference. I actually intended to have [real lions], but we’ve been working deeply with an incredible team of VFX [artists]. It’s very limited, what you can do with a real lion in these circumstances, with insurance and stuff like that.

In the movie, there are moments where the lions seem incredibly real, because we’d been studying for months and months—actually, for over a year—every detail of their movement. We don’t have the lion do anything a person hasn’t seen it do in nature. That was my approach. You have Jurassic Park and more fantastic, scary stuff. Like A Quiet Place, which is a brilliant movie, but it has this imaginary monster. That’s very interesting, but in this case, it’s about a lion, so the scariest thing was to make the lion as realistic as possible. You actually feel that you’re in the vicinity of a real rogue lion.

First we had to create a lion with a character. Not just any lion. This one is very specific. I found a lion called Scarface that we used as a model. It had the kind of face I was looking for. And then its [physicality]—it has to be like Brad Pitt in Snatch, ripped and out of control. It’s one of the leading characters in the movie.

I had a very good call with [Alejandro G.] Iñárritu, who gave me a little bit of advice [Iñárritu’s The Revenant pitted Leonardo DiCaprio against a bear]. I used [that scene] as a reference in some way: That was the level I wanted to be on.

There’s one thing, also, that you won’t [typically] see in these kinds of movies: there are a lot of [long] shots. There are shots over eight minutes long in the film. You’re stuck in the shot. You feel the claustrophobia. The lion is coming at you, and as it comes, you experience it, and the impact of that is stronger.

Given that the lion is all VFX, how did you work with the actors to make sure their terror feels reel?

You have an actor who is fully a stunt guy. You rehearse with a guy playing the lion in every scene. It becomes incredibly important. Because of the [long] shot approach, we had to lay it out very clearly. You can’t just save yourself by cutting around it. You have to know everything is timed right. The pacing has to be right. Especially when there’s contact. It all has to be synced up. That [requires a] huge amount of preparation, but it’s really enjoyable. Instead of shooting it and doing whatever, you really have to prepare yourself. There are ways to save some things in the edit, but …

If the eyelines are wrong, then the eyelines are wrong.

Yeah, and you have a problem. Especially when there is an interaction, you’re trying to make everything work together. I enjoyed it immensely, because I hadn’t done this kind of work at this [level of] detail. I’ve done Everest, creating those visual effects. My [approach to] visual effects is always about—and this isn’t fair to the visual effects people—making them disappear. So [the VFX artists] don’t get the credit they deserve.

Who was the man who stood in for the lion? That sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime job.

It was a local guy from South Africa. Very nice kid. It was very physical. His parents had a lion farm in Africa, so he was very good at playing them, [depicting] the way they behave. Their speed, the way they walk, and stuff like that. It was helpful to have someone who understands the lions. I’ve been around animals [a lot], so it’s something I’m very particular about. The way they run—their feet have to [hit the ground] in the right order, and the distance it travels has to be realistic. For me, it’s about gravity. If you lose the gravity—which is very common in VFX—[the sequence] loses its connection to Earth. That’s something that I couldn’t say often enough. It’s all about the gravity of the lion.

Growing up in Iceland, did you go to the movies a lot?

All the time, yeah. It’s a big movie country. I think one of the reasons [is that Iceland was] part of the Marshall Plan, [and thus got] movies from America. American was exporting their culture and their ideology and everything, through cinema. I think it’s immensely clever, whether you like it or not as a European. I think it’s the reason I adapted pretty easily to American cinema: We had access to it all the time.

[As an adult], when I saw Mad Max: [Fury Road]or Apocalypto, I felt this instant joy of the cinema. I hope that [Beast gives] people that kind of—wow! People coming out of the cinema excited because they just had an experience. It’s not always about story or plot. Apocalypto is a very simple movie: It’s about people going in one direction, then turning around and going the other direction. Same with Mad Max. [The characters] just drive [to their destination], and they turn around and come back! But it’s the ride. TV has taken up more elaborate plots and story lines. I think cinema [is more about an] enjoyable visual ride, which is a very important part of the experience and why people should go to the cinema. It was one of the reasons I used long shots: You feel like you’re inside a tunnel, in the cinema. [The movie is] holding you by the shoulders throughout. It doesn’t let you go.

It’s collaborative, too—you get to feel the energy of other people reacting to the movie.

The scares and jumps! It’s like going on a ride in some way. All the [intellectual elements of film] are very important, but at the same time the ride, the enjoyment, the fun of going to the cinema mustn’t be forgotten.

What are movie theater concessions like in Iceland?

It’s all about popcorn. We have a lot of candy. We have this weird tradition of breaking movies in half, so there’s a break in the middle to go buy more candy and more popcorn. A lot of cinephiles don’t like that, but the crowd really wants it. I think the cinemas basically survive on candy sales, you know?

What do you get when you go to the movies?

Salty popcorn and a Coke, and sometimes M&Ms. And, in Iceland, licorice. There’s really good licorice there.

Was there a particular hometown theater that you spent a lot of time in?

There was [Reykjavík’s] Gamla Bíó, which was an old cinema. It was later turned into an opera house. That was my favorite place as a kid. And then mall culture came in, and all that. I have a strong tie with cinemas in Iceland. My Icelandic films have been box office hits. One of them is the biggest local release of all time. I have a direct connection with [theaters in Iceland], more than [a filmmaker] would in America, where the studios take care of that relationship. I like that.

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