With Wolf now playing in select theaters, I recently got to speak with writer-director Nathalie Biancheri (Nocturnal) about making a film that deals with species dysphoria (where some believes they are an animal trapped in a human body). If you’re not familiar with Wolf, the film focuses on Jacob (George MacKay), who believe he is a wolf trapped in a human body. With his family concerned, he’s sent to a clinic that deals with the issue, and he’s forced to endure extreme forms of ‘curative’ therapies along with the other patients. However, once he meets the mysterious Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), and as their friendship blossoms into something more, Jacob is faced with the challenge of whether or not to renounce his true self for love. Wolf also stars Paddy Considine and Eileen Wals and you can watch the trailer here.
During the interview, Biancheri shares some great behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film, including why it’s a film and not a documentary, how she figured out who to cast, what it was like when COVID shut everything down right before filming began and how it made the film better, filming the first scene between MacKay and Depp and the significance of getting it right, why she cut out a number of scenes in the editing room, and more.
Watch what Nathalie Biancheri had to say in the player above and below is the full transcript.
COLLIDER: What I found interesting was that you originally thought about making this as a documentary rather than a narrative film. I wanted to know how close did you actually come to pulling the trigger on this being a doc?
NATHALIE BIANCHERI: Not, not close at all, actually, not close at all. It was like a first idea that I had because I thought like, “Oh, what a fascinating thing that this condition actually exists and is sort of like growing in teenagers.” But I also felt that in reality, like the themes that I kind of wanted to explore and the story that I wanted to tell, I didn’t really want to do that, within a real world setting or necessarily have a sense of position towards species dysphoria or make a film about species dysphoria. So, that was quite clear to me early on. I have a background in journalism and documentary, so it was more like a light bulb, like a trigger and a jumping off point, but then I quite quickly departed and decided to just write my fiction narrative.
One of the things that’s interesting is every director I’ve spoken to talks about how making any movie is a miracle. Just getting the financing to make anything. So, I’m curious for you with making this project, how difficult was it actually to get the financing? Because you’re not telling a narrative story…this is tough subject matter, if you will.
BIANCHERI: Oddly, I mean, everything, of course, I completely agree with every director, like making film is like incredibly difficult, but oddly, the financing of the film wasn’t the hardest part. I think people were quite drawn to the fact that it was a sort of like quite original subject and just, I think there is a lot of hunger for sort of quirky, unusual stories right now. Screen Ireland, who were the main backers. And then actually, I think maybe it was actually like, I think Screen Ireland had already basically, they knew they were going to fund us. Polish Film Institute was the first then Screen Ireland. Like that was oddly seamless. I mean, the budget was small, like really small. It’s like 2,000,000 budget, like a very, very ambitious film for what it was, but that 2,000,000, I think the funding bodies were super on board and really understood. Even if they didn’t fully know what the film would be, I think they had faith and were intrigued. I think compared to other films, it was like an easier sell, oddly enough.
What was it like walking in those rooms to try to pitch them on the money? Did you practice your one liner and your pitch?
BIANCHERI: Oh yeah. I mean, because Jessie, my business partner, so we have a company together called Feline Films and we basically set up this company when I had a 10-page treatment for Wolf. And it was like our thing, that was kind of the project for the company to grow on. We just signed up to every European market possible and we were just like pitching nonstop, like meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting, and it’s like… So Wolf is the film about a boy who thinks he’s a wolf and it just like on, and it kind of like, that was relentless. But I think the advantage maybe that we had is, you go to those markets and it’s like three days and it’s, I don’t know, 25 meetings a day and people are so bored and they feel like you can just see producers, like their eyes dropped off for funding, but they’re just like not interested, but at least I think the fact that it was kind of a strange premise and being like, “No, they’re going to crawl on all force,” got people interested. Again, of course some people hated it and some people really liked it, but I would say they were like fairly attentive at least.
Obviously, casting on this movie is everything. You really need actors that are going to fully commit to these roles and performances. Well talk a little bit about the casting process and when did you know George and Lily were the right ones?
BIANCHERI: The casting process was very staggered actually, because I had so many roles to fill and very, very complicated ones. So, it was different for each character. With Lily, I think she did, she was pitched to me actually by her agent and then I first saw her and I was like, “Wow,” like she has something really feline. I wasn’t planning to sort of like cast every character, like they’re animal, but there was something, in fact, almost quite interesting about the, like one of the characters who doesn’t really think that they’re that animal to sort of look very cat-like and we met, then we did a couple auditions and we sort of like worked together in person in Paris, and then at some point, I was like, she really gets it and she really went for it and just got the character and also was brave in her audition.
With George, I think with Jacob’s character, it was slightly different because at some point, I realize it’s very, very, very hard, because so much work needed to go into preparing for the physicality of the role and the movement and everything that I wasn’t just going to find that in tapes. No actor was going to turn on and put a camera and be a wolf. So, we kind of changed approach and decided to just look at actors that I thought were really brilliant and solid and strong, and just kind of have faith in them and their commitment to the part. With George, that’s how it went. We had a really good chat and obviously, he’d done Ned Kelly where he was extremely physical, and he was really up for the challenge and I think it felt very right. Then we did a week of prep in Dublin with a movement specialist and he’s just nailed it. So, that was great. But then, the whole casting, I mean, with each one of them, I mean, it went on for quite a long time.
Well, what’s interesting is you were getting ready to film and then all of a sudden, of course, COVID, and then you shut down for a number of months, but I’ve spoken to a lot of filmmakers and they talk about how the extra time can really benefit a project. So, I’m curious, what did you actually do during that downtime that you think helped make the film even better?
BIANCHERI: So I mean, obviously, the first thing was the heart break. We can shoot, will we ever be able to shoot? What is this? That was quite tough, especially when you have all that energy geared up to jump into a film, and then it’s just like, “Nope, there’s a global pandemic.” But I was just very lucky that all of my actors, I think again, I’ll agree with most filmmakers that you spoke to, that I think you have this very particular circumstance in which everybody is stuck in a time warp almost. And they are just about to do your project. So, they can’t really audition for other stuff or nothing is going on. So, they had so much time to think about their characters. And with George, he did so much work on crawling around.
I mean, like my phone at the time, like I looked like some crazy creep, I had all these videos of topless actor going around on all fours. We would just constantly chat, we would sort of Zoom once a week and have a chat and he and she would send me videos of themselves and we continued developing the character. I continued interrogating the script simultaneously. I was working with a cinematographer, like we were Zooming, blocking every couple days, like going through scenes. So, yeah. I mean, it just gave more time to prepare really. I think that was essential, especially because obviously, COVID costs so much for every film and there were so many unforeseen costs that only preparation kind of could save what that effect was on every production going in that time.
The first scene that they have together is when they’re both in their animal forms… There’s no dialogue. How tough was that to figure out how you wanted to block and stage that scene and figure out that introduction between the two of them, and it’s also an introduction to the audience at their relationship?
BIANCHERI: Yeah, that was a really interesting one because it was one of the few things that in script just said, they walk around each other like animals and I always joked with them that if it was shit, that we were just going to, they would know because I was just going to go for a wide, like a very cinematic wide and have two dots on the rooftops, but there really wasn’t any need for that, because I do think it’s one of the strongest scenes of the film and I think we did. So we had, as I mentioned, this movement coach Terry (Notary), and we just like so much work of chemistry building and them dancing together and then going for, and pushed and pulled it. Sometimes, it was more choreographed and then it wasn’t, and it was just rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed.
Oddly, on the day, what was quite interesting was we tried a bit of it. I think it was a hybrid of the actual, the final product of the stuff that was rehearsed and the stuff that was completely improvised, but then just being close to them and just saying, because they were so immersed in their animal selves that then I could just be like, break, and then what you would get was these tiny, like flinches or quite animal movements, like coming from just inhabiting that character and then breaking it with a voice or a note of direction. So, they could kind of go, go, go, B, B, B, B, and then break it. I think it created this very animalistic and instinctive and a little bit unpredictable moments, which rehearsal built and gave them the tools to have. And then kind of the freshness of men breaking that during the shooting I think really helped.
I love talking to directors about the editing process because that’s where it all comes together. So, what was it like editing this and what made you nervous when you first started editing and what were you super happy about?
BIANCHERI: So, I worked with an editor who did my first film. Actually, I worked with both DP and editor from my first film. So, what was great is that we did have a shorthand, we could understand each other. I think the hardest, what sort of freaking out or the hardest thing was just like the amount of material that we had and the amount of scenes that I had written and which didn’t ultimately make the cut, because what I discovered in the edit was, I mean, I’m not saying it was always, of course, it was called Wolf and it was Jacob’s piece, but I think it had slightly more of an ensemble feel. When I wrote this script, for me, there was an interesting tension between the fact that without, I never wanted to tell the audience how to respond to the other characters, but in my mind, there’s a huge question, whether the secondary characters do really think that they’re those animals.
I think with a lot of them, you can pick up that they actually might have traumas, for example, German Shepherd and Wildcat clearly states it. But even like, if you’re looking parrot and spitting her food out and little things, if you pick up on them, and so that makes you question like, “Okay, well, why do they want to be in this clinic? And do they want to? And are they searching for an identity?” Which of course, I think when you have that in contrast with someone like Jacob, who actually is so trying to repress it, but so intrinsically feels that he is, for me, that’s an interesting film. What I realized in the edit is that because Jacob’s character is so hermetic and so unreadable, every time we kind of strayed too much into ensemble or other stories, it took away from him and that was a sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice that I had to make. I had to do it in favor, I think of, rhythm and of his character. And if we didn’t feel with him and very, very hard character to feel with, I think, and that’s George has a unbelievable performance, but he almost says nothing, so you’re just watching this guy, this guy, this guy, and if there was too much song and dance on either side, but yeah, it did make me just that tiny bit sad that maybe a little bit of the questions that the other characters raised were sort of reduced in the final version and I really hope that people don’t just look at the film as just a sort of like one-dimensional metaphor about someone who thinks he’s a wolf. Because I think that institution, that world, all of the different characters actually inform other themes, really other questions.
What is it like actually having to pick up the phone and call some of the other performers in the movie and being like, “Hey, listen, you were fantastic. And I know we shot 30 minutes, but you’re only going to be in the film for like five or 10?”
BIANCHERI: Yeah, with one actor, I had to do that and it’s never easy, especially because they really were fantastic. I mean, I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much, I think as a director, always so critical of your work, but I do think the casting was great. I was so in love with each one of them and it’s so heartbreaking every time you have to let go of something or whether it’s a scene or a character or an idea, even… It feels like a small failure, I suppose and then you have to just kind of buckle up and think that’s filmmaking and that’s learning. It’s only my second film, as well.
Listen, every director I’ve spoken to, there’s always deleted scenes and there’s always choices you make in the editing room, but that’s why I always talk to directors about it because that’s where it all gets rewritten. That’s the final final rewrite. Anyway, so one of the things that I thought was interesting is the color choices you make, the color palette. Could you sort of talk about those choices and how early on did you know the aesthetic of the film?
BIANCHERI: Yeah. In terms of the aesthetic, from very early on, there was a photographer that I quite liked called Alexander [couldn’t figure out last name]. He had these sort of…I know the name of the tree, but I cannot remember it right now. Those thin ones that are in the film. Silver birch, silver birch, like God, you think after spending so many months with them, that silver birch with these, and he’s Russian and he sort of shoots in the peripheries of Russia and had these beautiful sort of very Soviet backgrounds. And in particular, there was one photograph, which is the cover board for my mood board, which is like a silver birch tree forest with orange leaves and the sky is a sort of like paisley gray, blue. And there’s a building that you can’t quite place sort of in time, but has a sort of Soviet view.
I just loved this image, like loved it. That really dictated a lot because from that, we kind of built… Initially, I thought, “Oh, the indoor garden has to be sort of plastic, dah, dah,” because conceptually, that was what I was thinking. But then I kind of kept on shying away from that because aesthetically, it just didn’t like it, it was so jarring. So then, we kind of the production designer really worked around that image and the other images I’d chosen. So again, the leaves and going for silver birches and actually going for things that don’t really look that plasticy ultimately, but because I just found that kind of hybrid of like… And for example, the therapy room, there’s the DP is Polish. So, he took a photograph of the building in Warsaw.
Knowing again how much I love this photographer of this building in Warsaw, and we printed that. So, instead of having in the script, it was like a metropolis, like more New York. And then right now, let’s stick to this odd vibe that I had in my mood board. We used that instead and then the colors kind of sort of stemmed from that. Then the costumes, like a lot of it. So, it was like quite a really, we nailed the palette with the designer, working around all of those. At first, it was all sort of more or blues and greens, and then we started playing. It just felt too much and too claustrophobic. There was also the idea of it being kind of an aquarium, somehow, rather than a zoo paradoxically, because the building has so much glass, so that kind of the blues and trapping them in and the photography was always going to be quite static, quite steady apart from when we’re falling them as animals.
So, all of those things kind of tapered out. And then once we had nails, the design anew, for every room, again, the pandemic, brilliant because production designer just did renders and he would never, like on our budget. Like, I mean, doing commercials in between have had the time, like everything was measured, rendered, colored. Like we would look, we’d go through them, we’d block shots on them. It was brilliant. And then once we had all that, we went for the costumes and we tried and we tried and we tried and that took quite a while, but I guess, probably all stemmed from those first instincts that you have, something that kind of draws to.
I’m just going to say congratulations on the movie and I really hope you’re making something again very soon. I hope you’ve, you must have some ideas in a desk.
BIANCHERI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Writing away. I’m riding away already. I’m not wasting any time. You can’t. Life’s too short.
That, I agree with 1000%. On that note, thank you for giving me your time.
‘Wolf’ will be released theatrically in December.
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https://collider.com/wolf-director-nathalie-biancheri-interview/ Wolf Director Nathalie Biancheri on How Film Was Changed In Editing Room