Beast – A high-action survival thriller

When executive producer Jaime Primak Sullivan called up blockbuster producer Will Packer with the idea of making “Cujo with a lion,” Packer immediately said yes. “I thought it was such a fascinating idea,” Will Packer says. “We had to figure out what the story was going to be, who the characters were, how we were going to make it all meld together, but the idea of a lion and a survival thriller got my juices flowing.”

Human vs. beast stories are as primal, thrilling and indelible as stories themselves. The Greek myths of Theseus vs. the Minotaur. Perseus vs. Medusa. Famous novels such as Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And, of course, movies like Jaws, King Kong, Anaconda, Jurassic Park and Stephen King’s Cujo.

To build the characters and narrative around Primak Sullivan’s riveting premise, Packer and producer James Lopez turned to screenwriter Ryan Engle, with whom they had partnered on 2018’s hit thriller Breaking In.

The screenplay evolved into the high-stakes, high-action thriller of a father fighting to protect his family.

Beast is a film about a father who is in a difficult situation emotionally with his daughters,” Packer says. “It’s a family that is already in peril before they ever step foot on the continent of Africa. They are a father and two daughters undergoing a transformation of their own after the matriarch has died of cancer. You have a family in pain going through something unimaginable—and this unlikely conflation of circumstances has put them in the path of this lion. Now, they are in mortal danger and must fight for their lives.”

Elba, whose history with producer Will Packer extends back to 2007’s This Christmas and 2009’s Obsessed, was intrigued and inspired by the screenplay and its ambition. “Will and I both like to find projects that stretch us,” Elba says. “When he brought me this script, I was like, ‘Really, Will? Okay. We’re going here…’ We’ve done thrillers before, but this steps into a different realm. That was super exciting, and the script was not only good, but it was also very fulfilling. This film just got better as we got together as a collective. Baltasar added and enriched what was good about it already. It was a no-brainer for me.”

And he’s eager for audiences to experience it. “I think it’s a first,” Elba says. “We’ve seen films where the antagonist is a beast or an animal and our heroes are being chased, but this has a dynamic that merges both a family dynamic that we are invested in…alongside the thriller aspects. The thrill ride doesn’t stop.”

During the script-development process, they also discovered the life-and-death battles that lions themselves face from poachers and introduced that narrative into the script. “On the human front, you think of folks who are trapped in an impossible situation, fighting for their lives, doing anything they can to survive this threat,” Packer says. “But it is also a self-preservation examination of the lion. When hunters forcefully separate out alpha lions by killing other members of their pack, they create rogue lions. So this film is also an examination of what happens when a rogue lion discovers who the real enemy is: humans ourselves.”

Finding a director who could shoot high-stakes action but who could also capture the deep emotional undercurrents of the story

The producers approached acclaimed Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur.

A visceral, experiential filmmaker, Kormákur responded to the film’s premise and its promise. In fact, this was the movie he felt he’d been wanting to make since he was a child. “I’m an animal guy,” Kormákur says. “I travel on my horses around the countryside. Even as a kid, I used to cut out pictures of lions in Africa. When I told my mother about Beast, she pulled out an old clipping book and said, ‘This might be the reason why you’re doing this movie…’”

From the beginning of their discussions, it was crucial for Packer, Lopez and Kormákur to go for a final battle between the father, Dr. Nate Daniels played by Idris Elba, and the rogue lion. “My idea was to do this as one shot,” Kormákur says. “I knew it would be immensely complicated. We would have a massive lion that we needed to fit into the movie. At every movement, we would need to see how Idris’ body was moved and torn and tossed by the lion. I knew that this would be VFX at its most difficult. But you need gravity for the lion, and gravity for Idris’ character to make it visceral and brutal. Any interaction between the two of them had to be so well thought out that it felt like a choreographed dance between the two of them.”

Idris Elba and director Baltasar Kormakur on the set of BEAST.

The filmmakers also decided to shoot the film in South Africa, in real environments to anchor the film in reality and make the terror feel almost unbearably real.

“Baltasar did an amazing job with creating an energy around this film,” Packer says. “We knew that we were going to have a family in peril and we made a very specific decision to shoot deep in the bush of South Africa. This is not a green screen. This is not shot on some stage in the middle of a U.S. city. He wanted to shoot in the environment so that you could have these wide, scopey shots that made you feel like you were there.”  

In addition, Kormákur wanted to immerse the audience in the experience of the film, to make us feel as trapped and terrified as the characters we’re watching on screen. “The lion is always seen from the perspective of the characters,” Kormákur says. “You always feel it coming to them. You can’t cut away. You are stuck in the shot. I knew that I wanted all the big action scenes to be done like that. That increases the suspense and the excitement of being trapped in this situation.”

Packer was impressed with Kormákur’s conviction and commitment. “This is Baltasar saying, ‘I’ve got a vision that I want to bring the viewer inside this world,’” Packer says. “He decided to use a POV technique of shooting. He uses long takes, and you are in a point-of-view perspective. It makes it visceral. There’s a kinetic energy to the film that was all Baltasar. Balt said, ‘I want you to feel like you’re in that moment. I want that tension to be palpable. I want it to feel like when the camera moves, you move.’ When Nate turns his head, the camera turns its head. There are times when the camera is turning and you know the lion is behind and you’re turning around thinking, ‘What’s behind us right now?’”

Throughout the film, it’s clear that this lion is only attacking because humans attacked it first. For all its high-stakes emotion and action-packed thrills, Beast also, by design, reminds us how important it is to respect and protect our world’s wild creatures and places. The film’s rogue lion represents what happens when we don’t, and nature strikes back.

Filming in South Africa

Beast was filmed on location in South Africa, in Limpopo province, Northern Cape province and in Cape Town. “We are proud that we were able to bring a production of this size to this region,” producer James Lopez says. “We’ve seen firsthand what an impact a production like this can have on the people in the region. The story is set in a game reserve and when we talked about different places to film, South Africa was number one on the list. The film industry in South Africa is strong. Touching ground here and scouting in the region and seeing what South Africa’s film community could offer, we knew we made the right decision.”

They also wanted to protect the natural environments in which they were filming. For one particular scene, of Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) in a watering hole, the production built an actual watering hole, so as not to disturb an existing one used by animals. Production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and his team brought the water and organized space with trees and rocks. This gave the water the effect of a mirror-like an extremely vast lake with a perfect line.

It was critical to director Baltasar Kormákur to not showcase the “Hollywood” version of South Africa, but a realistic one. Namibian costume designer Moira Anne Meyer lives in South Africa and brought rich cultural references to design authentic wardrobes for villagers and poachers alike.

While the cast of Beast hails from multiple countries, it was important for the filmmakers that most of the supporting cast be South African. “You will hear some Venda spoken in the film, which is one of the indigenous languages spoken in the northeastern region of South Africa, where the film is set,” Lopez says. “We also used actual town and location names. We wanted to make sure that we honoured the region in terms of casting, in terms of dialect and architecture of the village. That all plays into making sure we’re as true to the story as possible.”