Interview: Nathalie Biancheri Talks About Her Latest Film, ‘WOLF’

“Wolf” is a daring character study about a boy, Jacob (George MacKey), who believes he is a wolf. The facility he goes to does little to help his attempt at repressing his connection to werewolves; especially with an unethical figure in charge, that being the Zookeeper (Paddy Considine).

Nathalie Biancheri’s boldest choice was to not lean into the “body horror” film that “Wolf” could have been. Instead, she focuses on the characters and their intrinsic connection to their animals of choice. I spoke to Nathalie over Zoom after a presumably long day of interviews to talk about the performances and her choice to focus on the characters.

Thank you, Nathalie, for sitting down. Congratulations on the film.

NB: Thank you.

[In regards to] This whole specious dysphoria, I’m just curious, where did you first hear about it? Because it’s something I’d never heard of before the film and where did the then like the drive to make a film about it?

So I heard about species dysphoria just completely arbitrarily. Like you, I didn’t know anything about it. And there was a little news piece about a woman who thought that she was a cat, and I thought it was very fascinating, but I also realized that what I was supposedly most interested in was not necessarily exploring species dysphoria as an actual syndrome in today’s day. But rather, the questions that it opened up in me when I heard about it, led me to want to write a script. So, you know, at first, I just thought; “What does it mean to feel that you’re an animal in a human’s body?” That’s pretty fascinating and possibly heartbreaking because just physically we’re so at ends with like being able to, you know, and especially if you’re an animal on all fours and so, you know, I really thought that that would be an interesting question to explore and how you deal with it and whether you should succumb to it or not. I think that’s very much embodied obviously in Jacob’s character, in his journey.

And then also other questions that I asked myself was, were like; but perhaps also some people don’t necessarily, and again, this is not in the real world, but like in my mind, like jumping off from this, from this notion that I just heard about and discovered don’t necessarily feel that they are an animal, but are perhaps choosing to be an animal, you know, and in a way, sort of cloaking themselves in this identity and those two polarities in a way, a boy who is repressing as humans and repressing his animal side and putting on a human mask, so to speak, to exist and other characters and patients. Instead are wearing an animal mask to deal with their humanity just seemed like [a] very, very interesting premise to touch on many themes of identity.

Yeah. And I thought the most interesting thing was that you focus so much on the characters, you know, going in, I didn’t know if Jacob was going to become a wolf or, you know, but I really appreciate that you focus on that [the characters]. Was that a conscious decision on your part to make this so focused on [the characters]?

Yeah, it was. Yeah, absolutely. Because again, you know, obviously, I had a sort of like, I had themes that I wanted to explore, but I didn’t have answers like aside from probably the fact that like violence and institutionalization are not like particularly recommendable, but even then I tried to sort of, to a certain extent, give the doctors like some solid arguments so that it [their actions] didn’t feel like completely like one note. And yeah, they wanted to explore these questions. And I thought that the most authentic way I could do that was not sort of like necessarily like researching species dysphoria going down that route, but rather researching my own characters, you know, and figuring out who each one of them was and what had made them, them basically.

And can you talk to me a little bit about Lily’s character? Her character, Wildcat, was that based on the original case [mentioned earlier]?

It wasn’t actually, no, it wasn’t. I do love cats and it seemed like, I think perhaps cause a lot of the other characters were just very, very instinctive choices and she was too like, as in like a wolf, there was nothing tied to werewolves in my thinking, it was just very like, “Oh, he’s a wolf and he’s a squirrel and he’s a duck.” When I first started writing it, but with Wildcat, like I thought that was quite interesting. She’s [Wildcat] everything but, certainly not a “Wildcat,” if anything, she’s a domestic cat, but she’s not even that she is such a girl. And again, to sort of reinforce these opposing questions, like, you know, I created someone who was extremely institutionalized and who was in fact “performing” to a certain extent.

I mean, again, I feel like people interpret that relationship in very different ways. And I think there’s people who read into it, the fact that actually she is a cat and she’s repressing our cat self. And that’s also beautiful that, that, you know, the film can give people such, I think, you know, even George, initially he said to me, like, you know, he’s like, “Oh, but it’s a love story.” And I was like, “No George, it’s not. It’s a love story between you and the wolf,” you know? And like that took like that took a bit of coming around for him because like he struggled, you know, like, I think again, like you want to believe that it’s love, but actually, it’s impossible love really.

And you mentioned George as well. I mean, his performance is very hard to not look away [from], but it’s also hard to watch if that makes sense. It’s such an intense performance, so what was it like directing him in those scenes [where he becomes a wolf]?

Well, I mean, you know, directing, George is like, probably what every director would aspire to do in their lifetime because he is the most unbelievably kind and generous and talented individual that exists on this planet. So, in that sense, I was super, super lucky. But yeah, I mean, it was from a sort of like filmmaking perspective it was [a] complete journey for me, you know? It’s my second film and I have not ever worked with such physical performances or roles. And this character [Jacob] was a huge enigma to me. Even though I wrote the script, I didn’t really know who he [Jacob] was. So, like with everything, I sort of treated it and with George together, we treated it as an investigation, you know, and trying to figure out who he was and starting from the fact that if you feel like a wolf, then you would move like a wolf. And we worked with a movement coach to do that and just. Break down the sort of wolf and get him so into it. And then once, like he felt, it was sort of, sensorially experiencing, like being on all fours and using other senses I mean, to the point that like he wants, went into the woods to meditate, you know, and he was so still that mice came all the way close to him, which I thought was like, such a striking image, you know? And like he [MacKay] really went to those extremes to find who the star, you know, what connected him to the wolf. And then from there we worked backward and figured out the human side.

Writer/director Nathalie Biancheri (left) and actor George MacKay (right) on the set of “Wolf,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Conor Horgan / Focus Features

One scene in particular [stood out], I don’t remember exactly what’s happened to Jacob, but it cuts over to [images of] snow and then going through the mountains. Is that [supposed to be] the perspective of a wolf that it’s switching to?

I think it’s the only moment that I took some liberties and kind of entering his mind a bit. And I debated heavily whether to do that actually, because there was something I quite respected about being very monastic and like, almost like, you know, this is the camera and you know, he’s a wolf and you have to buy him as a wolf completely without any artificiality, because actually like that is the character, effectively.

But, in that moment, you know, like we tried different things and it, and it did feel like it was a nice way to give the audience some access to the fusion [between Jacob and the wolf]. And especially like in a moment of violence, which otherwise like, you know, I never wanted to like condemn him, but if you feel that you’re a wolf, like a wolf comes with instincts, you know, and those instincts aren’t necessarily always tame.

Yeah. And then also the zookeeper is that a sustained Paddy [Considine] that plays the Zookeeper. I thought [that] whenever he was on-screen, [he was] very commanding to watch. That last scene in particular, I think that he goes up to each patient and mimics their animal habits. That had to have been a very tough thing to not only direct, but just to watch in general, you know? As you were editing the film and such.

Yeah, it was [hard to watch], and God, we had endless debates with the editor and he won that battle actually because we did use the take where he [Paddy Considine] goes fully wild on his last close-up. And I was saying again, it was just a bit of a push and pull because I just, you know, I did probably, I just felt too uncomfortable. Like, obviously that was the aim when I wrote it, you know, to have, in fact, I almost wanted him to mimic them almost like completely, perfectly. And then with Paddy, we kind of realized that actually like, if it was too much, you know, it wouldn’t be quite right. Obviously, the intent of the scene was to have this, like, you know, obviously blur finally those boundaries between, you know, what makes us human and what makes us animal. And obviously, I get the most sort of like advocate of human behavior is probably the most animalistic in the sense that, you know, we consider like violence. But yeah, it was uncomfortable to watch and it took me a while to use that take cause it just made me deeply uncomfortable, really.

And because of the films’ very heavy subject matter, I like to ask with films like this is there any sort of fun experiences? Off-set maybe, or even if it was on-set in between takes, [but] anything that brought levity to this kind of very heavy [production]?

Oh, my God. I mean, the rehearsals were like absolute jokes. I mean, they, you know, it was like we had, you know, there were mental, like we did for one, one rehearsal we did like four or five hours of improvisation and which I had all the actors there. And I played a doctor, which [probably] says a lot about me. And, um, and we started like with the scene of the film where it’s like, you know, this is your right.

And then [we] started like letting it run wild. And it lasted like forever. And I would sometimes like jump in as the director and give people [instructions] like I told Parrot [Lola Petticrew], I was like, cause everything was quite tame at the beginning. And I was like, “Start a revolution,” you know? And so, she [Lola Petticrew] started a revolution and then like me and her became proper antagonists, you know? Like to the point that I locked her in a cupboard and like, you know, George got changed to like the radiator and like, you know, there was Squirrel [Darragh Shannon] up a tree, and I had the intern, who was like filming everything, [and] who was also like playing [a character], poor girl, [she] didn’t know what she got into when she took this job on, it was a great crack. But also, one of my assistants that I was like screaming [at] gets so immersed in those roles. It was tremendously fun, actually.

Do you have any plans for your next film? Is there anything that you are writing and plan to direct? If you can say anything.

Yes, I am writing at the moment. I mean, kind of [in the] treatment stage. So, it’s just a bit early to actually talk about it, but it has some sort of surreal moments to it, but it’s probably a film [that is] also very much about performance and how we perform in our lives or don’t and it’s also a tragic love story.

Thank you to Focus Features and Ginsberg Libby for allowing me the chance to talk to Nathalie about her new film, “Wolf.”

“Wolf” will be released in theaters on December 3.

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