Universal is no stranger to heart-racing features. From the Fast and Furious movies to the adrenaline-fuelled Jurassic World trilogy, it has established itself as an action movie connoisseur. However, the studio’s latest outing Beast, starring Idris Elba, stands out from the pack as a truly unique and authentic South African experience.
Telling the story of a rogue lion on a revenge quest after poachers kill its pride, Beast sees Elba’s Nate Samuels and his family trying to survive in the African bush. The film is packed with thrills and tension. However, one of its defining features is its environment. Shot on location in Limpopo, director Baltasar Kormákur, whose previous credits include the likes of Everest and 2 Guns, told The Digital Fix that it was vital the authentic South Africa was shown, as the team wanted Beast to “feel real”, instead of a cheap imitation of Africa.
“We were trying to portray it in the most true and honest way we could,” the Icelandic filmmaker said. “I come from a small country myself. Not to say South Africa is small, but it is underserved in how it has been shown. And I realise how it is when things are just done out of laziness, and not done as authentic as could be done.”
This “real” aspect of Beast was equally important to the producer of the film, Will Packer. “We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. It’s set in South Africa. And we knew we were going to have to CGI the lion,” he said. “We didn’t want to computer generate anything else.”
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Funnily enough, despite this commitment to South Africa from the crew of the thriller movie, Kormákur did share that Beast wasn’t initially set in the country. Originally the film took place in an African country further up North on the continent. But, changes were made after the director pointed out that since filming was scheduled to take place there, it made sense to alter the script and set Beast in the South African bush.
“Honestly, the script wasn’t in South Africa in the beginning; I changed it to South Africa, you know, I haven’t been telling people that very much,” the filmmaker explained. “But, first of all, I love South Africa. That’s where we were always going to shoot it, so I asked, ‘why don’t we just have it be in South Africa’, you know?” Once the crew decided to stick with the director’s suggestion, the script and production began to flourish, and an authentic feel of the country was established.
As The Digital Fix’s born and bred South African, I tend to see my home country portrayed either as a wasteland – think science fiction movies like District 9 or Dredd – or as a California rip-off as seen in the Kissing Booth franchise. So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was to see nostalgic dirt roads of the game reserve and a script that, although action-packed, honoured the wildlife that is so ingrained into South Africa’s identity that it even appears on our currency’s bank notes.
One of Beast’s main storylines is the problem with poachers, an issue that has plagued South Africa and its tourism industry for decades. Packer explained how the research into poaching played into Beast’s development.
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“What we wanted to do was make sure that we weren’t demonising our lion,” Packer said. “This is a man-made phenomenon. I learned so much about the reality, and the impact of poaching. And we wanted to make sure that we made that one of the sub-plots, and there was this undercurrent of the fact that Beast goes both ways.”
“It’s not just a lion as the beast, but man is the beast because through this poaching, they separate the pride, and they cause these alpha males to become rogue lions, and they become nomadic lions.” Having a sympathetic view of the lion makes Beast stand out from other well-known creature features such as the Steven Spielberg movies Jaws and Jurassic Park, or Stephen King’s Cujo. And despite many fans comparing Beast to the killer shark from Jaws thanks to its trailer, Kormákur reveals that Steven Spielberg wasn’t an influence at all when making the flick.
“I think Jaws was great at the time; when it was made, it was fantastic. It scared the hell out of everyone, but I think Jurassic Park was not so scary to me. It is more adventure movie. You know, like, my kids were really into it. I was more thinking about films that affected me in a different way.” Kormákur clarified that, in fact, Beast takes inspiration from the 1985 Soviet war movie Come and See as opposed to the Spielberg blockbusters cinephiles have been mentioning.
“You hear like they hear, and you feel like they feel. You’re going through the dirt with them; those movies inspire me. And then, of course, you know, movies like The Shining, these movies that I’ve loved, they’ve affected me, even though I didn’t know about it.” Packer also spoke about the differences between Jaws and Beast, elaborating on Kormákur’s points by explaining how the two film’s stories are vastly different.
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“Well, first of all, Jaws wouldn’t last long in the African bush; that’s number one. I think that this is a very different story; it is as much about leaning on family, no matter what, even when things are hard, even when there’s turmoil, even when there’s strife,” he said. “I think that it leans into the best aspects of the storytelling of those movies that you mentioned, like Jaws or Cujo. But it does it in a different way. It’s a contemporary modern version and take on those films. I think Baltasar, the director, did an incredible job doing it.”
When it was released in 1975, Jaws may have been a box-office hit, but it did have a catastrophic effect on the shark population. The ‘Jaws Effect’ is a term coined by Dr Christopher Neff, that refers to the widespread demonisation of the animal caused by Hollywood that ultimately led to a sharp increase in shark cullings due to unfounded fear. The ’70s movie played a hand in the shark population decreasing by 71% over the past few decades. Beast, on the other hand, always put the animals first, ensuring the lion was contextualised.
“The studio was very clear that ‘we can’t use real animals,” Kormákur said. “It’s both about the actors and the animals. But we did have an animal on site for references, you know. So we had a lion trainer, a famous guy in Africa – he has been doing this forever. He lives close to Cape Town. And he brought a lion just for references.”
Instead of using real animals for filming, Beast made use of a stunt man, who would put on a grey suit and mimic the actions of the big cat. “There was a lot of choreographing and making things work by planning. And there was a guy called Owen who was a stuntman. And he’s raised on a lion farm. Lion farm, and he’s a stuntman. Right? So, I was like, ‘that’s our guy’. And he was very helpful. Even though we had studied it, it is always good to have someone doing it who’s knowledgeable.”
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So, when we see Idris Elba punch a lion in the face, it was actually poor Owen who he was scrapping with. Speaking of Elba, Beast isn’t the first time the star has put his name down for a South African gig. Previously the star played Nelson Mandela in the drama movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Packer said he knew the actor was the right man to lead this new film.
“He [Elba] shot on the continent several times. He is somebody that is a frequent collaborator. This is our sixth movie together; he brings something to a role that nobody else does, period,” Packer explained. “He’s got a great skill set that allowed him to play a father that was in turmoil, estranged from his daughters, as well as the protector who has to go toe to toe with this Beast. And he was able to do both masterfully.”
“He was the first call I made. There was nobody else I thought about for this movie other than Idris. He was a first and last call. I called him before I had the director. I called him before I had a final script.”
Fans can see Elba in the South African bush by heading to their local cineplex. Beast is out in UK cinemas now. Why not check out our list of the best Idris Elba movies for more from the British star.