Here Before’s writer-director Stacey Gregg discusses the balance of the mundane and supernatural, delicacies of tone and Andrea Riseborough in her SXSW debut feature.
I had the chance to sit down (digitally) with the writer and director behind the new supernatural tinged drama Here Before, which premiered at SXSW 2021. Stacey Gregg comes from a theater background, and this marks her feature film debut. Her film is a mediation on loss, a portrait of suburban tension, and a wonderful character study. She was kind enough to discuss her inspirations, the process of completing her first film in lockdown, the discovery of talented child-actors, and her relationship with the great Andrea Riseborough. It was a great conversation about a film you should keep an eye out for.
Stacey Gregg on Here Before’s Origin and Filming
I’d love to hear about the process of how the movie came together for you.
The idea for the movie had been with me for a long time. My background is in theater and screenwriting, so, for a while, I’ve been thinking about moving into directing for screen. I had made a short film and really enjoyed the experience. I felt really empowered by it. I took that leap.
We were part of a program called iFeatures, which is about developing first time directors and writers, and off the back of that, we got fully financed in a relatively quick time. Then we shot! Four weeks on location, just outside Belfast. We got Andrea [Riseborough] on board. We shot the film before the pandemic and lockdown happened, so I had to work out how to finish the film on my own from my bedroom.
In many ways, it’s like the most of my career: not the most straightforward process! But it was an incredible one and a humbling one, and I’m very proud of the final film.
I’m curious to hear what the process was like for you to bring the film together in COVID. I gather you finished filming a little before the pandemic struck, but what was the process like?
It was daunting. The main challenge is that I’m a very collaborative person. I like to chat! Creativity comes from stimulation, and suddenly none of us were seeing each other. I had just moved and was in this room that was undecorated and really sad. Working that way wasn’t making me feel incredibly inspired, and that was tough.
I felt incredibly supported by my producers, my editor, and all the guys at the Post house, Yellow Moon. When I was feeling mad, I was able to express it. We had should a good shoot and such good material. Very luckily, it came together as we had envisioned. It just took a little bit of thinking outside the box, I suppose. I feel like if I got through that on my first feature I can kind of take on anything!
It’ll be easier in the normal times![Laughs] The next one is going to be a cakewalk, you know! I like my learning curves steep, and it certainly was that.
Grief and Loss in Here Before
One of the things I found interesting about the film is how meditative and specific it is in the way it deals with grief, the grief of a mother. How did you and Andrea come up with this portrait? How much came from the writing and how much from the collaboration?
A lot of it was on the page. My background being theater, the psychological complexity of that and the nuance of that all felt really crucial to me. The idea that Laura [the main character] is a woman who is surviving and being strong. She has a family, and she has a son. I grew up surrounded by people who were doing just that. So, this sense of a representation of how people continue to live and navigate with grief, a layered thing, was always very fundamental to this character.
When I met Andrea, I felt that was something she really connected to immediately. We talked quite a bit about that. She’s such an emotionally intelligent person anyway that it seemed very instinctive for her to step into that role and to bring that combination of fragility and strength. There are a number of contradictions in that process and that character. Early on, we talked about this really beautiful post that Nick Cave had written in response to a question about the loss of his son. He is so articulately on some of the things we felt the story was exploring.
It’s all sorts of things about how we will our spirits, and how they can get us out of the darkness. We all really connected on that level. I’d say it was there from the start, but a performer like Andrea really brings the goods and emotional intelligence to really deliver those things.
Andrea Risebourough’s Recruitment
What was the process like, bringing Andrea Riseborough on board?
I basically wrote her a fan letter and sort of chanced my armor. I was like, “Hey! You’re amazing! I’ve got this script…” I really didn’t think it would go the mile, but stranger things have happened. She was on a shoot at the time and said, “You know I’ll read it!” And really quickly she got back to me, so I went and met her in SoHo. We hit it off. It’s just an incredible validation for someone like her to come on board and feel invested enough in the project.
There was a sort of incredible ease and shorthand in terms of how she works and what she needs and the way that I work. Maybe she could sort of sense that when we met, but I certainly knew I was going to be collaborating with Andrea Riseborough, because she’s amazing!
It was a total treat. I do think there’s a sort of reciprocity in process – you need to sort of click to be able to strike out on something like this together. I feel really grateful we had that.
Suburbia in Here Before’s Belfast
One of the things I appreciated was the detail of the suburban life, it feels so very specific. I think of the one scenes of Laura’s husband leaving for the day while the neighbor is outside smoking a cigarette, or the scene where he’s coming back and the boy is outside playing basketball. There’s all these specific suburban details.
How much of that was intentional? How much came together in the edit? How much were ideas that came together on the day of shooting?
It was intentional. I’m quite obsessed and wanted to defamiliarize what felt familiar. Suburbia, and the rhythms of suburbia, is the language of my youth. And yet, it’s so strange and there’s so much psychic energy flying around. Even when you see the wheelie-bin being put out for the binman, I wanted you to feel something. That sense of the uncanny and the subversion of the rhythms we’ve become conditioned to take for granted and to feel used to. I wanted to feel a little sideways. Those micropolitics between neighbors as well – there’s a very slight socioeconomic, a class difference, between those households. Stuff like that was all very intentional and quietly layered in so the performances would just happen with the intention that the audiences could just enjoy that without being told it or fed it too much. That’s my taste as a filmmaker and as a film lover. I would say a lot of that stuff was designed and intentional. Now certainly we conjured some lovely and serendipitous surprises along the way, and it was great to feel like we could scoop those up. We had quite a bag of tricks by the time we got to edit from lovely imagery we came across or little off-cuts when the camera was still turning over that helped with that texture.
The two child actors are both really wonderful here. I was curious how the casting process worked especially considering these are not simple roles they’re playing. I thought they both gave incredibly believable performances.
It makes me so happy to hear you say that. I’m so proud of them and of those performances. I love actors and get a real thrill when I get a sense of liveness. Not every actor will give you that. When we started meeting kids, I was looking for a certain thing: I just wasn’t sure what it was. Lewis (McAskie) and Niamh (Dornan) gave us that in abundance. Lewis has something very unassuming about him and very boys-y. There’s loads of attitude, but he also got vulnerability. It’s perfect for that age between a boy and a man, who is protective of his mother. Niamh is an old soul and hilarious. She’s very street-wise, but also such a sweet kid. She was very untrained. She wouldn’t learn lines, for example, we’d just run beats and some dialogue before we shot. It always felt very fresh and there was always the potential for improvisation. We also just made sure they had a really good time. It sounds really obvious, but a happy cast and a happy crew gives you the best thing you can work with. I think we had a really fun time. The main thing may have been keeping the kids warm, because it was so cold (laughs), but they were troopers. It was such a thrill when I did end up in the edits to have those performances to work with. They’re both legends!
Big things coming for them, I hope.
I think so!
Stacey Gregg on balancing the real and the supernatural
One of the most interesting things about the film is the balance between the supernatural feel and the suburban mundane day-to-day lifestyle. How did you attempt to strict that balance?
It is a bit like a Rorschach blot. It feels like the thing that I love most is a range of experience or reading of a piece of art or a film. So, in order to feel brave about that, you’re not trying to deliver one monolithic experience or reading. Different people might experience the film differently. How and when we disclosed the information that brings an audience to a place where they can put together a version of events – that was a real tightrope walk. The supernatural stuff, the suburban stuff is kind of a dance and it’s not completely binary. There are layers there. And that’s what I mean about the strangeness there and this presence of absence, or perhaps a sort of metaphysics where a certain experience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not legitimate because it’s not your experience. That’s quite a complicated thing to explore. With patience and holding your nerve about those things, and trusting an audience’s intelligence as well, I think Andrea’s performance anchors all that in a sort of Earthed place and the suburban setting does that as well. It allows you to get to a place you wouldn’t expect in that environment. That’s probably my favorite thing: putting two things together you wouldn’t usually feel belong.
Stacey Gregg on What’s Next
What’s next for you? What’s on the horizon?
I’m working on my next feature, which is also a collaboration with Rook’s Nest and BBC Films. I’m going to be directing some TV in the summer, and I have a theater commission, which is nice because theater has been absolutely devastated by the pandemic. I’ll be doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that over the next year or two. I’m very much looking forward to getting into my next feature.
I really appreciate you taking the time. The movie is great and I hope it gets a huge pickup and a lot of people are able to see it, particularly on a big screen, sooner rather than later.
I hope so! I think it’s hard as well with a film like that, which was so designed for the big screen. I’m looking forward to that as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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