SXSW 2021: Stacey Gregg on Finding an Original Way Into a Psychological Thriller With “Here Before”

Although there are plenty of moments in “Here Before” where it’s so tense you can hear a pin drop, it is a needle drop in Stacey Gregg’s feature debut that is bound to have the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. As Laura (Andrea Riseborough) begins to think she might be going mad in the taut psychological thriller, believing that the daughter (Niamh Dornan) of her new next door neighbors might be the reincarnation of her own child who passed years earlier, she makes a decision that others might underscore with solemn bow strokes of a cello, but in realizing the world of possibilities it opens up for its lead, the writer/director chose to go with the nimble plucking of strings in the Free Design’s lively “Love You.”

“I had that sequence in mind from before we shot it, and our shooting style was very economic and very lean because I did have a really clear sense of what I wanted, but then you never know until you’re in the cut if things are going to fly or not,” recalls Gregg, on the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW. “There is the old trope in there that occasionally is used or subverted, but I definitely didn’t want the whole film to feel like that. I wanted it to start get under some of those expectations and where that sequence comes in the film, there is a real gear shift and the film goes, ‘Oh, I might be doing something else.’”

“Here Before” really is something else as a whole, a rare thriller where the premise of a mother’s grief isn’t treated strictly as character motivation or where her fears begin and end. Instead, the film finds Laura relatively content these days until an instant connection with the 10-year old Megan throws everything into question, leading her husband Chris (Martin McCann) and 14-year son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie) to feel a bit neglected as she shows a special interest in the girl and Megan’s parents Josie (Grace O’Dwyer) and Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) to grow concerned with all the attention as well. Megan always seems to know a bit too much about what should be new surroundings for her, but it’s Laura’s obsession with her that grows uncomfortable, increasingly unable to see the boundaries she’s crossing to get close to her and plunging herself back into a past she thought she put behind her.

Gregg is able to vividly bring the extent of Laura’s loss to the surface without resorting to flashbacks and armed with a typically fearless turn from Riseborough, delivering chills not only in exploring what Laura is capable of but how her life is upended by even the smallest degree of hope that her child might still be alive in spirit. The fierce emotional headwinds are conveyed in the filmmaker’s distinctive sensibilities with unforgiving cuts and framing that presents characters increasingly cut off from themselves. As the film has turned heads online this week as part of SXSW’s virtual 2021 edition, Gregg spoke about how “Here Before” grew out of a sense of place in Northern Ireland, how a background in theater helped with her feature debut and toying with audience expectations.

How did this come about?

The seed for the idea I’ve had for a long, long time in that I was a little bit like Megan, the girl in the film. Her character and the premise was an idea that I had, and when I sat down and wrote the screenplay, I started to understand what I was trying to write about. I’d layer in more about Laura’s character and the psychology of the landscape, and we went through the program called iFeatures for first-time directors and writers and that helped really push and develop the idea.

It’s interesting to hear the initial idea came through Megan’s character when this could so easily fall into the trap of a creepy kid movie, but it’s her intelligence that’s unsettling rather than any sense of foreboding. What was it like to figure out?

The thing about Megan is she is precocious and she’s imaginative, and the trick of the film seemed to me was that we had to hold these two readings together at all times, so on one hand you could see how some of these things might start to read a certain way [to Laura] and yet at the same time, if you just look at her, she’s just a normal kid. So we could never fall into that trap of there’s something creepy or strange specifically with this kid. A lot of that was real fortunate when we came to casting as well. Neve, who plays the part is emotionally intelligent, she’s really sassy, but she’s just a kid and she was completely untrained and new to the whole process, so she was just very open and mischievous. She’s lived a life and she brings this kind of air of strange of knowingness, and that allowed us to strike that note without leaning into tropes or having an audience feel misled in any way.

It’s such a striking central location with these two houses alongside each other. Did you have it in mind from the start?

We were really lucky by the time we were working with our locations manager and I knew that the visual of two houses had to feel very iconic. The whole circulation of suburbia and the proximity of these two families and the patterns of behavior and how close people live up to each other or in these rural, urban estates was really crucial to the storytelling. Then when we went out, looking for locations, we looked at a couple and then our DP Chloë Thomson came in and kept pushing. I’m so glad because we finally find these houses at the foot of Cave Hill, which is an incredible location on the edge of the city in Belfast, so it’s perfect in terms of genetics as well because you’re only [on] edge lands. You’re liminal in between the city and the mountains, so it had this incredible atmosphere and those lovely long shots.

Was it interesting bringing people like Andrea to a place you knew so well?

It’s a total joy for me because this is the landscape of my upbringing and I went away to London, and I was working, but I was always trying to tell stories and come back and make work about the landscape that I’m from and the people where I’m from. With Andrea, I knew she’d done “Shadow Dancer” a long time ago, so I knew she could nail the accent and she’s from Newcastle, so I think there’s a geographical empathy there that Andrea really brought to that character. She really emotionally understood who Laura is and the social mores of the community that she’s from and for all those reasons, then a larger thematic feeling of where grief and spirituality or metaphysics sits in that landscape and the cultural specificity of those things, being in Northern Ireland rhymed to the script, and Andrea was amazingly able to just slot right in.

I loved how the architecture informed things and the way that you were using mirrors or doorways to frame scenes. Did the visual language come from the setting?

There was definitely an instinct about not wanting to get in the way of the audience, so I love sitting in an atmosphere and [getting] those wides and long shots. I wanted there to be a sort of stillness, and an economy about the piece, and as soon as I started working with [the cinematographer] Chloe, we really instinctively shared that language and we were blessed with an incredible cast, so it was just a pleasure to set up a frame and then just let them do their thing. That helps an audience feel immersed.

Were there things that happened on set that you may not have been expecting, but made it into the film that you now really like about it?

Completely, and my background is in theater, so I’m so alert to the liveliness and the privilege of working with great performers and we were very [open] to letting things happen, so often we would do a couple of takes roughly on script and then I would encourage them to let the scene break a little bit. There’s a number of improvisations actually that ended up in the final cut. All the actors were really game for that, so we might just suddenly completely go off book, and there’s a couple of shots in there where we just loved what we got and that I think really helps give it that texture of authenticity and liveliness and realness.

Given the tone, this seems like it must’ve been a difficult edit. Did going into lockdown actually come as a bit of a blessing to sit with the material?

I would say the edit was probably the toughest bit and not least because we went into lockdown. Suddenly on my first feature, I was alone in a tiny little room on a MacBook and there was a lull while we started to work out how to do this remotely, so there was a sort of hiatus, which was great because I was I supposed to process the rushes a little bit and the whole experience and think about where we’d got to with Chloe and come back to bit fresh. In terms of the edit, I had written this movie from my theater background where used with the economy, I love a sense of disruption. I like occasional hard cuts that really surprise us where we have to lean in and fill in the blanks a little bit, so it was just letting the dust settle a little bit with that break before we got back into the edit. But we didn’t get to have a test audience in this pandemic year, so there was a lot of holding your nerve as well.

What’s it like to have one of these features under your belt?

I felt like I was at a party everyday on the shoot. I was having the best time and sometimes it was really tough. We had a real challenge with daylight hours. We had child hours and restrictions, but I just feel so grateful to be in this industry and to have this opportunity. It might be because I spent 10 years as a screenwriter and a theater maker, so I just feel very fresh and joyful about the whole thing. Of course when lockdown came, I could have felt really bummed about it, but at the same time, at least I got to continue working and I finished the film and now we have this incredible opportunity at South By, so I didn’t really have expectations because I haven’t done it before, but I feel like the film that we came out with was very much the one that I imagined when I went into it, so that’s a positive experience.

How did you gravitate towards directing in the first place?

Instinctively, I was probably always going to end up here. I wanted to study film and then I ended up doing English literature and I did a Master’s in documentary film practice, but it was too expensive to try it. I couldn’t survive financially. So writing was the way that I supported myself and that became my profession, but I’ve always been very visual and I’ve often performed in or co-directed my own theater work, so I’m a storyteller in that I’m interested in finding the best form and the best vehicle for telling stories. So in many ways, it’s no surprise. I ended up here and I think I always wanted to, and by the time I got to this point, I felt I also had confidence and experience in lots of areas that has made the transition a lot smoother than if I tried to go into film directing straight out of university. I’m here now and I feel really excited by it and really ready for it.

“Here Before” will screen at SXSW beginning March 17th at 10 am CST.