Writer-director Goran Stolevski and star Rapace told IndieWire that their shape-shifting witch saga is really about what it means to be human.
The night before she began filming “You Won’t Be Alone,” Noomi Rapace sat down for dinner with director Goran Stolevski, who was making his directorial debut with the horror drama about a body-jumping witch who possesses the townsfolk of a Macedonian village . Jet-lagged after wrapping another film the previous day, Rapace expected to have a casual conversation about her character from Ella. So the actress was caught off guard when Stolevski asked about her comfort level with a nude scene in the script.
This was news to Rapace, who was not aware that her role required nudity.
The star eventually realized that Stolevski’s script described her character as appearing “as she was on the day she was born,” an eloquent stage direction that slipped past Rapace and her team.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said in an interview with IndieWire. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’”
But her fears quickly subsided the next day when she began filming in the remote Serbian village where the film was shot. The scenery, combined with the fact that Stolevski “did not feel like a first-time director,” allowed her to immerse herself in the poetic occult material.
“That first day on set, I forgot everything outside. I just felt like a newborn,” she said. “Like I was taking my first steps on earth, touching and feeling and discovering the beauty and the brutality of life.”
While Hollywood history is filled with anecdotes about horror directors asking their female stars to strip down, the fact that this nude scene was obliquely referred to in beautiful prose is a perfect metaphor for “You Won’t Be Alone,” a film that constantly marries horror tropes with arthouse sensibilities. The film tells the story of a witch who takes over the bodies of humans and animals, jumping between vessels by killing the people who previously occupied those bodies, with the discarded vessels perishing as she enters a new host. But while that premise might sound like frightening Halloween fare, the film is much less “It Follows” than an exploration of what it means to live as a human, seen through the eyes of men, women, and children.
The film earned strong reviews after its Sundance premiere, with many critics saying that the film reminded them of Terrence Malick directing a horror movie. Speaking to IndieWire, Stolevski said he understands those comparisons and says that his goal was always to take elements of horror and apply them to a more grounded human drama.
“I wanted to take a horror premise and treat it as I would do anything that’s sort of driven by characters and feelings,” he said. “I thought any horror that emerges should emerge from itself organically, rather than me trying to elevate it. I sort of feel like it’s within the horror tradition, but it’s not meant to be too scary.”
If anything, Stolevski actively worked to downplay the more horrifying aspects of the story. His original script for the film was written in “a very intense three days,” before he spent three weeks fleshing out a full script, and then continued to tinker with the story until the film wrapped. His changes from him kept moving the film away from horror and towards philosophical human drama, until he was left with something truly unique. “There were a couple scenes in the script that were kind of going to be built into scary moments,” he said. “And then the film didn’t want them.”
Stolevski said he was always drawn to witches because of his interest in films with female characters who don’t fit into the societies in which they live. “I tend to write a lot of outsiders, and I connect to that perspective the most. I also tend to write mainly from women’s perspectives, because I feel like those brains match mine,” he said. “A lot of the feelings I want to connect to, tend to fit into what could be described as a female character.”
“Although obviously for this film, that’s not quite right,” he added with a laugh.
It’s not quite right because the film follows Nevena, a character who constantly switches bodies, never limited by gender. Rapace plays the first iteration, Basilka, an impoverished mother who fears her abusive husband of her. Nevena escapes the marriage by becoming a dog and later a man, which gives her a unique perspective on humanity. The film explores the inherent contradictions in human life by demonstrating empathy towards even the cruelest characters, but Nevena’s perspective also allows the film to explore the relationship between men and women in the film’s rural society.
One of the more brilliant creative choices that Stolevski made was the decision to set it in a 19th-century Balkan village, completely removed from any kind of culture and firmly stuck in a way of life that was outdated even by 1800s standards. The women are completely subservient to men, and the village survives on subsistence farming that is only possible through brutal manual labor. The lack of any kind of recognizable cultural influence resulted in a setting that felt completely timeless, allowing the film to explore larger ideas about what it means to be human that could be applied to almost any society in human history.
Rapace was drawn to the remote setting, saying that it both made the film feel more universal, while also helping her connect it to her own life. “I grew up in Iceland, and there are certain villages in Iceland that feel that remote. They’re so detached from civilization and technology and they kind of live like they did 200 years ago,” she said. “So it does exist, that kind of very basic, simple life. And it was beautiful to be invited into that, because it humbles you. We think about ourselves so much, and then you come to those places and it’s just… life. Life goes on, and there’s something so liberating and peaceful about that.”
“I wanted it to be this 19th-century way of life, which really could be the second century because it existed for thousands of years,” Stolevski said. “In that setting, the person I’d connect to is the person who’s ostracized for being too curious, or wanting more. So of course, this person is accused of witchcraft. She wanted more, so she she’s a witch!”
Rapace was also drawn to Stolevski’s decision to portray the witch as a childlike, sympathetic figure. She summarized the film’s timeless message as “a tribute to life, and to the fact that we’re all different.”
While “You Won’t Be Alone” is about as successful of a debut as any director could hope for, earning Sundance praise and international distribution, don’t expect Stolevski to keep making horror movies. He has already completed his second film, which he describes as “a grungy gay love story set in the ’90s” and is preparing to shoot “a queer comedy-drama set in very present-day Macedonia.” Rather than pigeonhole himself, the director plans to continue to use different genres to explore his ideas about human relationships.
“I don’t have a set genre,” he said. “I’m definitely very interested in doing things that have an element of a genre, but treat it in the same way. Where it’s driven by the characters and the feelings and uses the conventions of a genre that helps those feelings and ignores the ones that get in the way.”
“You Won’t Be Alone” is in theaters April 1.