INTERVIEW: A lion goes Cujo in Will Packer’s ‘Beast’ starring Idris Elba

The film hits theaters Aug. 19.

Idris Elba is going to test his box-office appeal as a lead in a big, brawny thriller with the upcoming film “Beast,” where he plays a dad protecting his two teenage daughters from a rampaging lion in South Africa.

It’s also a major test for Atlanta producer Will Packer, best known for comedies like “Ride Along” and “Girls Trip” and his recent stint as the Oscar producer. He has never done a project like “Beast” before but in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he said he’s happy with the results.

“It’s different for me in terms of genre, scope and location,” Packer said. “We wanted to create a film that felt big. And South Africa felt like an authentic backdrop for the story. We considered doing it in Atlanta but it would have been all green screen.”

They shot the movie, which comes out in theaters Friday, Aug. 19, on a real animal sanctuary. The plotline is simple and moves quickly.

Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, a widower whose wife died five years earlier of cancer. He takes his two daughters to South Africa to rebuild their frayed relationships and revisit the past. They visit a South African game reserve managed by Martin Battles, an old family friend and wildlife biologist. But poachers have killed off a family of lions, save for the patriarch, who loses his mind and starts attacking every human in sight.

Elba’s character soon finds his family in mortal danger.

For Packer, Elba is an old friend and longtime collaborator in multiple Packer films like “The Gospel” (2005), “This Christmas” (2007) and “No Good Deed” (2014). “We have a shorthand and a great camaraderie,” Packer said. “I called him and I only call him when it’s something he can win at. He sparked to it before we even had a completed script.”

The film stylistically uses extended one-shot takes, which Packer said was inspired by Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film “Children of Men” and draws viewers into the action.

And the backdrops are all real. The only thing that was fake, he said, were the lions. They are all CGI creations but look convincingly real. The actors instead had to react to lion puppets or a stuntman in a gray lion suit.

The film crew and actors spent three months almost entirely outdoors.

“It was a tough shoot,” Packer said. “Everything out there crawls, slithers and growls. We stayed in tents with thatched roofs. In the middle of the night you could see eyes peering at you. They’re bush babies, which are like raccoons. They were everywhere. It was unnerving.”

Credit: Lauren Mulligan / Universal Pictures

Credit: Lauren Mulligan / Universal Pictures

During a day off, Packer and his wife Heather went animal tracking on the reserve and met up with some elephants. A young elephant in heat charged them. To neutralize them, the guide in the open-roof jeep had to charge back. “If you retreat, they will chase you down,” Packer said. “It was the scariest thing I ever experienced.”

“Beast” is tailor made for movie theaters, he said, and he hopes people will go, even if it’s not a film featuring a superhero or Tom Cruise in an aviator suit.

“The response so far has been incredible,” he said. “People at the screening were screaming and cheering. It was really really impressive and validating.”


MOVIE PREVIEW

“Beast”

Starring Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries and Sharlto Copley. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.

Rated R for bloody images, violent content, some language. 1 hour, 33 minutes. Opens in metro theaters Friday.