In You Won’t Be Alone, writer/director Goran Stolevski transports viewers back to the 19th century for his haunting fairy tale about a young girl who is transformed into a shapeshifting witch by an evil spirit, and she sets out to learn more about humanity as she takes the form of several people she crosses paths with. You Won’t Be Alone stars Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, and Noomi Rapace, and it recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (Focus Features will release the film in theaters on April 1st, too).
Daily Dead recently spoke with Stolevski about You Won’t Be Alone, and he discussed how monumental this project was for him, both personally and professionally, and he went into the inspirations behind the story as well. Stolevski also chatted about working with his cast and how his unconventional approach to how he shares his story with viewers ended up giving him more freedom as a storyteller.
Great to speak with you today, Goran. I loved how this took me to this time that felt so magical and pure, which brings me into my first question. Was this story based on existing folklore, or is this something you came up with? I'm just curious about the genesis of this project.
Goran Stolevski: This was something that I came up with. I was initially looking at folklore and traditional stories, just to see if there's anything that might pique my interest. I started researching more real life as it was in past centuries in that region, and not just legends and then various inquisitions in those periods. But the thing that eventually struck me is the fact that in the Balkans, as in other parts of the world, people who were women who were accused of witchcraft routinely were accused of taking the shape of other human beings or animals even, and that was the part that got the blood pumping.
I was like, “Well, what if that could happen?” If the world is as exactly as it is, but you could be a witch that actually has the capability to take on another person's body or an animal's even, and what an incredible insight, and what an incredible way to experience the world, and also if you can shapeshift, you're living outside of time and outside of humanity. I'm really drawn to stories about people who are on the outside looking in, but yearning to connect, and that's where it came from.
The way that you framed the story, there aren't a lot of traditional dialogue scenes where it's the character speaking because of who your main character is and the fact that she can't be vocal at all. Was that challenging to you as a filmmaker to do something where so much of this movie is told through voiceover and mainly through the visuals, or did you feel that it opened things up a little bit more?
Goran Stolevski: Yeah, you're completely right. What I did find is that it was extremely freeing because the character came to me as a kind of energy that you're trying to capture essentially, and then she directs it. I just go where her feelings are, and anytime something is occupying her attention fully, time slows down in the way she's experiencing time, and anytime something is just commonplace to her, we shuttle through various scenes and days. Sometimes horrific things happen in that period, but she's just not processing them in detail. So she was guiding us through when we slow down and when we speed up. Then in terms of communicating things, I didn't really think of it as a challenge on set, or even at the prep or writing stages. I was just hoping it would work out. You're just trying to do your best and hope it works out.
In my head, it was all very connected and holistic, and I was hoping that would come through in the end, and that the voiceover would meld. We actually prerecorded the voiceover before we filmed and it helped Sara walk into that personality, and it helped me walk into her character of Nevena's personality as well. And then we shot the film and then we recorded a couple of additional lines, because the energy changed, or parts of the story had evolved. It was never about adding more information or exposition, it was more about keeping things sensual without then explaining them. I wanted it to be a very sensory experience, so you feel like you're under her skin the whole time, and like every image and every sound and every cut in the film, every edit is guided by how she feels. What is she going through? Do I feel like she does? And how do I connect myself to that?
I wanted to talk about your casting process for this project, because you have a few actors in here that I have seen before, like Noomi and Alice, but there are some new faces for me in this, particularly Anamaria, who is phenomenally terrifying. Can you discuss finding the right players, especially when you have a central character who's then transforming into other characters, and then those characters then have to physically embody her as well? It's so complicated, but everything works out perfectly between these performers.
Goran Stolevski: Well, Anamaria actually is partly responsible for one of the best artistic experiences in my life. I remember watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007, and just being floored because I realized that this was the peak of what cinema can do, and the peak of what an actress can do. So I've been obsessed with her ever since. I approached her with another project a few years back that hadn't worked out, but we became friends. I've been desperate to work with her ever since, and it made sense. I think she has this kind of range where she does have the technical facility as an actor. It's not just about training, it's an ability. She has that understanding, but she also has the primal rawness we needed for a very raw film, and I think for that character, you had to have a balance of both. It couldn't just be one or the other, and I think there are very few people who could do that. So with her, I felt confident.
And then, it was mainly looking at people who have been able to convey this kind of rawness and connection to a moment, and just living it rather than not telling me what they feel, just living it. Because sometimes the way someone just glances can feel like expository dialogue, and I didn't want that. I wanted to feel what this person is feeling just through them living it, and I feel connected to them through that. I was looking for actors who have shown that, and I worked with Sara on a short film in Macedonia a few years ago, so I knew she could do anything. She's on fire. You put her on set, and she's someone who will connect to anyone, and she's very generous and open and extremely grounded.
Somehow, with all the other people that ended up filling out the cast, we have a lot of commonalities just in our upbringings. Without going into too much detail, I did feel there was something that was common to all of us that isn't very common in the industry actually, both in front or behind the camera. And then I think because most of them didn't actually get to meet each other, we didn't really rehearse in a traditional sense, but there was an emotional map built for the character, and it became just an instinctive process for everyone. It was a very intuitive process, instead of us trying to intellectualize it.
It has to feel really incredible to be able to share You Won’t Be Alone on the stage of Sundance, and I know it's not the traditional stage of Sundance, but I do think there's something really fun about the fact that you get to celebrate your first feature at a major festival like this. That has to feel really awesome.
Goran Stolevski: Oh, completely. Just the fact that this film got made is a miracle. I was the most failed filmmaker that ever failed for like 15 years. I've made 25 short films and even after I won a prize at Sundance, I was unemployed for two years. So the notion of me ever making a future film became something that felt very fictional. It was less embarrassing to say I'm unemployed than it was to say I've been a filmmaker for many years, because people would be like, “Oh really, what have you done?” And I'm just like, “I don't want to answer that question.”
So I know to be in this position where I not only made a movie, but it's playing at Sundance, and I know it's not the traditional Sundance and whatever, and obviously we're all a bit disappointed we're not there in person, but for once, I'm just happy for the good things that are happening, and I’m focusing on that rather than fixating on the bad. I've been with my husband for 18 years. He's had to counsel me through 25 failed short films, and this is one of 13 feature scripts I wrote. So yeah, it's all very surreal. I also just finished shooting my second feature. I've been busy editing that for the last four weeks. This is really something that I'd given up on any hope of this ever happening, so I'm just a little bit stunned still and processing all of it in slow motion.
[Image Credit: Above poster image courtesy of Sundance Institute.]
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