Last week, Irish filmmaker Stacey Gregg celebrated the world premiere of Here Before, her psychological thriller, at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Niamh Dornan, Jonjo O’Neill, Eileen O’Higgins, and Lewis McAskie, the film follows a mother named Laura (Riseborough), who becomes increasingly convinced that the little girl (Dornan) who moves in next door is the reincarnation of her own daughter who died years prior, which puts a great deal of strain on both families. But Laura’s obsession grows deeper the more time she spends with the girl, and from there, horrifying truths are revealed that forever change the dynamics of both families caught in the middle of her grief and unwavering maternal instincts.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Gregg about Here Before, and during the interview, she discussed her unusual approach to grief in this story, the surprise she felt when Riseborough agreed to do the project, collaborating with her leading ladies for the film, and more.
Great to speak with you today, Stacey, and congratulations on the film. I thought the way that you explore grief here was so different than I'd seen it before, and I think the way you frame it in Here Before was very thoughtful and it felt extremely relatable, too. That was just one of the surprising aspects for me, honestly.
Stacey Gregg: It's so great to hear that. There haven't been that many eyes on it, so this is new for me in a way as well. And I think, just to your point that you thought the film might be one thing and it's another, yes, I think the genre elements that the film uses to get at something that I think is a little more sophisticated and to subvert some of those expectations, all of that is intentional and quite a delicate dance. When it comes to grief, we have become quite conditioned to seeing quite a thin representation of that, especially when it comes to women. This was a less conscious thing for me when I was making the film, but it has become very clear to me that my upbringing in Northern Ireland and around the women here, is that I saw strong women all the time, dealing with grief and trauma and surviving and doing more than that for not just themselves, but for their family.
And so, it's much more of a process. Something that I hit upon when we were making the film and I shared with Andrea at one point, was this response that Nick Cave wrote to somebody who asked him about the loss of his son. It resonated so much with where the film sits. He was talking about how we will our spirits into existence and how they can lead us out of the dark, and so these layers of how we experience grief were always very key to how the film developed and to, I think, holding your nerve as a filmmaker, that there's no one monolithic reading and there probably shouldn't be, either, and that probably more truthfully reflects Laura's experience.
The minute I saw that Andrea was in this film, I knew I wanted to see it because she has become one of my very favorite actresses of the last five to seven years or so, where I know if she's in it, I'm going to be completely captivated by it. And she's so darn good in this movie. Can you discuss what made her perfect for this role in your eyes and what the collaborative process was like with her on set while you guys were filming Here Before?
Stacey Gregg: I felt so excited when Andrea came on board. I had her in mind because I also am such a fan and have followed her career since I first saw her on stage in London. Plus, I knew that she did a Northern Irish accent a few years ago in another film. In my mind, quite early on, I was like, "No, you can't. Andrea would never, no." So I wrote her this fan letter and I was totally blown away when she got back and was like, "Oh yeah, well I'm shooting at the minute, but I'm going to read the script." Then the next thing I know, she wanted to meet. So we met up and we just hit it off. I think she just really instinctively understood what I was trying to do and how I was trying to do it.
Also, I think that my background in theater helped, as I'm very much an actor's director. I was very interested in her process and I think that worked. When it came to the shoot, what I was trying to do a lot of the time was just create the space for Andrea to do her thing, and for the other actors as well. I think the film is very interested in just creating the space and then getting out of the way a little bit, and Andrea is such a nuanced performer, so I think there was just a shorthand there from very early on. I just felt very excited about what she was going to deliver, and she did.
Can we talk about Niamh’s performance here as well? Because my goodness, this young woman, she is so good, where her performance feels like it is beyond her age and she holds command over different scenes in the film. My jaw was genuinely on the floor by the time the finale hit, and she was a big part of that.
Stacey Gregg: I know, she's so fantastic. I was so excited about finding Niamh, and it's that unknown thing, “Are we going to find our Megan?” I felt really cocky about it and I don't know why. But I was just like, "Yeah, we're going to find her." And I can't remember quite how it happened, but Niamh didn't come in straight away. She wasn't the obvious choice. When she auditioned, because she didn't have any experience and she didn't learn the lines, we just put the book away. I started playing a few games, we improvised, and I suddenly saw this really quite lived in, mischievous, sweet young woman; all these things at once. She's such an interesting little minx, Niamh. But she's also just so up for it and so open and so hilarious. Every day on the shoot with her, it was just such a treat. She just had a way of absorbing notes the way that I wish every adult actor could do. It was quite extraordinary.
She was just game, and I think the main thing was that she was able to listen, so we worked really well together. I could tell that the dynamic between her and the other cast members was going to be great, and Lewis [McAskie], too, when he came on board. But when Andrea and Niamh were working together, again, it was just like I'd get a couple of notes and then I'd just get out of the way and let them go. Niamh is a real find, and you just can't stop looking at her, and she was so unaware of how good she was, which is always the greatest thing. I'm really excited for her to get the attention that she deserves.
I know this isn't the ideal way to be experiencing SXSW, but I am grateful that the festival is fully virtual this year and that people from all over are being able to experience it in ways that they haven't been able to experience it before. From your perspective, being able to bring this film to the fest, representing Northern Ireland, how much does it mean to you to be able to be a part of SXSW and to know that people are going to be able to experience this story from all over?
Stacey Gregg: I feel so absolutely delighted to be part of South By. It's crazy. I didn't set out with any certain expectations. I just wanted to make the best film I could. So, to have this platform is incredible. I think that I do hanker for the day that we can share it on the big screen, because you make it with that in mind. But despite that, I just feel very grateful that people have improvised in this time and that there is clearly a real appetite for it. And in terms of representing Northern Ireland, I cannot tell you. I spent years trying to tell stories about the landscape and the people of my upbringing. It was very hard for a long time because people saw it as a financial risk or they just thought if it's Northern Ireland, it's going to be about the troubles. So having reached this point and being able to share the place that I love so much, I'm so excited about it. I feel really proud of it.
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[Photo Credit: Above photo of Stacey Gregg courtesy of Helen Murray.]