You Won’t Be Alone’s Writer-Director on His Dreamy, Witchy New Movie

You Won’t Be Alone’s Writer-Director on His Dreamy, Witchy New Movie

You Won’t Be Alone had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (we were big fans), and will be hitting theatres on April 1. It’s a movie full of imagery and ideas that hang out in your head for days, somehow making a gritty story about a shape-shifting witch into a startlingly lovely investigation of what makes people human.

It’s also the debut feature for writer-director Goran Stolevski, and we were excited to get a chance to speak with him over video chat ahead of You Won’t Be Alone’s theatrical release. What follows is a slightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: I read that You Won’t Be Alone wasn’t based on any specific folklore, but rather was something you created. I’m curious about what that process was like and also the specific details of the story, like the transformation ritual using “witch spit.”

Goran Stolevski: See, this is the problem — sometimes I look at the scripts literally the next day what I’ve written, and I have no memory of even writing it because it’s such an instinctive process. Sometimes I can’t even follow the through line of what came to that. I knew I wanted it to be very specific, and to make everything as earthy as possible. I’m making a movie about a character who is seeing things in substances and textures for the first time, and everything is just very blunt and direct to her. So I felt like the transformation should be very blunt and direct and earthy and just very practical.

Gizmodo: The “Old Maid Maria” character does some horrific things throughout the movie, but thanks to the origin story, we really get a sense of why she is that way. Why was it important to you to make her kind of a sympathetic monster?

Stolevski: I feel like I tap into a particular sort of feeling when I’m writing, and then the story kind of comes out of it, and it’s almost like directing me. It’s from an unconscious part of me. The two main people at the centre of the story, Maria and Nevena, they’re both kind of like my brain split into two, essentially. So I understood them very deeply the whole way through. I knew the backstory to Maria’s character before I started writing it — it was originally going to be the opening sequence and then I kind of reshuffled it. I never really saw her as the monster in a classical sense. I always understood where she was coming from. Both of them live in a very isolated, repressed setting, and they both just want more. They’re hungry for more. They want to live the most fullest possible way that they can, but every time they try to do that, it explodes in their faces and [they endure] horrific abuse and suffering. Through all these cycles of abuse and pain and suffering, one of them retains this hope in people, and a desire for connection — and the other one’s completely quashed. And I don’t think one makes more sense than the other. I think in the end, the film was about that: a sense of what makes a human being retain that and what makes a human being let go, and just honouring both.

Gizmodo: Why did you choose 19th century Macedonia as the setting?

Stolevski: Macedonia’s a stand in for, you know, 90 per cent of Europe. It was just the easiest entry point because I grew up there, and also it’s not that abstract. My grandparents still carried a lot of that mentality, the way of speaking and and even some of the activities depicted — the agricultural stuff I witnessed when I was five or six myself. So it didn’t feel like it was just like a cerebral thing; I was connected to that in a way that made it feel normal and real to me. And, it’s a way of life that existed for thousands of years, that kind of agricultural, cyclical, agrarian, way of living. That’s pretty much disappeared now or completely disappearing. The village where we shot didn’t have any residents aged under 65, and there’s only like 30 or 40 of them when it used to be hundreds. That’s kind of common across that entire region. And I think while we still can preserve some of what that feeling was like, I wanted to capture that in [both] the positive and the negative sense. Obviously, I didn’t want to glamorize it or make it idyllic, but I still really believe in preserving it, just so we have a better understanding of it.

Bosilka (Noomi Rapace) faces the harsh reality of her new life. (Photo: Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)
Bosilka (Noomi Rapace) faces the harsh reality of her new life. (Photo: Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

Gizmodo: In You Won’t Be Alone, the main character, Nevena, is played by various actors. Was there much communication between them about continuity in terms of how the character would be portrayed? What was your role in helping shape their performances?

Stolevski: They didn’t get a chance to meet a lot of the time just because of the nature of filmmaking and logistics. The only actress who played Nevena who was present [throughout] was Sara [Klimoska] — she establishes the character early on in the film, and it’s her voiceover we’re hearing the whole way through … We recorded her voiceover several weeks in advance, and it was during the recording that both me and her connected to the character in a way that it felt very real, rather than just discussing it in theory.

A lot of the mannerisms were written into the script and some of the commonalities and how they evolve gradually, so people had a rough map of how that was going to work. We also had a 45-second video of [Genie Wiley], this girl who was found — it’s a really tragic story. In 1970, she was found [after undergoing] a horrific childhood isolated from everyone else, and then at age 13, she was discovered and freed. There’s a lot of videos, but there’s a simple one of her walking through her yard and just the way she looks and behaves and moves. We found it incredibly moving, me and Sara, and for her, it made the character very vivid because it’s a similar background, in a sense.

We shared that with every other actor that came on board, and they [all] built on top of that because, you know, I don’t want Noomi Rapace or Carloto Cotta to come on board and just tell them to “be like this person.” They need to be bringing something of themselves. I want to capture their soul as well along the way. And then because the character kind of evolves anyway through the story, each of those actors brought a part of themselves that felt like a stage of evolution … I feel like my role is just to be sort of there and fill in the world around them, and kind of remove obstacles and nurture them through that process. And then the character grows through them.

Gizmodo: Speaking of the voiceover, was writing that like much writing the rest of the script, where it came sort of from your subconscious? Did you have any filmmaking influences? Terrence Malick comes to mind…

Stolevski: Terrence Malick is the first one that comes up — it’s starting to be a triggering phrase! I promise you, I feel like, “Did I steal his children? I didn’t realise!” I adore him, but those phrases [in the voiceover] came to me by themselves, and then the character was kind of shaped around the four or five that are interspersed through the film. Where they came from was originally Virginia Woolf, who’s my favourite artist; I wanted to kind of try and do with images what she does with words because I’m not that good with words. And then the natural reference point cinematically for that is Terrence Malick. But also before him, Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras — Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the best experiences of my life. So it was based around that.

But like, these are more references I use to talk to other people. When I’m generating material I don’t like to think, “Oh, how does he do that?” I hadn’t seen Days of Heaven in 10 years at that point. But then I use them as defence arguments when people try to tell me I can’t make the movie because it’s too strange, I’m like, “Well, I mean, look at this one, and look at this one! It’s not that weird, surely!” But like I said, I’m not really thinking of other people while I’m generating a story — I’m sure the unconscious part of me is, and when I don’t know where it’s coming from, it might be that.

Director Goran Stolevski on the set of You Won't Be Alone. (Photo: Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)
Director Goran Stolevski on the set of You Won’t Be Alone. (Photo: Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

Gizmodo: Do you consider You Won’t Be Alone to be a horror movie?

Stolevski: I feel like I sort of set out to make a horror film, kind of in the sense that I want something with a horror premise, but then to just treat it as I would any [story] — I mainly do relationship drama — and [see] where the characters and their feelings will take me. And if some horror conventions are going to be useful, I would use them, and if some weren’t I would just ignore them, and then it kind of evolved on its own. And then by the time we came on set … the way I would explain it is like, “I know it’s about witches but don’t think of it as a horror film. Think of it more like, if a fairy tale was based on a true story. We’re kind of making the true story in a documentary style.” That wasn’t me disavowing horror by any means; I just felt like that was a more useful way in for people. But I think it’s up to people to decide whether it’s a horror movie or not. Ultimately, you know, what was in my head is irrelevant. It’s about what’s in the movie, and I think other people are a way better judge than me.

Gizmodo: What does the movie’s title mean to you?

Stolevski: Well, “you won’t be alone” is what you tell yourself when you’re worried that you will be alone. The main character keeps holding on to that hope, even when it isn’t necessarily held up by reality. And then obviously, in that sense of horror films, it can build in a sense of dread. But for me, it’s something that could, like the film itself, be about connection and the craving for it.

Gizmodo: Would you ever revisit these characters in a different setting?

Stolevski: I don’t know. I mean, I guess never say never. It would have to be a very different setting, and I wouldn’t do a direct sequel probably. Maybe? Unlikely at this rate, but talk to me in 20 years and see what happens.

You Won’t Be Alone is in theatres April 1.