Goran Stolevski and Anamaria Marinca
Won’t Be Alone
By Jay S. Jacobs
You Won’t Be Alone resides in the rarely trod territory between the arthouse and the haunted house. On the surface it is an exploration of a twisted relationship between an immortal witch, known in an 18th century Macedonian village as Old Maid Maria and the young feral girl who she cursed as an infant.
However, despite the abundance of horror and gore, the film is actually much more subversive than it appears on the surface. It also explores all sorts of other aspects of its world – loneliness, the place of women in a patriarchal society, maternity, superstitions, power structures and quite simply what it means to be human. And its main thrust is much more than mere witchcraft, it also explores shape shifting, possession of bodies and souls and the loneliness of extreme power.
You Won’t Be Alone is the feature debut (he has made several short films) of Macedonia-born, Australian raised writer/director Goran Stolevski. It features an international cast including Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud and Sara Klimoska.
About a week before the American premiere of You Won’t Be Alone, we had the opportunity to join a few other media outlets to have a video discussion with writer/director Goran Stolevski and the film’s witchy antagonist, Anamaria Marinca.
When you decided to make a genre film, and to incorporate witchcraft, what were some films you were inspired by? And given that we’ve seen a couple of films in the genre recently, what did you want to do to differentiate your take on witches?
Goran Stolevski: Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about other films. I normally don’t write a genre stuff. I normally write relationship drama. This was my first attempt to do something with genre premise. Essentially, the approach was, I was just going to take a genre premise and then treat it like I would any story. Normalize the feelings of the relationships that drive me. I tend to write mainly from women’s perspectives because women’s brains match mine much more closely. (laughs) Connecting women [with genre films] instinctively just went to witches. That’s where it came from.
Anamaria Marinca: (laughs) The tragic element was there have been a lot of parts that were very intense, let’s put it that way. But I’ve never been part of such a metaphorical world. This is a fairy tale to me. It was a fairy tale when I read it. It was very poetic. Playing a part in Goran’s first feature was such a gift to me. I just got a phone call and he sent me the script. From the first page I knew I wanted to be part of it.
Goran Stolevski: Then the voiceover came to me, the stream of consciousness voiceover in a few stray sentences that are now in the script in different sections. It was just from those energies and the sense of the place where I wanted it to be set that this came together. I had to write it in like three days. I was writing it for a story workshop at a deadline. So I typed it out. I had no time. Other people might have made the journey.
Anamaria Marinca: I think the interior monologue reading through his words and the innocence, the candor and the radical innocence of have those words were very new to me in terms of films. I never read a similar text connected to a film. It didn’t come my way, that kind of script. So, I embrace it and I hope everyone will feel the same about the movie.
Goran Stolevski: Normally, it’s after I finished something that I go, “Is it too similar to something else?” I can adjust it. But I don’t really think about it. It’s just too hard. Creativity for me needs to come not from a conscious part of my brain, but it feels like it comes from my gut, my chest. Unless it’s coming out of me instinctively, I don’t feel like it’s very good, usually. So, it’s only afterwards that I go, “What else may be similar?” But I wasn’t thinking about it in this case, to be honest.
I’ve never heard of a Wolf Eateress before. Is that based on a specific legend, or is that something that you came up with? And why did you think that she made an interesting antagonist for the film?
Goran Stolevski: Originally, I was planning to research folklore from that specific region of Macedonia. It was the most isolated part. It’s quite close to where I grew up again, but it’s the most isolated part of Macedonia, and the one that was last to be touched, [which] preserved this way of life the longest. There isn’t a whole lot surviving of folklore. People were busy subsisting in difficult conditions. (laughs) Not much was written down and passed on, unfortunately, that I could find.
Anamaria Marinca: I think the folk in the Balkans has a lot of common roots. But I have never met the wolf eateress in Romanian folktales I grew up with. That was a new character for me. But the gory, very scary characters in our folklore do exist.
Goran Stolevski: I didn’t end up using too much of the mythology of that region. There was a mention of a wolf eater figure, not quite similar to the character I’m describing, but just a generalized all-purpose bogeyman. In certain villages, it was referred to as the wolf eater. In Macedonian, it’s an interesting name phonetically. Then, because my character was female already, as she was coming to me, I changed the name to fit that. I wanted the English translation to fit that as well. I almost worked backwards from that name. How could someone end up being called the wolf eater or wolf eateress?
Anamaria Marinca: I don’t think of characters in terms of good and evil. I was very happy to make this incursion in her past, to give a more comprehensive understanding of a life. Of course, this life spans hundreds of years, because as we know, witches are probably mortal. She tries to renew her forces obviously. We see the way in which she preserves her looks in the film. (laughs)
Goran Stolevski: For all the fun the principle was, if a folktale or a fairy tale was based on a true story that then became mythology, we want to try and capture what the true story was like. I just thought, how could someone end up being called a wolf eater? What did someone see in the woods once vaguely from a distance? And then a legend grew and grew? So essentially, I worked backwards from that.
Anamaria Marinca: She gained supernatural powers during the centuries. She kept living. But this is just the metaphor. The underlying condition is the profound loneliness of a human being and searching for meaning, I think. She tries to understand how love is possible after what she endured. Also, I think she is trying to learn to become a mother, but that quality also is being denied to her.
You shot in Serbia, but it takes place in Macedonia. It’s 19th century Macedonia.
Goran Stolevski: [It takes place in] the country that is now called Macedonia. It was all a hodgepodge between several empires, actually the one in Turkey, the Ottoman Empire. Where we shot in Serbia is very close to the Macedonian borders, so those regions are very closely united. I speak Serbian because the language is also very similar. That’s how it worked out.
This was an international cast, but you may have been the very closest one person from Macedonia itself, least in terms of where it was shot. Is that not true?
Anamaria Marinca: Yes, I was born in Romania. And of course, Sarah [Klimoska], who played Nevena, was born in Macedonia. We filmed in Serbia.
In the mountains of Serbia, what a hard location that would be, but absolutely beautiful, was it not?
Anamaria Marinca: It was amazing, especially the time of the year when the colors change. In the middle of a pandemic, we were the lucky ones. We got to go out and fly to a foreign country and be together in this bubble. And creating a beautiful film, I think. (laughs)
Goran Stolevski: The geographical setting technically for the film is a fictional village at a spot close to where I grew up, which was about an hour and a half drive from the southern Serbian area where we ended up filming.
Anamaria Marinca: It was exciting for me to go back to the place I was born in and the place I grew up and be part of something that was very specific, but very general at the same time, because I think everyone that watched our film connected to the story. That small village in 19th century Macedonia is a metaphor for the world.
Goran Stolevski: I was using this premise as a way into this way of life. That agrarian cyclical way of life that defined not just that part of Europe, but most of Europe. A world for 1000s of years – I wouldn’t even say centuries – and is now pretty much dying out or on the verge of dying. The specific village where we filmed now only has like about 40 residents and none of them [has] over 65. That’s quite common across the whole region, there are villages that are quite preserved. They’re slowly dying out and [some people are] just staying in them.
What challenges there were to the filming process in such a rugged locale?
Anamaria Marinca: Actually, it wasn’t rugged at all. (laughs) It was a small town, beautiful town in the mountains that to me, was very familiar because it’s in Eastern Europe. I could have been in Romania, I could have been in Macedonia, it happened to be in Serbia.
Goran Stolevski: It’s just the final glimmers of this this way of life that existed 1000s of years. I wanted to document that and just what the day-to-day life reality would be. Obviously, it’s punctuated by major events in the character’s life. But I’m always drawn to finding that beauty in the mundane. In the everyday that you don’t notice that way otherwise. That was the overarching principle.
Anamaria Marinca: Also,we were in a beautiful hotel that allowed us to meet and dine together in the middle of a pandemic. The town allowed us also to have human contact, because there were very, very few cases [of COVID] there. So, our regime wasn’t that strict. The colors of the season and the mountain was beautiful. That village was incredibly home to us. The climate and the nature were working with us and not against us. I can’t say I was challenged by the vicissitudes of it. (laughs) It might look scary, and it was majestic. but it wasn’t dangerous. It played its perfect part in the film. It looked the right way.
You had mentioned in passing that your character was almost like a mother. In a way they do have a strangely intimate relationship – like a twisted mother-daughter relationship. Towards the end your character and Nevena, they envy each other, they fear each other, but they understand each other, and they need each other as well. How important was that relationship to your take on the role?
Anamaria Marinca: The whole story explores the idea of maternity. What does it mean to be a mother? To be a good mother? If this connection happens between the two of them, it’s not by love. Maybe it is through the understanding that they were both cut off from the world. One by the community she was once part of – or trying to become part of. The other one because of a curse.
Goran Stolevski: Maria has an unconscious yearning. To me and to Anamaria, I remember it was very much the decision [to allow baby Nevena to live] was more like a whim. We didn’t want to oversell it psychologizing it. The reason Maria accepts the proposal is in the moment is instinctive.
Anamaria Marinca: They were both outsiders and they’re both trying to find out who they are and what they feel and what is it to be human. I think that story is beautiful, to me. Also, it gave them a common ground. There’s an intuition about the hurt that’s there. There’s a tenderness. There is this desperate need to connect, and that connection never happens.
Goran Stolevski: It does speak to a deep-seated need for her to connect to someone – to have company in life – that she doesn’t even acknowledge to herself. Even she doesn’t know it and I certainly don’t expect the viewer to be aware of at that point of the film. Then as the story deepens, you realize there is something in her that wants to connect to someone but isn’t capable of it.
Anamaria Marinca: That touches me, the sadness of this story. I was never able to quit that feeling that I was carrying with me, that possibility to connect with one’s own daughter.
Goran Stolevski: I feel like it retroactively might give you the sense that she was looking for a connection unconsciously. At least that’s what it is for me. But I feel like a viewer’s version of the movie is more valid than mine is, frankly. So, I’ll wait to find out.
One of the things that struck me while watching the film was the lack of dialogue in many places and the reliance on nonverbal acting from the terrific cast. Can you talk about using nonverbals to add to the mystery, the tension, and the intrigue? And what led to that decision to let what was happening on screen speak for itself?
Goran Stolevski: It’s an instinctive process. A lot of the time I don’t really cerebrally or intellectually think through what we’re going to get to. It is like I’m writing directly from the gut and then shaping it into something coheres, hopefully. (laughs) There were little bits of dialogue that got taken out in the edit. Sometimes, I’m writing more dialogue on page knowing that it’ll be taken out because it makes the reality much more detailed for actresses. I know their eyes will be saying enough for me that the words are unnecessary after a while.
Anamaria Marinca: I had the whole costume, the skin, the whole-body costume. In the beginning, I was quite self-conscious about that. But I think it became part of the story and who I was at that particular moment. I knew I could convey through that barrier, what the character is about. It’s in the eye, and it transcends, if you believe in who you are, and you’re inhabited by that energy. I think that kind of appearance can only help.
Goran Stolevski: It wasn’t even really a conscious decision to keep it very low in terms of dialogue. It’s just I found when it isn’t necessary, I wouldn’t put it in. I’m allergic to unnecessary exposition. I’m always trying to take that out, no matter what. Most of my other writing is actually extremely dialogue heavy. (laughs again) Different from my other work. In fact the second film I’m finishing now – we’re in sound mix – is very dialogue driven. Very different from this. Even in that case, I wrote more dialogue than I needed and then I pared it back. Because things happen in the eyes. Sometimes things you expect. Sometimes things you don’t expect that give you more depth and more layer than you need almost. The dialogue is for me the first thing to go away when needed.
Your artistry has to come through your face in many cases. In this case, your face was covered by a great deal of makeup. What was that like as an actress?
Anamaria Marinca: It gave the viewer the character. (laughs) I forgot about wearing makeup most of the time. I’ll be very aware when it was applied. I was joking. I think I got high every morning from that glue. I must have been very happy at a very early hour. But then during the day, I think it’s natural, again, with the atmosphere we’re in, creating, with a story developing and us thinking so intensely about the scenes and the work at hand. It just disappeared for me.
Goran Stolevski: My idea for making the movie was based on the historical pattern [that] women who were accused of witchcraft were always accused of taking the shape of another human being or an animal. I thought, well, if you could do that, what an amazing perspective to look at people, even time – if you’re able to just shift between bodies. If we just took that and kept the rest of the world as it is, was my approach. What would that feel like? What would that be like?
Anamaria Marinca: I would see my claws and I would remember that actually I have to be careful not to snag them. But it became parts of me. I’m glad it happened. Because otherwise, if I was too conscious about it, I think I would have tried to play it. So, I can’t say I used it in the best possible sense, I think a good costume or good makeup is the one that lets you be completely free. That makes you forget that it is fake. I forgot that it was something that that is made of latex. It was a second skin. It didn’t stay in my way. On the contrary.
So often women are judged by the exterior. In this case, you had the liberty to not have to rely on the exterior to convey more internally and through nonverbal cues, the suffering and some of the challenges this character had. Was that an asset?
Anamaria Marinca: As a woman, me – Anamaria – I’m not necessarily connected to those standards. I’m not a big fan of the world we live in actually of the standards imposed by social media. As an actor, also, you learn this in school, to go towards the expressiveness of a face to look for the truth. So, you’re more interested in the interior, and the mind of a character than of its appearance.
This is a very exciting time for international film. How do you feel that your film fits into that dialogue as we’re becoming more open to receiving and acknowledging works made outside of the United States or English-speaking countries?
Goran Stolevski: Well, that’s the kind of irony. This was made by an English-speaking country. It’s an Australian film on paper because principal funding and seed funding came from Australia. I was born in Macedonia then grew up here in Melbourne from age 12 onwards, but I go back a lot as well. I’m kind of in between the two countries. Often it tended to be convenient, which country was more supportive of me or not? When it came time to fund me, I was always a citizen of the other country. When it came time to celebrate my awards, I belong to both of them. (laughs) It’s a pattern of my life.
Goran Stolevski: In terms of international film, it is great. I remember around the time we’re financing this film, Parasite happened. That’s not something I thought I’d ever see in my lifetime. I’ve grown up watching all these subtitled films. To me, that’s just reality, but I never expected my reality to cross over to the mainstream. So yeah, it’s very thrilling. I love that notion of overcoming the one-inch barrier to experience different worlds and consciousnesses. So, I’m very happy to be in working in this time.
I wanted to know well what you learned personally from doing this movie and also what you learned about your craft?
Anamaria Marinca: As an actor you always learn. I think that each and every character becomes a part of you. Going physically through the motions and emotions of this character, to me all the moments that I have been acting in were real, so it is like I have been through that. There were very intense experiences. But an actor I think creates a new reality. We all lived in this world, and that kind of print, it’s very powerful to me. If it changed me as an actor, I’m not sure. I think as a person, I’m richer. For sure. As I am with every book I read, with everything that happens in my real life. But, again, emotionally for actors, I think, between life imagined and life lived, there is not such a big difference if you believe so much in what you do.
What do you have coming up?
Goran Stolevski: The second picture I’ve just made is an English, but it’s Australian, working-class slang English. I almost feel like I need subtitles. (laughs) Then the third film I’m going on to is in Macedonia, in a couple of months. That will be Macedonian again. I like this feeling that I’m not just making films for the places I grew up in, because I really want to be engaging with the world. Growing up, my best friends were Ingmar Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. They came from very different countries to what I did. (laughs again) I wanted to work in that tradition of films made from a very specific place, but for the world. I’m really glad that this film is being seen as something that is a universal story. When I wrote it, I was worried it would just be this esoteric thing about some obscure place in the not most exciting part of Europe. I was worried that people wouldn’t see it as relevant to themselves. But no, it speaks to everyone’s feelings so far.
Sundance must have been a marvelous experience. Want to give us your emotional reaction for your first feature film?
Goran Stolevski: It was a very disembodied experience – appropriately for this film. Obviously, the in-person part was canceled. I was just in my house. I was actually editing my second film, literally 12 hours a day all through that process. Sundance, for me, it was just, like coming out of this edit, and then realizing: Oh, my God, I’m doing Q&A. My film is playing at Sundance, and it was hard to process. I’m still processing it. (laughs) That it happened, at all. I was there a few years ago with a short film. It felt like an extension of that experience, in some ways. Even that was very dreamlike at the time. It was strange and wonderful.
Perhaps you can close this out with a general comment about the director and the writer, Goran Stolevski, and give us some feel of what kind of person he is.
Anamaria Marinca: He drew me, and I’m going to draw him. I remember, it must be a decade ago, I met a young director, and his energy and his kindness made me connect with him. I said yes to the first script. I read it was a feature film. In time, we kept in touch. I always knew we were going to work together. But I never thought it would be such an unusual and beautiful film. Because everything I had read before, there were quite psychological, realistic stories that I connected through the lens of a woman my age in this world we inhabit. This fairy tale that he offered me to read was opening a whole new world. I cherish it. I cherish his friendship.
Anamaria told us that she was struck by how passionately involved and loving you are towards your actors. Where does that come from in your approach? And what does it do for this film?
Goran Stolevski: It’s an instinctive thing. I feel like I was doing it before I was taking questions on it. Before I’m asking anyone to put themselves in an emotional or mental state for a character, I’m kind of already in it myself, to make sense of everything the actor needs to go through before I launch them into a scene. The instinct is to connect to them as much as I can just as a person. Then each of us has a separate connection to the character. It’s kind of a triangle we hold tightly all through the movie. Honestly, I feel like, even the word director is a little bit misleading. I’m not directing actors. I’m not telling them what to do. To me, it’s more like nurturing is what happens. You try to remove all the obstacles that might be in the way [and] fill in the story world. Just protect them through the whole process. The character grows within them. I just paint the world around them, and then they take over.
Anamaria Marinca: I had time while waiting to go on in front of the camera to watch him – because we were always hanging out together – to watch him watching us. To watch him with the monitor. I’ve never seen anyone more passionate and involved and loving towards his actors. He was whispering every single word. He was breathing with his actors. I’m sure he did that with me. That kind of emotion is very touching. You wanted to honor that as an actor and to bring his world to life.
Goran Stolevski: Often, I don’t even say cut at the end of a scene. They keep going. You feel when an actor wants to keep going or wants to finish the scene. I let them take charge. It’s actually remarkable how often they end up saying or doing things I didn’t put it in the script. (laughs) It becomes a very symbiotic relationship. It’s very unconscious. I was very lucky with the people I ended up working with on this film, as well as in the second one I just finished. We did have a very intense connection and commonalities emerge. It was a beautiful experience.
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