Digging into the inspirations behind the folk horror work all about what it means to be human.
You Won’t Be Alone, the feature debut by Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski, hits theaters this Friday after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Set in a mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, the film begins with a witch known as Old Maid Maria collecting on a debt, which happens to be a female infant, but decides to wait. The immortal Maria then returns and takes in the child on her 16th birthday, making her a reluctant student to both her magic, and her nihilistic view of humanity.
I got a few moments to chat with Goran in anticipation of the film’s release. We dug into the themes and origin of the story he explored that are forays into folk horror and the well worn genre of witches and witchcraft that manages to feel both completely original and strikingly familiar.
You’re Australian, why make a film in Macedonian with an international cast?
I was born in Macedonia, then grew up here in Melbourne from age 12 onwards, but I go back a lot as well. So I’m kind of in between the two countries. 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, but when it came time to celebrate my awards, I belonged to both of them. It’s a pattern of my life really, and in terms of international film, I mean, it is great. Like I remember it was around the time we were financing this film that Parasite happened, and that’s not something I thought I’d ever see in my lifetime.
You know, I’ve grown up watching all these subtitled films and to me that’s just reality, but I never expected my reality to be the mainstream. I love that notion of overcoming the one-inch barrier to experience different worlds, so I’m very happy to be working in this time. The second feature I’ve just made is in English, but it’s Australian working class slang English. So I almost feel like it needs subtitles. Then the third film I’m going on to is in Macedonia in a couple of months, and that’ll be Macedonian again. I like this feeling that I’m not just making films for the places I grew up in, because I really wanna be engaging with the world, you know.
Growing up my best friends were Ingmar Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. They came from very different countries than I did. So 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 and I was worried that people wouldn’t see it as relevant. But no, it speaks to everyone’s feelings so far and it’s good.
I love that the mundane is what sort of transcends what it means to be human to this supernatural being. What sparked that fascination with that sort of slice of life narrative that drove this story?
Essentially, my idea for making the movie was, you know, based on the historical pattern of women who were accused of witchcraft, [they] 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? And then the slice of life aspect was, I was using this premise as a way into this way of life, that kind of agrarian and cyclical way of life that sort of defined not just that part of Europe, but most of the world really, for thousands of years, and it is now pretty much on the verge of dying.
Now the specific village where we filmed now only has about 40 residents and none of them under 65, and that’s quite common across that whole region. There are villages that are quite preserved and they’re slowly dying out and there’s no staying in them. So it’s just the final glimmers of this way of life that existed [for] thousands of years and I wanted to kind of document what that 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 kind of beauty in the mundane, in the everyday that you don’t notice. That was kind of my overarching principle for the film.
Speaking of which, I’ve never heard of a Wolfeater before. Is that based on a specific legend or is that something that you came up with, and why did you think she made an interesting antagonist?
So, I was researching folklore from that specific region of Macedonia, because it was kind of the last, most isolated part; it’s quite close to where I grew up. It was one of the last ones to be touched, and it preserved this way of life the longest. There isn’t a whole lot of surviving folklore. People were busy subsisting, you know, in difficult conditions. So not much was written down or even passed on, unfortunately, that I could find. So I didn’t end up using too much of the mythology of that region or the folklore. There was a mention of a Wolfeater figure, not quite similar to the character in the film, but just a kind of generalized all-purpose boogie man in certain villages. It was referred to as the Wolfeater and in Macedonian, it’s an interesting name phonetically.
Because my character was female, as she was coming to me, I changed the name to fit that and I wanted the English translation to fit that as well. I kind of almost worked backwards from that name. So how could someone end up being called the Wolfeater or Wolfeatress? Essentially for the film, if a folk tale or a fairytale 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 a Wolfeater ? What did someone see in the woods once vaguely from a distance and then a legend grew? So essentially I worked backwards from that.
Finally, what were some films that inspired your take on witchcraft? And given there have been a couple films in the genre recently, what did you want to do to differentiate your take on witches?
Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about other films. I don’t normally write genre stuff, I normally write relationship drama, so this was my first attempt to do something with a genre premise. But essentially the approach was, I was just gonna take a genre premise and then treat it like I would any story, and normally it’s the feelings and the relationships that drive me. Then I tend to write mainly from women’s perspectives, because women’s brains match mine much more closely than others. Connecting women just like instinctively went to witches, and that’s where it came from. The stream of consciousness voiceover came to me in a few stray sentences but are now in the scripts in different sections.
It was just from those energies and that sense of the place that this kind of story came together and I had to write it in like three days. I was writing it for a story workshop, at a deadline. So I just kind like typed it out. Normally it’s after I finish something, I go, ‘Is it too similar to something else?’ and adjust it, but I don’t really think about it — it’s just too hard. Creativity for me needs to come from, not from a conscious part of my brain, but it feels like it comes from my, my gut, my chest, you know, sort of coming outta me instinctively. I don’t feel like it’s very good usually. So it’s only afterwards that I go, what, what else may be similar, but I wasn’t really thinking about [it] in this case, to be honest.