Sometimes you hear these horror stories about European or first-time, indie filmmakers going into Hollywood to make American films.
André Øvredal, one of Norway’s foremost genre filmmakers, made an indelible impression with the found footage mockumentary, Trollhunter, at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011. Øvredal is now back with his English-language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which has little in common with his previous feature—that is, if you were to discount the film’s upturned expectations, and the helmer’s punchy direction and expansive imagination. Christ, what more do you people want?
Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), a father-son coroner team in the suburbs of Virginia, are saddled with determining the cause of death when an unidentified young woman is found half-buried in the basement of an already heinous crime scene. Something’s seriously amiss: There are no signs of forced entry upstairs where multiple bodies are strewn about. Instead, it appears that the inhabitants were desperate to find their way out of the house. When Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) is wheeled into the morgue for an autopsy, the cadaver is suspiciously pristine, bearing no outward signs of violence or trauma. What begins as a routine dissection—working down a checklist of every possible rational explanation for the body’s horrific internal injuries—they find themselves at odds with supernatural forces. As Tommy says, “It’s like finding a bullet in the brain, but no entry wound.” Was our Jane Doe a victim of human sacrifice, a pagan ritual, or something much more sinister? Øvredal is a new architect of our dormant nightmares.
Anthem reached out to Øvredal in Oslo to discuss the realities of casting, his latest Rubik’s Cube The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and his forthcoming action-adventure Mortal starring Robert Sheehan.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens at the TCL Chinese 6 in Hollywood on January 6.
We first met in 2011 when you were promoting Trollhunter at the Tribeca Film Festival. I believe you had just signed to William Morris Endeavor and told me it had opened up a lot of doors. What big decisions were you faced with moving forward in the industry at the time?
At the time, I was thrown scripts of all sizes and genres. People were trying to figure out what they could use me for because Trollhunter was part comedy, part horror, part fantasy, part monster movie, part mokumentary… So I got all kinds of genre scripts. There were a couple of projects that I really gravitated towards immediately and one of them was Carpe Demon, which Chris Columbus was producing. I was working on that for a while and then, for various reasons, that didn’t go. During those first three years after Trollhunter, I was also working with some other very prominent Hollywood producers on various movies and tried to get them made, but they didn’t go.
I don’t think moviegoers realize how much of that gas-and-break goes on in development.
The process of getting a movie made is just so insane sometimes. I’m sure there’s like less than 1% of movies that are really, actually quite decent projects that end up going to theaters. There’s a lot of money involved usually, you know, so the decisions that are made are similar to like building a skyscraper or building a giant bridge. It costs the same amount of money for some of these movies.
You returned to Tribeca this year with a short film called The Tunnel and The Autopsy of Jane Doe is your follow-up feature to Trollhunter. How did these projects come about?
The Tunnel was based on a short story that I read in school as a teenager. I had always loved that short story, The Tunnel Ahead, which actually impacted a whole generation of Norwegians because it was curriculum. It was written by a woman in New York in 1961 by the name of Alice Glaser. It was her only short story and it’s often included in sci-fi anthologies. I wrote the first draft of the script in 2003, 2004, 2005… For ten years, I tried to figure out a way to get it made. Eventually, it won a screenplay award here in Norway. With the award, the whole production and post-production was to be taken care of by two of the largest post houses in Norway, so it was suddenly possible to make it. This was back in 2010, before Trollhunter had even premiered. We still needed an additional $100,000 for just cashflow, but we shot The Tunnel in 2012. We spent all this time figuring out how to balance the amount of FX work we needed with our resources, basically.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe appeared in the middle of that. I was so inspired to make a horror movie after watching The Conjuring. Then, a month later, my agent sent me Jane Doe and I just fell in love with the script. It suddenly appeared to me that I was already in development on a Norwegian movie with two of its producers and they happened to be fans of Trollhunter. It turned out that the other two producers were big fans of Trollhunter as well. They liked my take on Jane Doe and, eventually, it was a very happy marriage and a totally amazing experience. Sometimes you hear these horror stories about European or first-time, indie filmmakers going into Hollywood to make American films, but I just had an amazing experience with everybody, including the financiers.
It’s fun to watch foreign filmmakers gain traction in Hollywood and see what projects come their way. Roar Uthaug landed the 2018 Tomb Raider reboot after The Wave, for instance.
Yeah, and we’re also offered a lot of movies that we don’t want to do, of course. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe was such an easy choice for me to make. It was a highly visual and intriguing proposition with really well-written characters, a lot of attention to detail, and everything else.
Brian Cox always has this amazing presence and gives a lot of weight to The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Emile Hirsch is great here as well. Was the casting process a very lengthy one?
Well, not exactly a lengthy one. We first had Martin Sheen for Brian Cox’s part, but he had to drop out because we pushed the shoot and it suddenly conflicted with his schedule and commitment on another project. So we basically lost nine months in trying to find another actor. When Brian read the script, he loved it and got on board fairly quickly. But he’s a busy guy and we had to wait for his schedule to open up. During that wait, we were lucky enough to get Emile on board as well. But, you know, this is a very typical Hollywood process: You make a list of the dream actors that you want for the part, go through their representation, and ask them to read the material.
I also wanted to ask you about newcomer Olwen Catherine Kelly, who plays Jane Doe. In many respects, this is the most pivotal role to cast. With the visuals alone, she’s the anchor.
We were actually quite scared of that because, as you said, she’s so pivotal. She is the movie, the title character. She had to embody so many things like innocence and depth beneath the surface. Fortunately, I called my casting director and she said, “I know this woman. I’ll send you into a meeting with her.” Olwen was the very first person I saw and she was just perfect. I saw another 20 to 30 actresses and models, but there was really no doubt in my mind that Olwen was the one.
That’s really to cover all the bases on your part, right? It’s just good sense.
Absolutely. It helps you trust your instincts and it’s good to see different options. There were other interesting choices that I absolutely would’ve gone with, but Olwen was such a clear favorite.
Clearly, a performance like that demands so much restraint and self-control. I read that she took up yoga and meditation to prepare. Is that a suggestion that you make as a director?
She was actually already into all of that stuff. That’s something that I did talk to her about in our first meeting and she was explaining to me how prepared she was already to play this part. I remember her telling me how she had been teaching herself to relax the muscles on her face for her modeling shoots and all kinds of stuff like that, which is very technical. She was already into yoga. She’s the most zen person you can imagine, actually. [Laughs] For me and for us, she had the full package that we could only dream of. If she hadn’t been doing all of that already, it would’ve been tricky for her to do this part because she was on that table for seven or eight hours a day, for weeks.
Emile said in an interview that he went to the L.A. County morgue to celebrate his 30th birthday. I’m assuming he actually went there to research… Did you also go to a morgue?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, I went to several morgues. The only thing that I didn’t actually get to see—it’s kind of a big thing and difficult to access in Europe compared to L.A.—was an actual autopsy. But I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t have minded seeing it because I’m not that squeamish. So I went to morgues and had hours and hours and hours of conversations with loads of coroners and morticians. It was hours and hours of looking at how they behave. They were actually with us during prep for several days before the shoot and with us every hour of shooting for every autopsy scene. We were trying to capture the naturalism of everything. There’s a big hacksaw in the film and equipment like that’s all real. You can actually just go out to a shop and buy all of this stuff.
That’s the more procedural stuff you can take off your shoulders by having experts around.
At the end of the shoot, Stuart Hamilton, our lead advisor—he’s a major coroner in the UK—came up to me and said, “I’m so proud to put my name on this movie because you guys have really gone all the way to ensure that this feels real.” There were certain creative liberties taken, of course, because it’s a supernatural horror movie, but we followed so much of the real-life protocol. It was very important to me to portray these characters in a very realistic manner in how they do their job because it’s such a big part of the movie and the script. We would’ve surely failed if we didn’t.
This was shot almost entirely on a London soundstage, is that correct?
Yeah, it was actually a warehouse out in East London that we built this huge set on. Everything was one big set. You could walk from room to room, and just live there and be there.
The morgue in the basement that you see was built from scratch?
Yeah, except for the upstairs of the house, which was a location, and all the exteriors.
That’s pretty spectacular. I’m a big fan of practical effects and FX makeup, which you see a lot of in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Were horror films and creature features a big part of your growing up? What kinds of stuff were you watching that fueled your creative impulses?
Absolutely. There are some classic horror movies that I totally fell in love with when I was quite young—I don’t know how young, but I suspect in my early teens—like The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Shining. But I was also getting my hands on a lot of underground copies of various horror movies that weren’t even legal in Norway. For example, Evil Dead was banned in Norway, so I had to find it through other channels. [Laughs] I loved horror movies and I watched everything.
This is obviously a very subjective reference to pull out, but the creature element in Jane Doe called to mind Thir13en Ghosts. Did you ever watch that movie? I’m not even talking about the 1960 William Castle original because I’ve only seen the 2001 remake. Isn’t that awful?
[Laughs] No, I did not. I should see that then.
What did you find the most challenging to shoot or pull off during filming?
The most challenging thing when you’re doing a low-budget movie like this is simply time. You’re constantly fighting time. It actually doesn’t matter what the scene is and has more to do with, “Is this too much for the day’s schedule?” Sometimes that could mean complex dialogue and emotional scenes, or it could be very practical like, “These are all the shots we need, shot in the correct way to create the suspense we need.” But the most fun to shoot was, of course, the autopsy stuff. It was great fun to set up those moments, get the blocking right, and get the actors into the mindset of what real coroners do. We were all looking forward to doing that stuff in particular. Again, I think time is always the biggest challenge, more so than the specifics of what the shots are. There’s the fire scene that, of course, is more difficult than anything else in Hollywood. It’s a short scene, but it all comes down to the scale of your production. For us, that was a big scene.
Let’s do some quick fires: Are you a very superstitious person?
I’m such a grounded person. I don’t believe in much. No, I don’t believe in the supernatural.
What about within the context of filmmaking? Sometimes you hear stories about cursed sets.
I find that stuff a bit questionable. I think it has more to do with marketing purposes.
It gets blown out of proportion over time as well, similar to gossip getting passed around.
Yeah, because you have to tell an amazing story every time. The mythology about how horrible Stanley Kubrick was, or whatever, just keeps expanding. Who knows what the actual reality was?
What are your real-life fears then?
Well, death. [Laughs] I have a kid, so anything happening to him would be my biggest fear. I have a fear of flying, but I’m getting over it. I’ve been flying so much that I have no choice. The more existential, bigger things like who runs which country can be frightening to think about sometimes.
Yeah, that’s who I was thinking of. [Laughs]
How old is your son now?
He obviously hasn’t seen any of your films.
No, he has not. He’ll probably get to see Trollhunter when he’s eight.
It’s something to look forward to. What do you think it’ll be like to see your films together?
I don’t know if he’s going to understand what it all means. I hope he enjoys it. Maybe when he grows older, he’ll start to appreciate my work or just get a general understanding of all the work that goes into getting a movie made. It’s a miracle whenever a movie gets made and I hope he appreciates that. It’s just another job, honestly, when you’re in a family. It’s just what dad does.
Does he know that you’re a director and that’s you’re job, though?
He’s way too young to understand what it means to make a movie, but he knows that’s my job.
You told me that you’re shooting something next week. Is that Mortal with Robert Sheehan?
That’s a commercial. I have another commercial after New Years and then I start prep on Mortal.
Have you been talking about this project much, or is it too early to talk about?
I talk a little bit about it. There’s some stuff out there already—actually, more than I appreciate. It’s based on Norse mythology. It’s about a guy who discovers he has certain powers and he’s chased around the countryside. It’s a supernatural, action-adventure road movie. I’m trying to keep up with Trollhunter by mixing a bunch of genres together. It’s going to be serious. It won’t be comedic.
When are you aiming to release that one?
I’m not sure. We’re just prepping at the moment. That depends on who ends up distributing it.