For me the stand out movie of the Edinburgh International Film Festival was Troll Hunter. A 'mocumentary' from writer/director André Øvredal about a grim Norwegian chap with a very peculiar sort of job. I caught up with André while he was in Edinburgh to chat to him about the film.
“I think I just wanted to make a film about trolls.” He explains to me matter-of-factly when I ask what first inspired the idea.
“We haven't really used them for much since the eighteenth century. There have been a couple of children's short films, animated films in the seventies which are classics you know, wonderful films but for a movie audience it's never been used.”
So had this been something he'd been thinking about for a long time?
“Probably, but as soon as I did think about it clearly I was already in a position where I knew how. I had a knowledge of how to make a film so I just started working on it immediately. It's the kind of thing when you come up with an idea that you really love you just have to go for it.”
And what inspired the unusual 'mocumentary' style to the film?
“That came pretty much immediately, because again knowing how to make a film, to make a Jurassic Park-sized monster movie is not going to happen on a Norwegian budget unless you do something different. We had a very limited amount of days to shoot because we can't afford to have the crew on set too long and of course the effects budget will be much smaller than a Hollywood budget so we had to limit the amount of shots. But still we were able to put in enough shots to make it feel like a real monster experience.”
One of the surprising things about Troll Hunter is the readiness of André to show us the monsters. I explain to him how I had expected a Blair Witch style, where the action took place off-camera - was that something he had set out to do from the start?
“Yeah, I wanted to talk about the mythology of the trolls and I wanted to talk about how they behaved and show them. You know I didn't want to keep them secret because I think they are such wonderful creatures. That was the whole point: I wanted to show trolls.”
And the eponymous hero?
“I was trying to put that in context of a character that you would see in a very different light, in let's say an American movie, and having this kind of monstrous adversary, you know this crazy job and it ends up with, after having to do this amazing event (hunting trolls), having to fill out bits of paper. It puts things in perspective.”
At this point I feel as if we could be discussing a nature documentary, and that attention to detail comes across in the performances during the film. I wondered if he had noticed different audiences picking up on different references? Or some non-Norwegian audiences missing the mythology?
“Well of course people outside of Norway won't get everything but I think most of it they will get as either something new or they understand the implication of the joke or the cultural troll mythology. It does cross over surprisingly well. I was kind of worried about, I remember the first screening of it at Fantastic Fest in Austin I was quite nervous because I had no idea if anyone was going to understand what the hell the film was about. That was actually the first, I hadn't even shown it to anybody outside of our core crew of the producers, the editor and sound guy and they were the only people who had ever seen the film.”
“I think now the film is more known before people go into it they are a little bit more ready to laugh. I think at the very first screening people were apprehensive about that, wondering 'Is it funny? Is it not?' and then now that people know that they are allowed to laugh a little bit I think that they do respond more.”
Are they laughing at the right bits then?
“Yeah”, he says, laughing.
An American remake is already planned, with Chris Columbus reportedly at the helm. What did he think of that?
"I was asked if I wanted to direct it. I said no thank you, I didn't want to do another mocumentary and do another film about trolls and actually,” he says with another chuckle “...do the same film again.”
“Personally I had a hard time seeing it from an American perspective. I was trying to think how I could tell this story about Norwegian mythology and I figured its much better to leave it up to the Americans to figure it out. They would understand how to tell that story better than I would.”
And was he worried than any of the religious references would be controversial to an American audience?
“I didn't think it would be controversial because it is part of the fairy tales, the fact that trolls can smell Christian blood. Its something that the trolls say when you know, I can smell...” He pauses, “in Norway even the most religious people, I have read reviews of the film on Christian websites you know and they say this is great fun for Christians”, he laughs again, “The Muslim joke is so harmless, it's not poking fun at anything. The Americans love it, they laugh their asses off when they see that scene so I do hope that they will keep that kind of idea in there.”
And so what was the shooting process like?
“It was very intense. I worked so much on the script that I ended up working on it until the very end of August 2009 and we started shooting 21st September 2009 so we only had about a month of preproduction. So it was a mad rush to make it and suddenly we are standing on set and , you know we are anyway going to improvise things but we are improvising even more than we are expecting to. We hadn't scouted locations properly and were stopping off and saying 'Let's shoot the next scene here'. We were shooting in some sort of sequence, for the first three weeks we were driving around the countryside from the West coast of Norway up until the mountains.”
“Week three was shooting the final sequence (which involves some rather powerful weather in snowy foothills) and that blizzard would hit us in the middle...like we came there and started shooting on a Friday and there was no snow and we had a weekend break and we came back Monday and it was just white and we had to start all over again. Then in the last three weeks we were shooting around Oslo for most of the effects scenes in the forest and that kind of stuff, just to be closer to our production centre. It was insane.”
The mocumentary style must be unorthodox to film?
“I knew that I couldn't direct the scenes in a traditional sense, with directions saying 'you go there' and 'you turn here', you know I couldn't direct the scene to camera like that specifically for a composition because it would feel like a movie. So, we had to constantly shake things up. Also I wanted the actors to say things with their own words and constantly be involved in the scene, not based on their understanding of the script, but based on their understanding of the character and the situation. So we would talk much more generally about the scene, the scene was scripted, but we would talk about what the topic was what the attitude was going into the scene and what do you have to do going out of the scene. Then how you get there is your own thing.
“All the actors were constantly improvising what they were saying and what they were doing, as long as they stayed within the topic of the scene and some points that they had to hit and then in the end once we edited it down it pretty much becomes what was on the page, something similar anyway, but there was so much improvisation to get there and it was all done on set as opposed to before hand. We had a couple of days just talking because the casting was done just a few days before shooting and we spent the last weekend before shooting just talking about everything.”
“I've known the camera man for ten years, I've worked with him on a hundred commercials and I know his qualities and he's so helpful in finding the right moment with the camera and he's directed documentaries on his own so sometimes it's just putting together the right people, that is such a big part of directing. The crew you have around you is everything when you're shooting because you are basically the only one on set who is not doing anything.”
And so what is next?
“I don't want to be pigeon-holed as a director of a specific form of film-making. I'd rather be pigeon-holed as a maker of fantasy films because that is quite an open range...I might be doing a sequel at some point. It depends on the next few years. Definitely in my opinion, I haven't thought about much yet, but it should follow up the ending of [Troll Hunter]. There is material for a sequel.”
And so with my promise to brush up on my knowledge of Norwegian troll mythology in anticipation, I bid André goodbye.
The Troll Hunter goes on general release in the UK on the 9th of September 2011.