When Eskil Vogt became a father, it wasn’t only the birth of a child he could celebrate, but the birth of an entirely new perspective.
“Memory doesn’t play as big of a role in kids’ lives as they do with us nostalgic older people,” says Vogt. “[Kids] see stuff around them in a way that we don’t. They touch things and like it’s the first time they touch it and with kids, you can do closeups of fingers touching something and you can feel the texture of what you are seeing. Suddenly, your body is involved when you’re watching it. It’s a very cinematic age.”
Yet if this feeling of discovery is usually portrayed in all its wonder and possibility, Vogt takes things in a far more fascinating direction in “The Innocents,” where children can’t be trusted with always making the right decisions as they formulate their own moral code. Set in an apartment complex on the outskirts of Oslo, Vogt hones in on sisters Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) who have just moved in and are mostly left to their own devices to acclimate when like many in the area, their parents are busy keeping a roof over their heads. Besides being uprooted, Ida is already unhappy when she receives far less attention in her family than her sister who has autism, and her worst instincts are encouraged by Ben (Sam Ashraf), a boy she meets in the nearby forest whose curiosity about nature extends to not only how animals live, but how they die. They also find a friend in Aisha, who has a kinship with Anna when she too feels inhibited from fully engaging with others when she has a skin discoloration condition known as vitiligo.
In his longtime collaboration as a co-writer for all of Joachim Trier’s films, Vogt has often created extensive past histories for the characters in such films as “Oslo, August 31st” and “Thelma” to run from, struggling with the accumulated weight of the lives they’ve built for themselves yet in his own directorial efforts, he has taken the opposite approach as they often create their own context, first with “Blind” which saw his frequent leading lady Ellen Dorrit Petersen (real-life mother to “The Innocents”’ star Fløttum, playing the same role in the film) imagining her life if only she could see, and now with his latest where the youth, free of traditional influences, start making choices that will define their outlook for the rest of time. Not only are the decisions themselves powerful, but “The Innocents” suggests that the children’s minds may have more strength than anyone could know as the film dabbles in the supernatural and whether or not they have the wherewithal to control it – or even want to – becomes an electrifying source of tension.
A year after the film creeped the hell out of Cannes where Vogt could celebrate a twin triumph along with “The Worst Person in the World,” “The Innocents” is arriving now on American shores where it is bound to unsettle and the filmmaker spoke about all the exciting possibilities offered by working in horror and his young cast to create something outside his own comfort zone while sneaking in his own subversions of the genre.
It was interesting to hear this might’ve been born in the same brainstorming sessions that led to “Thelma” since it deals in telekinesis, but in an entirely different way. What made you want to pursue it?
It was when Joachim and I were starting out the session that led to “Thelma” before we found that idea. We knew we wanted to explore another vein of cinema because we’re both movie lovers and I really love horror movies because they’re so close to pure cinema. It’s images and sounds and you have to express stuff with a visual side of it instead of a lot of stuff Joachim and I end up with two people talking. We try to make that cinematic, but we said, “This time, let’s try to make it easier for us to try to go into something that’s already visual and see what will happen.”
Then we start to rewatch a lot of films, talk about it and we just try out ideas on each other and one of the ideas I tried out on Joachim was what if a group of kids are playing together and something magical and inexplicable happens, and then they go home with their parents and sit down for dinner and that magic isn’t there anymore. And you think, “Oh, it’s their imagination.” But I thought, “What if you make a movie that’s real? That magic exists.” Joachim didn’t respond to that idea and that’s normal. Millions of ideas end up on the floor and maybe it was because he wasn’t a parent yet. But I was and after we’d written “Thelma,” that idea came back to me. And usually, those ideas don’t. They stay on the floor. But I was just very curious about childhood I think because of my kids and actually, it was that idea of the magic of childhood that led to the supernatural powers instead of “Oh, I really want to make a movie about telekinetic abilities.” It doesn’t begin with that. It begins with something else and then these powers come out of that.
This is counterintuitive to the way a lot of filmmakers work with child actors in that there’s a lot of long, deliberate takes where you can’t cut a performance together. It’s all there unfolding in the scene. Was it difficult to get?
When I start to write, I always say to myself I should not consider the practical issues of filmmaking because it’s so constraining. It’s the opposite of being creative, thinking about all that’s difficult. But then when you end up writing something with four kids and a cat, that’s going to be hard. I’m not naive. So we spent a year finding the kids and then more time really preparing them. First, you’ve got to find the right ones and we tried to be very open. We rewrote the characters to fit the kids we found and it changed either sex or ethnicity but we just wanted the best ones. And then we worked with them and they learned the craft of acting really because we wanted to be collaborators. You can’t trick kids to act for 30 days. You can do it for one day or two, but not for 30, so when we started shooting, all that preparation paid off.
Even the young girl who plays the autistic child, she had just turned 11 when we started to shoot and she could be in that state for a 10-minute take and not a moment was false. The cinematographer and I realized we could really do complex blocking there because the kids were so good. And that was really thanks to the preparation we had done because usually we’d say we have five seconds there and we need to use that and then we need to cut. Here, the kids were usually good. They [would] surprise me by being so in the emotion of every scene, and how they can do that and then you go “cut” and they change emotion completely and then do cartwheels and then they go back for the second take and [snaps fingers] they’re back into that emotion, which is incredible.
Were these locations in mind? Not only this land on the edge of the forest, but the apartment building with this particular kind of staircase?
Not the exact place, but like you say memory plays a part and while I was writing, I was thinking about the place where I had lived a few years when I was a kid, which had these big, big apartment buildings and the forest right next to it. Going back there, they had started to build a lot around us, so the forest wasn’t that big and was maybe never that big because as a kid, you imagine 20 trees, that’s a forest. So we found this place at the edge of Oslo where the real forest right next to it [because] I wanted that contrast between you’re in your apartment and your parents can see you at any moment or you go out to the public areas where there are people around and you just go 30 meters to the right and you’re in the middle of the forest and you can do what you like, nobody’s there to watch you. I can remember that feeling as a kid. Suddenly, you’re free to play your games, to be alone, to experiment… to be cruel to animals – you know whatever kids do. [laughs]
And that place just kept adding stuff to it. [For] the last scene, we didn’t know that there could be a lake there, so that just expanded to this huge scene that was much smaller in the script. The theme of the movie in a way is that there’s such a huge gap between the adult world and the child’s world and that scene is about having a life or death struggle and adults just walk past without noticing. That just became even more clear in that setting.
Is it true the instruments used for the score were aging to get that idea of growing older across?
I don’t think they were aging. It was more the idea that Pessi Levanto, the composer, had that we’d never use synth music. We’d only use real instruments and real musicians and then he would mess that up a bit, so you had that pureness of childhood and the organic quality of that period of time, but then that became a little more dissonant or scary or less pure, which you could say growing up would make you as well. What was interesting about making a scary movie that takes place in Scandinavia where the sun sets at probably around 11 in the evening, is that most of the movie is in daylight, so how do you make that scary? Even in the worst horror movies when people go down to the basement and the light switch doesn’t work, that scared of the dark thing always works [even when] you know something bad will happen. But we couldn’t do that.
Of course with the cinematography, we tried to use the empty spaces of everyone being on vacation and create some sort of unease with that, but of course it was the sound design and the music that could really help us tell people that this is not just a drama about two sisters where one is jealous of her autistic older sister. It’s more than that. That was really fun because Pessi gave us such interesting music to work with and [Gisle Tveito] the sound designer had this idea of instead of using this bass drum that scares you, it exhausts you, so let’s try to slow down Pessi’s music and mix it with the sound design. You don’t really hear it because it’s part of the wind, it’s part of the footsteps, it’s part of everything, but something’s there that’s not real. And the best thing with the pandemic was the shutdown gave us extra time to just play around with sound and I think that Gisle Tveito and Pessi Levanto really created a work of art there.
What was it like for you having your head down for so long in isolation with not only this, but “Worst Person in the World” and then be so actively out in the world with the two of them?
It’s been a year with extreme contrast, as you would imagine. The best moment of contrast was to have been working on these films during the pandemic. It’s so hard and you can only work with a few people at a time and the shoot with “Worst Person” was with all those masks. Then suddenly, you’re just waiting for cinemas to reopen and those movies are at Cannes and [we went from] movie theaters being shut down and no one can go there to packed cinemas with thousands of people and they’re watching “Innocents” with more than a thousand people. Everyone had facemasks, but it felt like cinema was back and I think all of the movies got a lot of goodwill because people were watching movies on the big screen again with [other] people.
I just remember that anxious feeling of premiering a movie and suddenly, you’re with a lot of people and [you wonder] are they enjoying it or you’re like, “Argghhh, maybe they hate it.” And that’s maybe the advantage of making a scary movie. People don’t laugh that much or you don’t get that instant gratification, but there are a few moments in “The Innocents” where people can have a bit of a jump scare. I remember thinking I’ll know now if people are paying attention and when one of those moments came up and I took my eyes away from the screen and started to watch the audience and I could go “three, two, one…” and I saw a thousand people jump out of their seat and I’m like “Okay, good. At least they’re paying attention.” And then afterwards, Danish critics were writing that they had to put their facemask over their eyes. [laughs] And I’m going, “Yes! Yes! The power of cinema.” After that, it’s just being from closed up with your family to traveling everywhere with these two movies, which is a luxury. I’m happy that’s happening, but it all keeps me from making new ones, so I’m waiting now for this to die down, so I can get bored again and make up a story.