Jonas Alexander Arnby was in Denmark’s Jutland peninsula just off the coast when inspiration struck for his first feature. Conveniently, his co-writer Rasmus Birch was with him when he first stumbled upon the fishing village where the rolling tide of the nearby sea stirred softly but steadily, much like he found the power that religion held over the community, though as far north as possible from civilization as Copenhagen, it is lawless country with little else to do than cause trouble. That contradiction is captured beautifully in the opening images of “When Animals Dream,” the town at a remove as if encased in frosted glass, yet beautiful and foreboding with the seductive promise of danger.
However, that isn’t all that is promising about Arnby’s evocative debut, which posits the real monster of “When Animals Dream” might be the town rather than the young woman at its center who develops into a werewolf. Perhaps it’s fitting that the story of Marie (Sonia Suhl) has that in common with “Frankenstein,” since formally it reappropriates elements from a number of different genres, watching as she’s bullied at her new job at the local fishery and finds herself even more threatened by a disturbing rash that’s discovered on her chest. It joins a long line of films to reimagine the coming-of-age experience in horror terms, but it detaches itself quickly from the tropes associated with either of those two genres; like Marie, it becomes entirely its own animal.
Arnby, a prolific music video and commercials director, shows considerable skill at distilling an image to its raw essence, which comes in handy as Marie begins to discover her inner beast and more curiously, how she inherited such DNA. Completely restless in a world that doesn’t move fast enough, if at all, she thrashes through the film well before she starts finding hair in unusual places, her confidence growing seemingly at the same rate as the filmmaker who comes into his own during his directorial debut. Shortly before the film arrives on American shores after premiering last year to much fanfare at Cannes, Arnby spoke about how he wanted to liven up the coming-of-age story, putting his lead actress Suhl through the paces, and drawing on the natural elements to become part of the film’s fabric.
How did this come about?
I was very obsessed with making a coming of age story that had genre [elements that] clashed with realism, so you’d believe in the character in a more horror-driven movie. What I was missing was a story that would have a potent metaphor like the werewolf to create a more entertaining and expressive layer that would take a more traditional coming-of-age story and put it in another place. The area where it takes place — this fishing village of the island — was [someplace] I experienced a couple of years before. I was shooting a music video up there and was very intrigued by the lighting, the people, the nature. Everything was very tense. I thought it would be an interesting mix [for this story].
Actually, I’m not a particularly big fan of werewolves, to be quite honest. I like some werewolf movies, but why it was intriguing to me was I hadn’t seen a werewolf movie that I had believed in and I didn’t know how to make one. My co-writer [Rasmus Birch] and I made our own werewolf without looking at any references to the genre. If we did that, I thought we could make something that was inspiring for both of us to see where it would end up.
The actual visuality and expressiveness of this metaphor was also extremely interesting. In order to connect with your main character, you have to understand that a person that kills has to out of need or out of self defense. If you have a main character that has to kill out of lust or playfulness or thirst for blood or something, that’s difficult to [accept] as a protagonist. I also think it’s uninteresting, at least in this kind of movie. We wanted to make sure that you understand the monster because it is still [Marie], so it’s a human with a touch of monster to it — that was the turning point for the character.
Is it true you spent a year training the lead actress in this?
Yeah, almost a year-and-a-half, but not intensely, like 24/7 every day because she was still finishing high school. The most important thing for me was that she lives in that area. Her dad is a fisherman. She used to work in a fishing factory. She’s not some sort of fancy-schmancy actress who knows how to feel things and change her character. She is that girl [Marie], who stands out in that area. She wants to be an actress. Everybody else in that area goes into being a fisherman, but she had every aspect of this specific character and I didn’t want to ruin her sensitivity by telling her how to act. I just got to know her [over time] and made sure she felt confident being with me on a team, being in almost every shot [of the film] for six weeks and making sure that underneath that sweet little girl there was a monster we can pull out if we needed to.
Were there some pretty crazy days of filming?
A couple. Actually, one of the tests we did with Sonia [to see] whether she could deliver her expressive acting, we poured fake blood [over her] and she was naked. She had to create an improvisation of being an animal in front of a small film crew. With her just not having any experience, I thought was intense. She felt it very intensely and it was crossing the line a little bit, so to speak, but it turned out that everything from that point on was kind of easy.
The sex scene was also very intense because we were in a bunker. The tide was coming in with the water [nearby] and we were like 10 people stuck in a room with one door, and I’m claustrophobic. They were very hard conditions. If I had the money, I would have done that scene on a stage, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
The elements are very present in the film – you’ve said you wanted the score to sound like the wind. Why was that important?
I worked with Mikkel Hess, a jazz musician, but also a composer and one of our first discussions was about how this place, which actually really exists, is extremely windy. Everything has a sound up there and in general, nature is what’s important. Even though doors and windows are closed [in the film], I wanted to use the wind as an element that was always present. If you listen closely enough, you can always hear the wind and its presence created a certain atmosphere that was very inspirational, so most of the instruments used — even the organ — are wind instruments on the soundtrack. David Lynch, for example, has always has this special ambient sound and I thought in this place, why not use this wind?
This is also such a striking film visually – the opening looks as if you shot through frosted glass. Did you use any special lenses?
I tested different things because even though it’s realism, I wanted [the film] to have a cinematic layer, so there was this poetic realism and texture to the story we told. We shot on some old Cooke lenses and some Pancros from the ’50s that look a bit different than other lenses. Some of the [camera] rental houses had to [really search to find some] in order to use them. When you shoot on an Alexa, it looks great, but I wanted to make sure that it had a softness and a lack of digital texture.
You went to school for still photography. Did that shape how you wanted to tell stories as a filmmaker?
Actually, my still career ended quickly because after high school I was drafted for the service and I didn’t come back to it. Trying to make it as an art or commercial still photographer during my very, very young years would’ve been difficult, so I started doing films and found my way up [through] a lot of commercials and music videos. That has mainly been my film school, always knowing that my heart is with my features, but I had fun doing commercials and music videos and I’m still doing it.
Still, I’ve heard Todd Hido was an influence on the film.
Yeah. Absolutely. The title sequence is very much inspired by him. He’ll shoot a lot of stuff from out of the window of a car. [In the opening of the film] the water and the light and the reflection of the street light — all that gives a certain filter with technically is the rear window and the lighting, the long exposure, I think that gives an introduction to a world that is interesting and I was very inspired by that.
Was doing a feature any different for you?
Oh yeah. Big time. I’ve practically been standing in position for 10 years to do a feature and when the day arrives when you’re actually doing it, a lot is going through your head and because this is what it’s all about. Obviously, commercials are great, but this is what I’ve been aiming for, so when you get to that point, you get excited and a lot of thoughts go through your head on how to get it right. Or at least what not to do wrong.
“When Animals Dream” will open on August 28th in New York at the Village East and Los Angeles at the NoHo 7. It will also be available on VOD and Vudu.