Consider Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal the anti-J.J. Abrams. Not that Øvredal has any beefs with the writer-director of Super 8; it’s just that, in terms of pre-release marketing, Norway’s hottest genre director has gone the polar opposite route of Abrams’ “don’t show the monster” approach, which has shrouded Super 8 under the same cloak of mystery that signified the Abrams-produced 2008 hit Cloverfield. For his own giant monster flick, TrollHunter (opening today in limited release), Øvredal and his team have used the film’s insane creatures as the movie's biggest selling point, a none-too-subtle maneuver that has worked like a charm.
As funny as it is visually awe-inspiring, TrollHunter is finally hitting theaters after nearly a year’s worth of buzz-building festival screenings and tons of critical acclaim. Shot in the same found-footage, mockumentary format as The Blair Witch Project, it’s about an ambitious crew of young documentarians that follows a hulking and humorless huntsman into the woods of Norway to kill Godzilla-sized trolls.
TrollHunter is a unique experience: the effects, used to give the massive beasts unique designs and lifelike mobility, are top-notch, while Øvredal’s script is full of unpredictable energy. Most importantly, though, there are no vampires, zombies, or aliens in sight, which should inspire genre fans to breathe deep sighs of relief. Complex recently spoke with Øvredal to find out the origins of such an original project, how he got those monsters to look so damn impressive, why trolls are a big deal in Norway, and the inevitable American remake, which, yes, is going to happen.
Complex: Over the last few months, TrollHunter has really picked up steam outside of Norway. Were you anticipating such strong international interest?
André Øvredal: Oh, no—not at all. [Laughs.] I didn’t expect all of this. I was happy that, in the beginning, the Fantastic Fest wanted to show it; I was very proud at that moment. And then Hollywood agents and the media were at Fantastic Fest and were raving about it—that was six or eight months ago. Since then, it’s just gone absolutely mad, including the film getting me on Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” list. There’s no way I could’ve predicted any of this.
Here in the states, at least, we’re so inundated with tired monsters like vampires and zombies that TrollHunter stands out for its originality alone. What’s interesting about it, though, is that you made the movie specifically for Norwegian audiences, correct?
Yeah, that’s correct. There are a lot of references to old Norwegian fairy tales that I don’t really set up, as you would normally do. If I was making the film for an American audience, I would really be setting up the fairy tales aspects more carefully, so they’d be more appreciated, maybe. But then again, it seems that the American audience also appreciates the fact that it’s not that obvious; you have to kind of pay attention to follow the mythology.
For the Norwegian audience, I didn’t have to set up a bunch of these things, because all of the little details are already known, like the fact that the trolls smell Christian blood—I could just jump right into that joke without setting it up in any way. And also with the fact that the trolls can explode and turn to stone, I just showed it. The special thing about it is that Norwegian audiences have actually never seen these things on screen before. So it’s something to behold, in a way.
Considering how engrained into Norwegian culture those old troll fairy tales are, it’s interesting that there’s never been a movie of this kind before. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. I’m sure that people have wanted to before. I know there is a big troll project that never got off the ground, one that a Norwegian producer has been trying to do for ten, fifteen years at least. He started to work with animatronics and puppets, and researching the mythology, but then I think he practically gave up.
And I think the time and place was right for TrollHunter. We just managed to get the ability to do the effects in Norway; like, literally throughout the production we got the technological capabilities to pull off the movie’s effects. So it’s just on the cutting edge of what we’re able to do in Norway.
When did your fascination with the whole troll mythology first begin?
I love monster movies. I love Jurassic Park and these kinds of fantastical and amazing stories. That fascination has always been there in a movie sense. As far as trolls, I used to read those fairy tales back when I was a kid. My grandparents, aunts, and parents used to read those to me before I was able to read, and I always loved the tales. Wanting to mix ancient Norwegian mythology with a modern movie setting was something that got me really excited, and then also topping it off by doing it as a fake documentary, to really punch home the idea.
TrollHunter is quite funny, which some people might not expect going into it. What made you want to write it as a dark comedy?
Yeah, I always intended it to be a dark comedy, with exactly the same kind of droll humor that you get in the finished film. But I think the humor became a bit broader when we cast Otto Jespersen [a popular Norwegian comedian] in the lead, as the troll hunter. When I wrote the script, I had already made an agreement with the producer; he was like, “Listen, you have to make sure that we make this a comedy at heart,” and I agreed with them. At least for a Norwegian audience, to watch trolls means they’re going to laugh, anyway, because it’s such a silly creature, in a way.
I wanted to make the trolls terrifying, though, as well, because that’s how I remember trolls from when I was a kid. The old fairy tales and drawings that were in this book I read often, The Fairy Tales Of Asbjornsen And Moe, were frightening to me. But the mix of horror and comedy had to go hand-in-hand; as we were making the film, though, I think the balance shifted a little more towards broader comedy from my initial perception.
I read somewhere that you actually shot the movie improv-style, giving the actors a general script outline but then encouraging them to come up with the dialogue on the spot. That seems like a really clever idea to achieve the film’s mockumentary feel. Why was that important for you?
Absolutely, yeah. I’m used to directing, but for a film like this, you need it to feel completely un-directed. We did shoot some scenes where I was directing more closely and pointing out dialogue mistakes, and it just didn’t work. The level of reality that we needed wasn’t there. We constantly needed to break things up and improvise. We stuck to the content of the script, but all of the actors had to live in the moment. If an actor is stuck on some line of dialogue that he wants to say but can’t totally remember, then it’s going to kill the documentary-like feel.
A lot of the press surrounding the film compares its mockumentary style to both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, which are definitely fair comparisons. But, for me, the closest parallel I could make after seeing TrollHunter was to that great 1992 Belgian flick Man Bites Dog [about a documentary crew that follows a serial killer around during his daily routines]. Like Man Bites Dog, TrollHunter has tons of dark humor, but it also knows when to take itself seriously and isn’t afraid to kill off the supposedly safe film crew members.
That’s great. I’m glad you’ve made that reference, because that was the starting point for the entire film. You’ve got a guy who hunts trolls for a living, so how do you tell his story? You interview the guy who hunts trolls, and coming to that realization brought Man Bites Dog to mind. I haven’t watched it since I was in film school back when it came out in 1992, but it’s so vivid in how it balances danger, humor, and realism. It has this weird and unpredictable feeling, and that’s how I wanted TrollHunter to feel.
Well, the trolls themselves are definitely weird-looking. It might be simple for Norwegian audiences to see the film’s trolls and instantly acknowledge their silliness, but some American audiences might be more scared than amused—all we’ve seen of trolls are goofy little munchkin-types and those dolls with the neon-colored hair.
Yeah, and I do see very clear hints of this mythology in stuff like The Lord Of The Rings, in both the world and how a lot of the characters and things in Lord Of The Rings have Norwegian names. I am surprised, actually, that it’s so unknown, because, for me, it’s so engrained into my world. I didn’t know that this was so unique from an outside point-of-view.