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.
TrollHunter seems to mix a lot of existing mythology with your own unique ideas; one that I loved, in particular, was the idea of a “Slayed Troll Form,” which the hunter has to fill out every time he kills one of the trolls.
[Laughs.] I did so much research before I even wrote the script, because I wanted to fill it up with ideas. And then, on top of that, when you get all kinds of other creative people involved, lots and lots of other creative ideas come about that weren’t mine originally. When you have a concept that’s so open to interpretation, in a way, you can literally throw in any idea; you just have to use a filter sometimes and just make sure the ideas remain within your own tunnel vision.
The “Slayed Troll Form” idea came to me while I was researching how people handle bears, while playing around online; I wanted to find ways to incorporate the whole “bears and wolves” world into the story. I came across this “Bear Slay Form,” which is exactly like the form I put into the film. I just thought, “We have to use this for trolls!”
In addition to the film’s humor, though, there are definitely some very well-done action sequences, especially during the final act, which takes some cues from the T-Rex scenes in Jurassic Park.
Yeah, that influence is definitely there. I think that was the only time my jaw physically dropped while I was seeing something on screen, when I first saw the T-Rex come out and roar for the first time in Jurassic Park. I couldn’t believe it; that image has stuck me, even though I was 20 when I saw that film.
That brings us nicely into TrollHunter’s visual effects, which undeniably are the most impressive thing about the movie, as a whole. The effects seen in the trolls themselves seem like they’re from $100 million Hollywood productions, not a largely independent film from Norway. How difficult was it to pull off all of the visual effects?
As with any effects film, it was a long journey, but I was lucky to have some fantastic people around me. I know how to do effects, but then, at the same time, I don’t know how to do effects. [Laughs.] I can’t physically do them myself to the extent we needed for the film, but I’ve done some for the commercials I’ve shot in the past—it’s just not the same, though.
And then we had a great company doing all of the real, physical handwork on a computer. I was sitting personally with the animators, which, to me as a director, is the most important thing. I need to have the trolls behave like the creatures they’re supposed to be. I needed to have that great, direct, and personal communication with the animators, which I definitely had. I’d show them how I want the trolls to walk, for instance, and then they’d sit there for an hour or two and make that happen. It was a great collaborative process.
I was reading in the press notes that one of the areas of inspiration for the trolls’ designs was elderly former bodybuilders. Please explain that.
[Laughs.] It’s true, yeah. That was an idea one of our effects designers had, and I loved it. He really went into that kind of stuff and researched how different body types move, and, yeah, he found that old muscular men who used to be body builders moved in these really jerky ways that could work quite well with our trolls.
We also looked at people who were born with deformities, and how they looked and behaved as a result. It’s a horrible thing, but in this situation it’s useful information.
How closely did you stick to how the trolls looked in those old fairy tale books you read as a kid?
That’s one thing I wanted to make sure of, that we stuck as closely as possible to the original images that Norwegian audiences already have of trolls. The way they look, you’ll find if you Google the artist who drew those old pictures—his name is Theodor Kittelsen. He made these drawings back in the 18th century, and if you look at his drawings now, you’ll easily be able to see where the trolls in the film come from. We made our own versions of them, of course, but they’re still very close to that.
Sticking close to the actual look, we then had to do everything else from scratch. Like, how does a troll move? How does it breath? Does a three-headed troll have three sets of lungs? Three spines, or one spine? [Laughs.] We had to think of all sorts of things that Kittelsen himself probably didn’t even think of.
What I really appreciated about TrollHunter is that you don’t skimp out on showing the trolls in all of their massive glory. A lot of films of this kind withhold the monster reveals until the very end, which is effective at times but can also piss the viewer off.
I think that definitely goes back to the Jurassic Park school of thinking, which is this: People have come to see the dinosaurs, so let’s show them the dinosaurs. It’s really as simple as that.
I wanted to have fun with the trolls, as well. Half of the movie’s gags are actually joking around about the trolls while being scared of them, so I wanted to show the trolls on screen as much as possible. That was a really important thing for me. Sometimes I’ll watch movies that hide the monster and I’m not sure what the reason for hiding the monster is, because it’s so obviously there. I understand taking that approach in a movie like Alien, or Jaws, but TrollHunter isn’t that kind of movie.
Inevitably, and somewhat frustratingly, there’s already an American TrollHunter remake in the works. How involved will you be with that?
Yeah, there will be an announcement very soon about who’s going to make it. I really think…. Well, I hope that it will be quite fun. I won’t have much to do with it, other than helping out whenever I’m needed.
It seems important that they keep the setting of Norway, since the film’s style of trolls is so unique to the country.
I agree. I think the idea is to set it in Norway, yeah—at least that’s what they’ve been talking about.
It’d be incredibly lame to see the trolls running around Los Angeles.
[Laughs.] If I was involved with it, the people of Norway would probably throw tomatoes at me for bringing the trolls to America.