The director and star of Troll Hunter discuss the making of a Scandinavian phenomenon.
André Øvredal’s dry comedy Troll Hunter takes the found footage horror film to deranged new depths, as a Norwegian student film crew trail the government-licensed hunter (comedian Otto Jespersen) and his giant quarry. Øvredal and Glenn Erland Tosterud (who stars as one of the student filmmakers) sat down with LWLies recently to discuss the making of a Norwegian phenomenon.
LWLies: A troll book had a big impact on you when you were a kid didn’t it, Andre?
Øvredal: My aunt and grandparents and everyone used to read them to me when I was two or three. I used to ask for them, before I could read myself. But what influenced the film was the drawings in it. Because they’re really ominous, they have a frightening quality that the fairy tales themselves didn’t have.
Would it be possible to make a pure horror film about trolls? Would people in Norway sit still for that?
Øvredal: You could take that route. But I found that if you didn’t add the humour, you lose a lot of the fairy tale jokes. And if you take those seriously, maybe you’ve got a problem. I found the film’s attitude really natural.
Tosterud: Because it would have been really funny either way. We believe in trolls in the film, and that set-up in itself is funny, so you don’t have to try to be. You have to be normal. You have to go into it and actually believe that there are trolls. It’s a challenge!
It’s in the tradition of those over the top American monster movies that were made up until the '70s. If there had been drive-in movies in Norway, this would be it...
Is there any tradition in Norway of that kind of B-picture?
Øvredal: Not really, no. This film is now nominated for all kinds of awards in Norway, it’s taken quite seriously. The biggest newspaper in Norway last year called it the cultural event of the country in 2010. So it’s not really considered a B-movie in Norway. I thought it was going to be, because it’s just a silly movie about monsters. But it’s been taken much more seriously than I expected, as a cultural phenomenon. Just this Friday, I met a kid who was nine, 10 years old, and he said he’d seen the film 10 times. I said, 'I’m going to bring back a British movie poster for it,' and he was just ecstatic, he was running around talking about it.
Does that part of western Norway in the mountains, where you filmed, have a special significance?
Øvredal: We define ourselves by our fjords and our mountains. Our self-image is based in that, not the flatlands.
And if there were still trolls knocking around, is that where they’d be?
Øvredal: I think so, yeah. When they’re driving through Juttenheimen, which is the biggest row of mountains in Norway, there is a brief mention that the trolls are hiding inside the mountains. This is how I envisaged it, that they’ve basically been digging out all of our mountains, so they can hide in them. I know that if there is a sequel, we’re going to delve into that part of it more.
Was filming there hard?
Tosterud: The shoot took six weeks, and we spent the first three on the road, driving from the west to the east side, all in the mountains, and the weather was extremely challenging. It was colder than I expected, and wet, and I was pretty beaten up by the end. But that’s good, because so is my character.
Has this film being so successful in Norway, and then in America and probably around the world, make things easier for everyone? Has it made the Norwegian film industry bigger and better?
Øvredal: I think the doors, and this has pushed them a bit wider. Magnolia bought a Norwegian film called Headhunters without even seeing the film, just five minutes of footage. So there is a trust suddenly that we can make films that will be successful in an international market. You have Happy, Happy, which won an award at Sundance, and Norwegian Ninja, and Turn Me On, Goddamnit, the film that won the scriptwriting award at Tribeca. Of course, there have always been directors, with their individual point of view on things. Now it’s a general acceptance of Norwegian films. I think the confidence is higher in ourselves, seeing that we can communicate with audiences – the last ten years have been great for Norwegian films, in Norway.
Was the success Troll Hunter had in Norway alone enough to make its money back?
Øvredal: Yeah! Definitely.
In Britain in the next few weeks we have Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Troll Hunter and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – that’s an awful lot of Scandinavians. Scandinavian pop music, too, has translated very well in Britain and America. Do you think there’s something in the culture that’s helping push you towards the wider world?
Øvredal: I guess there must be a common melancholia, a dry way of looking at the world, to be interesting a world-wide audience now – instead of the flavour of Spanish films a few years back, now maybe it’s the slightly heavy-handed Scandinavian view on things!
Tosterud: The film North – it was in Tribeca a couple of years ago – it’s about a guy who gets depressed, and goes with a snow scooter all over the country. Loneliness and depression and snow – I guess they’re kind of exotic to other people. That’s how it is all over Scandinavia. I was going to jump earlier…
Øvredal: The Finns are the extreme version of all that – like Aki Kaurismäki’s movies.
Tosterud: I wish the nights weren’t so long, for sure…
Is there something in your work as a comedian, Glenn, that helps you under play in this sort of film? Knowing how to be funny, you also know how to turn that down.
Tosterud: Yeah, I think so. As a comedian, I’m sometimes really deadpan. You know you can seem funny, without being funny.
Is that something you had to calibrate very carefully?
Øvredal: Definitely. We were very worried about it. We had tons of discussions about it with Otto throughout the film. He kept saying, 'You’re asking me not to be funnier. Why is that?' He came up with all these funnier versions of the lines, and I said, 'No, we can’t have that. You can’t crack jokes.' I had to trust my script, that it would work.
Was there more troll mythology in the background when you were thinking about it, that isn’t in the film? Have you thought it all through quite carefully?
Øvredal: Oh yeah. The last thing that came into this film was the story. I worked on developing this world, and what kind of scenes would exemplify the conflict between our modern world and the troll world. I had 100 scenes, and then – we need a story here. The first script was much closer to Jurassic Park – there were some farmers who were thinking of making a troll park. Actually, the struggle was to make as little story as possible, and to remove everything else than the trolls, the troll hunters and the camera crew.
The thing that stands most in the way of taking the trolls seriously as monsters is the noses – and not just the ones that look like dicks. But it changes with the Mountain King troll at the end, who’s a more genuinely nasty piece of work. Was that deliberate, to make it more actually scary at the end?
Øvredal: First of all I wanted it to be surprising – wow, it’s a three-headed troll! Everybody in Norway knows there are three-headed trolls out there. The second one under the bridge, that looks less like a monster and more like a troll, I wanted to be a contrast to that, to twist the audience’s expectations. And then the ones inside the cave are classic, almost cartoonish. That’s when I thought we could allow ourselves some borderline humour. And the last one had to be amazing. It’s also very sad, it’s very real, it’s sick, it’s old. It was very important to me that he seemed like a really old guy. And that we would feel sorry for him, as much as fear him. It’s just his sheer size that makes you fear him. None of them really has an evil intent. That’s very important to me. I’m working on some projects now with Hollywood producers, and there are things that are evil in the scripts. And I’ve said, 'If I’m going to do this, evil has to go.' Because it doesn’t exist.
Is that your general belief?
Yes. I don't believe in absolutes.
There’s an American remake already booked in. How involved in that are you?
Øvredal: I’m not involved in that at all. I said, 'No, thank you' to doing it, because I felt like I was going to be competing with myself. It’s Chris Columbus’s company who bought the rights to it, so I’m excited to see what they do with it.
You studied in America, and you’ve said you have ambitions to work there. Do you have any fears about how that might go?
Øvredal: Not at all. Because I feel like I understand and know the American culture. I’ve been a fan of it since I was a kid. I grew up with a family around me who would go there a lot, and I spent five years there myself. I’ve got American friends, and I studied English at school, so it feels second-nature to me. If I’m going to depict an American suburbia, there are things I will definitely need help figuring out. But there are people around me who can do that.
Is it American film culture that you feel most connected to?
Would it be pretty hard for a troll to find the blood of a Christian man in Norway these days, as it is in the film?
Øvredal: Harder than in many places. But not that hard. I’m still a member of the state church. I’m not that deeply Christian, but I’m still there. But that’s a big question in the movie. What is it to be Christian? And what is it to be religious? Because you have the camerawoman who believes in Islam, too. That’s one of the most profound questions in the movie.