Mortal: An interview with director André Øvredal

DVD & Blu-Ray, Interviews

André Øvredal is no stranger to folklore. Directing and writing 2010’s sleeper hit Troll Hunter about a group of Norwegian students who team up with a mysterious troll hunter to track down the creature that’s been attacking people, what followed was a string of successful horrors for Øvredal. These included the brilliantly tense The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark which saw him team up with legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.

Now, Øvredal is back with more folklore and more Norway with Mortal, which follows Eric (Nat Wolff) who, after visiting family on a farm in Norway, suddenly finds himself enabled with strange, uncontrollable powers. However, after meeting Christine (Iben Akerlie), he seems able to have more authority over his abilities and the two go on a journey to find out just what’s happened to him. However, Eric’s powers over the weather is rather god-like and the authorities are worried he’ll cause a mass panic over the citizens. All Eric wants to do is discover what his powers mean but those in charge are not going to make it easy…

We sat down with André Øvredal to discuss genre, closing off one of Norway’s busiest bridges and what it would be like if we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with a god…

Where did you get the idea for Mortal?

I was discussing with an American producer about making some form of sibling follow up movie to Troll Hunter; so just a couple of years after that movie came out. I pitched him this idea after percolating on what that could be and we just started developing it. It eventually became a Norwegian film.

I’ve always wanted to explore Norwegian mythologies. With Troll Hunter, it was dealing with our trolls and fairy tales and here it’s dealing with the sagas of the Vikings and the Norse mythology. Hopefully one day I can make a Viking movie now I’ve covered all the bases!

I worked on the script, the idea, the concept for a couple of years back in early 2012- 2014 something like that and eventually I got Geoff [Bussetil] on board to help write a draft and he did a great job. Then some years passed when I was trying to get it to a new level and at that time I started to get involved in The Autopsy of Jane Doe, so we stopped the process on Mortal for while.

Then eventually the movie suddenly got a green light a couple of years later! Then I got a friend of mine who I know very well to come to Norway and help me re-jig some things [in the script] that I knew needed fixing before we went on to shoot it.

You co-wrote Mortal, but you’ve also directed movies you haven’t written – what do you find easier?

Sometimes when you are working on somebody else’s script and somebody’s been developing it for a long time, it can be harder to get into it, but at the same time, it’s also quite rewarding when you do. There is an objectivity that probably is good to have; that I appreciate. But then again when you’re writing it yourself you’re able to distill down the theme and what everything should be from the beginning. So the whole story, the whole idea, is unified from scratch. It’s a curious balance. Every second movie I do almost is my own or somebody else’s script!

Why did you call the movie Mortal?

I love the word ‘mortal’. I spent a lot of time trying to find a title for the movie, and I wanted it to have a little bit of a religious hint. But also the word mortal is quite a profound word – it means a lot of things. Mostly it means to be mortal, to be able to die in a way. Also, there’s a human aspect, it simply is a human being and the fact that it’s a movie about a god and then to kind of call it human being… I found that was what the movie really was about, the human in the god.

Øvredal wanted to explore the idea of the ‘human’ in the ‘god’.

The effects are great in the movie and play a pivotal role with Eric’s powers – how long did you explore this element?

We spent a lot of time exploring what lightning is. Just obviously the lightning we see normally is distant and we have a very clear relationship with how it looks and feels. But when it comes up close and we do stuff with it, it becomes a whole different thing. So we had layers of ideas of lightning in micro versions in a closed room; what it does as opposed to huge bolts of lightning and how it looks if he’s able to control it in some form. So we did a lot of R&D on trying to figure out this. Also on the VFX post-process, we worked a lot on nailing it in a way that we all liked!

There is a particular scene where Eric is using his powers on an empty Hardanger Bridge. What was that like to shoot?

That bridge is basically the main thoroughfare between Bergen and Oslo – the two biggest cities in Norway! It’s across a fjord and it’s longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. We shot this in the middle of summer and to close that bridge with all the tourists and everything was insane. So we started working at 2 am in the morning and started shooting at 3.30 am in the morning when basically there are no cars on the road (also that’s when the light comes up in summer so we were able to use the best part of the day). Then when cars started arriving as the morning went, we had to start closing. We had closed one lane but then we had to start closing the other lanes 15 minutes at a time and it built up huge lines of cars everywhere!

Øvredal probably wasn’t popular the day he closed off one of Norway’s busiest bridges!

Was the entire movie shot in Norway?

We spent three-four weeks on the west coast of Norway – in the fjords there – and then we moved to Oslo to shoot a lot of the interiors and the more nondescript forest settings that didn’t necessarily have to have this spectacular view. Eventually, we ended up in the Czech Republic to shoot there for about a week with some interior car scenes and the underwater scene and the helicopter crash. Basically studio work because they built this helicopter model for us that we could shoot inside.

The film has a rather dark tone to it…

Yeah I wanted it to start in a dark place for the character. So the lightest part, the brightest part of the character’s life in our story is basically when he’s with Christine. In a way, by definition, it makes [Mortal] a little bit of a love story I guess. [But] there’s a lot of pain in all this story.

You can’t compete with a Marvel movie in any way, especially on a low budget in Norway. [So] immediately you start thinking of ‘what can we do that is different? What can we show?’ and I deliberately then devised a movie about a person who’s lonely and a movie that’s set in a rural place with no spectacular skyscrapers to destroy. [I wanted to] make it about a very intimate little journey so that became kind of the blueprint of how this version of the movie would have to work.

I also wanted to make a grounded, everyday story in a way that just so happens to have somebody with supernatural powers in it.

Eric and Christine find an immediate connection…

How do you make two people get close in such a short time and under such extreme circumstances? I figured the way to do it after thinking about it was to make them in a way be a little bit similar. To have them find each other in a similar time in their lives, where they had just gone through something very negative, very traumatic for them both, and somehow they could see each other, mirror each other in that.

Eric and Christine are two very complex characters. How closely did you work on characterisation with the actors?

Usually, I try to work very closely with the actors and discuss as much as possible before we go on and make the movie. Because ideally when you’re actually shooting the movie you should be focused on the performance and the moment itself. So we talked a lot about where they’re coming from, they had input on where that could lead the characters and as we were shooting it I would also be revising little moments in the script. Or revising how their relationship worked or dialogue and stuff.

Mortal can be seen as a love story in a way…

How much research did you do into Nordic mythology?

When it comes to the mythology, it’s more or less based on what we know. What’s written. I tend to not want to dig too deep into the mythology deliberately because I think sometimes in movies, mythology can become a crutch that you have to constantly explain because it gets so detailed. You start talking so much about it. I wanted to just have the basic things [almost everyone knows] about the mythology.

How would you define Eric’s powers?

It’s really all about controlling atmospheric elements – that’s pretty much the only thing he can do. There’s also a sideline to his character which is a fertility side; which is more or less thought of as agricultural fertility more than… other types. But it’s mainly atmospheric things and everything else is an effect of that.

Eric’s powers make him god-like, which the authorities believe the world isn’t ready for…

That was definitely an issue I wanted to explore. Sometimes in movies superheroes and characters with supernatural powers or even supernaturally advanced (like a ghost or something) has a tendency to become a given, that that’s okay –  they just deal with it. But what you actually have to deal with – before you deal with the actual thing – is how the hell do you relate to that?!

So I find that to be a psychological aspect that’s not touched upon enough in storytelling. If you do see anything supernatural whatsoever, it would be a turning point in human history. Because every religion has been searching for an answer to what’s up there. Searching for the meaning behind death, behind life and it’s just a huge thing! Even a hint of a ghost in a horror movie is really the evidence that there’s a huge supernatural world and that is an historic thing to figure out.

So how would someone like Henrik (played by Per Frisch), who is the police chief, how would he relate to it? He has a very normal Christian attitude about life and how would society, in general, perceive this? How would somebody who is probably more agnostic, like Christine, how would she relate to it?

I think I just try to look at consequences. I always feel like a movie should essentially be dealing with the consequences of its main idea. If you have a person who is basically a god in the middle of the movie – the rest of the movie has to deal with the consequences of that. The religious aspects to it is definitely a consequence of a god walking around. I like playing with those ideas. That’s what was fun about making this movie.

Øvredal wanted to explore the idea of a Christian like Henrik (played by Per Frisch – pictured) dealing with the idea of meeting a god.

Why did you decide that the powers would have a negative physical and mental effect on Eric?

These are basically uncontrollable things; it’s incomprehensible in a way and he hasn’t even really been able to deal with it. The story takes place before the movie starts, so he only begins to deal with it properly now that he’s thrown into the story. I think there’s a consequence. I’m looking for consequences as the core idea. If you cannot control something as powerful as the atmosphere, or lightning and you can almost in a way start fires – and you don’t know how – it would wreak havoc on you first and foremost rather than other people.

You’ve primarily worked in genre movies. What does genre mean to you?

I love the contrast between grounded reality and the awe of something that is beyond what everyday life is. The movie I love most of all is Close Encounters Of The Third Kind because it is such a grounded reality story of a family that falls apart and basically a person who loses his mind over what he experiences. That super grounded reality up against something extraordinary is intriguing to me. There are wonderful sci-fi movies that I love, like Star Wars, [I could] name a million of them but that’s what appeals to me – the blending and the contrast of them. Bring the magic into our world rather than the opposite.

What are you working on now?

I’m developing several movies that I was in a way supposed to run and gun into shooting when the virus hit. The most obvious one is The Long Walk based on a novel by Stephen King. Which is amazing. We were supposed to shoot that in spring and now it’s postponed until whenever we are able to get it back up.

What’s been like adapting a Stephen King book?

It’s awe-inspiring. I love Stephen King and all his writing so it’s quite a thing; quite an endeavour to take on. The script is so brilliantly written by a great Hollywood writer. It really does the book justice. I’m just over the moon about being able to help tell that story!

Signature Entertainment presents Mortal on Digital HD 3 August 3rd and DVD 24 August.

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