Ever since his breakout film Trollhunter (2010), Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal has made a name for himself as an innovative director who melds exceptional visuals with emotionally driven stories. Having situated himself firmly in the realm of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi with films like The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), his latest one, MORTAL, which centers around Norse mythology, is no exception.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Øvredal about MORTAL where he discussed everything from the genesis of the story, modernizing Norse mythology, and what he hopes people take away from the film.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, André. To start things off, what was the genesis for this story and have you always been fascinated with Norse mythology?
André Øvredal: Of course, I’m steeped in it involuntarily, in a way, because it’s part of our everyday – we call things by Norse mythology names, even down to the days of the week. So it’s always part of our lives, but it’s always a distant relationship to it. It’s something you know exists but I wanted to modernize it, try to find a way to bring it out of those old books and put it on screen in a setting that you hopefully hadn’t seen before, with a twist on the tail. And not making it about the actual characters, but in this case, descendants and try to invigorate it as much as I could, but in a very grounded way, the anti-Marvel way.
Nat Wolff does a phenomenal job in this role playing the descendant of a Norse god. What type of research did you give him to prepare and how did you know he was the right one for the role?
André Øvredal: I didn’t really know he was the right one for a week. When I was watching his movies, he’s a very open guy and I like him, he’s great. He kind of looks interesting because he does not look like [Chris] Hemsworth. I wanted this to be something else, I wanted this to be a completely surprising take on who the Thor descendant character was supposed to be so it didn’t flag it up front. He embodied a lot of that and when I talked to him like this on Skype, he had that kind of introverted character in him that wasn’t an act, there wasn’t play, he was just like part of our conversation, which is part of him. Seeing that, I knew that he could actually really be perfect for this part, he can really nail it. So that became then a very easy choice, as long as he wanted to be part of it.
The mythology isn’t so important in a way, he read up on his own, you know, like you do, but it’s more about who the character is he’s playing more than actually dealing with the mythology itself. It’s more about just being realistic about here’s a character who doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t know what’s happening to them. He’s completely confused. He’s alone. He hasn’t spoken to a person in forever. Suddenly he’s thrown into this circus and he has to handle all this stuff and, in a way, comes close to a young woman who really understands him and who is able to drive the story forward by taking action where he cannot.
Something I’ve noticed with all your films is your ability to seamlessly mesh both practical effects and CGI. Can you talk about that process for the film?
André Øvredal: Yeah, I think that the best, and I also always hear this from the VFX companies I work with, the best VFX work usually comes out of shooting something for real, on set, that is as close to what you want as possible and then augment everything afterwards. Obviously, when you have huge lightning there is a limit to what you can do, but we had flashing lights, we had really huge setups helping to force the actors into squinting their eyes. So you make it believable that they’re actually standing in front of enormously bright lights and you just have to work on it. For example, for the helicopter sequence, we constructed the interior of the helicopter and I wanted to shoot the whole scene basically from the inside of the helicopter. You really feel like you’re part of the experience of sitting in a helicopter and diving into the unknown. That intrigues me more than having a bunch of showy shots of helicopters in tons of beautiful VFX shows. It’s more about the experience of the story, experiencing it as an audience member being put in the middle of the action. I think that is a big part of my storytelling. This is something that Guillermo del Toro pointed out and I was like, “Oh yeah, you’re actually right”, is that the fact that you’re watching somebody’s point of view is a big part of the language because that puts you right in the middle of this situation, in some way.
Lastly, outside of this being a thrilling adventure that tells a much different superhero story than we are used to, what do you hope people take away from the film?
André Øvredal: It’s about not accepting what you’re seeing at face value is part of the theme of the film, I think, that could resonate also in other aspects of society. Sometimes we just take the shock part of it and we react to that and sometimes we don’t even have the resources to find out anymore, but also we don’t really dig deeper. We don’t try to think about the other aspects to a situation or a human being or what’s going on and I think that’s a big part of the film – that things are so much more complex than you at first expect.
MORTAL opens in select theaters nationwide + On Demand and Digital on November 6 and available on Blu-ray on November 10, 2020.