In his sophomore film, THE INNOCENTS, Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt (Blind, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Worst Person in the World) explores the sacred moments situated between childhood and adulthood, good versus evil, and the deciphering of morality.
THE INNOCENTS, the film follows four children who become friends during the summer holidays. Out of sight of the adults, they discover they have hidden powers. While exploring their newfound abilities in the nearby forests and playgrounds, their innocent play takes a dark turn and strange things begin to happen.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew chatted with writer/director Eskil Vogt about his latest project, THE INNOCENTS. During their chat, they discussed everything from exploring the brutality of childhood to tackling the subject of regressive autism on film, and wrapping up with what he hopes people take away from THE INNOCENTS.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Eskil! To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how this story came together?
Eskil Vogt: When I tell people that I would never have made it if I didn’t have children of my own people get the wrong idea [Laughs]. It’s not directly inspired by what my kids have done, but it’s just having kids made me curious again about childhood. I actually was very happy just growing up and just leaving childhood behind, I never had that nostalgia. Obviously, when you see the movie that kind of nostalgic relationship to childhood that people have I had left it behind until I got kids of my own. Then I was reminded of how different it is. It’s so radically different being a child than being an adult. You experience the world in a completely other way.
I became fascinated with that – watching my kids and remembering stuff from our childhoods and getting a little whiff of what it was like to be a child. Then it goes away because you can’t keep those feelings that way as an adult. And I just felt, well, maybe I should try to make a movie about the secret world of childhood and maybe also about the magic of childhood, but that magic would be more literal, that those things that you believe and feel as a kid, that they’re actually real and have consequences in that.
The movie hangs on the balance of these performances from the four children. How difficult was it to find the right kids for these roles?
Eskil Vogt: It was very difficult. When I write I try to stop myself from thinking about practical difficulties because it is so contained, you need to be free and creative. And suddenly, you’ve written this movie about four kids and a cat and then go oh no, what am I going to do? [Laughs]. I write kind of slowly so when I write something or when I fall in love with an idea, it’s not like I have a choice to do something else. I have to do it. I’m there with [one of my] producers and we decided that we needed to put a lot of the money into the casting. We spent over a year finding the kids, working with the kids. The woman who did the casting with me, she was very good and she gave me a challenge of, are you sure you want to exclude people just because they’re not like the people you’ve written in the script? Isn’t it better just to have an open call and consider everyone for all the roles and then see where it lands? And she was right.
I had written two brothers [but then] it became two sisters. I had written all of them ethnically white Norwegians because that’s how I grew up. Then we found the other two children and were like oh they need roles so we changed the ethnicity of those roles. We changed all the roles because we found these amazing kids. Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, who plays Anna, was 10 when we found her and [was able to] empty her eyes and open her mouth and suddenly seem autistic on the severe end of the spectrum. I might not have found her if I kept looking for a 14-year-old brother like he was in the script. I thought that role needed to be older for someone to pull it off and suddenly there she was at only 10 years old. Like a gift from the movie gods[Laughs]. I might not have seen that if the casting person wasn’t as clear and intelligent about that.
Speaking on the character of Anna, what sort of research went into understanding and learning more about autism in order to accurately reflect that in the film?
Eskil Vogt: I started with reading about a Norwegian author named Olga Bogdashina. She did a very open interview about having an autistic son with regressive autism, which meant that his language was normal until he was about three or four and then he lost his language and withdrew. As a father myself, for me that’s a horror movie because if your child is born with any disability or autism, I would imagine I would just love that person as they are, I don’t know why I wouldn’t, but if you had the ability to communicate with your child and lost that ability? It would be hard to not think oh no, my child is trapped inside there. How do you deal with that grief? It’s so complicated. It haunted me and it stayed with me for a long time. I just felt maybe this could be a part of my story because it’s about how childhood is a closed-off world and we as adults can’t access it. And what’s more closed off than a child who is non-verbal and severely autistic? That just gave so many interesting possibilities.
But then, of course, I would do a lot of research. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who are with autistic children. It’s very hard to get access because, understandably, those kids who are severely autistic and non-verbal, they can’t agree to be part of something or not, you know? Even to be observed by me as a screenwriter and director, it feels like you’re overstepping something because they can’t say yes or no if they like me to be there. With some parents that agreed and some institutions that agreed we could be accepted into that world and observe. And of course, there’s a lot of documentaries and that kind of research that’s available in articles. Actually, one of the producers, her mother is a specialist in the field, just by sheer accident. She also had worked a lot with autistic children when she was younger. So she also had that expertise to offer and their mother to consult with, so we had a good awareness around it.
Some people would say, why can’t you get someone autistic to act in the movie? But this was, again, someone on the very severe end of the spectrum who could never accept doing that. You would never know if they wanted to be on set or not. It would be just too complicated too, because the way that the character evolves during the movie would mean that wouldn’t really be real anyway. So, that’s the way we decided to do it.
The film is a fable because it’s a story with supernatural elements, and it’s more about regressive autism and losing your child in that way that I wanted to re-enact in kind of that magical way. But at the same time, for me, it was very important that we did it with respect and with attention to detail so it would feel real and relevant to those people who have that experience, which is also the reaction we are getting. That people feel that it feels real which is a weird thing in a movie where supernatural things happen as much as they do in this one [Laughs].
Let’s chat about THAT traumatic animal death. How did you craft that scene with the kids and more importantly, can you talk about the importance of that scene?
Eskil Vogt: It’s a very important moment in the movie because the movie is also about how kids develop their own sense of morality by transgressing, by doing stuff they’re not allowed to do. And then feeling, does this feel right or not? And that movement, one character obviously finds her limit and another doesn’t, which is key to how everything else will play out later. Shooting it, of course, was more the frustration of working with cats [Laughs]. The whole camera crew is just waiting for a cat to jump where he wanted to. Never work with cats [Laughs]. If you choose the right one, they’re amazing. I have two cats myself. I love cats. But what happened for the kids was like okay, you take the cat and you drop the cat 30 centimeters onto a green piece of felt. It was very safe for both the kids and the cat in making sure that nothing would happen.
And the other moment is, obviously, a dummy cat. For the kids, it was very safe and they understood what the characters were doing and were a little shocked by it in a way, but in a way, they were just curious to talk about and discuss. It just felt like it was important in those ways with the character arcs and the themes. It’s a key moment. And then after that, the movie, in a way, is kind of a slow burn as a horror movie. It’s not an exterior source of evil that can just appear at any time. It comes from the characters and this comes from them discovering their powers and testing out the limits of morality, and that means something has to happen quite early to prepare people for what’s going to happen. Of course, that moment, when that happens, you’re not safe as a spectator anymore because you know that the movie can go anywhere.
Outside of hoping people experience the horrors of what THE INNOCENTS has to offer, is there anything you hope people will take away from the film?
Eskil Vogt: What I really like is that when people come up to me after the movie they will talk about the movie but then within minutes they’re talking about their own childhood. They’re either talking about something magical that they believed in that was part of their reality but they might not have thought about much since like, for example, they had an imaginary friend or where they lived, they knew they had to stay away from [somewhere] because there was some evil there. The mythology that you lived with as a kid that you kind of forgot because [as a kid] you believed in it but then you grow older and you think about it and question if you made that up, but you didn’t think that when we were that age.
So [people] started to think about their own childhood and talk about that, and maybe even some older memories that they haven’t thought about that brought them back to that feeling of being a child. Of course, they also have experiences like being cruel in a way to other kids or to animals, or to younger siblings. If people can be projected into their childhood and take something away from that in that way, that’s a huge compliment.
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