Troll Hunter Director Talks Humor, Monsters And Improvisation
If you’re anything like me, you watched the trailer for Troll Hunter and thought, “Whoa, it’s Blair Witch but you actually get to see the monster!” Immediate reactions aside, though, Troll Hunter, which had its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a wholly original and exciting documentary-style narrative on a far greater scale than we’ve seen before.
The hit Norwegian film follows three college students as they tail a mysterious stranger they believe to be a bear poacher (Hans is played by comedian Otto Jespersen, who steals the show with his curmudgeonly, hilarious Sherlock Holmes-esque performance). They quickly discover, however, that Hans is tracking the real-life monsters they previously believed to be the stuff of fairy tales.
The movie, available On Demand today and in theaters June 10, is sure to be an instant cult hit, and works as a fast-paced thriller with undertones of comedy, employing imaginative and awe-inspiring troll designs along with classic performances. You’ll be yelling, “Troll!!!” for weeks after viewing it.
Spinoff Online recently spoke with Troll Hunter writer and director André Øvredal about the inner workings of his first feature film.
Spinoff Online: So … why trolls?
André Øvredal: I love trolls. They were such a big part of my own upbringing. My grandparents used to read me these fairy tales, and they just kinda stuck with me as something that nobody ever did anything with. They’re part of children’s upbringing, but they’re not really part of our culture at present. We don’t believe in trolls – we’re not like that in Norway – but I wanted to take these creatures that I loved so much when I was a kid and put them into a movie.
Could you talk a little about the design of the trolls? There are a few different types showcased in the film, and they’re all really unique. How much of their look was taken from folklore and research, and how much was made using creative liberties?
In the folklore, the trolls are more like humans – they talk with humans – this is, of course, mentioned in the film as well, but …it’s basically the truth. I wanted to make them more animalistic – I wanted to keep a hint of humanity to them or else they wouldn’t be trolls, but I wanted to give them animal instincts and animal needs – that that’s their driving force, not being evil monsters that just want to wreak havoc, they actually want to stay away, but the story of the film is that they’re escaping from their territory. I wanted to keep them like that. And the design is based very much in this book of fairy tales that we have in Norway. In that book there are some drawings that are just amazing to me – just really so scary and so vivid and I wanted to put those images onscreen. I wanted to stay close to the way the trolls look in those drawings but I wanted to make sure we did something unique that was our own, so…we started taking their clothes off and really showing the details in the trolls – like the fact that they’re covered by moss and they’re covered by grass and forest and trees and rocks.
What’s the name of the book you used to reference the troll design?
It’s called Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Fairy Tales.
There’s one particular part where there’s mention of the trolls growing extra heads as they age. Is that a detail from the book or is that something that you put in on your own?
(Laughs) I put it in but not on my own. It was actually something the actor playing the troll hunter just came up with in that scene. It was completely improvised.
Is it true that you wrote the lead role of troll hunter Hans for Otto Jespersen, a well-known Norwegian comedian?
Yeah, to a degree. When I thought of the character, he wasn’t really in my head. But, when we started discussing, okay, who can play this role – we need somebody who has a sense of humor, who is relatively famous, who is the right age, the right type – and his name came up immediately and it seemed that obvious. He’s kind of a grumpy, sarcastic guy and in all his own comedy that’s the way he comes off and I really thought that was so great. So when I was actually writing the script, there was definitely a lot of him in it – but I had to make sure that he didn’t become so talkative, because he loves to talk – he loves words, which was great for me because I could rely on him to come up with stuff.
How much did Otto use the script as more of a jumping-off point for improvising the character?
A lot of the dialogue that’s in the film is from the script, but it’s also very tweaked. I wanted the actors to be as real as possible, so they had to really come from within themselves, because we were improvising so much stuff to make it feel real because it’s a documentary form. I had to trust the actors – I had to cast actors that were able to come up with their own lines, who had the confidence to trust themselves. So that was the biggest part of the audition process. For example, with the actors, we did improvised scenes where they would just get a topic and they would play around that. We did group auditions – never just auditions one by one. We’d always put together a group of three or four people acting together and then we would switch them around and match and see which ones worked out. I cast the guy playing Thomas – he was the first of the camera crew that was hired. Then I would bring him in to the next set of auditions, so he was a part of choosing the other actors we eventually chose.
Your action sequences are directly correlated to the scale of the trolls – how did you coordinate and plan for that in pre-production and during shooting?
We never storyboarded anything. But I think the freedom that comes with that is actually very helpful because I love to think of stuff when I’m on the set, because in this kind of film – we always had two or three special effects supervisors on set when we did that stuff, and they had equipment that was appropriate for the situation. They were prepared for the type of shots we were going to make. And we would constantly change them and constantly tweak them. And we talked through everything thing, because we didn’t actually have time since the pre-production schedule was just insane.
Like four to five weeks.
And how long did shooting last?
Shooting was 29 production days over six weeks.
You had your effects guys on set for shooting. Had you not even completely come up with the creative concepts for the trolls yet? Was that something that you partially did in post-production, just using the scale that you’d created on set?
Yeah, basically, the footage somehow formed the trolls a little bit, but we also knew how big the trolls were. The size is actually the most important thing – the physical size and where the eyes are. What does the troll do? Does it come jumping at you? Does it walk across the screen? This is the kind of thing we needed to think of both in pre-production and while shooting.
How long were you in post-production with the film?
It took about a year after from when we were done shooting to when the film was on screen. We spent the first two months after the shoot editing the effects sequences, and then we delivered the effects sequences to the effects houses and they started working on them. And it was very much a back-and-forth process, tweaking and tweaking. I was sitting with the key animators seeing new updates every day. The thing I was most concerned with was the acting. I knew the guys would be able to do the integration and that stuff really well, but what I was most concerned with was the way the trolls acted. So we spent months on the performances.
And speaking of performances, too, how did you make up for the fact that the actors were essentially acting to nothing when there were no trolls on set? How did you motivate them and get them to look in the right spots and react the right ways?
Again, it’s all about where the eyes are. That’s the most important thing, because you’re always going to get drawn to the eyes of whatever you’re looking at. And so as long as we knew that, then we at least knew the physical size of things. And then it’s more an issue of talking about, okay, the troll is going to come out like this, it’s going to do that. And so we basically described it – and we changed some of this in post-production – but generally we kept to that idea, what we talked about on the set.
Troll Hunter has drawn comparisons to The Blair Witch Project for the shaky-cam documentary style, but really the film is so much more produced than Blair Witch – especially in that you actually see the monsters. The implementation of night vision, CGI, day shots, etc. – are those all vehicles you used to set this film apart from previous horror-style documentaries?
Yeah, and the word “documentary” is an important aspect of it because I really feel this is a documentary more than a found-footage film. The found footage is kind of a wrapping. The film is told as a documentary, where you do interviews and you follow a character for a while, and a lot of these found footage films, which I love. I really enjoy Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project – all those films are great fun. But they’re usually about one event that you film, and we were doing more. My research was more into what aspects, what tools from the documentary style should we use, not so much taking reference from found footage films. Of the mockumentaries, I think Man Bites Dog is the closest one to what I was attempting to achieve.
You already rattled off a list, but are there any other movies or filmmakers you looked to for inspiration? I kind of saw a little Evil Dead in there, too.
(Laughs) The Evil Dead quality would be more on the subconscious level, but I do love Evil Dead. A little bit of Ghostbusters is in this, too. I think – usually – mockumentaries are either comedy or horror, but they tend to be either/or, like Christopher Guest films. I wanted to make it more of an adventurous mix of genres, but it’s also a road movie in a way.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a project in Hollywood.
So you’ll be filming it here in the U.S.?
Yes, it’s going to be an American film.
Can you divulge any details?
I can’t! But it will be a fun film in the same genre of this kind of stuff.
Update: Magnolia Pictures has released a new Troll Hunter poster illustrated by cartoonist James Stokoe (Orc Stain, Wonton Soup).