We chat with the director about using the monster as a metaphor in his new creature feature, coming-of-age movie.
Tucked away inside Stephen King’s “The Shining” is a prescient little quote about the origins of beasts. While observing the nightmares of The Overlook Hotel, the author writes, “Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters.” We are often the creator of our worst fears, and the demons that haunt us are the result of our own societal neglect.
When it comes to the creature feature, director Fritz Böhm has a few thoughts of his own. His new film, Wildling, is a passionate exploration of the monstrous change we all pass through during puberty. Innocence can only survive in this world for so long, and the fangs must eventually reveal their snarl upon the world.
Bel Powley plays Anna, a young girl raised in captivity by Brad Dourif’s Daddy. However, Wildling is not Room or Brigsby Bear. There is a beast brewing beneath the surface. When Anna escapes her prison for the suburbs, she discovers a reality not yet ready to accept her true nature. Too bad for them.
I chatted with Böhm after he premiered the film at SXSW. Our conversation begins with ideas on werewolves and feral children, but quickly transitions into a fascination with fairy tales. The mythology of Wildling is tied more to his sister than Lon Chaney Jr. We talk further about the joys of casting talent like Powley and Dourif, as well as the challenges of nailing an unreliable point of view.
Here is our conversation in full:
What was the initial inspiration for Wildling? I mean, were you drawing from the werewolf mythology or the feral child story?
No, there were certainly some werewolf thoughts in it, but I think the real origin was just my wish to create my own dark fairytale. The biggest inspiration was certainly hearing my mom read fairytales to me when I was a little child. I was so taken with the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson, or the Brothers Grimm. Then eventually wanting to create something like that myself. We certainly also looked into werewolf movies, since we were dealing with a hairy creature. We were kind of in that territory.
I didn’t want to do the magical tropes that come with typical werewolves, like magic amulets, silver bullets, full moon transformation. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to create a more, “biological approach,” by asking what if there was really a parallel species to humankind that was just more predatorial and would develop its secondary features during puberty. We went entirely with that idea; stripped away the magic. It didn’t have anything to do with werewolves that much in the end, it became its own thing.
You got to that point by going through classic films or classic stories, and deciding what you wanted or what you didn’t want?
I didn’t do it in such a structured way, you know? Another big inspiration was my little sister. I mean she wasn’t held captive as a child, that part is fictitious, but she was a very wild, nature-loving kid. As a big brother, I always looked at her and thought, “What if one day she just runs off into the forest and becomes this wild animal?” She was so into nature. That was her inspiration, and it put me on the track of wanting to tell the story from a female perspective. Talking about a little girl who becomes a woman, where the whole Wildling mythology is basically just a metaphor for growing up, for going through puberty, for going through that transformative phase in your life, where you sort of find yourself at odds with everything. The mythology was a way to heighten that human experience.
Bel Powley as Anna is absolutely fantastic in the film. How did you even start to cast that character?
It was a big challenge to find the right actress for that role because we knew the whole movie would rest on her soldiers. Every single scene would be from her POV. It was my producers in New York, Trudie Styler, and Celine Rattray, who discovered Bel at one of the previous Sundance Film Festivals, where they saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl. That’s how we got in touch. I was just blown away by her. When we met, I knew, “She’s the right one. It has to be Bel.” My biggest worry was resolved. We were able to start making the movie.
Then you have to find the perfect Daddy for her. Brad Dourif is a treasure. How’d he get involved?
It’s almost the same story. I got Trudie’s husband, who is the rock musician Sting, and he worked with Brad Dourif in a movie called Dune in the 80s, the David Lynch film. He somehow, I think they kind of came up with that idea and then pitched it to me. I was like, “Oh my God, of course. I’m such a Brad Dourif fan.” Immediately, it all made sense to me that he’s Daddy. He really embraced that role. It was as if it had been written for him. He totally fused the best character.
Going back to the character of Anna, for so much of the film, she’s basically an unreliable narrator. The audience is continuously questioning her point of view, almost until the end of the movie. How do you craft when and how much information to reveal?
That’s a tricky process. I knew that the movie would be mainly driven by the mystery of who is Anna, what are her origins, what does that mean, what does that entail? Will she hate what she is, or will she embrace what she is? I designed this like a mystery around that question because that would be the question that would be on her mind. We always knew that we wanted to make it out of her perspective, entirely from her point of view, like a creature feature, like a monster film, but you’re with the monster. Mostly it’s the other way around. Mostly you’re with the characters that encounter the monster, and then have to deal with it somehow. We wanted to be in the skin of the monster. Her character was the guide in crafting the mystery.
Was that all solved in the screenplay stage, or did you find it in the editing?
No, totally not. That was all screenplay. I wrote the screenplay together with my friend Florian Eder, and once we knew what the journey was going to be, that it was going to start in captivity, end in freedom, we wrote the script in eight days. It just poured out the moment we knew that. We certainly spent years talking about it on and off, trying to find what that journey would be. It was just that the character had to be clear. Once it was clear, the character itself defines the journey.
How does your relationship with the screenplay change once you step behind the camera?
Oh yeah. It’s almost like putting on another hat, you know? You have to say, “Okay, this is the script. It’s my basis, but the script is the script.” Now you have real actors standing in front of you. This is now flesh and blood. It becomes a different thing of course, and all the details, like the locations, and the costumes, and the production design, the lighting, you’re suddenly dealing with a ton of other aspects that you have to put the screenplay aside.
Also, the actors, they all luckily identified so much with their characters that they gave me wonderful suggestions. Like Liv said, “Maybe I’m going to say this not the way it’s in the script. Maybe I’m going to say it a little more like this.” She made suggestions for her lines, and so did Brad. The first sentence in the movie is, “Do you want to hear a story?” That line wasn’t in the script, he just improvised it. He was looking at the child actress who played little Anna, and he wanted to get her in the mood, so he said, “Do you want to hear a story?” The camera was rolling, so in the editing room I realized, “Oh man, that would be a cool opening line.” It was just him talking off camera basically. He’s fantastic.
Huh. That’s such a key line. It seems like it speaks so much to the film as a whole. It’s so perfect.
Yeah, it started, in the script, it started with the second line that he says right after that, and he said that verbatim, the way it’s in the script, but I guess … I mean one of the huge things I learned making the movie, is that you always know that casting is so crucial, but it is really damn crucial. If you have someone who can identify with the role, that’s worth so much. As a director, you have all these thousands of things on your mind. Is the fog right? Is the lighting right? Is the camera movement right? Your brain is working at full capacity, whereas the brain of the actors is also working at full capacity, but the only thing they’re focusing on is their character and how it is relating to the other characters. It would be stupid not to go with some of the key things that come out of that from the actors. You know what I mean?
I wanted to talk about the look of the film. What’s your conversation with Toby Oliver on setting the general style of the picture?
That’s a funny thing because originally the script was divided into chapters. In the editing, I decided to take out those chapter cards, to not throw the audience out of the movie, but each chapter had a little bit of a different look, a different color. That was my idea of how to visually show Anna’s journey through the different phases that are really radically different. Like living captive in an attic. Then being in the normal human world, being in a high school world, being then in the wild, in nature. Each chapter had its own look. Then the rest was pretty much defined by the need for extreme efficiency in shooting the film, and that’s where Toby brought in a lot of tricks, a lot of ways that he knew as a veteran cinematographer, of how to help me get the day in the can. We had 23 shooting days. We had so much stuff on our call sheets, how are we going to get it in the can?
The look of the film certainly evolves with the character, all the way up to her final moment.
We also had a great colorist. The guy that did Lord of the Rings, Utsi Martin, he became our colorist, and he helped us also in post-production, really bringing that out, bringing out those colors and shadows, and all that.
Wildling lands in theaters in NYC and LA as well as on VOD and Digital HD on April 13.