Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt had quite a 2021, bringing both his most recent collaboration with Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World (for which he would go on to be Oscar-nominated), and his latest directorial effort, The Innocents, to Cannes.

Now getting a release this week via IFC Midnight, his grounded supernatural drama follows four children over a summer holiday as they discover abilities that lead down dark, strange paths. With a unique perspective told through the point-of-view of the children, Vogt crafts a haunting tale of morality.

Ahead of the film’s release, I spoke with Vogt about working with his young cast, reactions from parents, sharing a title with the Jack Clayton classic, inspirations as far-ranging from David Cronenberg to The Spirit of the Beehive to manga, Joachim Trier’s advice, and more.

The Film Stage: You pull off quite a difficult balance with this film, working with a cast of children while dealing with fairly complex themes of morality. Could you talk about the preparation process and its specific challenges?

Eskil Vogt: Well, first I self-impose when I’m writing that I shouldn’t think about what’s hard and not hard because you learn a lot from making movies. Shooting at night, everyone’s so tired or filming in the car, it’s so cramped––it’s so hard to do any interesting shots. And you just have to get everything like that out of the room to be creative and then suddenly you’ve written something with four kids and a cat, and you know that you’re in for some trouble. And that was just the big challenge of this production was to find the right kids and work with them, make them understand acting, and also make them understand what they’re doing. We didn’t want to exploit them, we didn’t want to trick them. It should be very transparent what we are doing.

Since we spent over a year casting and then months and months on top of that, just working with the four kids, we got to know each other really well. We got the chance to talk about everything and I would just answer any question they had very truthfully. We would really prepare those more difficult, intense scenes a lot because we were afraid. Could this be traumatizing, you know? And then when we actually did it, they had a lot of fun with those scenes. I mean, kids are more sophisticated than you think. 

The seven-year-old [Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim], who plays Aisha in the film, she was talking about the character’s motivation. These are really intelligent kids. They know the difference between fiction and reality because they are used to play acting. They are used to being in some character, imagining stuff, and then knowing very well that it’s not real. So they had fun with the most violent scenes. And it could be like some other scene, where it was more technical, where they suddenly could have a moment where they felt that they didn’t do it right because they wanted to be good. And then suddenly I can see some tears coming in their eyes, and you need to take a break and just comfort them and take away that pressure of doing good.

But those scenes where there was some violence, they could go into character, go into that fear and the expression of fear. And then you go “cut!” and they would do cartwheels and have fun with the sound guy. And then we go, “Oh, we need another take, come back here.” And then they go right back into that fear, because already we’ve chosen good actors and also because kids have that capacity of changing emotions so quickly. Which is also one of the reasons it’s so fascinating to watch them because they could explode in anger, then two seconds after that they laugh and have fun. It’s a ride.

As a new parent myself, it’s quite a terrifying movie. My son’s quite young, but just thinking about the questions of morality that come up in a still-developing young mind. What kinds of questions have come up from parents that have seen the film?

Well, that’s an interesting question. What’s kind of universal for the people who talk to me is that they start to talk about the movie and, like a minute later, they’re talking about their own childhood and the stuff they’ve done. And it could be the stuff they believed in, like an imaginary friend or whatever, like some fantasy that they became part of the reality. But often they are like, “I remember doing that thing. I shouldn’t have done that because that was cruel.” That kind of thing seems to be universal, that you transgress, that you do something bad when you’re a kid and you feel bad afterward. And I have those memories as well. And why is that?

Modern parents––at least in Norway, and probably where you are as well––are much more involved in their kids’ lives than our parents were. They’re more present. And does that mean they prevent those things? And should they be prevented because isn’t it important that kids have that space where their parents aren’t looking at them––where they can do mistakes, where they can do small transgressions and learn something and maybe create their own set of values instead of just doing what their parents tell them. But making it ingrained in them that, “No, when I did that, that didn’t feel good. So I’ll just stop going in that direction.” And that means they have a moral compass they can follow instead of just being like puppets to their parents’ values. So how do we let them loose into the world knowing that they can make huge mistakes? I think that’s a big issue for parents, especially modern parents, because kids aren’t let alone as much as they used to.

For sure. The film does share a title with the Jack Clayton film from 1961, which came out exactly 60 years ago from when yours premiered. That film is also about kids being possessed, though it’s quite different. I’m curious if your title is any sort of nod or influence and if there are any psychological horror films or just works about children that inspired you in the production.

For the title and the Jack Clayton movie, for me it was a disadvantage because that movie’s very good. It’s a classic and my movie’s called De uskyldige in Norwegian, which means The Innocents. But the Jack Clayton movie is not a reference here. And I think it might have had maybe another title when it was released, so during the Norweigian release, no one talked about that movie. But when we decided on the international title, I was like, I should change it because I don’t want to be compared to that movie and people say it’s not as good as the Jack Clayton movie because you’re setting yourself up to fail if you do that. But I couldn’t find a title that was better for the movie. So we just stuck with it, but it’s a wonderful movie so I’m the opposite of being ashamed of being associated with it.

But it’s also an example of something that’s opposite of my movie because I wanted the movie to be about children, to be with the kids, to be in their inner circle, to understand them, and in [Clayton’s] The Innocents it’s like both part of the fragile female psyche kind of genre where you see it happening or is she crazy, that they do perfectly well in that movie, but it’s also part of the scary kids thing. Where you’re looking at the kids from the outside and you’re like, “Oh, what’s happening to them? Are they possessed? Are they evil?” You don’t know because you’re on the outside. You’re with the adults. And that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do. But, yeah, it’s a lovely movie. So I’ve gotten away with the comparison so far. People aren’t like hitting me over the head with it. [Laughs]

Oh, yes. They are quite different.

As for all the references, a lot of the movies that I like with kids and supernatural movies, it’s really about the scary kids movies where you are really on the outside and not on the inside or it’s about young people with powers. I was a bit afraid I was making one of those at one point, but my movie is about childhood, and most of them are about teens or, or even older teens in puberty when their body is changing and it’s about sexuality and something is shooting out of my arms. And my story is about childhood and the magic of childhood, so that was different. So I kind of avoided a lot of those movies and rewatched some of those classics about childhood, like The Spirit of the Beehive or Ponette, the French movie with a five-year-old actress who’s amazing and those kind of movies just to remind myself how cinematic it is when you have good kids acting and being in the moment. I kind of avoided a lot of those movies that were in the same genre.

But I rewatched one of my favorite supernatural thrillers, The Dead Zone by Cronenberg. Just because I liked that mixture of character, story, and the supernatural. I just love that, like Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg because it’s the same thing where it’s a drama about grief, but it’s also a really good horror movie. I love those films. I rewatched Scanners by Cronenberg just to see what he does with telepathy thing when I had already written mine and though, wow, that’s a good movie. It still has that great kind of storytelling and visuals and great acting by Michael Ironside. And so I had a lot of fun revisiting those but actually the most influential thing for this movie was a manga called Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo, who did both the manga for Akira and also the anime movie, which is amazing. That was a graphic novel he did before Akira, which was a huge inspiration for this movie. And also a manga with a style I like. We looked at it with a cinematographer for how do you make these kind of clean, stylized lines but still keep reality? Which Otomo does. He’s a detailed drawer, so he always adds some rubbish to just offset the purity of it. So it feels real, even though it’s stylized in a wonderful way.

Nice. I love the precision of the cinematography. And with the small location, you’re able to milk everything for what it’s worth. Obviously you have quite a hand in the films of Joachim Trier. I’m curious what his involvement is with your work. When do you show him the script and cuts of the film? And was the making of Thelma a stepping stone to doing this project?

Yes, at the very beginning of brainstorming for Thelma, I threw an idea at Joachim, which is what we do. We kind of just throw things at each other and see what sticks. And one of the ideas was kind of the germ for The Innocents. He didn’t respond to it maybe because he wasn’t a father at that point. So that kind of just died, which is normal. But it came back to me later, like, oh, this is still something I’m thinking about. So I picked it up. And so it came from that session in a way. But what happens, is when Joachim is shooting I’m writing my own stuff. So that means he’s not involved in that writing at all. But he’ll be one of the first people to read a draft and give me feedback, which is important to me. And he will also be involved in watching a version or two at least in editing.

So he’s involved like that, but he’s also involved like I’m involved when Joachim is shooting. It’s so good to have a best friend that does the same thing that you do. So when you feel like everything’s hopeless, you can call him and go like, ”Oh, it’s so hard to be a director.” [Laughs] And no one else will understand. It would just feel like stupid complaining. But to have a best friend who really knows what it means to be in that situation and can even offer good advice because we both have experience being in that situation. So that’s a major part of it as well.

The Innocents opens on Friday, May 13 in theaters and on VOD.

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