It seems Norwegian cinema, and the culture of cinema in Norway, has gone through a renaissance in recent years. Morten Tyldum was Oscar nominated for Best Director with The Imitation Game in 2014, and in 2016 he directed two of Hollywood’s hottest names in Passengers, of which mine and many others’ opinion of does not detract from its enormity. The next Pirates of the Caribbean movie is directed by the brothers who made a feature film of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Joachim and Espen Rønning, and directors like Alexander Payne and Thomas Alfredson have shot their latest features around the country with actors like Matt Damon and Michael Fassbender. It is, however, not these big names and movies that are at the frontline of this renaissance in my eyes, but people like Joachim Trier with his English language debut Louder Than Bombs, and now André Øvredal: a man who has directed a much smaller film than any mentioned above, a film about a father and a son at a family run morgue; a superb genre-movie that is as much about dread-inducing horror, as it is about empathy and familial bonds. It is of course The Autopsy of Jane Doe (herby referred to as Jane Doe).
“The idea was to introduce her as an anonymous dead body nobody gave a second thought, before one starts to sympathize with her, and eventually fear her.” This is André talking about the titular Jane Doe, and more specifically about how and why it was so important to have an actual actress instead of a prop. We had a small conversation with the Norwegian director late last week, where we talked about how he went from his 2010 found-footage Trollhunter (which is still a favorite among certain genre-film fans) to an English language horror with names like Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch on the poster; how it was to direct an actress to play a motionless corpse throughout the movie; and the current state of Norwegian cinema.
“Well, first off it’s really fun,” André says about directors like Tyldum and Rønning working with huge studio-productions, “and it’s really inspiring to see this huge rise in Norwegian cinema throughout. We have it all, from fun car-flicks like Børning to more serious movies like The King’s Choice.” And in the author’s opinion, Jane Doe is a perfect example of this. André’s previous movie Trollhunter was an aspired found-footage adventure movie with elements of horror (it scared me, in the very least) that crisscrossed around the open and beautiful landscapes of Norway in a chaotic hunt for the country’s biggest cultural heritage, trolls. Jane Doe on the other hand, is a much smaller movie, almost exclusively set in one brilliantly constructed location with a main cast of three people (one of which, in case you haven’t gotten the clue yet, is a corpse). It is such a huge turn-around that it would be difficult to believe it’s from the same director, but André was inspired by a recent horror movie, and from there it didn’t take long for Jane Doe to fall into his lap; “I saw The Conjuring at the cinema in 2013, and was immediately inspired by it. James Wan is a master, and fun-fact; it was Wan who first made me aware of Stephen King’s tweet about Jane Doe, which was cool. But yeah, I was looking for a classic horror screenplay, and within a month Jane Doe showed up, and I remember staying in bed, reading the entire thing in 45 minutes.” André – who is humbleness incarnated – is not shy to praise the screenplay by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing; “it’s an extremely well-written and well-researched screenplay, which is always fun to read as a director. It was so on-point, and you could feel that there was real solid and classically good filmmaking in its foundations.” There is a lot of truth to this, and André has translated it beautifully to the screen. It is a short and precise movie that manages to stay on-point throughout; stripped down to the essentials, not a single superfluous scene. It’s rather the exact opposite, all the way down to the set design.
“It was all built as one large set in a studio. So we basically went through the script and looked at where the characters were going and made sure they could walk from room to room.” It’s an extremely effective way of constructing a set, as it becomes a real space in which the characters live. The architecture becomes tangible. The plot shares the same meticulousness, as we follow the father and son-duo as they try to determine the cause of death of a Jane Doe. The movie takes its time and allows us to really get to know these characters, and see how their relationship is. Slowly but surely things start to happen, and at the same time we learn more and more about our characters. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are brilliant together, and the chemistry between them is unshakeable; “they are both such fantastic actors, and their experience allows for a natural instinct as to how they should do each scene – they understand the psychology of their characters, of how to express it with simple gestures. They also have a nice personal chemistry on set. It was overall a great workplace environment. Emile had some fun with Brian (who is not a fan of blood and guts) by showing him some really gory YouTube videos. ” I can only imagine how it must have been for him to shoot the autopsy scenes.
The piece de resistance, however, is Jane Doe herself. Ophelia Lovibond plays the dead body from the very first scene to the very last, with more screen-presence than most antagonists in recent horror movies. André found Lovibond through his casting director (Elaine Grainger) who, on their very first phone call, said that she lived next door to the girl André had described. “She [Grainger] put us in touch, and from the first conversation I knew she was the right choice.” It’s a role that demands a lot from the actress, not only because she is unconventionally restrained in her actions, but also the nudity it demands; “it was really important for me to never be speculative about it. I saw a lot of movies with a female body at the center, and found a lot of ways I absolutely did not want to do it. As for the gore we have a lot more in the editing bay, but it was a balance act to shoot it directly and clinically at the same time. A philosophy that we had for the entire production.”
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is André Øvredal’s first English language feature, and his next movie, Mortal, is an American/Norwegian action-adventure-drama set in Norway, with mythological themes. It stars Misfits‘ Robert Sheehan,” [who] did an audition for the history books.” according to André, which I can absolutely believe. “We were supposed to have started principal photography already, but it has been delayed for various reasons – among others the production of Jane Doe – so now the idea is to start this spring.” As for doing a bigger studio production in Hollywood like Tyldum and the Rønning brothers, André seems open to the idea, “[he] just hasn’t found the right screenplay yet.”
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is currently in theatres in Norway, and available on demand in the U.S.