The contained horror film is always just as much about the ‘where’ the victims are contained as the horror they face, and what supersedes both are the actual characters themselves.  In THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, André Øvredal has found the perfect set-up for an evening of terror. A father and a son examine an unidentified body in the morgue in the basement of their home in a small town. As father (Brian Cox) tries to pass on his knowledge of steady, unemotional fact-collecting, son (Emile Hirsh) jumps to emotional conclusions and want to solve the case, just as he would like to jump out of this occupation and far away from this profession. As they cut deeper into the unnamed corpse on their table, they awaken an evil force which shuts them off from the outside world and wants to make this investigation their last.  Trapped inside a place already creepier than creeps sake, the men must work together to find a way to escape a curse that brought the body to them in the first place.

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is horror at its finest. Well-structured with fantastic characters who make logical choices even when dealing with a force far out of their understanding, Øvredal’s film reaches a sublime sublety that few genre films ever do.  Right up there with UNDER THE SHADOW as the best horror films of the year, AUTOPSY works because it doesn’t try to do too much.  It has the elements of truly terrifying story-telling bult into it.  It also has impressive performances from two recognizable actors who know how to fill even the silences with meaning.  Also its fricking scary.  I jumped in my seat several times and found myself trying to not think about it as I went to bed 14 hours later, banning it from my memory – that’s the sign of a scary movie.

I had a chance to sit down with director André Øvredal after the film’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest this week.

 

BEARS: Before working on this film, did you have any experience or knowledge with autopsies?

André Øvredal: No, none whatsoever.

BEARS: What kind of research did you have to do to dive into this world?

Øvredal: I had to learn a bit of anatomy, had hours of meeting with coroners, a ton of image and video research. I wanted to go to an actual autopsy but I never got around to it, because living in Norway, it’s a bit more strict. We also had, on set, with us a coroner—one of the best in the country— constantly. They were teaching the actors beforehand. They were discussing how the mood and tone is during an autopsy. The thing was that the script was so well-researched in the first place, it’s all in the script really. The coroners who read it and worked with us, they were like, “yeah, this is great.”

BEARS: It feels like if you were to write a story and live in that world, you really have to know the dark corners in this profession.

Øvredal: I think people are fascinated by different things. You want to fear these things. It’s such a weird world. It’s such a joy to have the opportunity to live somebody else’s life for a few months.

BEARS: Is that one of the things that excited you about the script?

Øvredal: Yeah. I love movies that are about people doing a job. I just think it’s fascinating. If you can create drama that is interesting around that, it’s brilliant. I just got fascinated by all the forensic details when I read the script. A lot of times when you read scripts like this, they’re not that well-researched, or to this level anyway. It kind of skims the surface. But this really went into it, and you really felt like this is real. And then when you add in the supernatural element, and the tension, the cinema, and the character relationships, everything— it’s just an exciting package for a director.

BEARS: How much did you know about Jane and her backstory that you didn’t share in the film? That’s one of the things I love: you’ll take us so far, you’ll give us some signs of what the history is but you can only give them the clues.

Øvredal: There is more. If the film becomes successful enough, maybe we’ll want to make a sequel and there is a lot of lore about her that could be developed further. For sure.

BEARS: How delicate is that process of deciding what you want to show or somewhat have the characters figure out versus the things you want to leave completely unexplained, or maybe as a plant for a future film or franchise?

Øvredal: Again, it comes down to the script in the way it’s rounded up. It’s always a decision how much to tell. Absolutely.

BEARS: This is a film about death and the afterlife, but it’s interesting because death is such a clinical item in this film.

Øvredal: Death is definitely a scary thing. Not that I’m afraid of death itself but I don’t want to die.

BEARS: Did that influence the moods you were creating in this?

Øvredal:  What I think influenced it more was how do you deal with a supernatural element in reality. We look around and everything is tangible, everything is simple. In a way. And then you add in this element of something you do not understand, you can’t comprehend, you can’t— in a way— handle. How do you as a human being— how do you accept that reality, that new sense of reality? That I’m really fascinated by. That fuels the whole movie because you have to make sure the audience is there with you on very grounded characters with very normal lives.

BEARS: I think one of the things that really works in the film is that normally when you have a ghost story, when you have supernatural people entering it, they’re entering people’s lives. Those people might be kind of fantastical in their head. There might be something wrong with them. They might be people given to believing things like that. More open to it. Here you’ve got characters who are actually trained themselves to only deal in the physical of what they see in front of them. One of the first things that happens is the father correcting the son, “no we’re not about the supposition, we’re not about the why. We’re just about looking at what’s in front of us.” To me, those are most interesting people to face something that can’t be understood.

Øvredal: I agree. I agree completely. That’s why I was also fascinated by the script because it is structured like that.

BEARS: I also really love that they can’t escape. It echoes the son’s desire to escape. It plays off their own character’s fears. Talk about working with Brian and Emile and the father-son relationship.

Øvredal: I’m just lucky to have my name on a movie they’re acting in. They’re so talented it’s ridiculous. I can trust their instincts, which is such a relief because their instincts are perfect on the mark as to what the character should be doing, how the character should interact, how to behave, how to portray that on screen. They know psychology, they know technicalities of acting, and it’s just such a joy to be able to be in their presence. They also have a great sense of humor. There was a constant balance, even in the way their lines were delivered— especially Brian. He can deliver anything in the driest way and can actually be quite funny.

BEARS: Well, he actually has a lot of stage experience too. These kind of smaller stories, you can sometimes bring a lot to that.

Øvredal: I think I have a sense of reality that I need to get into the character. So I pushed him in a good direction there. I think I needed to keep them in motion, physically, constantly. And that creates a lot of movement for the actors to play their emotions up against, that helps. Instead of just standing still, face-to-face, they’re always moving around in the room, in a movie that is so minimalistic in a way. That becomes the action of the movie.

BEARS: My background is in theater and so one of the things that I did as an actor was Meisner training. A lot of Meisner training is trying to do a task and as you’re trying to do a task, you’re in conflict with somebody else or something else that has nothing to do with the task. But you’re still trying to do the task. I love that idea: to have work. To ground it. It made the film so much more visceral and real and centered.

Øvredal: I think it’s essential to even the most simple scenes in a kitchen or something in a movie that blocking really works. You don’t really stand and stare into each other’s faces when you talk normally. You sit over here and you walk, you’re doing dishwashing, you’re this and that. Whatever the scene is, you have to do that stuff to add reality.

BEARS: So tell me about the set. That was a very elaborate, labyrinth type set to build. Did you sit down with plans? You had to think about where all the scares were going to be.

Øvredal: Basically, you read the script and you had the script here and you’re drawing lines— on page ten, they’re there and then they walk there. Okay, there’s gotta be a hallway there. And you through the script like that and you construct the space to fit every action in the script. If there is a discrepancy between them, you need obviously change one or the other. And then you start to construct, ‘okay, how is that room supposed to be?’ It’s just a basic layout. How do we do the autopsy room? Well, first of all, I wanted to shoot a lot of low angles and high angles. So then we needed to construct a room that has ceilings, where there’d normally be film lights. And because we’re going to be shooting up then we’ve got to have angles in every, everywhere … they’re going to be standing here a lot so then we need to create specifically an angle behind them there and we need depth, several, we need like 4 meters or 12 feet or whatever of depth that way to create distance and … there’s so many decisions.

BEARS: Yeah, it seems like you have to be ten times more organized if you have to build to suit, because if you’re shooting on location, you just show up to the location, and you plan it, it’s already there. You have to take your ideas and move them into the space. But if you’re creating the space around your ideas, your ideas have to be that much more centered. Your first film was all location. Did you like it better this way?

Øvredal: To a degree. There is more control. You can define the colors and just little details that the set designer did. We had a general color scheme and then we split the colors there— add a little bit of red there, little bit of yellow there, just to not make to monochromatic. Then how do you do the costumes? The costume has to work in this whole way that is so dark and red, and it has to work in this green-ish environment. It’s such a combination of things. It’s actually a lot of fun figuring these things out.

BEARS: What was the most difficult or surprising part about shooting in that space?

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Øvredal: Technically speaking, it was really tough on continuity. That was a big surprise. Most of the time, it’s when the actors are lying there, playing Jane. But a lot of times you have to replace her with a dummy, for certain shots. And then you realize there’s a continuity issue with the . . . we had to shoot the whole film chronologically to make sure that the continuity worked, because they moved stuff. They put the cup over there and it has to stay there and there are a gazillion little details like that. If you shoot it out of sequence, it’s impossible to get it right.

BEARS: That had to be really helpful for the actors because it’s so much nicer to shoot in order. So the actress who is playing Jane, how much time was she there?

Øvredal: I think she was there for at least three weeks.

BEARS: Wow! That had to be one of the easiest gigs ever but also, I think, pretty tough.

Øvredal: Really tough, actually. Because she was lying on this ice cold marble table that we heated up obviously but she has to lie still all day long. But, ‘okay, you gotta open your mouth a little here. . . .’ She has to breathe shallow. She had to be a very patient person. I would never, ever do that! She was amazing. Really, such a soldier when it came to being there. Never a protest or anything. Just being so professional, so kind. Her attitude about— obviously there’s a lot of nudity— but her attitude about everything was such a relief for everybody. She was so calm. She was like, ‘it’s no big deal.’ And then you’re not uncomfortable around her in the situation. She was amazing in every way.

 

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest this week.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

 

 

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