André Øvredal, the director of 2011’s found footage cult sensation, Troll Hunter, talks us through how he got the quirky movie off the ground and sheds light on how to create a successful project with a fascinating idea…
Never letting the idea die
Despite a slight tonal shift during production, Øvredal’s original vision for Troll Hunter remained intact. “It may be a bit lighter in tone, but generally it’s the same. I even made a point out of it, during one of the premieres, reading out one of my first emails where I describe what the film was supposed to be – and it was exactly the same film, so it was fun that years later it was the same film we set out to make.”
What makes this film unique? Trolls!
Found footage is an overcooked sub-genre, certainly, with films like The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity being notable examples – but they didn’t have trolls, an odd choice of subject which immediately distinguished Troll Hunter. You know: trolls. “I think the blend of realism and complete lack of realism makes it unique, because most found footage films only use the style to create horror and reality,” Øvredal says. “We were tipping between, ‘obviously this isn’t real, because it has huge monsters in it’ and insisting it’s real by style. It’s a good mix of things that people really seemed to enjoy.”
Meeting the right people
Øvredal approached producer John M Jacobsen, previously responsible for the lame Karl Urban vehicle Pathfinder, with less than a story synopsis to hand. “I started developing the world and the mythology on my own for a couple of years,” Øvredal says. “I wrote some information about what the movie was going to be in general, without having any story, and I went to the biggest producer in Norway and pitched him the basic concept. He loved it! From there on, we started developing the script and he funded it pretty quickly – half government, half private funding through a distributor, and as soon as we had the last batch of money in place, we started pre-production, which was mostly rewriting the script again and again!”
André Øvredal has directed a few short movies – his IMDB profile cites a short sci-fi film called Future Murder – but his work before Troll Hunter primarily came in advertising, which offered him the chance to learn lots of different genres at once. “I think what commercials do more than anything is, if you get shoot quite a few of them, you get to shoot quite a few different styles of filmmaking. You get to deal with all kinds of sizes of production from very small intimate things to pretty big film sets. I’ve shot a few found footage commercials…that kind of home video style. And it’s just great preparation for sure!”
Trusting in improvisation and collaboration
So much of what Troll Hunter eventually became, including its tongue-in-cheek overtones, came from embracing a collaborative mindset – something the director wasn’t used to. “Some of the best stuff comes by accident, because we were improvising, for example, with the actors,” Øvredal explains. “We were improvising so much and some of the greatest stuff there is from their acting, not from my script. To actually shoot that thing in 29 production days…I hardly thought that was going to be possible, but the [crew] proved me wrong. They were fantastic. On a commercial, which I’m used to doing, you have a lot of control over everything because it’s such a small thing. But when you’re doing a feature you’re dealing with maybe 40 locations and tons of different aspects of the film. When you’re doing a short pre-production, you don’t have time to make decisions on everything, so you have to leave a lot up to the crew. You learn to trust people, that’s for sure.”
Worldwide success was a huge surprise
Øvredal didn’t see Troll Hunter’s huge worldwide cult success coming – at all. “Oh no. By no means! We were pretty sure it was going to be a success in Norway, because of the theme. Nobody had ever seen a creature film in Norway about trolls before. We built an underground of interest around it then exploded it a month before release. We had a screening in Texas two months before the Norwegian release, and that was a huge success. We came to the Norwegian premiere with a film we knew worked really well. Even people outside of Norway got it, which we weren’t sure about.” We mention that the film’s trailer is an Internet sensation, with over five million hits on YouTube suggesting a healthy second life on DVD. “Up to five million? Did you say five million?” laughs Øvredal.
It’s funny, but that’s okay
Troll Hunter’s transition from drama to comedy was the result of hiring divisive comic Otto Jespersen as the subject of the film’s mockumentary – the director saw the change as an advantage as production advanced. “Initially, I thought I was going to come up with an underground style myself when I was coming up with the idea. Being on a minimal budget, being in the darkness, doing these weird interviews with this guy we don’t really see much of – but as soon as I started talking for real about it, I needed to broaden it out and lighten the subject matter. As soon as we got a comedian playing the lead, it changes things a lot as well.”
You want to make a cult horror movie – here’s where to start
“Found footage is a good way of getting tension out of very little. Look at Paranormal Activity – all you need is a bedroom to make a monster hit if the idea is great enough and well-executed. And it doesn’t need to look fantastic. You don’t need huge lighting budgets. Not that I particularly want to do found footage myself again, but I would recommend people to do it.”
Troll Hunter is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.