Eskil Vogt speaks to Nordic Watchlist about creating his creepy childhood horror ‘The Innocents’

Eskil Vogt has been a pretty busy man – almost a year since his film The Innocents debuted at Cannes Film Festival, (alongside another wonderful film that he co-wrote, The Worst Person In the World), we are finally seeing this Norwegian horror film released in the UK.

Alex from Nordic Watchlist got to speak to the director about a film that literally had him turn away from the screen and shout at the top of his lungs, ‘what the hell?!’ – and he has nerves of steel usually when it comes to horror movies! The Innocents takes child-horror to a whole new level, immersing us in their world, and it gets pretty dark.

Alex Minnis to Eskil Vogt: I have to congratulate you – not only on an incredible film but also for managing to make it really crawl under my skin and make me react – it totally rattled me!

EV: I’m sorry!

Apparently it is not the first time Eskil has had to apologise for his own work – it appears that quite a lot of people have had the same reaction upon meeting him.

The films centres around a group of young children who seem to have special powers when they are together, which comes in quite handy but also at a sinister cost. When thinking about the film afterwards I wondered whether it existed in the same universe as Joachim Trier’s Thelma which Eskil Vogt had written alongside his partner in crime – or at least it might have been at this time that the idea for The Innocents came about perhaps?

EV: Maybe we need to make this extended universe – they’ll all meet up in the next instalment! I understand why someone might think that and actually the truth isn’t far from what you are describing.

When we were writing Thelma, Joachim and I we had this idea that we wanted to explore something supernatural – a film that was visual and visceral – unlike the films that we would normally do with two people just talking in a room.

Director Eskil Vogt / Photo Credit: Christian Breidlid

Eskil is referring to his previous work on the likes of Reprise, Oslo August 31st, and Louder Than Bombs, all of which he wrote with Joachim (all films are currently on MUBI if you want to catch them)!

EV: We were throwing ideas around and I remember one idea I threw at him that was about this magical childhood – what would happen if it was real in a film and that the kids were playing together and inexplicable things would happen yet they go along with that as part of a game then they go home, watch TV and that magic wasn’t there anymore.

Perhaps it was just their imagination but now it is real – that was the idea for the movie.

He sent this idea over to Joachim to hear his thoughts but Joachim didn’t respond, this was pretty normal for the duo when they are writing. Some ideas land and others just fall through and they go onto the next if the other person doesn’t respond.

Eskil had thought the idea had died there, but then it came back to him and in this particular incidence there was difference between the two writers:

EV: I think that one of the reasons Joachim didn’t respond was that he wasn’t a father and I was, and I had been thinking about my childhood since I had kids. So the idea came back to me and I felt that I wanted to make a movie about that secret closed-off world from my childhood.

We turn our attention to the children who are the stars of Eskil’s film – their performances are incredible and I am not entirely sure if this is a good thing as it makes the horror so realistic and makes them some of the most terrifying children I have witnessed in the horror genre.

It is not entirely their fault though which is why I love the way the title of the film plays on a number of factors about the film. They look like butter wouldn’t melt but there are moments where they do some pretty dark things.

To get the best out of the young cast Eskil had to work hard on earning their trust in him and that took some time throughout the casting process:

EV: It was the biggest challenge after writing the script; how do I make this work? Four young kids in practically every scene and making sure they work well together. If one is top notch but the other isn’t it then it won’t work – it would be bad. Every child had to be top level – so we spent over a year and a lot of money to do a huge casting.

The casting team, along with the director, went through a number of auditions very slowly. Not giving them too much text to work with at the beginning, nor have them focus on the roles – just see who is interesting and who works.

EV: Of course you have these girls with the Jazz hands who are ready for a comedy or a musical – you see that they have never had a bad day in their lives and you know that they will be amazing in something like Mary Poppins, but not in this movie. I needed the kids with some sort of secret that they wouldn’t come to you with – you would have to lean into them to learn it.

Eskil explains that they met with the cast a lot of the time doing acting workshops, teaching them, helping them not only build their charisma but to understand the process of the film making.

EV: You had to keep them motivated and find out if they really want to be here!

In the end they struck gold with their cast – they were so keen and enjoying the experience they didn’t even want to go home!

EV: I had this rule – always be truthful to them, never surprise them, never trick them to get reactions, and it paid off! We made sure they had the best environment and safest environment, we didn’t want cliques happening for example. The casting director had a clear vision and it worked!

It certainly did work – the performances from the children are quite something, but was there ever a fear that perhaps their roles in the film might come across as too evil? With Eskil able to see his characters and the children playing them, was there ever a concern that he would perhaps need to tone down some of the darkness, or stick to his guns?

EV: Well yes, I mean, what I had to put those character through is different when you see it rather than when you write it. So what was important to me was that I wanted to make it very hard for people to say that they are evil kids in the film – they do stuff that is obviously not right but then again I tried to choose actors that people will be reminded that they are just a kid.

One particular character is Ben (Sam Ashraf, pictured below) who plays one of the antagonists. He is a character who is in pain and clearly not able to control his emotions. It was important for the director to make sure the kids had both good and bad impulses – that it wasn’t completely black and white, so it creates conflicted feelings about what happens to them.

I turn my attention to the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, someone who seems to keep popping up and is behind some of our favourites movies including the likes of Victoria, Another Round, Rams, and the upcoming Beautiful Beings. In our opinion the man brings his own magic to the table when he is behind the lens.

EV: I admire his work and he is also Norwegian, but this was his first Norwegian film he has worked on. He has worked in Iceland, Denmark, Germany and in the US – his style is so different from film to film but he manages to really make you feel like you are there.

You feel so present and in the moment, which feels stupid, but in other movies they might look beautiful but you really only feel on the surface. He gets in there, that is his magic, and in this movie we wanted him to have more controlled shots.

The pair also had to have a number of conversations to discuss how they re-create that feeling of being a child. That was more important to the director than making anything scary.

EV: Cinema has obviously two senses – you see and you hear – but you want the body of the spectator involved and close-ups play a big part in that. As a child you feel things with your fingers in a tactile way as much as you see stuff, kids are always touching stuff, and we wanted close ups of their hands doing things like picking at scabs and eating it.

Some people have done that and we wanted to make them remember how that felt and suddenly they have this physical memory that is projected into the film and their bodies are in this film.

Our attention turns to Eskil’s favourite Nordic horror but the question catches him off guard and instead we focus back on the film and its genre

EV: I try not to look at or reference any scary movies – I was more interested in films about childhoods rather than scary kids!

It got me wondering all of sudden – if Jaws made people afraid to go in the water then what does The Innocents do?

EV: Well there has been some people who have said it is the best contraceptive film – like an audio visual contraceptive! I don’t agree but let’s just hope it doesn’t stop people wanting to come to Oslo, that would be terrible!

Rest assured that The Innocents is certainly not for the faint hearted, but if you like your dark supernatural thrillers, then we think you’re going to love this.

Signature Entertainment presents The Innocents in Cinemas & Digital Platforms from 20th May

Nordic Watchlist has also partnered with MUBI to offer a 30-day free trial so you can watch some of Eskil’s work and much more – visit here to find out more:

Interview by Alex Minnis