I'll admit, when I walked into the area where the interviews for THE POSSESSION were happening at San Diego Comic-Con this year, I thought I was only interviewing two of the film's stars, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and young Natasha Calis, who play father and daughter. But when I was offered up the opportunity to chat with Danish director Ole Bornedal, I figured why the hell not. The only downside is that I didn't have time to properly research his other works, including one that I truly enjoyed entitled NIGHTWATCH (1997), staring Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte.
Since NIGHTWATCH, Bornedal has helmed such films as THE SUBSTITUTE, JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY, and DELIVER US FROM EVIL, all Danish productions that managed to get some distribution in America. But with THE POSSESSION (produced by Sam Raimi), the director gets to be visually creative in this story of a young girl (Calis) possessed by an ancient demon, and the story of how her recently divorced parents (Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick) must put aside their differences to save their little girl. Please enjoy my discussion with Ole Bornedal, and forgive my few early lapses in knowledge of his career. I make up the ground pretty quickly. The photo comes courtesy of Gavin "Malone" Stokes.
Capone: All right, well I have not seen the film yet…
Ole Bornedal: No one has. [laughs]
Capone: At this convention, that’s kind of what happens. From talking to Jeffrey and Natasha, I got a little sense of what’s going on here and I’m really excited to see this first of all, but I’m curious. Is this your first American film?
OB: No. I worked for Miramax/Dimension for two years and I produced MIMIC, Guillermo Del Toro’s first [American] film, and then I did a film called NIGHTWATCH for Dimension.
Capone: With Ewan McGregor?
Capone: I saw that movie.
OB: It was not very successful.
Capone: Maybe not, but I saw it. I remember Ewan being really good in that movie. What is it was about possession movies that made you want to make that kind of movie?
OB: I really didn’t. [Laughs] It’s not really the kind of genre that I like so much and I'm not so much into the horror genre. I think the most horror films I see are too gory or too disgusting or too scary, and I’m not that fond of that really. I grew up more with REPULSION, THE TENANT, Polanski…
Capone: More psychological, sure.
OB: Right, the psychological scares. Obviously I saw THE EXORCIST again some weeks ago, and it’s still a masterpiece. I love POLTERGEIST. But the reason I like these films is because what they have on screen are real characters, really profound. It’s families, it’s psychological, and what this story was is a story about a married couple who were divorced, and as usual the kids are the victims, and they are left a little bit too much by themselves and then weird things start happening. So it’s more like that psychological approach, which was a very humanistic approach that fascinated me. On top of that, all of the horror occurs of course, and all of the effects happen, but in my world, the interesting film is not the explosion in your face, but the delicate surgery you do to the body of the audience, cutting them up and finding their souls and then scaring them.
Capone: How does a someone who’s not a big fan of the current landscape of horror, when you’re actually dealing with the horror elements, how do you make that interesting for you? How do you make that different?
OB: I think I make it interesting for me and interesting for the audience, because you find the more silent approach to it. I think there are so many films that become too mainstream, because they're too noisy and they're not actually looking for what really scares us. You’re not getting scared by a person who is dressed up and looks weird; you're getting scared by the person that looks like me that turns out to be a psychopath, because it looks like reality. So it’s finding the true nature of what’s scary, and then you find that when you work with real people.
I worked with Natasha Calis as being a little innocent, sane girl, and she more or less just twisted her face--we didn’t even do that much CGI on her face--but she could just look really really stressed out and scary. I worked with Kyra and Jeff as two real parents realizing that this is going absolutely crazy. So it’s when reality meets fantasy, but when it's reality with a capital “R,” it really becomes scary, and for any director that’s a challenge, even if the genre is not my favorite genre. I don’t consider it being a genre; I just consider it being a great story.
Capone I do like the family part of it is, when you almost slide the horror in from the side without realizing it, especially in like ROSEMARY’S BABY, POLTERGEIST or THE EXORCIST.
OB: It’s funny you should mention ROSEMARY’S BABY, because that’s a possession story also. But is it a horror movie? I wouldn’t even call it a horror movie.
Capone: It’s a horrific drama.
OB: Yeah. I don’t even know what to call that, and sometimes it really makes no sense to me to call things “science fiction” or “comedy” or “horror.” For 90 percent of the audience, it’s just about “Go watch a great movie.”
Capone: I was with Natasha about her audition, but can you tell me about…
OB: That was creepy.
Capone: Tell me about it, from your perspective.
OB: I always audition people in character. I ask them to come in in character, and then I interview them and then I take them through some more or less hypnotic journey, a technique that I have developed so that I can get the actor into some fantasy room where I can have them act out their feelings very, very quickly. I’m not going to reveal what it is here, but it’s harmless, but it’s pretty efficient.
I brought in Natasha to that state of mind, and then she started sobbing and then she started acting out like the possessed Emily, who was begging me to try to help her get this thing out of her, and I said “What’s wrong with you? What is he doing to your body, this thing in you?” She said, “It’s not a he; it’s a she. It’s an old woman.” That just came out of nowhere as she was improvising, and she actually scared me, because it was so real. So I knew from that instant that she had the part, and the producers didn’t believe that anyone could cast so quickly, so I just had to pretend seeing other people in for the casting.
Capone: She came in pretty early in the casting?
OB: She was the first one.
Capone: That’s unheard of.
OB: It is unheard of, and she got the part and actually because she improvised in such a way, I changed that in the screenplay; it’s actually an old woman sitting inside of the girl. It was pretty scary.
Capone: It sounds like you hypnotized her.
OB: I did. I actually did hypnotize her. It's a sort of hypnosis.
Capone: And I understand the writers [Juliet Snowden & Stiles White] that you had are moving on to this POLTERGEIST remake, which seems completely appropriate to me, because again it’s a family drama with a horror story mixed in.
OB: And they are a couple too, you know. I guess that’s where they get their inspiration.
Capone: Have you ever been to Comic-Con before?
OB: No. I just flew in last night. I came in very late. I really don’t know where I am, but I hear rumors that I am in San Diego, and I look forward to seeing what’s going on over there.
Capone: It might be scarier than your movie.
Capone: Talk about the dramatic scenes, the scenes with the couple. I’m guessing they don’t get along very well. Is that the element you feel for comfortable in, the more human drama?
OB: I think being a Scandinavian, being a European film director, I’m brought up with a tradition in drama that’s very character driven and extremely psychological. What often happens with European movies are in my opinion is they become too much art house and too psychological, and quite frankly just boring movies. What happens sometimes in the U.S. is that it becomes too mainstream and too action-adventurous. But you know when you combine those two things, when you take the good storytelling, which is the foundation of American film culture, and combine it with really hard psychological character work, then in my opinion, you will always get a great movie. If you look back and watch all the great movies in film history, they are character driven, psychological, profound with a really great story, and that’s what we are trying to do with THE POSSESSION.
Capone: I’ve been lucky enough over the last few years to interview a few directors from Denmark, and I love the film culture that is there. I always get a sense that it’s like a collective almost, that everyone knows each other.
OB: Yeah, we know each other, but no, I’ve never really been a part of it, because much of it was part of the Lars Von Trier culture, which never turned me on.
Capone: You’ve never made a Dogme film?
OB: [He makes a face like he ate something sour] Not at all.
Capone: Wow, look at that. You look like you tasted something bad.
OB: I don’t think they taste very well. I don’t think so. I think what I did to Danish filmmaking, at least I was told, I was one of the first guys that actually allowed genre movies to be made in Denmark with my first film NIGHTWATCH [the 1997 Ewan McGregor-starring film was actually a remake of this 1994 work], which was a big hit in Denmark. It started up a new generation of filmmakers that actually wanted to tell great stories. So in that way, I think I’ve pushed Danish film tradition a little bit by doing that film and have done that since. I’m not part of is the art house scene, which has been very dominant in Denmark. Although with Nicolas Winding Refn [DRIVE} is not part of the same stuff either.
Capone: No, he’s definitely not.
OB: He’s his own guy.
Capone: I met him when he toured with DRIVE. Well thank you very much. I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie.