Norwegian director André Øvredal’s new film, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, couldn’t be more different from his international breakout hit, 2010’s Trollhunter. Where Trollhunter was a loosely shot found-footage fantasy, Jane Doe is a tightly controlled, stylized horror film where every element is meticulously calibrated to induce maximum terror in its audience. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch star as a father-son coroner team who stay late one night in their family’s morgue to perform an autopsy on an unidentified woman they assume has been murdered. That may sound like the setup to some stomach-churning gore movie, but Jane Doe is far more clever than that. Instead, as the men perform the autopsy, Jane Doe’s body begins telling a terrifying story of who she was—and who she may still be.
The A.V. Club spoke with Øvredal the day after The Autopsy Of Jane Doe premiered at Fantastic Fest as he clutched a cup of coffee, perched on a vinyl booth in a private karaoke room.
The A.V. Club: At the Q&A yesterday, you said you wanted to do something different with this film. Did you feel like you wanted to prove something?
André Øvredal: I wanted to prove something because of Trollhunter[’s success]. It’s not a natural way for me to make films, trying to make found footage. It’s just a very specific style that you need to get into specifically for that project. But I grew up with filmmakers who are very controlled with storytelling, and that’s why I wanted to do something that was confined, and was just about the acting and the mood that I can create with the camera. And very simple, in a way.
AVC: It’s simple, but combines a bunch of different elements. Could you talk about building the morgue? You get some really rich colors in there.
AØ: I had a rule to not use white at all in the film, because I think white usually just looks dead, [although] it can be beautiful. But [the morgue] also had to have a feeling of history in the different design styles. That would mean browns, and bright colors, and generally giving it a feeling of having been there for decades, a hundred years or whatever. And we went through the script very carefully, and designed the set based on descriptions in the script and how they move around in the story. They move into the office, so the office has to be there. Then they go over to the elevator, so the elevator has to be down there. That’s how we sort of forensically figured it out. And then we built everything as one big piece so we could move around as we wanted. Also, basically we shot the whole film in continuity.
AVC: Oh really?
AØ: Yeah, because it’s so much… when you go back into a room, every little thing has moved just a little bit. Also [there are] all the physical effects of the body and how it evolves. So we had to do it in continuity. Otherwise it would have been an absolute mess.
AVC: That’s true. [Laughs.]
AØ: We don’t have the resources of an Avengers movie, so…
AVC: Did you have a whole mythology planned out for the family and the Jane Doe character? How much backstory did you write for that?
AØ: Well, I didn’t write the script, of course, but there is a backstory that the writers have worked out for her, as well as for the run-of-the-mill characters. It’s whatever [the audience] can figure out, either by realizing stuff or actually physically seeing stuff. That is the space for it in the movie. But there is more mythology to it, of course, and if the film is successful…
AVC: A prequel, maybe? [Laughs.]
AØ: Maybe! Maybe a prequel.
AVC: In the credits, you have an actress listed for the character of “Jane Doe.” How much of what we see in the film was the actress, and how much was the prosthetic, and how did you work those two in together?
AØ: Mostly, it was the actress. Every closeup is, of course, her, and most of the time it’s her body [on screen]. And even in the shots where we used the prosthetic body, we went back and layered her on top of that prosthetic body. So in a way, it’s mostly her in the end, but there are certain parts, obviously, where we use a complicated prosthetic.
AVC: How did you approach the visual look of the autopsy? It’s really, I guess you would say, clinical. You wouldn’t call it gore per se, but you see everything.
AØ: We were very conscious of it, obviously. We wanted to make something that was subtle but still direct and beautiful and not gory. Even more than the gore, I was very occupied with how we would portray her naked body in the film. That it’s never gratuitous in any possible way.
The reason there isn’t much blood involved in the autopsy really is because blood is usually somehow sunk down. It has to be something very specific if blood spurts out, and that was never the story. Other than one moment maybe. [Both laugh.] It was all about telling the story, and being very forensic. Whether it’s a car mechanic or whatever, [you’ll be] very direct.
AVC: There is that element in Emile Hirsch’s and Brian Cox’s characters. “This is our job.”
AØ: Yeah, they take [that element] a lot to heart and study [these bodies], and if there’s something wrong with it, then they figure it out.
AVC: It’s like a mystery.
AØ: Yeah, it’s really like a Sherlock Holmes type of movie.
AVC: How do you direct an actress to play dead? Do you just say “Don’t move”?
AØ: She was the best possible actress we could get because she was so patient and so open. They move her a lot, put a block under her, under her back, her neck. And a dead body will make different facial expressions by nature. They’d open up her mouth, open up her eyes, close her mouth again, do all this stuff to her. So you get a lot of varying facial expressions from her just based on the technicalities of the action, and that is carefully calibrated to make sure that it’s medically correct. “How do you look? How is your mouth when you’re in this particular position with a neck like that?”
AVC: Were you working off of photographs?
AØ: That, and we had coroners with us throughout the whole shoot, and they were very helpful.
AVC: What were the coroners like?
AØ: They were very fun. We had a few different ones. We had a really great one, who’s probably the best in all of England. And he was such a fun guy; he was so humorous. They were not ghouls at all. They were the friendliest, funniest people.
AVC: You do see that in the film. Did Emile and Brian base their characters off of these coroners that they’d met?
AØ: Generally, I think they were floored by how casual and funny and how normal they are. But at the same time, they have a specific sense of humor, obviously. You do realize that they have a special job.
Brian and Emile also have a great sense of reality and the psychology of human beings, how this specific person in this specific phase of his life [acts] and how they are with each other. It’s such a wonderful thing to see, to work with actors who are so psychologically in tune with characters and then are able to make that into reality by portraying physically what they instinctively know. It’s really a master class in great performance. I was just lucky to have amazing actors.
AVC: This is your first English-language film. Do you want to keep working in the English realm, or does that not really matter to you?
AØ: I’d love to. I mean, I grew up on American movies, so it’s all I have. It was such a happy experience as well. I definitely want to do more.
AVC: Would you want to do a big Hollywood blockbuster?
AVC: So if Marvel is listening…
AØ: Oh no, I think that might be too big. But yeah. I hope so! I have been involved in a lot of different projects that haven’t got off the ground, but I’m working on a Norwegian-American movie next.
AVC: Can you say anything about that?
AC: It’s called Mortal; it was out in the trades a couple of months ago. It’s [an] action-adventure set in Norway with an American lead and a supernatural element.