Three Norwegian film students set out to make a documentary about a mysterious spate of bear killings. As part of their assessment, they follow a veteran poacher in a cinéma vérité-style profile. Despite initial objections, the poacher eventually allows them access into his world and the students uncover a government conspiracy about the top-secret process known as trollhunting. What unfolds before their camera is, in the words of celebrated Norwegian ad director André Øvredal, “a mix of fairy tales, folklore and film”.
For the inspiration for Troll Hunter, Øvredal looked to Norske Folkeeventyr, a book of fairytales collected more than 150 years ago by Jørgen Engebretsen Moe and Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. “Most of us read them ourselves as kids,” the debut feature director says. “For a Norwegian audience, some of the stories are well known and some are not but the ideas are still part of our culture today.” Øvredal identifies contemporary references to trolls in Norwegian popular culture, such as newspaper headings and colloquial expressions, and he mines the connection for narrative possibilities throughout the film.
Øvredal relied on his memories while writing Troll Hunter's script and says that it was important to use the fairytales organically in his process. “Deep research can hurt the film,” he insists. “It makes it too specialised.”
“I remembered the big topics from when I was a kid, like three goats on bridge,” he says regarding the fairytale, Three Billy Goats Gruff. It was important for Øvredal that an audience recognise the genesis of these fairytales, be it goats on a bridge or “things like smelling Christian blood, or why trolls turn into stone,” irrespective of how far he diverged from their original incarnation in mythology.
The trolls were designed by illustrator Havard S. Johansen, who drew sketches inspired by Asbjørnsen and Moe's original fairytales. Artist Ivar Rodningen then created working maquette models from three of the designs that were then constructed in a digital 3D design space. The fourth troll, the Jotnar, was constructed directly from Johansen's drawings by 3D designer, Rune Spaans. “The challenge was to make it real,” the director says. “I had to explain all of this stuff scientifically. It is all part of the game I am playing with the audience.”
And what a game it is.
Øvredal admits Troll Hunter is technically a mockumentary but maintains he shot the film like a documentary rather than a found footage film like The Blair Witch Project. In the 1999 American horror mockumentary, three Montgomery College students travel to the Black Hills area in Maryland to expose the local legend of Blair Witch, and mysteriously, they disappear. Øvredal is not concerned by the apparent similarities between the two films. “I watched a few minutes of The Blair Witch Project with the director of photography, Hallvard Bræin, to see what we were not going to do,” says Øvredal. “That film is much darker and uglier, visually. Even though there are similarities, stylistically they are very different.” Of the one piece of recycled footage used in Troll Hunter, the director says, “At the end of the film, Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, speaks of an oil field called The Troll Field. We bought the footage and edited the sound.” When I ask whether there has been any official comment about the manipulation of the Prime Minister's speech, Øvredal laughs and says, “At least the Norwegian Cultural Minister was at the premiere!”
The making of Troll Hunter was an adventure in form. “I hadn't really been involved in documentary production before, only at an extremely amateur level,” Øvredal says. “I began studying documentaries. I chose the style specifically to tell the story. It had to be a documentary. That's when it's the most fun.”
In terms of shooting styles, the director identifies three levels of documentary filmmaking. “The entire film is pretty much hand-held. First, when the kids are in control, they are shooting their own documentary and conducting interviews,” he says. “Then, they are tagging along with Hans, not knowing what's going to happen. They keep the camera on. Finally, they are running to save their lives and the sense is total fear. In the 'running around and being fearful mode', there was the issue of how much a camera operator would hold a camera while he is running. It would naturally be swinging but you'd get motion-sick from watching that. We needed to find the balance.”
Where the documentary process most influences Øvredal's film is with the actors. Improvisation was paramount and the director conducted auditions that were completely unscripted. “I trusted the actors' understanding of the themes and their personal intuition,” he says. “[It was] a necessary part of doing a documentary film. If we directed the scene too much, in terms of classical film direction, the timing would be too good and everything would be too organised.” Instead, Øvredal gave his actors minimal information about the scene. “A lot of the time we chose not to discuss the interview script. Sometimes we'd talk about the relevant state of the character but I'd ask them to use their own words. We'd often have long takes, 15 or 20 minutes,” he says. “The first take was often short but by the third or fourth take, the actors were comfortable enough to elaborate based on their own thinking and knowledge. Then the moments I was looking for became more real.” Being both the writer and director gave Øvredal the ability to let go and wait for these moments. “It's the advantage of writing and directing yourself. I knew what I could let go and what key elements I had to have,” he says.
The most prominent casting decision in the film is the poacher, Hans, in comedian Otto Jespersen's first film role. “He's one of the most famous comedians in Norway,” Øvredal explains. “He is known for his archetype characters and for his extreme attitude. He'll finish up a set with a 10-minute rant of what annoyed him in society. I used that part of his character – the ability to be sarcastic, droll and really funny – but I also wanted him to open up. He's a really relaxed, friendly, sweet guy. He'd never acted a character of this magnitude before but he was able to do all the aspects.”
Hans hunts four trolls in Troll Hunter and much of the central premise rests on the actors' delivery. “We would put up markers to show where the troll would be, how high and where its face was," explains Øvredal, “and then I would roar and scream, pretending to be the troll, and they would use their imaginations as best as possible.”