The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is a very different kind of horror film. Set largely in one location – a Virginia morgue – it’s all based around one mystery: the identity and history of a mysterious dead body. Almost perfectly preserved, pale eyes staring, the young woman’s corpse (the Jane Doe of the title) is gradually dissected by father-and-son coroners Tommy and Austin (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch respectively). And the more layers they peel back, the more troubling Jane Doe’s story becomes.
Directed by Norway’s André Øvredal, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is a lean, finely-honed exercise in suspense. For much of the movie, we’re watching Cox and Hirsch at work, and it’s gripping, stomach-churning stuff: a mystery where answers are literally found hidden within the title character, played by Irish actress Olwen Kelly.
Jane Doe is a very different film from Øvredal’s last film, the 2010 cult gem Trollhunter, since it’s all precise camera moves and edits rather than a found-footage movie, and also deceptively complex. The film’s contained environment means that every story beat and makeup effect has to be perfect; if something falls flat or doesn’t ring true, the tension is lost.
So with this in mind, we spoke to André Øvredal about the pressures of making such an intricate film on a tight budget – and what the secret is to making a perfect suspense movie.
I wonder if making a film as contained as this is a bit like making a simple dinner in a way, where every ingredient has to be perfect. If one element’s wrong, it’ll stand out a mile.
Yeah. And sometimes in movies, there’s so much luck involved that you’re in shock to even get one made in the first place. God, where was I going with this? [Laughs]
Well, on a big action film, you can hide behind lots of explosions or special effects. Things to distract the audience. In this, every beat has to fall perfectly. Every piece of acting has to be just right.
It becomes the action of the movie. When they turn around and walk over and pick up a small object – that’s a really insignificant action compared to a Hollywood blockbuster. That’s the action of the movie, so you have to make that as important as seeing a building explode, you know? On a small movie like this, you have to make everything crucial to the storytelling; you have to be able to focus on the right thing, the right moment.
It’s all so well done in the script, it was kind of easy for me to do it. It’s a rare thing to get a script that is so well thought out by the writers and producers, having developed it for years before I got on board. You shoot what you read, and it should work.
At the same time, it strikes me that this must have been technically difficult, especially from a continuity perspective, if you have all these prosthetic effects in a contained environment, things can change from moment to moment.
Absolutely. We had to shoot in chronological order to uphold the continuity. If we’d have gone back and forth on the continuity, it would’ve been an absolute nightmare. One single degeneration of the major set piece in the middle of this film is being pulled apart. You know, if they put the heart there, the scissors there… it’s fine if you move from location to location, and you come back to the location later, you don’t have to worry so much. But we had a whole team with iPads and taking pictures, referencing stuff, and that was with shooting in continuity. Whereas if we were out of continuity, it would’ve been impossible. We would’ve only shot half the movie.
What was the most difficult part to pull off, from a visual effects standpoint?
When you’re shooting a fire scene, there’s always a lot of safety. Even though it’s a small fire scene compared to a huge Hollywood movie, you’re steal dealing with live fire around famous actors and human beings, so you have to be very careful. So it’s very time consuming, and you get very few shots in a day. It’s tricky, just for logistical reasons. But Olwen Kelly was amazing – doing shallow breathing, and being still.
In 2017, the audience doesn’t allow for many flaws in these kinds of films. In a 1970s movie, they might have been okay if they’d noticed the body breathing. But today, you can’t do that – you have to be perfect. So we went over her body again and again for months, looking for muscle twitches – there are hundreds of shots, literally, where we would work on her afterwards. Just months and months.
Were you excited to move from the found-footage style of Trollhunter to a more formal approach?
This is more my style. Trollhunter was more like a random style that I had to choose for that film – it just happened to be my first film. I’ve shot hundreds of short films and commercials, and Trollhunter’s the only film like that. So it’s more in my wheelhouse to use the camera in a controlled way. I was very happy to find a script that required me to do that – a simple story, in a way. In an intriguing mystery that was visual – even though it’s so contained, it still feels like an action movie, because it’s all about activity. They rarely stop and just talk – and when they do, it’s important. They’re always doing something. It keeps moving and moving.
The premise is really different as well, because the corpse itself tells the story as they take it to bits. They’re uncovering layers of the story.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a very intriguing, Sherlock Holmes, Da Vinci Code mystery. Digging into a single body lying on a table – I found that really fascinating, that the writers were able to tell such a detailed with so few means. And then to sustain that for a whole movie.
It also taps into an American tradition of gothic stories – Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft. Was that something that you saw in it?
Those weren’t really references when working on it, but on a general level, I do love the American way of thinking about horror.
But has that American gothic thing going on in the set design, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. The house, where it takes place, yeah.
Bringing old myths and legends into the 21st century – is that something that interests you? In Trollhunter you had Norwegian stories brought into the modern era, and in this, you have a supernatural story from a forensic perspective?
Yeah. Because there are so many fascinating mythological things that are no longer part of our everyday lives. We don’t really believe in much anymore, as modern people. And to mix that in is great fun – it’s something I’m really interested in, the idea of what you do in the face of something extraordinary like that. How do you react as a human being to something that is incomprehensible? How do you deal with that as a rational human being?
Do you think that conspiracy theories have replaced myths, in a way?
What do you mean by conspiracy theories? Like, 9/11? [Chuckles]
In a way! In Trollhunter, there’s the hint of a conspiracy theory, in the sense that the government are hiding something about the trolls. It’s interesting how you tie those things together – conspiracy theories and old myths.
I hadn’t really thought much in that direction, but it might be true. I’m not a big conspiracy theorist – I just know they’re a good thing to play with in storytelling. It’s a good perspective to have on it.
As you were saying, we don’t really believe in myths and legends so much anymore, like witches, for example, but we do share strange stories on the internet.
There’s such a plethora of information out there now that you can’t build a huge cult around something so specific anymore. I think you’re struggling to get attention from anybody in the current media world.
This is a very macabre movie, obviously. So what was the atmosphere like on set?
Oh yeah, we had a ball. A lot of tension comes from the time crunch that you’re always fighting on a low-budget movie. You’re always fighting the time – every hour, every minute counts. So that creates some tension now and again. But beyond that, it was so much fun – the actors, and Olwen Kelly, playing Jane, was amazing. Nobody gets squeamish when you’re shooting, you know? You’re kind of laughing, “Oh, look at that.” Or, “That looks awful – oh God.” You have those conversations, but you don’t really react to it.
I heard you had some real coroners on set.
Yeah. And Emile went to a huge morgue where there were hundreds of bodies. They were performing five autopsies next to each other on tables. He said it was one of the most horrific moments of his life! Both Brian and Emile were fascinated to work with the coroners in prep – just learning how everything works, what they’re attitude to life and death is. How they talk, how they behave. Listening to the radio, chatting about personal stuff over a dead body – that’s just the way it works. It’s like they’re working on a car, you know? Also, they have a very dark sense of humour – it doesn’t feed too much into the movie. It’s there a little bit, but we didn’t play with it. We had coroners on set, making sure everything was correct while we were shooting.
I met some undertakers once, and they had a very dark sense of humour.
Yeah! I guess it comes from dealing with death. It seems to be a trend!
The way the film builds up the suspense is great. I wondered, as a filmmaker, what your philosophy is of suspense. What’s the secret of suspense, do you think?
Hitchcock knows all about that. It’s the basics of, the audience needs information – specific information that you control. Then you let them wait. It’s that simple, and you can do it again and again. I think people enjoy anticipation so much. Anticipation is the great secret to a lot of things, especially in storytelling. I think, to have to wait for something… it gives you so much energy. Those are the basics of it, and I love playing with that. Controlling the information, and controlling the perspective to make the audience feel uneasy; controlling the storytelling through the camera, that’s where I feel comfortable.
Sometimes, just changing the angle of the camera from the front to behind, breaking the line a little bit, so that you can’t really trust the filmmaker in the moment. You have all the tools of filmmaking: telling the story with sound, action… there are so many wonderful tools for a filmmaker to play with.
Some of the best techniques for building up suspense are the ones you don’t consciously notice. Like you said, breaking the line slightly.
Yeah. What I love as well is shooting with wide lenses, with the camera showing the environment around the actors, so that you constantly have a frame to look at. So you’re constantly relating to the background, as opposed to shooting with very long lenses, which obliterate the background, oftentimes.
Then, when you change the angle, you’re constantly re-orienting the audience – they have to start looking around in the frame, because they know it’s a horror movie. They know they have to look for stuff!
It’s playing with the audience’s imagination. They want to experience things. I know they’re sitting there hoping there are things [waiting], so I try to play up to that.
There’s that great moment in John Carpenter’s Halloween, where you have Jamie Lee Curtis in the foreground, and you’re anticipating something emerging in the shadow behind her. And Michael Myers’ mask… the light just gradually catches it. I think you use a similar technique in this film.
It’s true. You’re constantly creating and stretching. I think the secret, too, to suspenseful build-ups is constantly change camera angles. Don’t go back to the same angle unless you absolutely have to. You have to slowly build forward – you have to give the audience trust in the power of momentum, of moving forward and not backwards.
Mortal, your next film, sounds really interesting. It’s another film that deals with Norwegian mythology, I understand.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a supernatural, kind of superhero, kind of northern mythology-based, romantic, action road-movie, set in Norway fjords and beautiful landscapes. It’s the movie I was supposed to make before Jane Doe, in theory, but then I started developing that, and now I’m back on Mortal. I’m shooting it in the summer.
It sounds great! André Øvredal, thank you very much.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is out in UK cinemas now.