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Stockholm Film Festival: Child Eater. Interview with Icelandic director Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen

I was excited about your film Child Eater. It’s such a long time since I’ve seen a horror film that is so classic and before we talk more about this, I was wondering what is the first horror film that you remember seeing and how did it affect you?

That’s a good question. I don’t remember if it was the first horror film that I saw but I remember the first horror film from when I was a kid. I wasn’t allowed to see it, but I wanted to see it and that was A Nightmare on Elm Street – the Freddy Krueger movie. I saw some films between seeing that but I remember being in the video store and seeing the cover and the Freddy Krueger face; it turned a light in my head somehow. I lived in a very small town in Iceland called Álftanes, and I had a friend who was my age and his brother was like an amateur make-up artist and he was only 15 or so. He had made his own Freddy Krueger glove and I would ask my friend, “can I look in your brother’s room…” just because I wanted to see the glove. This was when I was 7 or 8 and it was my first horror obsession.

I read some articles which talk about your early filmmaking practices and your experimenting with making your own props. There was a scene in which someone gets their head smashed in by a sledgehammer and you had used oatmeal and fake blood to show this. Is this something you have done a lot for fun or was it merely a hobby?

It’s a little bit of both. This all happened in this small town in Iceland where I lived until I was 13. My friends and I would do small horror movies using in-camera editing and then we would just use ketchup for blood, but it was always horror movies. From the start, it was always someone with a knife chasing somebody and then we went further into paper maché. For the same thing in which we used paper maché, there was a scene in which somebody gets stabbed through with a pitchfork and we cut the pitchfork in half and put it on either side of the body. It was all very simple stuff but it looks nice on camera. We had a lot of fun and especially when you are a kid part of it is the fun of figuring out how to do it and seeing if it works on film.

This reminds me of the Steven Spielberg film Super 8 from 2011. Is that how you grew up?

For sure! Instead of film camera, we had little video cassette cameras. That’s the only difference but it’s the same type of thing.

Do you see yourself as a genre filmmaker at this point in your career or do you see yourself expanding into new territory?

Right now, I feel that a lot of my ideas are in the horror genre. They just come that way to me. I have always been a horror movie fan, but I watch all kinds of films so I would like to do something else at a later stage. I have already done my second feature and that’s more like a psychological type of film, but I just like creating suspense; I like using the techniques of building up suspense. It’s both interesting and challenging for me. So, that’s kind of where my heart is at right now, but who knows when I have done a few of those I’ll get tired of that and move on to something else. Right now, it’s still fun and I feel that I can always get better at it.

Perri Nemiroff (producer of Child Eater) commented in a recent article on the Fangoria website that you guys were influenced by 80s horror films because you grew up in that period, but as I was watching the film I knew from the first five minutes – before even reading the article – that there is a much wider breadth of references such as Hitchcock, The Omen, Brothers Grimm, Halloween etc… I feel there’s a lot of American horror influences and, more importantly, it feels like you really know your stuff about horror. So, would you agree that it’s just 80s horror or is it an amalgamation of other horror references?

We talked about the 80s horror just because we wanted to feel like the film was something you could have seen twenty years ago. We wanted to have a little timeless quality about it, but for me, the references and the things I was thinking about – apart from Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street – was Grimm’s fairytales with the witch in the woods with the apple. Especially when you do your first movie you want to put in everything and I’m sure there are probably too many references…maybe. I love Italian horror cinema from the 70s and 80s like Dario Argento which is very different from the American horror. I was always thinking about these kinds of things and Hitchcock, obviously, and Brian de Palme is also a favourite of mine. The references that I am very obviously putting in there are the ones I grew up with. They kind of all come into it somehow.

Is it a hard process to be selective when you are a writer as well?

It’s very tricky because when I write I see it very clearly in my head and how I want to do it, but when you start to film it there are all these other things that come into play such as time and money. So, I can maybe only do 30% of what was in my head due to time and money. Sometimes on the day, a scene which I thought would be fifteen shots can due to time only have six so then I need to strip down. The process then becomes more unconscious because I would have these references before and now I’d be stripping away some of those things so what ends up being left – what we filmed – is maybe more of a subconscious type of reference. I also don’t want it to feel like I am copying. I am always trying to be respectful by paying homage and not directly copying so it’s also about testing how far I can go.

I felt like it was just flavours of references here and there and you can guess where something might have come from. You handled it very well.

That’s what I was hoping for.

Did you make Child Eater strictly for horror fans or do you see a wider appeal? A lot of your films played at specific festivals mainly with a horror theme but now it’s at Stockholm Film Festival and it’s been shown at Reykjavik which is not themed. How do you find the differing reactions between the two types of festivals?

Everything I do is not necessarily for a specific crowd but because I have been a part of that crowd for so long it kind of automatically happens. Child Eater is not that extreme and it’s not too gory so I feel that people who don’t necessarily watch horror movies could see it and maybe find something to appreciate.  The different reactions from the horror crowd and the ‘normal’ festival crowd are interesting. We haven’t screened the film that much and I just came from Iceland where we had some screenings and I think people imagined something different based on the title. At least the people who talked to me were very pleasantly surprised so that was a good feeling and to hear it from people who are not necessarily horror fans was pleasing.

Can we talk a little bit about where the title comes from because I wondered if it was some kind of fairytale as the person is not literally a child eater?

The title is originally from the short movie that I did. In the short movie the back story was quite vague then it kind of made more sense that he was a child eater. We knew that he liked to eat the eyes but we didn’t know much about the rest. In the feature, we flesh it out a little bit more but it was the nickname that they gave him in the town; for example, when the cops are talking they call him the child eater of Widows Peak. We knew the title was going to be, not offensive, but something some people would think “ooh, that’s not for me”, but we also knew it would also grab people’s attention. We also wanted to be a little bit punk with the title, but I feel that it is a memorable title. We’ve had so many discussions about the title and I didn’t even like the title when we were doing the short, I had some other ideas but this was really the one that caught people’s attention.

There is also a short film from 1989 called The Child Eater. It was nominated for an Oscar but I couldn’t find any other information about it.

I’ve heard of it but I’ve never seen it.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of going from a short film to a feature film?

We played the short film at a bunch of festivals around the world and I got to go to some of them and we always got the same question: “So when are you going to make the feature.” When we made the short film it was only supposed to be a short film but when people keep asking you start thinking about ‘if’ I made a feature what would the story be like and so on. That’s how it started, and Perri (who also produced the short) and I started talking about it a lot and then I wrote a draft of the script and sent it to her and she really liked it.

The big difference between a short and a feature is that it takes a lot more time to make a feature and it usually costs a lot more money. We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and what helped us a lot was the actress who was in the short. When I was writing the script I always saw her in the feature too. She read the script and thought it was great. She also said that the town we were writing about reminded her of her own town and she took us there and we ended up filming there. We got the whole town to help and we didn’t have to pay for any of the locations. We even shot in her parent’s home and they were like, “Yeah, do whatever you want…we were going to redecorate so just tear down the wallpaper…” The police station is the real police station in town. We would have had to do it differently if we didn’t have that much help. So, when that piece of the puzzle came in it opened a lot of doors for us. It was such a big help.

Do you know David Sandberg’s Lights Out (2013) because this also started as a short and now it’s a Hollywood feature? Is this the new way of filmmaking, being an online phenomenon to Hollywood film?

It doesn’t happen a lot but it’s happened a few times and David Sandberg is a good example of when it happens in a great way. I’m very jealous (laughs). No, but after living in New York for a little while you hear that you need to do this stuff and it should go viral, but you can’t make something that goes viral. It does by itself. I believe that a short film format has that potential and we live in a time where everything is changing rapidly in the way we make movies and how we consume them so I can see the relationship between watching something for free online and then it gets super popular. You can hope for it and it feels almost like a miracle when it happens, but you can’t chase it. I am happy for Daniel. It’s a great short!

The location is an interesting aspect of your film because there are no identification markers. It could be anywhere. Were you influenced by the small town location because you grew up in a small town and you wanted to communicate something about your roots or was it because it’s a relatively popular theme in American horror?

It’s hard to tell where it comes from but I think it might be a part of the fact that I grew up in a small town and when I was watching these horror films that also took place in small towns, I felt that I could relate to them in some way. It was a conscious decision for Child Eater to have a town that felt very anonymous and run down. I would have loved to shoot it in the fall but we had to shoot it in February for logistic reasons, but we wanted the feeling that it was cold, the leaves are dead and all that stuff. Like the street in Nightmare on Elm Street, it could be anywhere.

Can we talk about eyeballs? Horror, in general, is a visceral assault on the senses and your film is literally assaulting the eyes. I kept thinking about the famous scene from Un Chien Andalou (1929) with the blade across the eye. What is it about eyes for you, and were they real eyes?

They’re not real! We had the same make-up artist who worked on the short and the feature and when we made the short she made the eyes from wax and put apple sauce inside of them, but they did not taste good. So, for the feature she made them from white chocolate and then put some other sweet stuff inside. When the child eater character had to eat them they didn’t taste bad.

I also have a thing about eyes. Sometimes I must use contact lenses and I remember when I first had to put them in and it took me days. It felt so gross to touch my eye. It’s such a vulnerable organ and, I feel, anytime there is violence towards the eyes that scares me. Another reason I have for eyes is more metaphorical. For example, you’re watching a horror movie and he’s going after your eyes. It’s also about what you see and what you don’t see with your eyes and even if you close them it’s not going to do anything because he can still come after them. We didn’t play on it a lot but the idea is there.

The film is listed on some websites as US/Icelandic but in other places it’s just Icelandic. I understand to a degree that it’s you that represents the Icelandic part and then the film is set in America but how do you think the film contributes to Nordic cinema?

From just the technical standpoint it was partly financed from my side and even if you don’t know any of that stuff the whole idea of the child eating monster comes from our Christmas stories in Iceland. We have a troll-like woman who comes down from the mountain and she picks up children and eats them. These were stories we were told as kids. I don’t know if it’s specifically a Nordic thing and it’s hard for me because I’m not sure how the world sees Icelandic cinema. I don’t know what people see as being an identifying feature, but maybe once I have made more movies then there are hopefully my features in the work. So, Child Eater has some Icelandic blood running through its veins.

Your film is very dark and some of the locations and you can almost see it quite naturally fits within the sphere of Nordic Noir or perhaps you feel it belongs somewhere else.

Maybe I would love it to be on the edge. It has a little bit of this and that and I always feel that horror movies are always on the edge. They are the stepchild of the film industry; they are often successful but no one wants to talk about them too much. I’m comfortable with wherever it finds an audience and those that appreciate it will and then it will find its place within the cultural/genre sphere. I also feel that genre is very fluid nowadays and even on TV things are getting so dark and violent and you perhaps could not have done this a few years ago. American horror is also very popular on TV so the walls around darkness, violence and cinema are falling away. It’s interesting to see how this affects genre filmmaking because when you make movies you don’t want to do what they’re doing on TV so you must push it to either the extreme or maybe super stylised like It Follows (2014). It Follows is one of my favourite movies from the last few years. The style is very cinematic and you would never see that on TV…

…There are so many different formats for viewing nowadays like Netflix…

Yeah, you never know where your film is going to be watched. I always want it to be watched on a big screen but most people are probably going to see it on their TV and in a year or so on Netflix.

You mentioned earlier that you just finished your other feature film, Rökkur. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

It’s a horror movie but in a totally different vein than Child Eater. It’s about an ex-gay couple. They broke up a few months ago and the film begins when one of them calls the other in the middle of the night and he is up in a cabin underneath a glacier and he sounds like he’s going to do something bad to himself. So, the other guy drives up to try and save him but when he arrives it’s not quite what he thought. It’s a film about a dead relationship and how it affects both people and how they remember what they had in different ways. Then…some spooky things happen. It’s shot in Iceland.

It was actually very interesting to do because I wanted to do something very quickly and cheaply so the idea was to have two actors and one location and shoot for two weeks; a ten person crew which ended up being a little bit bigger and the same with the actors. It was shot in a beautiful location out in the middle of nowhere and I’m very happy with how it turned out. It should come out sometime next spring.

Lizzie Taylor

Lizzie Taylor is a British citizen working and studying in Sweden. She plans to complete her Master’s degree in Film Studies at the University of Stockholm in 2015.