The director of The Innocents, Eskil Vogt, discusses the film, the controversy surrounding its casting, and why it includes the sacrifice of a friendly feline
Some kids are into TikTok, others prefer committing acts of violence via telepathy and telekinesis. In The Innocents, a spine-chilling, Norwegian horror directed by Eskil Vogt, the preteen protagonists might be the worst children in the world. Out of sheer boredom, sweet-looking Ben (Sam Ashraf) murders a cat, which generates a crunch noise you can’t unhear. At the press screening I attended, a critic heckled the screen. “People have problems with that,” Vogt deadpans over Zoom from his home in Oslo. “But it’s not real. The cat is fine!”
Vogt’s willingness to sacrifice a friendly feline literally goes against the Hollywood rulebook. In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting manual Save the Cat, it’s advised that the main character should act charitably in scene one, ideally to a pet. Then again, Vogt, 47, knows how to subvert expectations. His directorial debut, 2014’s Blind, was a visual extravaganza from the POV of a blind woman. Vogt also cowrote all five of Joachim Trier’s films, including The Worst Person in the World, a romcom that revealed itself to be about death and singledom.
“The scene with the cat is a signal to the audience,” Vogt explains. “If this happens 20 minutes in, anything can happen.” Though Vogt has read Save the Cat, he’s unsure if he was consciously responding to Snyder’s infamous beat sheet. “People are more provoked about what happens to the cat than the young child later. It’s weird, because they’re both fiction.”
While the logline may sound like X-Men, Vogt’s exploration of child morality – or lack thereof – is distinctly uncommercial. After discovering they possess magical powers, four outcasts bond by transporting objects through mind-power and communicating via brain signals. However, instead of battling baddies, they squabble amongst themselves, eventually attempting to murder each other in broad daylight in front of oblivious adults. Given the naturalism of the performances, it’s truly distressing when onscreen kids are as casually vicious as kids are in real life.
“Almost everyone I talked to had memories of doing something cruel to animals, to other kids, and especially to younger siblings,” Vogt says. “When I was quite young on vacation, I was allowed to play with an airgun with lead bullets.” Without thinking, he shot it at a seagull that flew off. “But I picked up somewhere that lead is poisonous. So I went around thinking about how that seagull would be in agony, dying slowly, because of me. I never told my parents. These are the things kids go about pondering.” He calls it a life-changing moment. “You need experiences like this to get your own set of morals.”
Like Peanuts, It Follows, and, to an extent, Vogt and Trier’s 2017 teen horror Thelma, The Innocents keeps parents off-screen as much as possible. Subsequently, The Innocents differentiates itself from The Omen: in the absence of adult protagonists, the supernatural children are with whom you identify.
“The scene with the cat is a signal to the audience. If this happens 20 minutes in, anything can happen” – Eskil Vogt
Not all the kids are inherently violent, though. Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) has regressive autism, which Vogt wrote into the script after reading an interview with the Norwegian author Olaug Nilssen. “She talked honestly about having an autistic son,” Vogt explains. “He communicated until he was three, and then lost his language. To me, that’s a horror movie… If you lose contact with someone you used to speak to, you feel, ‘My son is in there, trapped inside.’”
For several minutes, Vogt emphasises to me the depth of his research, which included spending time with non-verbal autistic children. “I’m telling the nightmare story of that interview inside my supernatural story, but I wanted the mannerisms of how an autistic child acted to be very accurate.”
However, a minor controversy arose at Cannes regarding the casting. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), the heroine of the innocents, is a white, blonde girl, while Ben, essentially a supervillain, has the darkest skin of the ensemble. “Luckily, there’s been very few of those comments (since Cannes) because most people see that the movie’s not about race.” Vogt points out the characters weren’t written with gender or ethnicity in mind. “I cast (Ashraf) because he’s such a good actor and so different from the role that he could give it humanity and nuance.
“For me, it was important that there’s no such thing as an evil child. We all have good and bad in us. He has impulses he can’t control. And so do adults. Anger is a very difficult impulse. How can you ask a nine-year-old to control that?”
At Cannes, Vogt also represented The Worst Person in the World, and at the press conference, Trier asked the journalists to acknowledge how rare it is for a filmmaker to have two movies in the same year. Moreover, when I interviewed Trier for Worst Person, he answered questions using “we”. But Vogt wrote The Innocents alone. When Vogt is directing, who is his Eskil Vogt?
“I sometimes wish I had an Eskil Vogt,” he says, smiling. “Joachim isn’t as involved in my movies as I am in his, because he’s off shooting when I’m writing mine. But he’s my best friend, and he knows exactly what a director does. I can call him, like he can call me. It’s a very privileged position to make a passion project you’ve written, and that people are paying a lot of money to make happen. There’s pressure and stuff that can go wrong. You need someone to complain to, who you can cry on their shoulder. Joachim is that person for me.”
Vogt and Trier were so busy with their Oscar campaign, they’ve only recently started brainstorming their next project. I mention that it’s usually a month or two after the Oscar ceremony that the English-language remakes get announced. “I shouldn’t comment on that,” Vogt says. “But in a general way, I’m not against people remaking stuff. Our movie will always be there.” He then adds, laughing, “If it gives us the chance of getting money, I’m not against that.”
What would be impossible to remake in English, though, would be The Innocents – unless the characters are rewritten to suit Save the Cat. In which case, it may as well be Stranger Things. While Stranger Things conveys emptiness beneath its algorithmic storytelling, The Innocents more boldly taps into the true pains of childhood. “I felt like it would be a lie to do a nostalgic ‘it was such a great time to be a kid’ kind of movie,” Vogt says. “I don’t think that’s true, even for people who grew up in a protected, loving environment.
“There’s pressure and stuff that can go wrong. You need someone to complain to, who you can cry on their shoulder. Joachim [Trier] is that person for me” – Eskil Vogt
“It’s scary to be a child because you mix up what’s real and what’s imagination. I remember being a kid, lying in bed at night. I would see a shadow on the wall. I would hear a noise. And I would imagine something terrible. It would scare the shit out of me. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared as an adult as I’d been as a child.”
So is he deliberately surprising audiences who are anticipating The Innocents to be like Stranger Things? “I like stuff that’s unexpected. But I think the unexpected comes from being true to the material, and not succumbing to Save the Cat. You end up creating something, hopefully, original, just by staying true to what you’re interested in.”
The Innocents is out in cinemas and on digital platforms on May 20