The LRM Interview: Emile Hirsch and André Øvredal on The Autopsy of Jane Doe

– by Edward Douglas

2016 has been a relatively good year for horror films and it’s going to end on a high note with a creepy thriller that premiered in the Toronto Film Festival’s “Midnight Madness” track this past September.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the new film from Troll Hunter director André Øvredal, and it stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as a father and son pathology team who perform autopsies in their funeral home and who have been assigned to perform such an operation on the corpse of a naked body found buried in a home where another crime was committed.  As they start cutting away at this mysterious “patient,” strange things start happening around them from power failures to storms, and things escalate, they start to think that the body they’re working on may be responsible.  But first, they have to figure out how this woman was killed… that is, if she is indeed dead.

Check out the trailer below, but like the movie, it’s not for the squeamish!

LRM had a chance to sit down with Øvredal and Hirsch for the following interview:

LRM: “Troll Hunter” was this big, expansive outdoor epic, so was there some appeal to doing a movie with one location, two or three characters, or was there something else about the script that appealed to you?

André Øvredal: First of all, I just fell in love with the script, which is the best script I’ve received, simply, but it was generally something I was quite targetted to doing. I wanted to do something that was entirely different from Troll Hunter, specifically to prove that I could, because Troll Hunter was so alien to me in so many ways. I mean, I love the film, I’m very proud of it, but to do a found footage thing is not a natural way of directing anything. That was the way that movie had to be made, but to craft a horror movie that was basing itself entirely on mood, acting, camera, sounds… it’s just the basics of filmmaking, and that was so exciting, and when the script was so tight and so precise and so interesting and forensic in everything about it. It was just a great experience to do it.

LRM: Did that have the same appeal to you and did you already know that Brian Cox was going to play your father? How did it come together?

Emile Hirsch: Yeah, I read the script and Brian was attached, which was a huge bonus for me and got me really excited, because I knew how much of a performance piece between this father and son and the corpse this movie was, so I knew that having an actor like Brian as a father and co-worker in the film would make it that much more believable and fun to make, as well. I found the forensic aspect of the script really compelling. I found the science of the autopsy to be fascinating. That was something that I was kind of interested in, in a weird way, just the curiosity of the human body and what happens after you die in this way and what are the tools…? It’s kind of the opposite of being a doctor, in a way. You’re cutting these people open, and they’re dead. I think the grisly nature of that I found to be very curious. The script was also scary, though, so it took this scientific element and kind of perverted it into this horror. It was real horror, too, because it played on a lot of the primal fears that we have—fear of being in the dark and claustrophobia and the unknown and very cleverly tapped into those fears. And it scared me, which I think is a really great litmus test for whether or not you should make a scary movie. When I was trying to rehearse the part, I would read over the script in my house, and I very quickly realized doing that at night was too scary. So I was like, “Wow, this must be really scary because I’m uncomfortable rehearsing this alone at night… in the dark.” 

LRM: It’s also not a good movie to watch while eating, I found out last night.

Hirsch: Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a movie to bring your steak dinner to…

LRM: No, I don’t think it will play at any of the Alamo Theaters any time soon. Having gotten the script, there must have been a lot of logistic questions including the third character being a naked dead body and almost all of it takes place in one location, but it’s a pretty expansive location. So did you find a location and dress is up or did you build the whole thing?

Øvredal: I read the script and I read how they physically move through the story—which rooms and where these rooms have to be to move from there to there—and then kind of designed a layout, and that layout is going to be impossible to find, so we had to go to a set and build the whole thing. We built the whole thing as one big piece, so we could shoot in chronological order, which we did. That was such a relief for everybody to be able to do that. It was such a complex thing when it comes to continuity, and of course, for the actors, it’s always thrilling to do it that way. You can go through the whole experience in the right order. It was just a big job designing that set on the fact that it couldn’t look too high-tech. It was their own home and the basement. There were just so many requirements that were fun figuring out with the designer, and finding that look where it hasn’t been updated in 20 or 30 years, the place, but still doesn’t look rundown either. It’s a very fine line between those things.

LRM: When you read a script like this, can you automatically tell what it needs to be visually or are you really focused on the character and relationship with Brian? There’s a lot of stuff going on in different areas of the home. 

Hirsch: Yeah, I think the script was written quite well, and one of the benefits of having a script that’s written really well is that it kind of helps spell out visually what you will imagine in your mind’s eye as the reader. That’s the mark of a good script, and the mark of a really good director is one who can bring that mind’s eye vision—which is really the best version of the movie. You’re not imagining it with bad actors. You’re not imagining it with bad special FX. You’re imagining the best version of the movie. Your mind just naturally always does that, so the mark of a really great director is having the ability to create that vision and make it real. And that is what André did. He recognized the strengths of the script, all the good qualities, and he was able to mine them and get those qualities onto the page. When you watch the movie, the movie is the best version of the script, and that’s the mark of a good film. A lot of times you will read a really good script and then you see the movie and go, “Oh, the script was way better.” They didn’t match our mind’s eye version. And André exceeded the mind’s eye version.

LRM: I really do like you and Brian as father and son, and you probably could do a TV show with you two doing autopsies, and I’d watch that for an hour each week.  How did you guys prepare for that? Did you have to do a lot of studying to make it look realistic?

Hirsch: Well, I got excited about it, because I was interested in it, so I went to the Los Angeles Downtown County Morgue, which is actually the biggest morgue under one roof in the world—according to the director, Craig Harvey. So I went and I signed a bunch of waivers, which said that if I get Ebola I’m not going to come after them. Not that I’d probably be able to come after them if I got Ebola, but you go down a couple floors into a basement and I went from never having seen a dead body before to seeing hundreds of dead bodies. Seeing five or six autopsies at the same time on rows of tables with crews of 13 or 14 people, a huge operation, massive refrigerator crypt, hundreds of bodies wrapped in clear plastic in every shape and size. It was traumatizing. It was the kind of thing where afterwards, I was like, “Man, maybe you went a little overboard with your research for a horror movie, because I think you just scarred yourself for life here.”

LRM: And those people do that all day every day…

Hirsch: It’s amazing, man. It was like they were literally like meat butchers at a supermarket, they’re so used to it, and obviously, you can’t treat it like it’s a person because otherwise, you’ll be like, “Are you alright?” after you rip the guy’s scalp off.

LRM: But you still have to put them back together if they’re being buried.

Hirsch: It was… it was.. my jaw hit the floor. That sense of shock and horror and seeing that happen in person, you almost can’t believe it. It’s really shocking seeing a grown woman having her head sawed open and her brain taken out in front of you.  What I felt was that this is so horrifying and shocking, imagine if we’re able to capture that process in a film, which his what we did. Part of the horror is that yes, it’s scary and the mystery is scary but a lot of the shock in the horror is in the autopsy itself.

LRM:  But you basically had to recreate that with the sounds if not the smells, so how did you research doing that? 

Øvredal: Yeah, I didn’t get to go to an actual autopsy, although I went to the rooms and I interviewed tons of pathologists, and we had meetings with them, and they were with us in pre-production and on set through the whole process. A lot of this, again, came from the very heavy and the very well done research in the screenplay. It’s there. They did a really good job getting it right in the first place. That’s also a lot of the attraction, when you read a script and you realize that they’ve really done their job here. They really went all the way, because a lot of scripts don’t. They don’t go that deep. It felt so real, and then when you match that up with the supernatural, it becomes something amazing to me.

LRM: Did you and Brian do a lot of rehearsals before filming or did you really have to be in the space to really know what to do.

We rehearsed most of it in space, because there were so many tools and Jane Doe, we needed to have her there, to rehearse most of the time, so we just did it all in space, and we were totally focused on getting the details of being medical examiners down. We didn’t want to look like phonies. We wanted to look like we really knew what we were doing.

LRM: But also the father and son aspect where you have to really believe that these guys work together all day and they have this relationship, which unless you work with your father every day, it’s hard to create.

Hirsch: Because Brian and I spent so much time together on set, and it was really just us two, we were really able to get to know each other in a way that you can’t really rehearse that. We you just get to know somebody and you either have a rapport or you don’t… and we did. We actually really liked being around each other, and he’s very funny and it was a lot of fun to play with him. 

LRM: How did you handle the Jane Doe aspect?  There is an actress and I’m not sure if there’s a model based on there or if she was there part of the time and sometimes you can’t have her because you have to open her up. I’m not sure if you want to give away the secrets, but how is it having a third character who is just a dead body lying there? 

Øvredal: Olwen Kelly was on set for three or four weeks. She’s mainly Jane Doe. We used a doll, of course, while we were really tearing into her, but most of the time, it’s close ups or body parts and it’s always her. There are definitely moments where we’re also mixing her and the doll digitally after, to make sure we get the best of both worlds, but no, it was great fun. It was difficult technically to know how to deal with every possible situation that we were doing, but we had an amazing team of both prosthetics people, special FX make-up people. Olwen was amazing in just being patient and cooperative and being present for us, so it all worked out in a simple way it seems in hindsight, “Oh, that was quite simple” even though there were moments of struggle to get it all in camera, but it could have gone so much worse if it hadn’t been for Olwen, if it hadn’t been for amazing actors who just delivered from the first take on.

LRM: I have to imagine one of the marks of a good director is being prepared and that you did enough preparation that when you get to set, you know pretty much how you’re going to do stuff. Since Brian isn’t here, he gets into some pretty physical stuff in the movie. I don’t know how old he is but did he end up doing all that? 

Øvredal: He goes for it.

Hirsch: Yeah, he goes for it. He’s a pretty bad-ass guy, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be caught trying to help him up the stairs or something because he’d probably turn around and let me have it.

Øvredal: I was sometimes shocked at how much he went at it when we were doing these intense moments…

Hirsch: Yeah, cause how old is he?

Øvredal: He was 69 when we were shooting, so he’s 70 now.

LRM: Another scene that was pretty amazing was the big fire scene, and it looks like you have your actors in the middle of that fire. So how freaky was that for you and did you know it was safe?

Hirsch: Yeah, we’re just kind of hoping that it works out, and just having trust that the stunt guys were gonna make sure everything was safe. It’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush when you’re working with any type of stunt, but particularly a fire stunt when it’s a tinderbox of a set and stage and everything’s flammable, you know?

LRM: The thing about this movie is that it seems to set itself up as a sequel, so do you know if the writers are thinking about that or working on it?

Øvredal: Of course, it’s always a conversation you’re having. On a movie like this, you kind of don’t know until it’s out, and if we’ll have an opportunity to do a sequel, but clearly, it is a conversation.

LRM: I wanted to ask you about this other project you’ve been developing for a while, “Mortals.” Is that something you’re going to be attacking next and is that going to be another big expansive thing? 

Øvredal: It’s similar to Troll Hunter in its world, but it’s a present day mythological film around Northern mythology—action-adventure, romantic story. We’re set to shoot it in April. We were actually supposed to shoot it this Fall but various reasons prohibited us from doing it.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe hits select theaters and will be available On Demand starting Wednesday, December 21

Featured, Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Andre Ovredal, LRM Interview, Mortals, Troll Hunter