The Innocents, released in theaters this Wednesday, February 9, is not a superhero film, strictly speaking. But its appearance and its themes, its history, all put together, mean that it has its place in our columns. Its director, Eskil Vogtwas present in Paris a few days before the presentation of the film at the Gerardmer (at which he won two awards). During a brief but rewarding meeting, he was able to answer some of our questions about the film, which features a small group of children who discover some superpowers and have fun with them at the start, before that things do not seriously escalate to tip over into horror.
To sell the thing to our readership, we could tell you about a kind of Chroniclesbut with children, less spectacular compared to blockbusters American, but much more cruel in its staging and demonstration of violence. A nugget of genre cinema, served by its hyper-worked staging, to which we will return very soon in a dedicated article. In the meantime, there is no time to lose to discover this film at the cinema, and we offer you this interview with its director. An interview where we talk about The Innocents under a “comics” prism, to evoke the different themes of the film, but also certain technical aspects.
Hello Eskil. I could see in a previous interview with Le Point that The Innocents is a film that came to your mind after the birth of your first child, and on the idea that children don’t really have a moral spectrum.
Good morning ! It must be admitted that I was not too interested in childhood before becoming a parent. As a child, I wanted to be a teenager, and as a teenager I wanted to become an adult. I never had, as an adult, this nostalgic side that one can have in relation to childhood. It is thanks to my children that I thought back to that period. Seeing my son do something triggered something, brought out memories, perhaps trivial, but that I hadn’t felt in a long time. In the moment, there was an emotion related to childhood – and then it disappears, because it’s too different from our way of perceiving the world. I said to myself that there was this world of children which is interesting, a little secret, and that it would be interesting to make a film about it.
We had already seen in Thelma [ndlr : son précédent film] characters endowed with supernatural abilities, what made you want to bring back this theme of powers in The Innocents? I’ll go further: in our comic book spectrum, we often talk about great powers that come with great responsibilities. However, with children, this is something that is not applicable at all while they still have to build a moral spectrum!
They have no responsibilities! The idea is more to go towards the magic of childhood, and that when children play together, there is something magical, inexplicable, and this magic is no longer there once that they have returned home. We can say to ourselves that there is “something” during these meetings of these games, something that we may lose when we become adults. I developed this idea, I told myself that giving powers to a child is as dangerous as giving him a gun. As a child, we always look for our moral landmarks, we have no responsibilities, we don’t manage our emotions, our impulses, we forget the consequences…
Especially with the character of Ben who is the most subject to these impulses. How did you manage to manage the rise in tension, starting from a form of magic until switching to horror?
It was a real challenge, because there is a supernatural side, quite innocent at the start. The film does not hide from the cruel impulses that children have. This is what immediately creates unease, which announces that in any case, not very pleasant things are going to happen. It all comes from people. It’s important to me that the suspense, the danger, or the horror scenes come from these characters, not from an outside element. Evil and good are just words, but they don’t exist: that’s what we use to describe what are nothing but impulses coming from someone. In most horror films, we have a Christian theme with good facing evil, whereas in my film, it’s more psychological. It was also important that the supernatural could express the emotions and weaknesses of the characters.
How did it go for the realization of the powers: a mixture of CGI and practical effects?
I really like the practical effects on set, because it helps actors, especially when it comes to kids. It’s a lot easier to have something you can see, something you can react to, than trying to tell a kid what to think of and play accordingly. You can’t necessarily play with something that has to be added in post-production. It gives a sense of reality, it gives more embodiment. But we also used digital effects. What is important is to try to keep these effects subtle.
I understood fairly quickly that I wanted, in the end, the stakes to be high, to be a question of life and death for the children, but that this question would not be perceptible for the adults. So I knew that we couldn’t blow up building windows, everyone would have reacted, and we see that every day. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily cost more to blow up windows than to film hyper-realistic digital close-ups around children’s feet with small elements that move in an almost magical way.
You’re talking about the sand, right?
Yes, we filmed the feet, then everything else is recreated digitally. We tried in a more practical way, but it was too complicated.
It is indeed interesting to have an anti-climatic climax, almost based on a game of gaze, contrary to the destruction porn many superhero movies. I imagine that in any case there are questions of budgets, but that it was also not your approach in any case.
These are things we could have done. I like superhero movies, I watch them with my son. Often, the last forty minutes are not very interesting: they are the same images, with a portal which opens, which must be closed otherwise things come out to destroy the world. And we have the same effects, it’s a bit boring in fact. I said to myself that it would be more interesting to have effects on a more intimate, more real level, which would be more accurate in relation to the themes of the film.
And then, on violence, for example in a horror film, I like when the body is involved. Meaning, if someone gets their fingers hit by a hammer, I’m going to feel it. We identify ourselves, we have bodily memories that are close to what we see. But if I see someone with an exploding head, it’s gonna piss me off because I can’t project emotions into that. Here we are in the comedy of James Gunn, it’s great but it’s something else. So I preferred to have more intimate effects, a violence that doesn’t go too far, to create more anxiety in the viewer.
Anna’s sister has autism, and superhero comics have often been used as a metaphor for difference…
When I started writing the movie and talking to my producer about kids discovering powers, I realized that actually everyone does that. I was afraid for a moment to do the same thing as Netflix. I had the intuition nevertheless to be able to do something different with childhood, rather than adolescence which is often approached in others. The other superhero allegory is difference, the X-Men. I’m of course pretty close to this idea that you can’t judge people by appearance. The autistic girl looks almost mentally handicapped, but we discover that she has a whole universe, a language, which means that it changes the way we perceive her. I’m very interested in this aspect, that everyone hides an inner world: you never really know who the other is..
Thank you very much, Eskil!