|Interview: Marius Holst (The King of Devil’s Island)|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Monday, 12 November 2012 15:59|
(Photo via King of Devil's Island Facebook page)
The King of Devil’s Island blew its way into cinemas in June, a cold, haunting story about a boys home on the island of Bastøy. But while its mix of hidden abuse, harsh conditions and violent revelations may appear familiar, Marius Holst’s drama has something that sets it apart: it all actually happened.
Coupled with a commanding performance from Stellan Skarsgård as the prison’s cruel-but-kind warden and a cast of unprofessional teens, it gives King of Devil’s Island a nasty chill that you can’t shake for a good couple of days.
With the film released on DVD last week, I spoke to director Marius Holst about shooting on a snowy island, working with untrained kids and uncovering a dark chapter in Norway’s past.
When did you first learn about the island of Bastøy?
I grew up in Oslo so it was something I grew up with. I knew about the island as a boy’s home for bad boys, that was very superficial knowledge. As for many people in Norway, I knew the name but not really what went on there, so as I got older and started making films, I began to research it and was surprised by what I found and that was part of why I wanted to make the film.
If you look at Were people shocked when you popped up with this film?
People knew that this was a harsh place, even though it closed in the 70s, but there were quite a lot of things that came out in documentaries and news stories – talking to elderly people who were there – and there were reactions to that. So I don’t think they were shocked. I don’t think people are naïve enough to think that we didn’t have the same problems with institutions as everywhere else in the world. But the film does something emotionally that registers differently from a news report. I think it struck a nerve.
The response from the authorities to what the children do is perhaps the most surprising part of it all. Is that in Norway’s history books? Was that easy to research?
You might not read much about it in history books, but you can find it in research, in newspapers of the day. Actually, the military intervention that’s portrayed in the film is milder in the film than in real life. In reality, it was even larger! We scaled it down, because of resources, but also because how it really went down would almost defy belief. It was on an even bigger scale – I felt that if we did that it would be harder to believe in a sense.
Did you speak to many former inmates?
Yes, I spoke to several men who were there. Not in 1915, but in the 1930s and 1940s. The inspiration for the Olav character comes from one of them, who came in as a 9 year old and left when he was 15; he arrived as young boy and went a man.
Have any of them seen the film? What kind of reactions have you had?
Well, one of the boys in the film, his grandfather was actually a Bastoy boy! And at the premiere, this old man comes up to me and I realised he was the grandfather and that he had seen the film… I was nervous about what he would say! And he said to me: “I could smell it. I could smell the place.” It was good to hear.
Given how different Bastøy is now to then, I’m guessing you didn’t shoot on location…?
We were in dialogue with them – and we had plans to shoot there. I don’t think they objected to the film being made at all, this is a different regime altogether, but just practically, going on an island with 150 young boys and you have 150 prisoners there already to start with, it would have been very difficult. There are also large parts of the island that have been modernized you would have to hide away. Usually, with the budget we have we want to use our money on the screen to add things, not remove things! So we had to find another location.
It looks pretty bleak on screen. It’s so cold you can see the actors’ breath, even when they’re inside! What was it like shooting the film in those conditions?
It’s what you see! It’s winter, the wind’s coming in from the sea. It’s tough. The coldness you can visually feel from the film is really important to feel the character’s isolation and coldness – they were left behind on this place. I think people often get caught up in how difficult it was, how you see it was cold but I must really say as a director, coldness and that is like the least of your problems! More pressing are time issues, knowing that you have to cut scenes and simplify scenes and leave takes while you can still make them better because time is running out. And the weather conditions slow it all down, because you lose energy keeping warm. That’s the major difficulty, not your feet getting cold!
Did the younger cast members find it a challenge?
Oh, you know, they’re teenage boys, they hate to get up in the morning! We had early calls, they had to get into costume. It’s tough for them because they have to go into work – and I have to go and wake them up! They got grumpy. But also, a lot of these boys came from somewhat difficult backgrounds and I think they felt they were part of something they were doing together and it was an important journey in their life. I told them that they were going to look back on this and be glad they were a part of it because it’s something that will be there forever. It’s different for anyone who comes in from the outside because the film set has a very rigid discipline – you start at this hour and you move to the next scene. That’s a new experience for those who are not use it.
How hard was it mentally and emotionally? Because some of this stuff is really quite brutal.
Yeah, I mean I had told them what had happened there and my job is to help them to identify with the boys and what was happening. Sometimes, I think that did put them into the mood, but you have to remember that you’re dealing with teenage boys – whenever there’s violence in the film, they think it’s great! That’s great fun for them!
Benjamin is excellent as C19. How did you find him?
I found him through an open casting process. Way before we made the film, I made a short pilot, small snippets for a film that didn’t exist yet – if you look on the Norwegian DVD, the promo’s there. That was two years before the film, so he looks much younger! Then, I saw that the camera really loved him. He didn’t have to do much. He’s a very emotional guy, you know, you have very easy access to his emotions. I could see in some scenes he wanted to cry and I would say: “Don’t. Put a lid on it.” He wasn’t allowed to do that, because I wanted it all to be kept in – there, but just implied.
There’s this moral ambiguity running throughout the film. The kids are as violent as the adults. The adults are cruel, but kind. Stellan is fantastic as the horrible, but strangely compassionate, prison warden. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Was he your first choice?
Yes, I did think of him from a very early stage. I actually talked to him about it maybe five years before the film was made. Then, when it happened, he was available. He really was the obvious choice – he can be authoritative without pushing you too hard. He has that complexity, being strong and weak at the same time.
And he does it without speaking too.
Yes. It’s important to be able to follow the action of the film without speaking. You should feel it, through visuals and not through dialogue.
How hard was it to direct Stellan alongside the kids? Did you treat them differently?
Yeah, in a sense you try to treat them the same – you try to push buttons that will get an emotional reaction – but how you get there is very different with Stellan and an unprofessional actor. I would speak to him the night before in the hotel and have a conversation about the scene and then on the set, just a few words will get him to change something. With an untrained actor, you might have to start from scratch for each scene, depending on where they are mentally.
How did the kids react to working with Stellan? He’s quite terrifying on screen.
Yes! When Benjamin had his first scene with Stellan, he was quite a bit intimidated. Stellan was in character and in costume, even off camera, and Benjamin got so caught up and intimidated he couldn’t display this arrogance I wanted him to play. In the end, I had to send Stellan out and take his place! He played the scene towards me with that arrogant attitude. But Stellan put them all very much at ease. He’s a very generous and easy guy to be around – he creates a very light mood on set, which helped me to put the others at ease when he was in the scene with them. But when he needed them to feel pressure or frightened, he would do that as well…
What’s next for you? Something set somewhere warm and sunny, I hope!
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s what I was telling myself repeatedly while standing in the snow! I’m going to have something with all professionals, close to the beach maybe! Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be that… That’s not the kind of thing I’m drawn to…
The King of Devil’s Island is out on DVD now. Head this way to read our Kind of Devil’s Island review.