Marius Holst’s newest film King Of Devil’s Island, a historic Norwegian tale set in the oppressive confines of an all boys reform centre, was favourably reviewed here on TQS. This week he took the time to talk to us about working with young performers, getting the perfect score, and being able to look Stellan Skarsgard in the eye.
“It was something that started 11 years ago, something I’d been developing for some time. I grew up with some stories of Bastoy [the island of the film’s claustrophobic setting] so when I started making films I felt it would be a strong subject to explore. Clearly a project on his mind for many years, maybe even longer than he cares to admit. I wanted to know if he viewed King Of Devil’s Island as a statement on Norwegian ideals, either past or current, “I think in Norway now we’re sure looking at ourselves and are people who take children’s best interests to heart, a very humanistic nation that was perhaps very different not so far back”.
Given the dense and often brutal daily regime of Bastoy in King Of Devil’s Island, it’s therefore shocking to hear of the island’s current state of practice, as Marius divulged for us, “ It’s an open prison for minor offences, there are no locked doors and they can come back from work in the evening. It’s an experimental prison which has some very promising results. Ironically one of the worst places you could end up in the 1970s is now an idyllic one”. As the young men of Bastoy are shown to us neglected, often abused, and oppressed by a system of multifaceted corruption, to find the island now run in such an open unconstrained manner only adds extra weight to what is represented in the film.
The film offers spectacular performances across the board but though it boasts the presence of seasoned heavyweights it was the talents of the younger more inexperienced performers that truly stood out. So what was the on-set chemistry between the older and younger performers like? “It made Stellan [Skarsgård] and Kristoffer [Joner] very nervous. In my experience it can make them better, an inexperienced actor can be more ‘real’ in some sense but also the experience and technique the actor holds are put to the test as you can really see the tools when up against someone who doesn’t have any. When the balance is right they can make each other better”.
Of all the cast it was that of 20 year old Trond Nilsson (above) who strikes the biggest chord; a young actor making his debut who needed a little nurturing, as it was explained, “Trond was the last one we decided on because he didn’t really come through in the auditioning, he came from institutions himself so when you try to push the buttons his upbringing taught him to show nothing, to protect himself by doing this. So when an actor is needed to cry and expose he would go colder and colder, so we had to really crack through that to get in their but that didn’t really happen until we were on set. On whether he felt intimidated from working with such unpracticed talent he responded, “I have worked with young inexperienced actors before so it wasn’t much of a shock as it’s quite a calculated process, by the time we got on the set I pretty much know I can take them ‘there’ after the auditioning, rehearsals and improvisations”.
Marius explained his approach to shooting, saying he was going for a “very specific visual style” and that he wanted a very “classic” to look, “lots of wide shots and framing of character against landscapes”. It certainly feels like the kind of picture seldom made anymore, simple tales of courage and strength that provide spectacle but never in place of character. Though the visuals certainly came together to form the bleak hemmed-in atmosphere that plagues the film, Marius explained it was the soundtrack that needed the most fine tuning, “Initially I felt the soundtrack was too big, too bombastic, it didn’t enter into the images it remained on the outside, so we went back and changed the instrumentation because music can very easily overpower a scene; if you make it too minimalistic it doesn’t add anything so we had to get the balance just right. The mix certainly is right, that the score features such a wide array of emotions is one of the key elements here; managing to both produce a sense of foreboding but also a melancholic look to the past, something the film’s closing image helps cement as we’re reminded these atrocities veritably happened.
[On Skarsgård as active producer on the film] “I think he felt very strongly about the project, in this circumstance we were very tight on money so he came on board as one of the producers with no guarantee that he would get his money back. Fortunately now the film has done well he has his money back so I can now look him in the eye again.
King Of Devil’s Island is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
Interview by Joseph McDonagh