Secret World: Eskil Vogt’s Innocent Children

Rakel Lenora Fløttum as the not-so-innocent Ida in The Innocents.
Rakel Lenora Fløttum as the not-so-innocent Ida in The Innocents.

The Innocents filmmaker Eskil Vogt discusses the disturbing magic of childhood, shooting seagulls, eating scabs and making a horror film in the Scandinavian daylight.

Exclusive: Eskil Vogt shares twelve films that influenced The Innocents.

With The Worst Person in the World now in the rear-view mirror, and its 2021 Palme d’Or-nominated director Joachim Trier gearing up to sit on the 2022 Cannes jury, the other Norwegian darling from last year’s Cannes Film Festival is at last having its time in the sun. The Innocents, which premiered in the fest’s Un Certain Regard section, is helmed solely by Trier’s long-time collaborator Eskil Vogt, which wasn’t entirely the plan at the outset.

Alongside The Worst Person in the World, Vogt and Trier have worked together on that film’s two other Oslo Trilogy chapters, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, as well as Louder Than Bombs and Thelma. Something of a sister piece to the latter in its sci-fi sensibilities and curious dissection of morally murky youth, The Innocents is Vogt’s second feature as director after 2014’s Blind.

Trier was initially on board, but his departure from the script was wrapped up in thoughts—or a lack thereof—about parenthood. For an ominous, even quietly terrifying film about what can happen when kids are left to their devices and become “victims of their own emotions”, as Vogt puts it, that checks out.

The childhood terror of The Innocents is more disturbing as it occurs primarily in daylight hours.
The childhood terror of The Innocents is more disturbing as it occurs primarily in daylight hours.

“Joachim wasn’t a father at the time so he didn’t really respond and it fell to the floor,” Vogt explains of the project, which had been playing on his mind since he himself had become a parent, but also because he says he “never had this nostalgia for my childhood”. No nostalgia, no limits. Where so many of Vogt and Trier’s films together have a sense of careful romance or melancholy, all of that is decidedly absent in The Innocents, replaced with a more transgressive and sometimes clinical portrait of claustrophobic youth.

But, still: you’ve got to be tapped into human fallibility, as Vogt has always been, to make a film like this. We follow four children (Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim and Sam Ashraf—all immediately magnetic) who meet outside the apartment buildings they live in and, heading into the woods, strike up a friendship based on the horrible things they realize their minds and bodies can suddenly do—without realizing this is not, in fact, how everybody lives their lives.

When I started to think about childhood and talking to people about it, there were so many stories about transgressions, big or small, where adults remember they had been very cruel as kids. Towards animals, towards other children, younger siblings.

—⁠Eskil Vogt

The Innocents comes to us as summer in the Northern Hemisphere rears its head, but its warmth, visual and haptic, is disarming; these children are not to be trusted. A story of superpowers, a lack of control, of dark consequences, of a suffering cat, the tension bubbles as the sun rises and sets. Soumajit Nath appreciates how the film is “cold and dense but bathed in warm summerday sunshine”, while many other reviews urge us to go in blind to best experience Vogt’s dark story. I’ll leave further plot descriptors to one side, except the chorus saying—maybe jokingly, maybe not—that this is the X-Men film we’ve all been waiting for.

During a recent visit to Oslo, I sat down with Vogt for a conversation about morals, parenting, primal filmmaking and the clichéd childhood cinema trip that led him to a lifetime at the movies.

Ida, peering out from her secret world.
Ida, peering out from her secret world.

Some people may know you as the co-writer for The Worst Person in the World—what made you shift towards very troubled children?
Eskil Vogt: It might be more logical to people if they remember Joachim and I made Thelma together. Before we started writing that, we wanted to do something different. We love genre movies. We always end up writing scenes about two people talking very honestly about stuff, and we try and make that cinematic, but why not try to write something that’s cinematic in itself and not have to do that heavy lifting?

So I had this idea of a group of kids playing together and something inexplicable, magical, happens and they go home to their respective houses and sit down for dinner and that magic [isn’t] there anymore. You think it was probably their imagination, but maybe this is a movie where it’s real. Where that magical childhood is real. Joachim wasn’t a father at the time so he didn’t really respond and it fell to the floor. No hard feelings, we just move on…

We found another idea and wrote Thelma, but then this idea came back to me. I think it’s because I was a father and I’ve never had this nostalgia for my childhood.

I mean, this is not a romantic look at childhood.
It’s true. When I was a kid I wanted to be a teenager. I remember watching The Breakfast Club and thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I had those problems. They’re so much better than my problems.’ And then I wanted to become an adult and then as an adult I just left that all behind me until I got kids of my own. Then I became interested in that period of life, as kids help you remember stuff. Suddenly you’re triggered by something you see them doing.

An image pops up and you remember something you hadn’t thought about since it happened, and you get that feeling of being a kid for a fraction of a second. It’s a good feeling but very intense and you can’t hold onto it. As an adult, you have everything kind of figured out, you know what’s physically possible, what’s real, what’s imagined, and you have, hopefully, more or less control of your feelings. We all struggle, but we have more control. As a kid, all that is just a mess. You feel things extremely intensely, you imagine stuff to the point where you think it’s real. You have no idea what’s physically possible. You’re used to your horizon expanding, you redefine what’s possible every day. Something magical happening, a kid would easily accept it, whereas an adult would become crazy.

We have all these ways of protecting ourselves and kids don’t. I thought it was a fascinating place to visit because it’s so closed off to us adults. I was reminded that I can never understand what happens inside of my kids. I wanted to film that secret world of children.

Children, they’re up to no good.
Children, they’re up to no good.

The secret world is very dark. Can you talk about the tone of the film and how you knew where the line was, in terms of how dark you really do go?
It started with the idea of magical childhood being real, but then I remember that feeling of how unsure you are of things, how little you master your existence and everyone decides everything for you. You’re kind of a victim of your own emotions. I remember being a kid lying in bed and hearing a sound and imagining something terrible which would become part of my reality. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared as an adult as I was in the safety of my own home, in my own bed, as a child just creating something terrible.

Would you ever tell your parents about this?
A lot of it I kept to myself. When I started to think about childhood and talking to people about it, there were so many stories about transgressions, big or small, where adults remember they had been very cruel as kids. Towards animals, towards other children, younger siblings.

I have a cat, and that scene in the film…
I have two! Don’t worry, the cat is fine.

Good, we can carry on.
So, I understood that if I wanted the magic of childhood to be real, the kids would need to have powers. And if kids have powers, with that lack of impulse control, with that need to experiment, that tendency to be cruel, something bad is going to happen. It wouldn’t create a story about how wonderful it is to be a child. That wouldn’t feel true to me.

I knew I had to go to some dark places, and I knew it would also be a story about how you develop your own sense of morals. I remember as a young boy, my parents took me on holiday and gave me a pellet gun that shoots little air bullets. I had it and I saw this seagull flying, as we were close to the ocean, and I shot at it and hit it, because I could see it move in the air. It’s a big bird so it didn’t fall down and crash, but I had heard that lead is poisonous so that day and night I kept thinking, ‘Now that bird is poisoned, now it’s dying slowly, now it’s in pain, and that’s because of me.’

I didn’t tell my parents. I don’t have a bad relationship with them but it just didn’t occur to me. What that experience did to me was that from that point on I would be much more careful about hurting other living beings. When you’re very young, your morals come from your parents and it’s just dos and don’ts. Your mother says ‘Don’t do that’ and your father says ‘Be polite to strangers’, but you can’t go through your whole life doing stuff because your parents told you to do or don’t do them.

Writer and director Eskil Vogt.
Writer and director Eskil Vogt.

And there are some things they don’t tell you.
And sometimes they don’t tell you the truth. But I think one of the reasons there are so many stories about children being cruel and experimenting is because they have to do something their mother said they shouldn’t do, and then feel if that feels bad. Do I feel guilty? Maybe I can push that further? And then find that limit. And then you create your own set of morals that are not just your parents’ values, but your own. I think you need to find your own moral compass. If you talk to experts, they say if you have bad role models in your family you develop empathy much later. You’ll have a longer period when you can make mistakes you’ll regret. That’s why kids are by definition innocent. They’re not fully formed yet, and that’s why we don’t convict children of crimes.

It felt important to have this sensuous quality of childhood, the way they touched everything with their hands. Close-ups of what their fingers are touching. Those things that would evoke feelings of being a kid and picking at your scab with your nail and maybe eating part of it.

—⁠Eskil Vogt

You’re searching for these morals in dark places in the film, but it’s still beautiful to look at. It’s the middle of summer, it’s very light and warm. How do you build that world visually?
My cinematographer, Starla Brandt Grøvlen, also did Victoria and Another Round. He’s very, very talented. What was most important to me was to make a movie about childhood where you try to evoke feelings in the spectator of what it felt like to be with the children. Instead of doing this scary cinematography with rundown or unwelcoming locations, and filming dark scenes—because everyone’s scared of the dark and that’s why it works, even in bad films—I wanted it to feel real. We needed rich skin tones and bright colors.

It felt important to have this sensuous quality of childhood, the way they touched everything with their hands. Close-ups of what their fingers are touching. Those things that would evoke feelings of being a kid and picking at your scab with your nail and maybe eating part of it.

It’s very primal.
Exactly. It takes you into the movie instead of watching something unfold. We [made] a lot of decisions that went against making it as scary as possible. But also, it’s summer in Scandinavia and kids go to bed when kids go to bed, so it will still be daylight hours. So we had to make that interesting and ominous, and maybe a little bit more original in the genre. Horror movies can tend to have a black-and-white look, where skin tones are almost white and shade is very black. We tried to make it softer.

Films like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) were part of Vogt’s teen “splatter phase”.
Films like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) were part of Vogt’s teen “splatter phase”.

We’re running out of time so let’s go all the way back to maybe your childhood—what was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
Do people have answers to that question? [Editor’s note: Yes.] It’s interesting, I can tell you what movies ignited my passion. It’s very cliché, I saw Back to the Future three times in cinemas when I was a kid, but I had no idea you could make them. My idea of making movies came from my love of movies.

I think when I started [watching] movies that were a little more lo-fi I had fun. I went through a splatter phase in my teens, movies like The Evil Dead or Braindead. You feel like making movies isn’t inaccessible. Later when I watched French New Wave movies, you feel like, ‘Oh, you can just take a camera and film,’ and it seems easy. It was all very inspiring—I could never pick just one.


The Innocents’ is out now in theaters and on digital via IFC Films.

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