The Innocents Eskil Vogt interview

Cruelty and havoc ensue in The Innocents when kids are imbued with magical powers

We spoke to Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt, a long-time collaborator of Joachim Trier and co-writer of The Worst Person in the World, about casting, childhood fears and superpowers.

The murky moral reality of childhood provides a steady, if not horrific backbone in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents. Over the summer holidays, four young children become friends and discover they may have magical powers. Under overcast skies, they play and test the boundaries of their abilities as the children increasingly lean towards violence and cruelty.

Written and directed by Vogt, long-time collaborator of Joachim Trier and co-writer of The Worst Person in the World, the film explores childhood’s magic and horrors. 

“I remember being a child and lying awake at night,” he recalls over Zoom. “Even though I was safe in my own house, I could see a shadow or hear a sound, and suddenly those wonderful things about childhood, that capacity of feeling intensely and your imagination, are turned against you.”

The film’s title refers to the perception of childhood as a place of innocence, rather than lean into the idea that being innocent equates moral goodness. However, the film explores the neutrality of naivety, and moral exploration. It seeks to bring the audience back to the magical realm of children, where the unanswerable takes on almost mythical qualities

As Vogt explains, “If kids had powers, they would explore their limits. They would forget about the consequences. They would be impulsive. They haven’t evolved their sense of empathy yet, so they might do very cruel things. We tend to forget about our childhood because we did a lot of stuff that wasn’t very nice.”

Vogt’s filmmaking explores the idea that most moral behaviour is learned. Our first moral compass comes from our parents, but most of us will rebel and push the limits at a certain age. “You’ll do some things that your mother told you not to do, and then you’ll think ‘Did that feel wrong? Did that feel right?’ If that didn’t feel wrong, you’d push it even further until you find some limit and feel bad about it. And then at that moment, maybe that becomes your set of values and not your parents’ morals.”

Due to some of the film’s horrific imagery, The Innocents has been discussed as a horror film. The movie attempts to capture the universe from a child’s point of view, in the sense that, for children, the world teems with the unknown. It features violence and brutality, though the filmmaking maintains a steely gaze. “I was very aware that I’d never been as scared as an adult as I’ve been as a child,” says Vogt. The film’s temporality, which plays with our sense of time, similarly brings us back to an era where each day exploded with countless new experiences. 

Vogt discusses how he has had to rethink childhood in dealing with his kids. He tries to be conscious that when they come back from school, he asks them, “How was your day?” It’s a loaded, in some ways, impossible question. “We expect that they can process everything they’ve experienced and put it into words, uh, so that we will understand the experience they’ve had. And of course, they can’t.” For Vogt, the film is a bridge between these worlds. “Children are, in some way, living in a parallel universe,” Vogt says. “They’re living in a parallel world that’s very similar to ours. I was so curious to explore that secret world of childhood.”

An essential part of creating this world was the casting process. Working with children, Vogt says, can be tricky – so many resources were put into finding the right children. They didn’t do dialogue during the auditions and instead presented the children with photos and asked them to imagine stories related to them. They looked broadly across the age group they wanted and then, based on the best fits, made changes to the script – though Vogt emphasizes that most of the changes were superficial such as changing the age, sex and ethnicity rather than the content of the characters. 

A similar approach was taken to working with the young actors. Vogt preferred the children to work on the lines on set and improvise if necessary. He told them, “’If you miss a line, invent another one or we start over, or I’ll shout it out to you from behind the camera.’ I just had to remove the responsibility, so they would feel safe and not feel the pressure.” The result is markedly successful, as the children come across as both natural and spontaneous. Surprisingly, when he later re-read his script, Vogt found a lot less improvisation than he thought, and the film reflects quite closely his original script. 

The Innocents stands out as a challenging approach to childhood that pulls no punches. It explores as young children explore new moral experiences and test the limits of their discoveries. Both naturalistic and fantastic, it searches to pierce the universe of childhood that we all inevitably lose touch with through our developing brains and expanded experience. ■

The Innocents, directed by Eskil Vogt

The Innocents is playing in Montreal theatres now.

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