Garnering a sense of understanding of a parent or child’s views on personal relationships and work, particularly the ability to find a stable balance between the two areas, can be a challenging process for many people. That’s certainly the case between Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox’s relatable protagonists in the new horror film, ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe.’ The movie, which was written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, compelling chronicles the relatable tension that has built up between the lead actors’ characters as they manage their family business. But when they’re unsuspectingly drawn into a terrifying situation while at work, they’re forced to put their differences aside and learn to support each other unconditionally, so that they can battle the sinister evil and survive together.
After premiering during the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ is being released in select U.S. theaters tomorrow by IFC Films. The crime drama marks Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal’s English-language directorial debut.
‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ opens with police investigating a mysterious massacre that has taken place in a small Virginia town. Four bodies have been uncovered in a house, and the officers uncover clues that the victims were trying to escape the scene. The discovery baffles the investigators, however, as there aren’t any signs of forced entry or an intruder. During their search, the police also find an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly), who has been half-buried in the house’s cellar.
Sheriff Sheldon (Michael McElhatton) is pressured to quickly find the woman’s cause of death, so that he can report the news to the local press by the following morning. So he decides to bring the body to the local medical examiner, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), and his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch), who run the Tilden Morgue & Crematorium, which has been owned by their family for a century, together. The widowed Tony is eager to immediately begin the forensic analysis on the woman, as he has devoted his life to his job after his wife’s death. Austin feels obligated to help his father start the procedure, but is determined to leave a short time later, so that he bring his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), on a late-night date.
When they start the autopsy on the newly arrived Jane Doe, the father and son are quickly surprised when they discover that the victim shows no sign of harm on her skin, let alone rigor mortis. But once they begin examining her organs, Tommy and Austin find evidence that the woman had suffered extreme abuse. The medical examiners are also shock to discover that the victim has symbols and occult spells written on the inside of her body. The father and son realize that they must overcome their differences and work together if they want to not find the reason why the woman died, but also protect themselves from harm.
Hirsch and Øvredal generously took the time recently to talk about starring in, and directing, ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ during an exclusive interview at IFC’s New York City office. Among other things, the actor and filmmaker discussed how they were both not only drawn to the realistic depecition of the mature connection between the father and son, but they also enjoyed the visual details that Goldberg and Naing included in the script. Hirsch and Øvredal also mentioned how it was beneficial for them to film on a soundstage, since the majority of the movie’s story is set in the coroners’ examination room. That way, they were able to design a location that features the precise angles, colors and other vital elements that they felt would complimented the story.
Øvredal began the conversation by explaining why he became interested in directing ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe,’ and what drew him to Goldberg and Naing’s script. “When I left the theater after watching ‘The Conjuring,’ I thought, Wow, that’s how you make a horror movie. There was a trend at that time where” these types of films were shot with hand-held cameras, the director pointed pointed out. He was a part of that trend with his previous feature film directorial and writing effort, 2010’s horror fantasy, ‘Trollhunter.’
“But there was something so crafted, classic and simple in the direction (of ‘The Conjuring’), and there were some amazing moments. So I was really inspired by” the acclaimed 2013 horror thriller. After watching the movie, Øvredal casually asked his agents to look for a good horror screenplay, “and then I received this script a month later, and I fell in love with it.”
The filmmaker added that he loved how ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s screenplay paid so much attention to detail, and “was so scary. The character beats were so great, and there were mature relationships between the characters.” Øvredal also praised Goldberg and Naing for writing the script in such a visual way, which made it easy for me to see the film in my head.”
Hirsch also mentioned what interested him in playing Austin in the horror film. “Austin is a regular guy in a lot of ways, but he also has this sadness from the loss of his mother. He’s also becoming more of a grown-up, and is getting ready to leave his father, who he has a lot of affection for overall.” The actor added that he likes the idea of “playing a regular guy who has some problems that anyone would have when they’re becoming an adult.
“There are some things about him on the surface that can be considered average, even though he is a medical examiner, which is extraordinary,” Hirsch explained. He revealed that “there’s something about that which I really liked. I felt the character potentially had an every man appeal, even though he did this very strange job. I think if you can play and be that, it can open up an interesting world to inhabit.”
Once Øvredal signed on to direct ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe,’ he embarked on a preparation process that involved speaking to, and interviewing, a lot of coroners. “I also went to autopsy rooms, but I didn’t get to see an actual autopsy being performed,” the helmer revealed. “It would have been tricky to do that, but it wasn’t very crucial for me to see one. So I watched videos, and I understood it.
“The script is so well researched on that level. We sent the script to coroners, and they said, ‘Yes, this is how it works. There are some liberties, but this is how it really works,'” the filmmaker added.
Once Øvredal completed his research into the duties that coroners are required to perform, he began working on the visual aspects of the horror movie. “I’m extremely proud of the camera work on this film, including where the camera went, and how (cinematographer Roman Osin) registered the actors’ performances,” the director revealed. The filmmaker also noted that he appreciates how Osin “related to the room and the space.”
One camera trick Osin used that Øvredal appreciated was when he broke the 180 degree rule of where he would place the camera. “We would be shooting a moment from the front of the room, and then suddenly, we would jump to the back, in the middle of the conversation. That would create unease in the audience,” the helmer explained.
“Every single shot is important to me. Every shot has its own audio elements,” Øvredal revealed. He further explained that if viewers watch ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ in a theater that has a good audio system, they’ll “hear the audio atmosphere. The direction of the audio changes with every single shot. That also helps create a sense of unease, like you can’t quite trust stability while you watch the movie. It’s very subtle, but I really believe in that aspect working for the audience.
“Working with Roman as a cameraman on this (film) was so amazing. He has such an eye for composition,” Øvredal added as he praised the drama’s cinematographer. “I knew where I wanted to put the camera, and he would have ideas that would lift my suggestions. When we would arrive on set, he knew exactly where to gracefully put the camera. He would also light the scenes in the most simple and beautiful ways. He’s a master of the image, so I was lucky that he joined us on this movie.”
In addition to the unique camera work Osin implemented to help tell the story, there are several crucial plot points that are cued by rock songs. Øvredal then explained why he feels the auditory clues are just as important as visual ones in horror films like this one, as well as the process of choosing the music that would be included in the movie.
“I love film music, and it’s all I listen to, especially when I’m working and writing. I’m addicted to soundtracks and scores,” the director revealed. So when he first spoke with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who created the music for ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe,’ about working on the film’s score, he was happy they agreed.
Bensi and Jurriaans “have this amazing balance of creating intimate scores that are both original and modern, and that’s exactly what I felt this movie should have. The music has an emotional score that features very simple instruments. The score not only plays on the relationship between the characters, but also twists that connection into a horror space,” Øvredal explained.
The helmer then described his working relationships with the composers as being “a bit weird, because I never met them during the entire filmmaking process. They were here in New York, and I was in England (where the movie was shot), and we would Skype.”
The composers would send Øvredal pieces of music to listen to, “but we struggled for about a month to figure out what the sound of the movie would be,” the director admitted. “We then decided to go to the final act of the film, and figure out what that would sound like. Then they figured out how the music could work for the last eight to ten minutes of the movie,” the director divulged.
“We then went back, and they started composing the score for the rest of the film, using those elements that the finale contained. Then everything they sent me was spot on,” Øvredal added as he further praised Bensi and Jurriaans.
Since the majority of the story is set in the morgue, Øvredal decided to film the morgue scenes on a sound stage in London. But the exteriors shots, as well as the scenes that were set in the upstairs rooms of the building where the morgue is located, were filmed at a real location, the director explained. “We shot on location for two days, and we filmed the rest on the set. It was all built as one big piece; it was constructed so that we could follow the actors’ movements throughout the story,” the filmmaker further revealed.
“It was very important to me to have a lot of angles in the room, so that it didn’t feel like a square. Also, when we were shooting up on the actors, we would always have intriguing angles behind them,” Øvredal further shared about creating the overall look of the morgue, and how he wanted to present it on screen.
“I was very specific that the autopsy room should initially be very warm and bright, as it’s also (Austin and Tommy’s) home. Something that I love about movies like ‘The Shining,’ for example, is that it’s a bright movie, and you never really see darkness in it. But it’s still so scary,” the director noted.
“So to be able to do that (in ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’) was really intriguing challenge. (Austin and Tommy’s) discovery about everything that’s connected to Jane becomes the focus of the story. So I wanted to make sure that we had a space that told us things about the characters, such as who they are, and what kind of life they’ve lived,” Øvredal relayed.
“We wanted to make sure the space looked American, especially since we shot in London. We wanted to have a precise set of colors,” the filmmaker also explained. He added that he walked through the set to figure out how all aspects of the film would look on screen within the spaces they were shooting. “When we found what Emile was going to wear, we walked through the rooms with the clothes, to see how it would look in every part of the set. A lot of work went into detailing the set.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever shot a predominately one location film before,” Hirsch revealed when he then chimed on the experience of shooting ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ on the English soundstage. “The warehouse where the set we shot on was very dark and creepy, and was in a weird location in London. There weren’t any real lights, and it was kind of cold. It had a foreboding atmosphere.
“The set itself was also very creepy. It was dark, and they would occasionally light up the areas where we were shooting. Overall, it felt very deserted and lonely, and it felt like there was a bad energy,” the SAG Award-nominated actor further divulged.
“That sounds bad, but it’s actually good when you’re shooting a scary movie! You don’t want to have things be hunky dory. Obviously, you want to be safe, but you can also draw off of that weird energy, and we all fed off of that,” Hirsch emphasized.
The actor then praised his director, saying that “the relationship I had with André was great-we interacted very well. We were constantly tweaking things, and rearranging scenes and dialogue. They were just minor things, but they were elements that we thought would strengthen the performances, the story and the characters.”
Hirsch also commended Cox and the relationship they had together on screen. “Brian is a very witty guy, who has a wicked sense of humor. He great opinions on everything. So it was a lot of fun to be around him, and let him riff.”
Cox “also has a very keen attention to detail. That was something we united on, and with André, as well,” Hirsch also revealed. “André’s also a very detail-oriented dude. So we consulted the medical examiners to make sure that we were very believable. It looked like we were actually executing the jobs that we were assigned.
“Not only did we want to make sure we believable, we also wanted to make the story interesting. When you’re in one location, you want to make sure that the action stays compelling, and it doesn’t become repetitive or mundane,” the actor also noted. “We wanted to constantly be illuminating something else that enhances the story and performances. That helps the single location become an asset, as opposed to a problem.”
While the two actors developed a good rapport with each other on the set, Hirsch revealed that it didn’t seem as though Cox was keen on rehearsing too much for their scenes. “I think he likes to know his stuff, and have the other actors know what they’re doing on their own. Then everything comes together once we started shooting our scenes. That way we could be creative and in the moment. That was how we worked together on this film, for the most part.”
In the beginning of ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe,’ there are moments when Austin expresses regret over not leaving the autopsy early to meet his girlfriend, but he’s also the one who initially decided to stay to help his father. Hirsch noted that his character’s experience with his father in the morgue, especially while they’re working on Jane Doe’s case, helps them to finally understand and appreciate each other.
**SPOILER ALEART** “Showing Austin’s internal conflict was important, because there was something that was sort of sad about the situation,” Hirsch explained. “But even though he has this conflict, his loyalty to his father keeps him at the morgue on this night. That decision leads to some darker things happening to them that night.”
“There’s something a little sadistic in the fact that his love for his father ends up backfiring on him,” the actor also pointed out. Øvredal agreed with Hirsch when he then added, “Not only does it backfire on (Austin), it also puts his girlfriend in dire straits.”
Hirsch also emphasized that viewers aren’t “going to find fortune cookie wisdom, or the deeper meaning of the universe, at the end of this movie. You might instead think, that was sadistically written and organized. This isn’t like ‘Fences,’ where you realize, this is what we’re doing with life.” Øvredal laughed when the actor then exclaimed, “With this movie, it’s like, “Oh wow, the demon is evil! This is unfortunate-everyone good perished.”
At the end of the film, it’s cleverly shown that Jane Doe isn’t actually a victim, and has instead served as the story’s antagonist, who initiates the trouble Austin and Tommy experience in their coroner’s office. Hirsch described that part of the story as being “creepy. Olwen Kelly was such a dedicated actress. She never spoke to Brian or me, and was so focused on portraying this corpse. It really creeped me out that she never even moved.”
Øvredal also noted that he “loved that aspect of the film. In a way, (Jane Doe) was just an object to them at the beginning of the film, and they were just doing their job. But then slowly, they become emotionally attached to the case, especially Austin. She eventually turned that against them, and the case kept getting worse and worse. She never moved, so in a way, she was the most intriguing villain ever. **END SPOILER ALEART**
Watch the official trailer, and check out the poster, for ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello