'Wildling' Director Fritz Böhm on How You Can Humanize Dark Fairy Tales
This frightening story of a woman in captivity proves appearances can be deceiving.
Wildling is blessed with three leads wholly absorbed in their characters. Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays Anna, a young woman who has been in captivity since birth. As the film starts up, Anna suddenly finds herself free, if under somewhat grisly circumstances. Her captor/kidnapper, mesmerizingly played by Brad Dourif, has frightened her since she was a baby, reciting tales of a woodland monster called The Wildling, from whom he protects her by keeping her door locked.
Once freed, Anna finds herself in the hands of a calm and caring police officer who takes her in (played by a very understated Liv Tyler). As Anna begins to live a life out of captivity, she discovers that she has more connection with the dreaded Wildling than she might have thought.
This is a film that thrives on both real and metaphorical shadows. What is real and what is not are blurred here, as well as the matter of where we should direct our sympathies. As we learn more about her family history, Anna’s true roots emerge and we watch her transform in terrifying and challenging ways.
As the film opened theatrically and On Demand last week, No Film School spoke with director Fritz Böhm about how he worked through the evolution of the story as a first-time feature filmmaker.
No Film School: I wanted to ask first about Brad Dourif’s character. He's is one of the first faces we see onscreen and, as usual, he's quite gripping and terrifying. How did that character’s role develop as you worked with Dourif?
Fritz Böhm: It was a real honor to be working with Brad Dourif. I was a fan of him ever since I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He has such a heartbreaking character in the film, Billy Bibbit. My heart just broke for his character, and I've been a huge fan of his work through the Child's Play franchise, The Lord of the Rings films, and Deadwood. He had said that he was retired from acting (although he would do the voice of Chucky again), and so I didn't have high hopes when we submitted the script to him, but he actually responded and we sat down in New York during preproduction.
The movie was already going, but we didn't have Daddy yet, and it was a nightmare because so much of the movie depends on this performance. Brad found a very personal, very human touch to this character, and even though the words that come out of his mouth are in the script, there's something about the way he says them—the way he got to a deeper layer within the character—that filled it with life. He's also such a professional. He never goes out of character. When he has to play a scene where he's angry, like that scene where he slaps the can of beans out of the other guy's hand with a hammer, he’s angry all day.
"But it’s a violation to keep a little girl 'a little girl,' because in the end she has to become a woman. You can’t interfere with that."
NFS: He has a peculiar position here, because, despite the menacing quality of his character, he’s also somewhat sympathetic.
Böhm: Through all the different versions of the story we developed, there was always a character like him, and the character always had a certain ambivalence or ambiguity. He's not a bad guy, per se, but he's also not a good guy. He has a motivation that's very understandable. He wants to keep his little girl a little girl. He enjoys being the father of this little girl and he is genuinely loving with her. But it’s a violation to keep a little girl "a little girl," because in the end she has to become a woman. You can’t interfere with that. But I do understand his longing to keep his little girl, and also his fear of her becoming a sexual creature. I think that some fathers just have that built into their DNA. It might just be a universal fear protective fathers have about their daughters.
NFS: How did you work through Anna’s remarkable transformation with Bel Powley?
Böhm: When we had written the script, we faced perhaps our greatest challenge in finding the right actress to play Anna. It’s a pretty tall order, with everything she has to go through from teenhood to adulthood, going from being a fake teen kept in a room to a more athletic being later in the film. There’s a lot there, and Bel Powley carried the whole movie on her shoulders. She just has an incredible talent for transforming and she definitely brings a sense of wide-eyed wonder to the role.
"The makeup was also a big part of it. Simply the technicality of knowing in which scene she has which makeup on, which look, became a big logistical aspect of shooting the film."
Böhm: She also found it fun to explore the animal instinct side of things in her performance. The largest part of our prep work involved mapping out where that transformation lived in each scene, how it progressed, and how it changes.
We made a kind of map for her transformation because we knew the transformation would happen throughout the course of the movie. And then, of course, you shoot the movie entirely out of order, which can be confusing, and so if you have something like that in your story, it’s good to have a map. You always know where you are in the transformation process.
The makeup was also a big part of it. Simply the technicality of knowing in which scene she has which makeup on, which look, became a big logistical aspect of shooting the film.
NFS: A lot of Powley's performance seems to be her physicality, the way she moves. How did you work on that with her?
Böhm: We observed animal behavior, the behavior of wolves, the behavior of apes… We tried to look very closely at how they turn their heads, how predators economize with their motions and how they run. We tried to find little things that we could mimic in the human performance but that would give the human audience a feel of something very animalistic. If you keep doing that, you can create the sense that there is something else here, something not entirely human in this girl.
NFS: You had mentioned earlier that fairy tales were very influential for you in this film. Which ones spoke loudest to you as you were writing the script?
Böhm: All fairy tales that have some kind of a misunderstood creature in them. For example, there’s The Little Mermaid, the Hans Christian Andersen story. She’s a creature (because she is a mermaid), but she’s not a monster. She’s just different, and that makes us root for her and feel the plight she has to carry, being in the human world without being able to speak.
I also love the Rumpelstiltskin story because he’s just this little gnome who’s like a monster, the bad guy in the story. Then you read it the second time and you realize that he was really betrayed by the king. So, in the end, he has to fly away on his cooking spoon, or, depending on the version of the story, rip himself into two pieces. What unifies all of these fairy tales is that they always, always have something to do with very human relationships.