Martin Deer chats with Marius Holst, director of King of Devil’s Island, ahead of the film’s UK release tomorrow…
Martin Deer: Hi Marius, thank you for talking to me today. I just watched King of Devil’s Island last week. It’s a very touching and emotive film, what interested you in telling this story?
Marius Holst: I grew up in Oslo, so I was aware of [Bastoy], but it was to me at that time a place for bad boys, that was the impression of the place. As I grew older I had the chance to meet someone who was there as a young boy, he came when he was 6 years old and left when he was 15. He came as a child and left as young man so he had his formative years there. And that’s when I started to research the story, which at the time I knew nothing about. And what spoke to me was the complete authority from the adults to the children and these people trapped on this island, the courage.. what would make them stand up to the authorities at that time in such a place? It would have to be something strong, so I started to read in the records room of the archive that exists on the regime of the island and I tried to read between the lines of what happened. It was in the beginning curiosity that stirred many things which emotionally ignited my will to do the film. I felt also that what went on there, so many years ago, I thought was relevant. You have these stories in the papers, being in Norway or in the UK or the Roman Catholic Church, you hear these stories of overcoming corruption or filth. It wasn’t just the drama, but it was something that that is still relevant.
MD: The film itself is a beautiful looking example, the winter setting creating some wonderful imagery. You also get a real sense of the immense cold the boys had to endure, especially during the arduous labours they were put through. How were the conditions for filming and did they result in you having to change any aspect of the way you film?
MH: I worked with amateurs before but not to the extent where the majority of the cast were played by newcomers, so that and having to do a lot of it outdoors, nothing in the studio, it was all shot on location with the temperatures of the season we had, was sort of gruelling. The temperature doesn’t affect me when I work because I’m concentrated on the work, but what it does do is it takes way more time so your time is more limited, because you’re always working on restricted budgets, and we lose the light early and can only be out there for so long, so it was a tough shoot. We didn’t have that many chances to go for two or three takes so you had to nail it. Also many of these boys had backgrounds that were not from theatre or not wanting to go into film, so at times you felt like you were not only director but also like a camp guard in a sense that you had to have these sit down meetings with the boys who would sort of rise up against each other and so there was an internal conflict there. We were living in the place we shot, and you see the main building in the film, that’s where the majority of the team lived, so it was an interesting, strange time.
MD: Well one of your cast, Benjamin Helstad, won the Best Breakthrough Performance at the Edinburgh Festival, is that something you take pride in, having helped him to achieve that, especially with his background?
MH: Yes, in a sense. He also got the same prize in Norway. He comes from a very very difficult background, he experienced various institutions himself, so he had a lot to go on, but he was sort of moved very far back, sort of last man on board because he would never let me in during the work. All my calls of direction were for him to open up. He [was hard to direct] as he tried to hide his emotions, compared to actors who want to show their emotions, and that was exactly what we needed for this part. So I did feel good to be able help him achieve this, and also that he had the chance to work on other films after this. This was his first attempt at a film.
MD: Switching to your older more experienced cast, I read that you always wanted to cast Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Bestyreren. How was the experience of working with him?
MH: Stellan is someone I have known for years back, maybe 10 years back. I met him when I was working for a production company that was producing Insomnia. I always saw him, even years back, as somone who could portray that character. He’s a unique individual. Stellan is a guy who is the most generous person you will meet, on the set and after hours. He takes his work so seriously, he has no vanity, no personal ego involved in any of the stuff he does, he is not vain, it’s just about the work and making a good ambiance on the set he works on.
MD: That must have been quite a contrast in the way that you had to direct Stellan and Benjamin?
MH: Completely. Not only between him and Stellan, but working with four amateur actors, they all needed different things. The first scene that Benjamin did was the scene with Stellan where he comes in to the office and meets the Governor for the first time and he had only met Stellan on a few occasions. When Stellan goes into character, the presence and authority is intimidating and he [Benjamin] really felt that, so when he was directed to be nonchalant and arrogant in the face of the authority that was really difficult for him because Stellan was stood behind the camera when we were doing his shot, and when he was supposed to be arrogant and ignoring the Governor he kept on nodding to all his replies. In the end I had to ask Stellan if he could step outside and I got behind the camera so Benjamin could play the nonchalance and the arrogance.
MD: That’s interesting that you mention that as there is a shot in that scene where you can sort of tell there is a nervousness about him.
MH: Yeah that was their first scene together and I had to do that, some of the takes for him to be able to play the arrogance, so I was doing it whilst Stellan had a coffee.
MD: One of the aspects of the film I appreciated was the manner in which the more heinous acts of the Bastoy staff is addressed. Without showing the acts themselves, they are very powerful and disturbing through the acting and the dialogue that is presented. Were you ever tempted to show the acts or did you always feel they needed to be concealed?
MH: There was at one point a scene which would have suggested even more what was going on, but never actually showing the act of him being abused, it would sort of start and then the camera would move somewhere else. But in the end I felt that it was better not to show it completely in your face, because this was the unspoken act and I felt if you could bring that across without showing it, it would be stronger, truer and more perfect in the sense that the audience, if you do it correctly, will be able to imagine the feeling which you haven’t told them. And I felt it was the right thing to do, it would be more effective and I didn’t want to be graphic in that way. It’s not a film about that kind of act, it’s really a film about abusive power and I felt those kind of images would get in the way of the story.
MD: Yes, it certainly worked in that regard. It is handled perfectly as it remains respectful and powerful.
Many thanks to Marius Holst for taking the time for this interview.
King of Devil’s Island is released in UK cinemas tomorrow – read Martin’s review here.