By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Coming of age comes with savage side effects in WILDLING, the ominously stylish first feature by director Fritz Böhm. He discusses the varied influences and creation of the film in this exclusive talk with RUE MORGUE.
Opening in select theaters and available on VOD tomorrow, WILDLING stars Bel Powley in a striking performance as Anna, a teenaged girl raised since infancy in a remote house in the woods by a man she calls “Daddy” (played by Brad Dourif, who discusses his role here). Freed from that home and taken in by local sheriff Ellen (Liv Tyler), Anna finds her attempts to integrate into society stymied by primal urges that also begin to manifest as physical changes. The German-born Böhm, who scripted WILDLING with Florian Eder, began his film career as an assistant director, producer and postproduction supervisor in his native land before moving to Los Angeles five years ago, when he began developing this project—which harks back to his earliest years.
Tell us about the origins of WILDLING.
This project was born out of a love for fantasy subjects, which has been with me since childhood. My mom read fairy tales to me every night when she tucked me into bed, and I tended to gravitate toward darker tales and strange mythological creatures within that world. So it was a dream of mine to create my own misunderstood creature with its own mythology, and that eventually became WILDLING. There were a lot of other influences; I definitely wanted to have a female perspective, because I felt there was a lack of that in the genre. Even in movies like THE SHAPE OF WATER, which I love, the creatures are always male.
Did you draw on any specific fairy tales when coming up with WILDLING’s mythology?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I didn’t deliberately read up on them, because they were already part of my DNA. It was like, they were part of me, and I didn’t have to think about it; it all just poured in there. I didn’t sit down and analyze anything; it was a more natural process.
You spent several years developing WILDLING; what sorts of changes did it undergo during that time?
It was always a story about a girl becoming a woman—that phase of transformation called puberty. From the start, I wanted to use my creature mythology as a metaphor for this phase in life we all go through. That was the core, but there were many different versions along the way. The movie was originally set in Los Angeles, and was supposed to be much more of an urban film. But at some point in the process, I saw Werner Herzog’s THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER, a film from the ’70s about a true case where this youth was locked in a room his entire childhood, and when he matured into a young man, he was released into the world and discovered it for the first time.
I always knew that my film had to depend on the notion of freedom, that my misunderstood creature would find her calling and her natural habitat, so to speak. After I saw ENIGMA, I knew I had to start the story with the opposite, with her being in captivity. That defined the journey of the film.
WILDLING has elements in common with certain werewolf movies like GINGER SNAPS. Did you take inspiration from any of those?
Yeah, I did. I’ve been a fan of those movies for many years; I think the first werewolf film I saw was AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, so I’ve always loved that genre. But I wanted to make WILDLING different; it didn’t make any sense for my story to have the common werewolf tropes, like they only transform under the full moon, and then the next day they’re back in their human shape. I wanted my transformation to be irreversible, and a little more grounded in a fictitious biology rather than magic. I didn’t want silver bullets, magical amulets, etc.; I stripped all of that away and created my own creature with her own mythology.
How difficult was it to find the right actress to play Anna?
It was a huge question at the beginning of the process, because I knew the movie would rest entirely on her shoulders. Every scene is done from her perspective, so I was very anxious about finding the right actress. Then my producers, Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler, were at Sundance a couple of years ago, and they saw THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, starring Bel Powley. They were blown away by her performance, and told me, “You have to meet her.” I watched the movie and thought her acting was terrific, and then when I met her in person, she was so different from the girl she portrayed in DIARY, I realized she had incredible, transformative talent. It was very clear that Bel Powley was the one, and that launched us into production.
How did she take to playing such a wild character?
I think it was a lot of fun for her, and she embraced the idea of doing something a little more in the fantasy space, because her previous roles were all more realistic. She loved designing the transformation that Anna goes through over the course of the whole movie, figuring out all the little steps, and how she would see the world if she was Anna. We didn’t do any rehearsals; instead, we talked through every scene in detail during prep, and then on the set, it was a pleasure to work with her, because she always knew what Anna felt, where she was coming from and how she reacted to the world.
We called her “one-take Powley,” because usually, her first take was excellent. That was a godsend, because we didn’t have much time to shoot the movie; we only had 23 days, and there are a ton of moments in the film that are the first take, and often the only one we shot, because we were forced to work extremely fast.
How about casting and working with Brad Dourif?
Same thing. I feel blessed and super-lucky that we got him. Our first meeting was at a cafe, and we discussed the whole role, and the next time I saw him, he was Daddy. He never went out of character, and he was extremely professional. He’s such a veteran, and suffused this character with a lot of humanity that wasn’t even that fleshed out in the script.
Where do you see WILDLING’s place in the genre? Do you consider it a horror film or a fantasy film, or a little of both?
It’s certainly a blend of those two. It’s a coming-of-age story at its core, and then there are horror elements and fantasy elements. It wasn’t easy to navigate the tone, because there are so many different facets to the story. I focused mainly on the mystery aspect. I didn’t want to do a jump-scare movie or a gory horror film; I wanted the main goal for the audience to be the same thing that drives Anna, which is solving that mystery of where she comes from and what she actually is. I never thought of it in strict genre terms; all of my favorite movies are blends of different things.
This mythology seems like it could be expanded in follow-up features and other media. Do you have plans to tell more stories of the wildlings?
I would certainly love that. It depends on how this movie is received, how well it performs and whether the audience goes with it. We’re still early in the process; the SXSW response was a good indicator that people seem to like the movie. We had a great first screening, and the audience was very vocal. I have many different stories to tell, but why not tell another wildling story, whether it’s for TV or a feature sequel? I would love that opportunity.