It was really only when visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden where the meticulous attention to detail that goes into creating cinematic worlds for audiences to inhibit became so apparent, and so striking. Naturally, given the immense budget on the popular franchise it didn’t seem that surprising – but the same can’t applied to André Ovredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe – made on a mere fraction of the resources, and yet seemed equally as attentive.
Shot in London, we were fortunate enough to be invited onto the set of this indelible horror flick, which chronicles the lives of coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) as they encounter a mysterious corpse that leads them down a surrealistic, dark avenue, set, for the most part, in the mortuary in the basement of their abode. What initially caught our eye was that the house we see in the movie, spanning from Tommy’s office, to the bathrooms, to the paramount setting of the morgue, was built in its entirety one, as we adorned the very same, darkly lit corridors we see the protagonists visit within the movie.
On the walls of the office, there were doctors certificates, family photos – small seemingly innocuous artefacts that don’t even make the finished print, but help to build this particular world, to inject that sense of realism into the shoot, which no doubt enriches the actor’s relationship with that character, and narrative at hand. We had the pleasure of sitting down with the film’s star, Brian Cox, in his trailer in between takes as he explains to us why this attention to detail is so salivating for an actor, which the venerable Scottish performer had even noticed in the screenplay.
“Every so often you read a script that is completely compelling and this has this quality of The Shining, something which is so mysterious,” he started. “It seemed so contained in one space that it deals with itself incredibly well, it doesn’t try to take it outside, it just deals with what goes on in that room.”
“It’s such a good script, a script worth doing. I’m not particularly a horror fan, it’s not a genre I’m really wild about, but there’s something about this, it’s very well-written and thought through, every detail. That comes through when we start to work on it, as all the beats fall into place.”
“You’ve got to keep it in the real world, and the script does that. But there’s unintentional, but intentional humour in this film. We don’t play it for laughs, but there are certain things that are preposterous. It’s very good storytelling.”
“We’ve been going through almost chronologically, which you have to do on a script like this, where normally on a film you shoot out of sequence,” he said. “It’s very helpful in terms of the emotional state of the character and where they get to. In fact, when you do something out of sequence it tells because you think about where you are and what stage you’re at, there is a geography to it, a topography about the script. It does pay dividends.”
All of these points allude to a filmmaker who is very particular about the way he shoots a movie, which Cox confirms, comparing him to the likes of Michael Mann and David Fincher, who he has also worked with before – though where the latter is concerned, that’s maybe not a complete compliment.
“I hadn’t seen Troll Hunter, but I just met Andre and I trusted him, there was something about him that was interesting, and he’s certainly proved it. It’s exhausting sometimes, he’s a great stickler for things.”
“It’s his second feature, and it’s astonishing. He’s got a very strong vision of how to deal with this material. He’s got that insistence that Michael Mann has and director’s have like David Fincher. Fincher has a tendency to go a bit too far actually, never with me – I was the only person who ever got David Fincher a day ahead, because I only ever did four takes, but some people did 38 takes, and what happens is that he’s so busy dealing with the detail of the scene that the actors have to do it again and again and again and they get to the 10th or 12th take and they think, what the hell is going on? What’s the problem here? Then they start to lag and David says, what’s happening with the actors? Then they have to do more takes. It’s a vicious circle in a way. All directors have a slight insanity about them, they’re also control freaks, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Alas, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, while feeling like a huge production, is somewhat more modest (relatively speaking) in its budget than the films Cox will have worked on with the likes Mann and Fincher , though he admits that sometimes the more understated a project is, the better the results.
“I think there’s a great discipline in not having a lot of time to do something. The best filming experiences for me have been experiences where there isn’t a huge budget, and you have to achieve maximum affect in the minimum amount of time, and that actually creates a discipline and a hunger in what you do, a sort of energy. More theatrical, more present, on some films you shoot 30 seconds a day and do a lot of takes.”
But that’s of course not the only reason he wanted to sign up to this project, and despite placed in a genre the actor hasn’t much care for, it’s the human elements that resonated with him, again enriched by the director’s approach to the material.
“This film is essentially about grief, and that aspect is very strong in the script, it’s again about a family, a father and a son, about their relationship. It’s about loss and how families deal with their loss, the end of life as it were, and it deals with that in an almost macabre way but does so rather well. That’s the other aspect of the script, this person they talk about who’s not there – the mother – and the fact she committed suicide, and her neglect is very much a central theme, and the pulse of the film, carrying the narrative forward.”
“It’s a two-hander and that is also very courageous, you don’t see that too often. It’s very original, a very original idea, and told by an extraordinary filmmaker in Andre. It’s very hard for him, and sometimes very hard for all of us because his attention to detail is remarkable, but very particular, and he’ll do takes again, and again and again to get the right feeling, the right emotion that is going on. He looks at the inner mechanisms, the reality of the situation, even though it seems unreal. It’s all about the unknown, the imagination, and how people are haunted by things and the truth of that is quite strong, and certainly in Andre’s hands it’s very strong.”
Sharing the majority of his scenes with Emile Hirsch, he spoke fondly of his colleague, though while the American decided to visit a real morgue to help him connect with the role at hand, Cox was quite quick to admit he took another means of approach. “I’d rather do pretend,” he smiled.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is released on March 31st, and you can read our review of the film here.