The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of the smartest, scariest spook show style motion pictures to come out since Sam Raimi stopped making horror movies. Dripping with gore and hiding more than a few surprises in the dark corridors of its mortuary setting, director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) follows a father/son medical examination team (played to perfection by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) as they race against the clock to discover the cause of the titular cadaver’s demise. What they don’t know is that the dead body on their slab contains a sinister supernatural force that threatens to consume the two scalpel-wielding investigators. It’s a gripping, tense horror film that’s a joy to experience with an audience, as Øvredal ratchets up the tension to ten for the entirety of the runtime, all while Cox and Hirsch keep us invested in the humanity that could be snatched away by the dead beauty’s harbored evil.
We were recently granted the exciting opportunity to chat with Øvredal and Hirsch about Jane Doe, and what followed was a brisk, fun chat about death, cinema, and just what kind of waivers one has to sign in order to sit in on an actual autopsy at the LA County Morgue…
BMD: When you hear a title like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, you expect a crime procedural. But the movie is actually more of a haunted house amusement attraction. Were you going for that type of vibe?
André Øvredal: Absolutely. I wanted to make something that was very forensically minded and had the elements of a thriller, but then also slowly builds toward these horror moments. The whole time we’re trying to prepare the audience for it to turn into a horror movie. That was a big part of making sure the movie worked the way it should. I love keeping everything low key and real, especially regarding the central relationships, and then slowly getting the audience on board with the “bump in the night” experience.
BMD: What’s super impressive is the environment you create. It’s almost a single location movie, and you give us such a clear sense of geography with regards to this massive mortician’s office and facilities. Was this all a set? Was there any location shooting?
AØ: It’s all a set – one big, continuous set. And the design was perfect, so that we could move from one end of the set to the other, which is probably why it worked so well for you. You have a bunch of identifying elements that we highlight early on during the daylight – the elevator, the hallway, the large mirrors, the examination room – so you know where you are at all times. And I wanted the hallways to feel like scary spaces that were very comfortable in the beginning but become dark and frightening as we go along. At the same time, we always wanted to keep the examination room very bright and sterile, because we wanted the details of this forensic profession to be highlighted during the narrative. It’s all about what’s making what was comfortable in the light very frightening once the power goes off.
Plus, we spent a lot of time working with the sound within the space; making sure that the hum of lights and motors, backup generators, refrigerators could all be heard. Because when you see a set, you need to also hear it. I worked very closely with the audio designer to make sure that every single shot in the movie has its own acoustics, so that there is never a comfortable space for the audience. Every space has a new feel and sound that throws you off. Every time we cut, the audio is just slightly different. You can never trust the environment.
BMD: I like that you bring up how detail oriented the design of the movie is, because this sensibility also seems to bleed into the characters. Emile, you feel very natural in the role. How did you prep to become the heir apparent to a family business that involves cutting open dead bodies?
Emile Hirsch: I went to the Los Angeles County Morgue for the day and met with the Director, Craig Harvey, and he gave me a pretty extensive tour of the facility. I’d gone from never having seen a dead body before to having seen dozens, and then also witnessing five active autopsies being performed simultaneously. My jaw hit the floor. It was crazy. I had to sign a bunch of forms in case I caught tuberculosis, which stays with the body long after it’s passed. I also read a book titled “An Introduction to the Work of a Medical Examiner”, and it was really just a grisly read. There was something really morbid and compelling about getting into the headspace of someone who would do this job on daily basis, and how it would cause them to react to certain aspects of life.
When I watch the film, I see a melancholy that hangs over both me and Brian’s characters. Part of that is because of the backstory we created regarding the mother that’d been lost [to depression], but there’s also a certain amount of innate gloom to these two guys who are investigating death every day. It’s a morose quality, because here are two men uncovering the truth behind common tragedies. That was something that haunted me a little.
BMD: You and Mr. Cox also create shorthand between the father/son duo while they work. How did you come up with this professional familiarity between the two characters?
EH: It was partially in the script, but also me and Brian really have a respect for one another as actors. We had total faith that we’d be there to pick up one another’s slack and to catch each other when they fall, kind of like a trust exercise. Brian is the master of rapport, and it’s something I really strove to keep up with, and I think that commitment to being a consummate professional translates into the characters. We were meeting each other halfway and finishing sentences because that’s the job. You need to know the job, inside and out, and we had faith in one another’s abilities.
BMD: Now, this is a question for both of you. You have an actress (Olwen Kelly) playing Jane Doe the entire time. That’s not a dummy. André, how did you direct a performance that silent and subtle, and Emile, how did you act and react against Ms. Kelly’s sly work?
EH: It was incredible working with her. She wouldn’t even acknowledge Brian and I beyond a nod in the morning sometimes. She was so into the severity of her part, and stayed focused every day. And that helped us see her as this lifeless woman, whose death was the mystery we were trying to unravel. It was another element that really kept us focused on our jobs.
AØ: From a directorial point of view, it was very crucial for the story that when she comes in, she’s just another dead body. She’s just another thing they need to dissect – a piece of work. As the story progresses, we see an emotional side where these men get attached to her story. I was confident that I wanted an actress and not a doll portraying Jane – it was a big discussion before we began to shoot. But for me, having actual flesh and blood sharing the scene with Emile and Brian makes her feel like a victim. Then as she becomes more and more powerful, we see Olwen breathe a strange life into the character without ever really moving at all.
BMD: I read that you wanted to do a more traditional haunted house movie after seeing James Wan’s The Conjuring. Were there any other movies that heavily influenced Jane Doe?
AØ: I’m always cautious about discussing inspiration, but there’s one movie beyond The Conjuring that I drew influence from, and that’s David Fincher’s Seven. The idea of these two people trying to understand these dead bodies and the physicality of how you move inside of a room that contains death. If you think about it, Seven is also a movie about two men who are just doing their job. It just so happens that their job is to uncover the sinister forces behind these dead bodies and the rooms that’ve been staged around them.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe hits VOD today and select theaters tomorrow, December 21st .