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Here’s what’s really going on in the unsettling body horror fable ‘Hatching’

A girl looks over a giant egg in a bed with a large teddy bear
Siiri Solalinna in a scene from Hanna Bergholm’s “Hatching.”
(Andrejs Strokins / IFC Midnight)
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Warning: This story contains spoilers about IFC Midnight’s “Hatching.” There will be another warning before key plot points are divulged.

In director Hanna Bergholm’s “Hatching,” a young gymnast, seeking comfort from her domineering and perfectionist mother, nurtures an egg that hatches into a disquieting human-bird hybrid.

The Finnish body horror, now playing in select theaters and available on VOD May 17, stars newcomer Siiri Solalinna as Tinja, a meek 12-year-old girl who struggles to live up to the high standards set for her by her mother, a mommy vlogger with a hint of coldness lurking beneath her hyperfeminine veneer.

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“I think what Tinja feels from her mother is that her love is not quite genuine,” Bergholm said. “She’s trying to act in a loving way, but there’s always something a little bit more that Tinja should do in order to gain the love. And it seems that because the mother is acting charming, it must be Tinja’s fault and there must be something wrong with her. That kind of breaks her, in a sense.”

An official Sundance Film Festival selection, “Hatching” was born out of a nightmare that screenwriter Ilja Rautsi had about an evil twin causing mayhem and leaving him to take the blame. He and Bergholm expanded the story to include themes of motherhood, perfectionism, puberty and suppression.

The filmmakers auditioned 1,200 girls across Finland before landing on Solalinna for the lead role. “She had never acted anywhere before, not even in school plays,” said Bergholm. “From the very beginning I really felt that she was very comfortable in front of the camera. Not trying to pretend, very genuine and very good at throwing herself into any kind of emotion.”

The Times caught up with Bergholm to answer some of the lingering questions you might have after watching “Hatching.”

A headshot of a woman wearing a silk red sweater with mushrooms on it smiling
Hanna Bergholm, director of “Hatching.”
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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Warning: Spoilers about key plot points of “Hatching” follow.

What made you want to tell this story?

It all started with the screenwriter, Ilja Rautsi. We met at a directors and screenwriters speed-meeting event where you pitch ideas, and he said that he had in his mind this one-sentence idea: a boy hatches a doppelgänger out of an egg. I just felt that was a very fresh idea, but I really wanted to change the lead character into a girl because I really missed seeing more stories about girls and women in film. So then we basically started to develop the whole story from this one sentence. And I started to think, “OK, if this girl is hatching something, for me it means she’s trying to hide some of her emotions, some sides of her character.” And [with the idea of] hatching, there’s a theme of motherhood [as well]. So this idea of a mother-daughter relationship came [up] and [with it], a theme of growing up.

Why do you associate hatching with hiding something?

In the Finnish language, hatching is “hauto.” It kind of means, like, brooding. So it’s kind of like hiding something or brooding something.

Did you draw on any regional Finnish lore for the story?

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No, actually, there wasn’t any Finnish fairy tale or anything that we adapted, it was just the original idea. The only thing that is from old Finnish culture is the lullaby that is sung [called “Aa Aa Allin Lasta”]. That is a real old, traditional lullaby which is quite creepy.

A family of four sits on a couch, with the mother holding up a selfie stick holding a phone
From left, Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen and Oiva Ollila in a scene from Hanna Bergholm’s “Hatching.”
(IFC Midnight)
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The Mother

What was it like creating such a disarmingly feminine villain in the Mother?

I really enjoyed creating a villain in a bit of a different way than you normally would. In the whole style of the Mother and her decorations, I wanted to put all of those things that are considered to be feminine and lovely like pastel colors, roses and gold, but there’s so much of it that it’s just kind of too much.

She has this kind of princess bed and these very flowy, lovely costumes and waves in her hair so she doesn’t look like the basic evil villain — but we really wanted to hint into her sharpness with her sharp nails and stiletto heels. When Ilja and I were developing the script, it was very interesting trying to find the right way for the Mother to talk so that she’s always smiling and saying polite and nice things, but in everything that she says, there’s kind of a barb.

How does Tinja’s mothering of the hatchling compare to her own mother’s mothering of her?

I think what Tinja does is show acceptance and love to this creature as she would [wish] that the Mother would show to her. Because the Mother seems to always be wanting something more from her daughter and Tinja is confused about what it is exactly that she wants. It seems like her mother’s love is always conditional. Then what hatches is this creature that is so disgusting and flawed and deformed that no one could ever love it — and yet Tinja says, “You are beautiful” and accepts the creature as it is.

Did you base the Mother’s need for external validation on social media influencers?

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Yeah, I did. And that was something that wasn’t there in the first version of the script. It was just about a mother who tries to keep up appearances of a happy family. And then I started to think [about how] today’s way of keeping up appearances is social media. So then I really wanted her to be an influencer — I watched several different kinds of family vlogs and picked ideas from the best ones.

What was up with the Mother’s affair with Tero and why was her husband so OK with it?

I think the husband is the kind of person who, if someone is being bullied, he tries to cope by laughing along. He’s [pretending] that whatever happens, all is well and maybe he tries to imagine that then everything is well. I think he’s also escaping from his own emotions because it’s quite hard to be a grownup and say how you feel and to stand up and speak up for yourself. I think these are all people who are keeping up appearances and he is doing it as well, in his way.

As for the affair, I think the Mother is a bit of a sad character. She seeks the feeling of love, but my theory is that she is incapable of feeling love. Even though she says, “This is the first time I’m in love,” I’m not so sure. So I think she’s desperately trying to fulfill some emptiness, maybe.

A giant egg, from left, a medium egg, and a normal-sized egg
Some of the eggs that were used in the filming of “Hatching.”
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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Execution

What was it like dealing with the body horror and visual gags?

That was nice [laughs]. It [was included] when I first started to develop the script with Ilja. I think we have very similar imaginations that tend to go towards the body horror style. The whole vomiting thing came up with me saying, “It would be good if the girl would feed the creature something out of her own body like her blood,” and then Ilja said, “or her vomit.” And then I was like “Oh, yeah!” Exactly like baby birds and also like bulimia.

Can you talk about the uncanny valley aspects of the film?

I wanted to tell the whole story through Tinja’s point of view, and she feels that she can’t really understand the dynamic between her parents; the whole happiness in the family is somewhat fake. And I really wanted to create a style that was not totally a fairy tale like a Tim Burton film; it’s kind of real, but with everything there’s something off, there’s something weird.

For example, since I wanted to show how lonely Tinja is. We never see other people on the streets or in the hospital. It’s too empty. And we never hear birds singing in their yard, only the neighbor’s yard. And in gymnastics, we hear the other girls laughing and having fun but we’re just concentrating on Tinja and her gymnast movements. Also in their house, everything that the Mother has decorated is so matching and so in place that it’s kind of horrifying. She’s so controlling that even the flowers inside the flower pots are dried and dead.

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How did you decide what the doppelgänger would look like and how it would evolve over the course of the movie?

We started to design the look of the creature in Finland with two wonderful concept artists, Petteri Mäkinen and Emilia Lindholm. I showed them reference images of anorexic girl bodies, crows, disordered movements and baby bird skin and slime. What I really wanted of this creature was that, when it hatches, it’s totally deformed so it’s the total opposite of what Mother wants her perfect gymnast girl to be. I was describing that it’s like this smelly teenager that is raging to its parents and at the same time just wants to be loved. But I didn’t want it to be an evil character, so I didn’t want it to have these small predator eyes, I wanted it to look kind of innocent. And then we started all the different stages of how that would look like.

I really knew that I wanted it to be an animatronic puppet when it hatches out of the egg because I wanted it to have a real physical presence. So I actually Googled who is the best animatronic designer in the world and I found Gustav Hoegen, who has done the “Star Wars” films and “Jurassic World,” and I contacted him and he collected a wonderful team to make this puppet. Then in the middle [of the film], there are a couple of other actors that are playing it and in the end it’s Siiri playing the character with special effects makeup by Conor O’Sullivan. And in the very end when the face changes, there is CG effects from Umedia Belgium.

How did you direct Siiri in those scenes when she’s playing the doppelgänger?

We had very long rehearsals with her and all the actors so that she would get to know everybody and wouldn’t be scared with all of us. And in those rehearsals, basically all of us started by crawling on the floor like monsters so she would get over the fear of making herself look ridiculous in front of the grownups.

We actually had a stunt coordinator to design the movements, but then I realized that Siiri was naturally so good at moving and making up these ways of moving herself that I skipped the coordinator and just started to crawl on the floor with Siiri. And we discussed the roles and about how when [the creature] Alli moves, it’s always a little bit distorted and also that Alli is the one who lets it all out and is showing the sorrow and anger in an open way while Tinja is keeping it all inside. I also explained to her that Tinja is always looking at her mother trying to figure out what she’s thinking.

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What would you say the underlying message of the film is?

The biggest message is that you have to accept other people and also yourself fully as you are with all your flaws. You can’t just hide and try to brood all of your darkest emotions, you have to at some point control them. It’s very important to face your emotions and acknowledge them and accept that they are there. And I would say that the biggest message is that it’s OK to not be OK.

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