What if trolls were real, not just living under mythical bridges but out in the woods, mountains and open valleys? What if the government had special agents tasked to keep these trolls corralled away from the public's view? What if a group of student filmmakers stumbled upon one such agent, who led them through this unseen world?
Such are the questions posed and answered by "Trollhunter," a film made by Norwegian writer-director André Øvredal and styled as a found-footage documentary. A hit when it opened in Norway last year, the movie played well at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is available to U.S. viewers through video-on-demand. It opens theatrically in Los Angeles on June 24.
"I based the whole story on the idea that if there are trolls there are consequences," said Øvredal in Los Angeles. "Everything has to be realistic, apart from one thing and that is the fact that there are trolls. Everything else has to prove that there are trolls. The documentary camera is insisting that it's true, and all the details, like farmers losing cows or even that there is a troll hunter, are a consequence. The plausibility of it is important, and you cannot play to the humor."
The role of the troll hunter is played by Otto Jespersen, one of the best-known comedians in Norway, and Øvredal rounded out his cast with other comics and allowed them to improvise much of the dialogue.
"We would always come to an agreement of how to do it, but it was a lot of improv," said Glenn Erland Tosterud, also a standup comedian in Norway who plays the leader of the student-filmmaking crew. "We knew the situation, and it was better to improvise the actual words, even from take to take. It sounds like a documentary, it sounds real."
The faux-documentary structure was also a simple way to limit the amount of screen time given to the computer-generated trolls, which helped to keep the special-effects costs down. This left the actors often running from nothing while shooting, reacting to creatures that weren't there.
"I had to just tell them, basically, how frightening it was," said Øvredal. "I didn't want silly, over-acted reactions, I wanted them to downplay it. But an actor has to imagine so much anyway, being in love or whatever, this is just a character who is unseen. I don't think it was such a big deal."
Øvredal's trolls are loosely inspired by a book of classic fairy tales, Norway's version of the Brothers Grimm. Four types of trolls in varying shapes and sizes are seen in the film, though the story implies there are countless other varieties.
Øvredal, 37, went to film school in Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s, co-directing a feature (a thriller called "Future Murder") while there and then living for a time in Los Angeles working at a post-production company.
Returning to Norway, he became one of the country's top directors of commercials and music videos, working on projects that actually had budgets much larger than that of "Trollhunter." But he said the film afforded him a level of creative control he found invigorating.
"Doing commercials, you know you're fighting against the audience. They don't want to see your commercial, so you constantly have to be very inviting in your strategy," said Øvredal. "In a film, they paid, they cleared out the time, you have their attention and they'll do the work to understand it."
The success of "Trollhunter" has landed Øvredal representation in Hollywood, and he is juggling a number of projects to determine what he'll do as a follow-up. There's been talk of a U.S. remake of the movie, though replicating the film's specific sensibility, a droll blend of the suspense, humor and folklore, might be tricky.
"I see it as an adventure comedy," Øvredal said of the film. "Actually I see it as a road movie, a comedy, not much of a horror film, but there are some horror elements, adventure monster movie. That's something that intrigued me so much about this film; it's such a blend of all kinds of stuff. I'm proud to say it's kind of unique."