The King of Devil’s Island is the result of more than ten years of research and a gruelling 48 day shoot. Here Marius Holst tells EIFF about recreating the Bastoy reform school for underprivileged boys and keeping a brood of young actors out of trouble.
Holst grew up in Oslo and Bastoy, situated on an island in the fjords two hours away, was the stuff of legend. Despite its mythic status, Holst explains that there is very little written about the reform school which looked to be consigned to the no man’s land of the recent past.
Holst succeed in contacting some of the inmates, now in their forties and fifties: “For many of them it was the first time they had spoken about what happened because it was so stigmatised. Even being a Bastoy boy is not something they really care to talk too much about. But as a filmmaker, it can give you some moments and images that help inform the way you develop or choose to tell a story. It could be small, intimate moments, that to me, were the key picture.”
The film is meticulous in its period detail and Holst visited Bastoy, today a low security prison, several times: “Our initial thought was to shoot it there but it was difficult because it has about 150 (adult) prisoners there today. We had to search in Norway and Estonia to find places as they were back in 1915. Once we found the right location we started to add the details, like the sleeping quarters, which we built very much as they looked at that time.”
Finding young actors to play the Bastoy boys was more challenging, “You need faces that you can believe experienced those times and that kind of environment. And at least in Norway today, that’s difficult. We casted in every part of the country to find these 1915 faces and also backgrounds that would maybe have put them on the island if they grew up at that time.”
Holst has worked with non-professional actors before and knew they could provide the authenticity the film required: “The quality one can get from mixing very experienced actors with unknowns, or people who carry something with that tells them about the character that they’re playing, I think was very much what was necessary. One of the boys has a background from institutions in this country. And there aren’t many professional actors that age anyway.”
Viewers may be impressed by the physically demands feats of the actors, particularly Benjamin Helstad and Trond Nilssen. Keeping the group warm and occupied was a challenge: “Sometimes it was as though I was the teacher on a school trip trying to keep them out of trouble. They are young guys, they get on each other’s nerves, they’re cold and want to go home. We lived in the wilderness so they were stuck, like in the film. It wasn’t a pleasant shoot but sometimes that can even help a performance.”
The film is certainly naturalistic, maintaining an emotional distance that avoids moralistic overtones that could easily cloy in a less nuanced production: “If it’s only darkness, no one’s going to stomach seeing it but you can also overwork sentiment, it’s a balancing act. It’s not something that I would fear because I wanted to make it in a classic style. A bit of pathos is not necessarily wrong in a film like this but it has to be in the right place.”
The pieces do seem to be falling into place for Holst. He had envisaged Stellan Skarsgård for the role of Bestyreren from the beginning but the star was confirmed only three months before shooting started. Now, with international distribution and interest, the King of Devil’s Island has an ever-expanding territory.