Howling at the Moon: Jonas Alexander Arnby makes growing up a monstrous thing in ‘When Animals Dream’

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“I wanted to make a coming-of-age movie somehow,” explains Jonas Alexander Arnby of his debut film When Animals Dream, out tomorrow courtesy of RADiUS-TWC on digital platforms and theatrically in New York and Los Angeles. “But I wanted to find an interesting way of making it not look like the rest of the coming-of-age stories. Something that was more a metaphor of how the protagonist feels and develops in a psychological way, but also in a physical way.”

A metaphor for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, a time beset with physical and emotional changes, true, but also changes in how society perceives one’s identity and thinks one should behave. There’s a stigma, in a lot of ways, to being a teenager: Anything that you do in terms of asserting your own identity, particularly when it comes to burgeoning sexual awareness, is going to earn you dirty looks from someone.

Got it. Teenagers are werewolves.

Or at least that’s true of Marie, the central character in When Animals Dream. A lifelong resident of a small Danish fishing village, Marie contracted her condition not from a mysterious animal attack whilst taking a moonlight stroll, but from her mother (Sonja Richter), who passed the disease on to her the normal way. In fact, the word “werewolf” is never spoken in the film; lycanthropy is just a disease passed from parent to child, albeit one that makes the infected party bloodthirsty and rather hirsute. To protect the townspeople—who are all aware and afraid of the dangerous illness that runs in Marie’s family—Marie’s well-meaning father (Lars Mikkelsen) heavily medicates his wife, rendering her practically a vegetable. When Marie starts displaying symptoms, too, she’s forced to choose between letting herself be subdued like her mother was and fighting back against the mob mentality of her increasingly aggressive neighbors.

Arnby, who cites Carrie and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank as When Animals Dream’s two biggest influences (he acknowledges similarities between his film and fellow Scandinavian creature feature Let the Right One In but says they’re not intentional, noting that his movie was already well underway by the time the earlier film came out), admits that his film has “feminist undertones,” noting that having the main character be a girl instead of a boy was to him a “much more interesting” way to go. “Girls at that age level don’t have the simplicity that boys have,” he laughs. “They have many more layers, they have much more developed psychology, they have a much more confusing and demanding idea of how the world around them is being put together. Also, there’s the contrast of being innocent and fragile—girls give that impression, when they look like [Marie]—[with being a werewolf.] I wanted to show that something grows inside of her, something that cannot be held back. I wanted to have her break out and come to terms with being different, with turning into a woman or just being who she is.”

Who Marie is is an offbeat character, something of a loner, whose social ostracism is heavily implied (but not outright stated—not much is in the film, which plays it spare with the dialogue) to be a result of her mother’s reputation. To play the role, Arnby auditioned “four, five hundred girls” and ultimately went with Sonia Shul, who had no prior acting experience. “She’s from that region,” Arnby explains. “Her dad is a fisherman. She used to work in a fishing factory [like Marie does]. There’s a lot of similarity between her and her character.” Over the next year, as funding came together, Arnby worked with Shul—whom he describes as “like my little sister, almost” —to get her ready to film. The idea was less teaching her how to act than helping Shul develop Marie out of her own personality. “For me it was about keeping [Sonia’s] realness, her fragility, her sensitivity, her awkwardness,” he says. “We spent a year practicing different kinds of things. Screen tests, talking [about her character.] We got her naked, covered in blood, and made her scream until she almost puked. She went to dancing lessons, Japanese animalistic dance, so she could move like an animal. I wanted her to trust me, so she could let go. And that takes time. I wanted to make sure that underneath that sweet girl she had that rebel, she had that animal that beat somewhere inside of her. I knew she had it, but I wanted to see how it reveals itself when it comes out.”

Makeup played a key part in encouraging Shul to own her character. Specifically, monster makeup, which When Animals Dream uses to great effect instead of CGI. Instead of going from human to wolf in 60 seconds on full moon nights, Marie changes gradually over the course of the film, and Sonia was invited—or rather required—to provide her own input into the transformation process.  “Every physical transformation comes out of a psychological transformation,” Arnby explains—and Shul’s the one who knows Marie’s psychology best, after all. “Instead of saying, ‘OK, don’t worry about this, we’ll put hair on your back [in post-production],’ for me the old-school discipline of using makeup on the shoot was very important,” if admittedly time-consuming. “We would have a dialogue of ‘How much hair do we want on this day? How [does Marie] feel? Where have you been, where are you going, how far are you holding back?’ She becomes part of the decision of where the transformation is at each specific stage, instead of us deciding in post-production. It becomes a common achievement.”

Also, by using practical effects instead of CG—which Arnby has experience with from commercials and music videos—Marie’s transformation is given “a certain texture” that contributes to a necessary sense of groundedness. “I wanted to make sure that everything is motivated out of this real universe that I’m creating for her and her transformation,” the director explains. “So I thought it would be almost like cheating to use too much CG.”

For his second film, Arnby’s going away from the horror genre for a survival drama called We Watch the Sun Disappear, based on the true story of a failed 1909 expedition that left two men stranded in a cabin in the Arctic for three years. “It’s a psychological drama, but it definitely has some psychological thriller elements as well,” he notes. As for Shul, who’s now back to being human full-time: “The last time I saw her, she was working as a waitress, as a mailman—she has five jobs where she lives,” Arnby says. “She’s putting back money to come out and go to drama school.”