Bad Egg: Hanna Bergholm’s Fractured Fairytale

Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) just doing normal kid things in Hatching. — Photographer… Andrejs Strokins/​IFC Midnight
Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) just doing normal kid things in Hatching. Photographer… Andrejs Strokins/​IFC Midnight

Hatching director Hanna Bergholm discusses cracking open her influencer satire to reveal the goopy creature feature within.

This interview contains plot spoilers for Hatching.

Something’s stirring inside Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching. As it peers past the blanched-bright façades of a suburban household, this Finnish body-horror export finds more amiss than ‘Lovely Everyday Life’—the title of a popular blog run by the family’s image-obsessed matriarch (Sophia Heikkilä)—would have you believe.

For twelve-year-old gymnast Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), under pressure to fit perfectly into her mother’s projection of domestic bliss, adolescence has been a strange and isolating experience. Tinja’s milquetoast father (Jani Volanen) and boorish little brother (Oiva Ollila) are no help, and her mother is more invested in over-decorating their homestead with garish rose wallpaper and fragile glass items than forming a genuine connection with her daughter.

But when Tinja finds a large egg in the nearby forest and nestles it in her bed, the strange creature that emerges—a skeletal, crow-like entity with whom Tinja shares a psychic link—promises to wreak havoc on her meticulously ordered home life. Especially as the creature grows, coming to bear a creepy resemblance to Tinja, she struggles to stop it from acting on her own repressed emotions.

Everyone smile and say “Egg!” — Credit… IFC Midnight
Everyone smile and say “Egg!” Credit… IFC Midnight

Perched between gross-out creature feature, coming-of-age drama, and satirical comedy, Hatching is tough to pin down. It’s “both pretty gross and engrossing” offered Jacob Knight, while Justin LaLiberty summarized the film as “feminist body horror that skews more Breillat than Cronenberg”. Kat may have best cracked Hatching’s impish, outré tone, writing simply, “Can I offer you a cursed egg in these trying times?”

For Bergholm, navigating all the metaphors this premise stirred up—around neglect, nature, nurture and the horrors of child-rearing—was both a delightful and complicated process. While first developing the story with screenwriter Ilja Rautsi back in 2014, Bergholm was drawn to the idea of imaginary monsters in the closet, the kind she’d fantasized about in her own childhood. As a mother herself, she became equally passionate about presenting a more complicated type of mother-daughter bond on screen.

“I often find stories only about motherly love and how wonderful it is to be a parent, but it can also be difficult and messy,” says Bergholm. “You’re trying to keep things in control somehow, but you can’t control your child many times. It’s not always so easy.”

Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) shows Tinja that growing up can be a real, well, mother. — Photographer… Andrejs Strokins/​IFC Midnight
Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) shows Tinja that growing up can be a real, well, mother. Photographer… Andrejs Strokins/​IFC Midnight

When screenwriter Ilja Rautsi first pitched you the one-sentence concept that would become Hatching, it focused on a young boy who hatches his own doppelganger. When did you decide to change the protagonist’s gender and reframe this story to explore a mother-daughter relationship?
Hanna Bergholm: I automatically fell in love with Ilja’s idea. I thought it was something unique, that I hadn’t heard before. But from the very first meeting, I said I wanted the lead character to be a girl. I’ve always watched and loved films, but I’ve never found many interesting and complex female characters I could relate to. I think these female stories are missing, and that is why I want to make them.

I started to think about Ilja’s one-sentence idea. Drawing myself an egg, I thought, “If somebody is hatching something, does this mean she is trying to hide some of her emotions, maybe some elements in her character?” In Hatching, there is the theme of motherhood and growing up. All these themes came from this egg, basically. We developed the story, and Ilja wrote the first draft. Really, the film was about keeping up appearances. Back then, it didn’t have this influencer topic at all, but I started to think something was missing. What is today’s way of keeping up appearances? It’s social media. And so the social-media theme came into the story.

Reviews of the film have praised its collision of genres, in which a social-media influencer satire cracks open to reveal this goopy creature feature. To what you’re saying about keeping up appearances, I love the juxtaposition of uncanny realities in both of these genres. Something is being created and presented to you as if it’s real, but there’s also clearly something artificial and constructed about it.
It’s not totally a fairy tale, because a fairy tale would be comfortable. It’s reality, but something is off. And that is because I wanted to tell it through Tinja’s experience. She feels that, whatever she does, she’s never enough, that she’s always wrong. Mother tells her that she loves her, but does she really? That’s why I wanted to create this uneasy feeling for the whole audience, and I wanted to show this overly perfect world of Mother, where everything is so controlled that it’s creepy. All colors are matching and soft; she doesn’t want any strong colors, because she doesn’t allow any strong feelings. There are no dark shadows, because she doesn’t allow any dark secrets. Everything is very beautiful and rosy. Everything is lovely.

And in contrast to that, there’s this disgusting creature. I think that this creature is the most normal person in the family, because the creature portrays all the sorrow, anxiety and aggression the girl is hiding. When facing your darkest emotions, there’s comfort in admitting to yourself that you’re not perfect, that you have all these emotions and they are part of you. That’s why I wanted to show, in a way, that this disgusting creature is also Tinja’s comfort and a friend.

A very different kind of film about childhood, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’s (1982) animatronic work was a touchstone for Bergholm.
A very different kind of film about childhood, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’s (1982) animatronic work was a touchstone for Bergholm.

The creature, named Alli, is almost a source of truth in that sense, representing the reality of this family’s dysfunction and pain beneath Mother’s external projections. Its design is crucial to that. With these gangly, feathered limbs and its viscid appearance, Alli is on one level grotesque, but there’s a strange fragility to it as well.
I had two wonderful concept artists in Finland. As I started to talk to them, our reference images were a crow and an anorexically thin body of a girl. I explained that this creature is, first of all, totally deformed. It’s the opposite of what Mother wants Tinja, this perfect gymnast, to be. It’s so deformed that it can’t even walk properly. It’s partly a bird because it hatches from an egg, but then it’s also anorexically thin, because there’s this subtle theme of eating disorder in the film. It’s slimy and disgusting; what I was describing to them is that it’s like a smelly teenager, not small and cute. It’s a teenager raging to its parents that still wants to be loved, despite being too big to hold. I didn’t want it to be evil, so I wanted it to have big eyes; it’s innocent, as well, and lovable—though it’s disgusting, weird, and everything’s wrong with it, with a beak and these twisted teeth. 

I wanted it to have physical presence and to be an animatronic puppet, as I have always admired E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and David Cronenberg’s films, [including The Fly]. I knew that we would need the best possible person, so I googled “the best animatronic designer in the world” and found Gustav Hoegen, who’s done [animatronics for] the new Star Wars and Jurassic World and Prometheus. I emailed him, and he got excited about coming on board. When the creature changed and evolved, we had to design the look of the creature at that stage, as well. I had admired [prosthetic-makeup artist] Conor O’Sullivan, who has two Oscar nominations; he’s done Game of Thrones, Saving Private Ryan and The Dark Knight. And so I contacted him and he also got excited; they had wonderful teams creating this creature.

Director Hanna Bergholm. — Photographer… Laura Malmivaara
Director Hanna Bergholm. Photographer… Laura Malmivaara

Having this animatronic puppet you could move around on set, what was it like to direct this creature you’d created? I have to imagine it’s a strange process. You can’t exactly give it notes.
Exactly! [Laughs.] It was weird. There were five puppeteers moving the puppets with rods, and then Gustav was moving the facial expressions with remote controls. There was a lot going on. It is technical. You can easily [slip into] starting to direct the puppet, then you have to say, “Wait, actually, the puppet can’t understand me.”

What was wonderful was we had our lead puppeteer, Phill Woodfine, with me by the monitor most of the time. I could tell him that the way it moves its head didn’t quite look alive, and then he could figure out what it was and say to the puppeteers that they had to move this rod first, then move this rod, and so on. It was useful that I could direct what I wanted the puppet to do, and he could interpret it into a very technical language. It’s not human, so there’s no logic at all, so what is the logic for how it looks alive? It’s the little things: lift this first, bend this down. Almost all you see of the puppet is what we did while shooting; we just erased the puppeteers. That’s all thanks to their skill, five people working together to make the puppet act so well.

Hey, hatching anything good in there? — Credit… IFC Midnight
Hey, hatching anything good in there? Credit… IFC Midnight

To have that hand-crafted quality, too, grounds the film in something more tactile and real, despite the strangeness of the atmosphere we’ve been discussing. Can you tell me a little bit about directing actors toward that tone, as well?
The key is to have long rehearsals. We had Siiri Solalinna, this girl who had just turned twelve and had never acted anywhere before. She didn’t even know what it was like to be on film sets. It was basically all of us crawling on the floor and playing monsters, making her feel at ease. She also had body doubles, so it was about them getting to know each other; we had a stunt coordinator to help them refine their body language, but then I discovered that Siiri was so naturally talented at moving. In the end, I skipped the stunt coordinator’s ideas for her movement, just watched what she was doing, and directed that. Me and the girls were finding ways to move.

On set, what is important to me is that, when there are difficult emotions, especially when a child has difficult emotions, I always only talk about the emotions of the fictional character and don’t try to mess with their real emotions. If Siiri is playing that she’s afraid, it’s very important that she doesn’t feel afraid herself, that she feels safe. She had to cry a lot, so we had prepared to have these menthol drops in her eyes. But at the last minute, she said, “No, wait! I just want to try if I can cry just by concentrating.” She concentrated a bit and said, “Okay, I can do it.” After that, it was basically me telling her that every time: “Okay, Siiri, now you have to cry again. Do you want a moment? Okay, take a moment. You’re ready? Okay, just cry.”

Overall, it’s about creating the feeling for the actors that they are safe and secured, that they understand what they are supposed to feel. Finding this uneasy feeling was down to many little things. I told Sophia Heikkilä and Jani Volanen, who play the parents, that they didn’t need to invent any names for their characters. They were just Mother and Father. When they were sitting on the sofa, and there were these pillows, I organized them perfectly. And they were like, “Oh, it’s uncomfortable to sit there. Can we just move the pillows?” And I was like, “No, no, don’t touch the pillows. You can’t move them.” And then they were like [groaning] “Okay”.

Bergholm is inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, including Seven Samurai (七人の侍, 1954).
Bergholm is inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, including Seven Samurai (七人の侍, 1954).

You’ve directed short films and TV drama series, but Hatching is your first feature film. For those on Letterboxd discovering you through this project, who are your filmmaking inspirations?
When I plan a story and its style, I tend to not think about influences, because it just confuses things. Those films are already made, and I don’t want to mimic them. But, in general, one of my biggest idols I always loved growing up is the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai and so on. What I love about his films is that they are so visual and human; they have a very interesting rhythm. He’s my biggest mentor. 

In terms of genre films, one that was important to me was The Others, by Alejandro Amenábar. It is a horror film, but it’s also beautiful and dramatic. Since I’m not really a horror fan, that was really an eye-opener for me, thinking about how deep a horror film can actually be. In recent years, Julia Ducournau’s Raw was something I really liked, as was Luca Guadagnino’s new Suspiria film. That was very interesting, how it was directed and the bodily movements in it.

Hatching’ is now in theaters and on VOD platforms via IFC Midnight.

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