On the borderland

Nico van den Brink on Dutch history and folklore and Moloch

by Jennie Kermode

Moloch
Moloch Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

A hit with audiences at the Fantasia International Film Festival and about to be released on Shudder, Moloch is a haunting tale set on the edge of the Netherlands’ Stijfveen peat bog, which begins with the unearthing of a centuries old bog body and goes on to deal with the unearthing of dark secrets in the local community and one family in particular. Sallie Harmsen plays Betriek, a locally born woman who has found herself drawn back to the area despite a troubled past, whilst Alexandre Willaume stars as Jonas, the visiting archaeologist whom she assists with translation and with whom she forms a tentative relationship, as ancient horrors gradually close in. When I met Nico at the festival, I asked if bog bodies were where it all began for him.

“It sparked my imagination when I was very young,” he tells me. “I think it's very intense, the idea that there's people who went into the bog and they're coming out more or less unchanged. We can still recognise facial features, there's a sort of intact human being dug up. I always thought it was very scary. And yeah, the idea for Moloch actually came forward out of the question ‘Why don't you combine that with another legend that we have in the Netherlands?’ – the belief in witte wieven, white women hiding in the fog. There's lots of legends about it. When I biked to school as a kid, we would have very dense low hanging fog over the road. And that's what we call the witte wieven.”

This particular bog body reminded me a lot of Yde Girl. Was that intentional?

“That’s correct,” he says. “Yeah, she's the most famous of the bog bodies and also the most intact one. I actually saw her in the museum, just a tiny little girl, and she has a sort of woven rope around her neck, so you can see the history of her death. Lots of these bodies turned out to have been sacrificed – those are the circumstances under which they ended up in the bog.”

The bog also seems important because it’s a liminal space where humans can't easily settle, so perhaps there's this idea that wild things live there.

“Yeah, definitely. The Netherlands in general, the landscape and the cities, it's very much a shaped world. Like, all of the swamps that used to be all over the Netherlands have been drained and they've now been replaced by large stretches off lands where cows can graze, and it's very contained and neat and controlled. And there's very little real, wild, original Dutch landscape. The bog is actually the main example.”

Was it a challenging place to shoot in, to move equipment around and so on?

“Yeah. It was mainly because we were shooting in the breeding season and the forester had warned us. They said that it’s breeding season so if at our location we spot a bird that's rare, that we're not allowed to shoot there anymore. And we're like, ‘Oh, how great is the chance that we will have this sort of rare bird nest in our exact location?’ But that is exactly what happened on day two. There was a grey goose nestled in this beautiful little bog road, this winding road through the swamp, and we had to find another place which was way further out, and we had to get all the equipment across the bog.”

It seems like a good environment for cinematography, with lots of moisture in the air.

“We had to generate most of the fog that you see,” he says with a shrug, “but it helps it helps that the air is so moist, especially in the forest, where you're also sheltered from the wind. You have the bog mistiness in the air, and then you have the moss holding a lot of moisture.”

It’s a side of the Netherlands that we don’t see very often. The world of the film is, he acknowledges, somewhat romanticised.

“We had to form this world out of little bits. You know, really rugged, old landscape and beautiful village streets, but you turn the camera a little bit to the side, and then you see a highway.”

It's a wonderful setting for folk horror.

“I actually didn't think of it at all for a long time,” he says. “I just wanted to do something that was authentically Dutch. There are many elements and aspects of Dutch culture and history that I find very terrifying and interesting, and it was only later that I started thinking ‘What's the concept of this film? What subgenre?’ that we started talking about folk horror and our approach for this film. But yeah, folk horror has always held my interest and is one of my favourite genres.”

Does it also let him touch on aspects of Dutch history that we don't see much on film?

“Yeah, definitely. I think we have a very rich tradition in telling folk tales or legends, but it has been diluted and we nowadays are not very much in touch with that side to our culture and our history. Even though there are still remnants, like, you know, the fog hanging over the road and the witte wieven, but nobody really knows what that stands for. So we were glad to go back to traditions with this film. The more I found out about our country and you know, the kind of weird traditions we have, it was pretty hard to leave. It’s definitely a source for more horror stories.”

There’s a lot of mystery in the film which stems from that, and then there’s quite a mysterious central character, with Betriek keeping a lot of secrets. Did he want to draw a parallel between the two?

“I think that that came about more organically, but as we talked, me and Sallie, about Betriek’s character, I discovered that she's a bit more aloof, a little bit more reserved, and she doesn't really show everything all at once, or bear out her past and her life and her emotions straightaway. An example of that is that we were rehearsing with Alexandre, who plays Jonas. This was a scene that was cut, but they were having a date, at some point, in an earlier version of the script. There's still a version of the scene. He was really trying his best to make her laugh. In one rehearsal, she was very eager, laughing at him, and then that didn't feel right for the character. She doesn't laugh easily. You have to work hard for it. That makes the character more interesting. It gives her more layers.”

It seemed to me that it made her a very interesting sort of love interest for him, I suggest, because he's somebody who spends all his time trying to extract secrets from the earth.

“Yeah, I think they both have reasons to be attracted to one another, even though they are not the most obvious pair. They find stuff in each other that they are attracted to, and something that they're missing from from their life. Obviously, for example, she is a person of the world, and she travelled outside of the Netherlands, abroad, within a life for herself. And then she had to come back to her parents’ home, and now she's a daughter again. She hasn’t really come to her full potential. And then there's this guy who's a complete outsider. He's someone from Denmark very far away, so he's an escape to her. So in that way, they both have connections with each other.”

We can't talk too much about her circumstances, without spoilers, but the family relationships in the film are very important as well.

“Yeah, we had a very extensive background story. We had to map out everything that happened, how it came about that she had to move back, and what happened in New York, when her husband had a heart attack. Being very detailed about that helped a lot in shaping the character dynamic and how they relate.”

So how did he cast those two central roles?

“I worked with Sallie before. I really love her acting. She’s a very, very smart actress, so I had a hunch that she would be able to give added layering to her character, which I feel she very much did. But still we had a lot of people come to casting to try it out. In the end, Sallie was the right fit. And then for Jonas, we cast Alexander very shortly before the shoot, because we had cast someone else and they had to drop out because of the quarantine rules for Denmark, in the Netherlands. And it was quite a complicating factor because I found Alexander and he was he was very different from the way I had written Jonas, and a big part of it was that he was way older, so the dynamic between Jonas and Betriek just changed with the casting. We had to really do a lot of rewriting of the script during shooting to fit it to him. In the end it makes for a more interesting dynamic because they're not so obviously a couple.”

There’s also a child in the film – Noor van der Velden, who plays Betriek’s daughter – but that didn’t present a new challenge for Nico.

“I worked a lot with the children in other films that I did, and I think the biggest risk we take is that most children don't have a lot of acting experience. And my feeling is that most of the time, if you do have someone with a lot of acting experience, they come across as very drilled. They will do exactly what you tell them. They don’t have a naturality to them. Noor had never acted in anything, and it gave her a lot of naturality, but it made it more difficult in other ways. I don't know, at some point, you just have to take a gamble and say ‘We'll make it work.’ It worked out.”

They had 28 days to shoot in, he says, but it was still tough going because there were so many night shoots, which meant far too little sleep. Getting to Fantasia, however, has made it all worthwhile.

“I’m very happy to be here. Because Fantasia has meant a lot to me, personally, to my career. In 2017 they screened Sweet Tooth in the Small Gauge Trauma section and that led directly to the film getting picked up, so it’s very, very dear to my heart. And I really, really, really wanted to come here one day.”

He currently has two shorts in development in the US, he says, and he will see where his career goes from there.

Moloch will be available to watch on Shudder from 21 July.

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