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Blending Grief and the Supernatural: Thea Hvistendahl on Bringing HANDLING THE UNDEAD to Life

A woman holds her child while standing in water
Image courtesy of NEON

By Shannon McGrew

In HANDLING THE UNDEAD, on a hot summer day is Oslo, the dead mysteriously awaken, and three families are thrown into chaos when their deceased loved ones come back to them. Who are they, and what do they want? A family is faced with the mother's reawakening before they have even mourned her death after a car accident; an elderly woman gets the love of her life back the same day she has buried her; a grandfather rescues his grandchild from the gravesite in a desperate attempt to get his daughter out of her depression. It's a story about grief and loss, hope, and understanding of what we can't comprehend or control.

For the release of HANDLING THE UNDEAD, Creepy Kingdom's Shannon McGrew spoke with Director/Co-Writer Thea Hvistendahl. During their chat, they discussed everything from the difficulties of adapting the book to a screenplay, exploring grief and loss, and more.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Thea. What initially drew you to this project?

Thea Hvistendahl: It was how he treated the premise, and I think with all his stories, they're very grounded but unsettling. This [film] has a unique way of blending realism with the supernatural in an almost more magical realist way than in a pure horror way, which is something that I enjoy a lot.

Adapting from book to screen is no easy feat. What challenges did you face when it came time to adapt HANDLING THE UNDEAD for the screen?

Thea Hvistendahl: John Ajvide, who wrote the book, also adapted the book for another director about 15 years ago. So I did that script, and he had already made changes from the book to the film. Then, he gave me permission to rewrite it how I wanted it. It took me quite a while to figure out how to do it because some things didn't work as well in the original script. It's always very hard when you're adapting because you like a lot of the stuff, and there's a reason for why it's there, and you get frightened to take anything out. It took some time, but in the end, I tried to take everything that took away from what I really wanted or what I was more interested in the story. I also wanted the film to be more like a meditative, poetic piece, and it was necessary not to have too many colliding themes or storylines that are too much to explain.

A person is hugging an elderly woman who is sitting in a chair
Image courtesy of NEON

The cast is stellar, but I need to mention Renate Reinsve, who is outstanding. Can you talk about the process of bringing her on for Anna's role?

Thea Hvistendahl: She's an amazing actress. I did most of the casting in 2019, but she was having a baby then, so she couldn't attend the audition. I did not find anyone for that role [at that time]. Then, I did the new casting of Anna around 2021, and when I saw her first audition, I was blown away because it was very different from all the other auditions. She gave a lot of strength to this character and a lot of closeness and power. When I auditioned her with the father, she made him feel smaller and more vulnerable, which was very interesting. That dynamic was so cool.

At first, I was unsure if I should cast her because it felt unoriginal since I knew that Anders Danielsen Lie had to be cast, and they both were in The Worst Person in the World. But I figured it would be okay since they didn't share the screen together. However, The Worst Person in the World became a massive world hit, and suddenly, that started to work the other way around [Laughs]. Either way, I'm very happy because I got the best actors in Norway for all the parts, and I got my first choice for all of them.

The book deals with themes of grief, loss, and zombies, as well as the ethical implications of bringing the dead back to life. How did you approach these themes?

Thea Hvistendahl: I did a lot of research on both and how we're trying to conquer death because it's the ultimate thing that we haven't yet conquered as humans. I also read a lot about what it feels like to lose someone. It's fascinating because I don't know if you've read "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion. She lost her husband very abruptly, and even though a year had passed, she still didn't want to take away his shoes because what if he came back? What if it was all a mistake? I think that's a very common thing when you're grieving. A lot of people also see apparitions of the people that have died. Instead of it feeling creepy or scary, it feels nice, I guess, for lack of a better word.

I also did a lot of research on what happens when you die, but it was very hard because no one has dug up a two-week-old body, which is usually much more disintegrated. We did a lot of research on how they would look like and what it would be like. It's also very hard to actually get images of the dead people because they're assigned to be used in teaching. Looking at all of this became normal because I had done it for so long. I think it's part of how people are able to work in funeral [homes]. That's also part of what I wanted to do with the film, as death and grief are things that don't get spoken about much.

I couldn't agree more. What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

Thea Hvistendahl: We don't know what to say when people have lost someone, and if you're grieving, you don't really want to bring it up because you don't want to bring down the mood. You don't want to ask questions because you're unsure how it will be received. After researching, I found that most people would like to talk about it more. There's also a certain expectation that in a couple of months, people will get over their grief, but it's not really how it feels. Grief can come and go in waves, grow bigger, and never really go away. We try to push it away, but it's the one thing that unites us all.

HANDLING THE UNDEAD is now in select theaters.


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