Swedish director Amanda Adolfsson discusses her new film, Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent, working with child actors, balancing horror and comedy, and making family films.
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Estimated reading time: 22 minutes
As an audience-driven film festival, one of the Berlinale’s trademark sidebars is Generation, dedicated entirely to films about and for young people. This year’s Generation selection featured many of our festival favourites, including Summer Blur, Ninjababy, Stop-Zemlia, and Short Vacation. Divided into two sections — Generation 7+ and 14+ — for children and teenagers, this section provides the rare opportunity for audiences to sample films from around the world for young people, including films that might not otherwise be programmed at film festivals.
One such film is Sweden’s Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent, directed by Amanda Adolfsson, a commercial comedy-horror children’s film that’s expertly made and doesn’t seem arthouse enough to be programmed at most major festivals. As Adolffson told me, “One of the goals for the film was that it should be funny to watch. It should be like a blockbuster, where you buy yourself popcorn and coke, and you sit down and just have fun for one-and-a-half hours.”
As unabashedly fun as the film is, it also features layered characters, gorgeous costumes and production design, and is the kind of children’s film we rarely see: equally entertaining for both children and adults. It’s my hope that the Berlinale platform will help Nelly Rapp to find the wider international audience it deserves, especially now that much-anticipated sequels are in the works.
Based on the series of books by Martin Widmark, Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent follows eight-year-old misfit Nelly (Matilda Gross) during the week she spends at her uncle Hannibal’s (Johan Rheborg) gothic mansion where he lives with his colleague Lena-Sleva (Marianne Mörck). When she discovers that her uncle is part of a network of underground ‘monster agents’, which included her now deceased mother, dedicated to protecting monsters from the world and the world from monsters, she’s keen to join the team. The price of admission is to catch her first monster, and while scouting for her captive, she discovers that monsters aren’t quite as monstrous on the inside as they may appear on the outside.
While on the hunt, Nelly ends up befriending her target, a ‘Frankensteiner’ monster made from spare parts of various creatures. Her name is Roberta (Lily Wahlsteen), and they first interact when she saves Nelly’s life. Roberta has the heart of a pastry chef, spending her days baking confections, who has been living for over a century in the body of a twelve-year-old girl. Both of them are lonely outcasts who find a touching kinship with each other. Together, they plot to throw a tea party and discotheque for other monsters who were once Roberta’s friends. Among the guests are a vegan vampire gamer, a hot dog vendor who becomes a werewolf every month, and a pair of ghosts.
But danger lurks. A young monster agent, Vincent (Björn Gustafsson), has radical ideas about capturing monsters to reform them — giving vampires cosmetic dental surgery, persuading zombies to eat broccoli — to fit into the human world. Or if that fails, lobotomize or kill them. It falls to Nelly to remind the other monster agents of their duty to empathize with the monsters. As the true villain of the piece, Vincent is the most problematic part of the film: his plan and Aryan looks evoke the Nazis, but the film dismisses his bad ideas as him just being a “drama queen”. Wearing a leather suit and a fur coat, with bleached blond hair, you know he’s bad news immediately, which also plays into stereotypes of the gay villain. These cultural cues may be lost on child audiences, but normalizing these problematic stereotypes is the one way the film really falters.
Nelly Rapp both is and is not a monster movie. There are two gothic mansions — Hannibal’s and Roberta’s — but both are colourful and largely brightly lit because, as it turns out, monsters aren’t the scary creatures their reputation might suggest. The tension in the film comes from the fact that Nelly doesn’t know this at the beginning, and when she learns it, she must use her compassion to help the other monster agents understand this, too. Adolffson told me that children seeing the movie did find it genuinely scary, though as an adult, I mostly found it funny and delightful, especially in the way it builds on horror conventions to subvert their scariness.
Part of the fun of watching Nelly Rapp is being invited into a beautiful, colourful world where the things that go bump in the night might not be quite as they seem. The costumes are divine, with Nelly in oranges and blues to match the fall leaves, Roberta in a Victorian gown, a Rockabilly werewolf, and more. Despite the film’s budgetary limitations, the two main houses are both places you want to discover and hang out in. One of the film’s most exciting scenes is when we follow Nelly into Hannibal’s basement in search of its secrets, because the basement is full of surprises in its intricate design. Nelly Rapp is exquisitely made, and there’s never a dull moment.
After the film’s international premiere at the Berlinale, I sat down with Amanda Adolfsson, who had just given birth a week ago. She spoke about the unique challenges of making a monster movie for children, creating the film’s gorgeous aesthetic, and working with child actors.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent?
Amanda Adolfsson: I know the producer; we went to film school together. He pitched the idea [to me]. I’ve always been very fond of fairy tales or storytelling that is a bit unrealistic. I really liked the idea that it was a world where monsters exist, living next to human beings, in like a parallel universe. We live together, but we don’t really know that they are monsters. A monster may work in the hotdog stand or live in that apartment next door.
It’s based on a series of books for children. We had a lot of freedom making the script because the stories are very small stories, but we had to make a big story about a character who goes through something.
7R: How did you develop the aesthetic of Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent?
Amanda Adolfsson: In a very early stage, you have to think about a lot of references, like pictures and maybe movies. When I was younger, I was really fond of Edward Scissorhands (1990), the film by Tim Burton. So that was one thing. Even if it’s a film for grown ups, I thought a lot about that film. I’m not really a Harry Potter fan, but my producer was, so he talked a lot about that. I just started going through the internet to find pictures that inspired me.
I started making a mood board of the characters and the locations. When I thought about this Frankenstein girl, Roberta, I thought she was more like a Japanese girl, dressed up in big dresses, trying to look really sweet and nice, because she was so ashamed of her looks. And then we hired the people who would do the makeup, the clothes, and the production design. From my mood boards, it developed. We talked about how Roberta has lived in this house for a hundred years. Shouldn’t she be wearing the same dress that she was given? Of course, she should. It was a lot about teamwork.
7R: Can you tell me about designing the two houses: Hannibal’s house and Roberta’s house?
Amanda Adolfsson: For Hannibal’s house, we wanted a mansion where he lives, and everything looks normal, but they also have this area in the basement where they keep monsters who are a bit wild. They have this library. I wanted to have a closet you could go into, go in an elevator, and get out somewhere else. We filmed all the things that are downstairs in the basement in a studio, but we didn’t manage to build an elevator, and I was so sad. The set designer said, “Well, she can just go in through this door, and then she can go up.” I said, “I want the elevator to go up. Can you do something? Can you move it to the side?” He could. So the elevator is not going up; it’s going to the side, because that’s what we could afford. I wanted that house to have a little bit of magical touch but to be a bit spooky.
Roberta’s house is a very beautiful house. I wanted it to feel quite faded. Once, when her mother was living, it was a fantastic house, with nice colours, and they were doing this cafe together. But it has all died, in a sense. Time has just stopped. There’s a lot of dust and old toys in her room. She’s been living for so long, but she’s still a girl that’s been the same age forever. I was very fascinated by this cafe, [and I wanted] to do it in an abandoned building.
7R: How did you work with your cinematographer to light the houses? They’re a bit spooky, but it’s never really dark. So it’s not totally scary, because of course, the monsters aren’t actually evil.
Amanda Adolfsson: In the daytime, we used a lot of daylight. We just put on extra day light. In the evening, it can’t be too dark. I like it when it is a little bit more artistic, maybe not too realistic. It’s not only moonlight; maybe, we use something else just because we like it. You can have that freedom in this kind of film. You don’t have to be totally naturalistic about the lighting. When the monsters have this party and are dancing, I wanted a magical feeling, that it’s a disco, so we used a disco ball and purple light. It’s not realistic, maybe, that Roberta has this disco ball and this purple light, but we wanted it for the scene. We were a bit free in what feelings we wanted the scene to express.
7R: Can you talk a bit about the costumes in Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent?
Amanda Adolfsson: Kicki Ilander, who did the costumes, is really great. She’s been in the industry for so long. With Hannibal, it’s very easy when you read the script to think that he’s like an English Lord, who wears tweed and brown. But when we talked about him, I thought there was something sad about him. He’s living there. He might be gay. He feels a bit old, like his life has passed, and now he still has to stay here in this building. So I wanted him to be a little bit like Karl Lagerfeld, like he had a dream of being a bit fancy. He liked to go to Paris. When I said that maybe he can be a bit fancy, she said, “Yeah, we should make him like Karl Lagerfeld, with a little ponytail.” It was analyzing the characters a little bit more. What is Hannibal’s dream? He’s dreaming about dancing tango in Spain somewhere, looking nice.
With Lena-Sleva, the lady he shares his house with, I thought a lot about [the fact that] this actress (Marianna Mörck) is a famous opera singer in Sweden, and she’s very fancy. She always has this perm hair, red lips, and a lot of makeup. I know her quite well because I worked with her on another production. We just wanted to make her look natural [without makeup], with gray hair. Do you remember the movie Linda, the Stephen King film? Kathy Bates, in that film, she’s kind of raw, natural-looking. So with her, that was it.
With Nelly, we thought a lot about how to dress her. I wanted something that feels like it’s a girl now, but still not too contemporary. It is not just 2020. I want you to be able to see the film in five years and not feel that, “Oh, that is not so trendy.” She has [overall] jeans shorts and some leggings that are kind of now. She’s outside a lot, and I wanted a jacket that would pop in colour. So we found this yellow jacket. We keep her in the same clothes throughout the whole film. She has this knitted cardigan. We thought that this is a cardigan that her mother wore; it’s a very old one. We tried to make a backstory with what they’re wearing.
With Roberta, we thought that her mother would have given her the nice-looking dress that was handmade with lace, and then just make it dirty. Time goes by.
With the monsters, it was a much harder task to find out how they would dress. I was very sure about the vampire, that he should be dressed in black clothes or maybe a leather jacket and long coat. He’s listening to synth music, and he’s a gamer. The hardest was the werewolf, who works in the hotdog stand. Who is she? What’s she going to wear? But then we found out that she’s a rockabilly girl, we call it, where you have these cars, and you burn around the city. We chose to dress her in jeans, a bit like rockabilly. The other extras who were werewolves were also in jeans.
With the two ghosts, the screenwriter wrote that they were from the 1600s dressed in Rococo clothes. But I found this black-and-white picture, or maybe it was the costume designer [who found it], of two women standing on a porch with this extremely long hair. I just thought, this is weird that they both have this long hair. We liked that. I was like, “Maybe they have long hair and a nightgown?”
7R: What is it like to direct children and teenagers?
Amanda Adolfsson: It’s a very big job to cast the right child for the role. We put a lot of energy and time to cast Nelly and film her a lot, which we did. It was very fortunate with Matilda [Gross, who plays Nelly]: this was the first time for her in front of the camera, but she’s been in musicals because she comes from a musical family. She’s been on stage in The Sound of Music, and I think, Annie — not in leading roles. She knows how to take direction. She’s very devoted to work. She was kind of a small professional.
Matilda is ten, and the girl who plays Roberta (Lily Wahlsteen) is a bit older, thirteen. The other girl had a little bit more experience, but she didn’t have any experience of sitting in makeup for two or three hours to have these scars. That was really mental for her because she has to be there first in the morning before anyone else, sitting very still because she had these prosthetics on her face, and then another hour to take it off. Her own skin started to have eczema, and she felt really sad about that.
You just have to get to know them and talk to them as actresses. They know this is a job. You just have to tell them what you want them to do and make them feel safe. If there’s something they wonder, you can have an open dialogue, make them feel secure with the other people that are on set — like the makeup artists and costumes department. You need to make sure they are very good with children so the children feel safe all the time. If they don’t feel safe, or seen, then it can be a problem.
At this age, they are so grown up, so they can take direction. Sometimes, it’s good to try to make it improvised. Sometimes, they learn the lines too well when they are studying. You can tell them that you don’t really have to study: you can read the scene, and then we do it on set. The problem working with children is that you don’t have as many working hours. It’s very limited. You just have eight hours. If three hours goes to makeup, you just have five hours shooting, and then going to the set. The days are getting shorter and shorter.
And they are not used to being up at night. Matilda, who plays Nelly, had never been awake after eleven o’clock. I said, “Didn’t you [stay up until midnight on] New Year’s Eve?” She said, “Well, I am always falling asleep before.” We had to film the scenes in the woods until two or three o’clock in the morning. It had to be night all the time. That was a big thing, to see her just getting paler and paler. Like, can we give her some sweets? Do we have any more sweets?
7R: Since you don’t have them for very long, how does that affect your approach?
Amanda Adolfsson: You have to be really focused when you have them. We can’t have any overtime. The children can’t stay an extra hour. You need to plan your days really, really well. Sometimes, you just have to [accept] the fact that you didn’t get all the shots you wanted. It’s always like that, but even more [so with children on set]. You really have to prioritise to get the material that you really need to have.
7R: How did you think about pacing and editing Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent to make it accessible to young people?
Amanda Adolfsson: I didn’t want it to be too long. Children don’t have that attention span to sit for more than one and a half hours. Actually, some children who liked the film said it was too short. And that’s a good problem to have. But also to have a tempo in the scenes so it’s not getting boring.
The most challenging thing was to have a mix of humour and scary parts. I think the scary parts are really, really scary — especially, when she’s in the woods and meets a werewolf, or in the beginning, when she sees this creature that Hannibal takes down to the basement. Some children are really scared when she walks into Roberta’s house, from the potential jumpscare effect that might come. It doesn’t come, but it might come.
We needed to make sure the scary parts aren’t too long, so the children won’t want to leave the cinema. [For example, the scene] when Nelly goes to get the net, and then she runs in the woods, and then Roberta takes her home, and she wakes up in the bed. When we test-screened it, there were one or two children who wanted to get out from the cinema. That was hard. It was a little bit too long. But otherwise, I think we were balancing that quite well: having a scene that was funny and warm, and also a scene that then was a bit scary. Nelly is so brave, which was a very good thing, also.
We wanted it to be scary. It should be an adventure. It should be a monster movie. A monster film has to be scary. But still, you really have to mix it up with the laughter. It was also important to me that the grownups who go with the children to see the film also find the film amusing and interesting. I’ve been to the cinema with the children of my friends. I sit there and suffer, because I think the dialogue is too bad, and it’s not funny. I wanted it to be so I could enjoy it. I enjoy it, and then I think that other grownups can also enjoy it.
7R: How do you balance making sure it’s accessible to children but enjoyable to adults?
Amanda Adolfsson: I think there are some things in the film that children don’t really get, some parts that grownups get, and some parts that both get. We have this really easy joke when Hannibal sits on the toilet or farts. That’s a very cheap thing. I wanted to take it out in the editing, and then we tested it, and both grownups and children laughed. It’s not always important why they are laughing; it’s just sometimes important that you laugh when you see a film. It’s a kind of relief to take the story.
The whole aspect of this guy, Vincent, coming in, who is kind of radical, and he wants to change the monsters and put them in an institution. I think grownups have a lot more strong connections about what kind of guy he is. In Sweden, we have this right-wing party now taking over, as in most of Europe. You can think about him as someone whose mission is to be lovely and to talk to the group, but he has really bad morals. So I think grownups can maybe analyze that in another sense than children can. Even though it’s for children, we wanted to say it’s a family movie. I don’t really think that everybody needs to get everything all the time.
7R: How do you figure out what you think is going to be understood by each group? Is it just the test screenings?
Amanda Adolfsson: We talked about it while writing the script; I was in the writers’ room a lot. You try to talk to the children you have in your family to find out what kind of references they have. You try to understand what kind of movies they like, what kind of stories they see. It’s a very wide range. Some children who are six or seven, they’re watching Harry Potter. But some who are eleven or twelve, they don’t really like Harry Potter. They are very different. We did understand that we really have to have test screenings.
That was kind of hard because it was during Corona coming up. We could have thirty people in the audience. Of course, children had to come with their parents. But we had at least two test screenings where, afterwards, we talked to the children and the parents, and they could also leave notes. Even if the children couldn’t answer, the parents could answer and say, “Well, my son wanted to go to the toilet at this point. He didn’t really want to stay.” So we talked to them.
We also went to one school to show it in the classroom. That was another time when we could have more children. We talked to children in groups. We found out that some kids really like the fact that they see something scary together, and others, not so much. So it’s up to parents. In Sweden, its [rating] is from eleven years old, but you can go if you’re seven with grownups. That age recommendation says that some children might be scared.
We had these discussions while deciding how we should do the makeup of the monsters. The makeup artist and I really wanted it to be realistic. We didn’t want it to feel fake. Some people might think it’s too naturalistic with some monsters, like the vampire or Roberta. For me, it was important that it was for real, in a sense. Of course, it’s fantasy, but I wanted it to be true to itself within the film.
7R: You directed the first season of the Swedish teen television series Eagles, and your last film was also about young people. What draws you to telling stories about young people?
Amanda Adolfsson: I think I’m kind of young at heart in the sense that I haven’t really grown up until now. I’m forty-two now, and I have just got my first child. Before that, I kind of lived like a student.
You tell stories about things you know something about. My first feature was called Young Sophie Belle, and it was very much about myself and my friends. With Nelly, it was a bit different, but I’m very much into children’s films. I love all the Astrid Linger films and those kinds of old Swedish movies. I thought it was really challenging to be able to make a film for that audience.
Eagles, that was something else. When I was younger, you didn’t have Swedish soap operas like that. I watched Beverly Hills. I wanted to make something like Beverly Hills, but in Sweden, in this small town. We actually shot it in the small town where I’m from. I’m living in Stockholm now, but we went to my small town. So it’s my old school we’re filming in. That was so nice, to be able to dress up the girls in cool clothes, make them work in slow motion, and do this American-inspired cinematography, with music and everything. I wanted to do something that I had wanted to see when I was that age.
7R: When you’re thinking about making movies or TV for children or teenagers, Are there certain things that you have in mind about how to make it accessible in the story and rhythm? It was interesting watching Nelly Rapp, in the context of the rest of the Berlinale, because it’s very easy to watch. It feels like it has a different rhythm than films that were made for adults. It felt like I could just relax and enjoy it and I didn’t have to necessarily work to watch it.
Amanda Adolfsson: It’s not an arthouse film. It’s kind of a straightforward story. It’s not too complicated. But still, I think the characters have some layers. One of the goals for the film was that it should be funny to watch. It should be like a blockbuster, where you buy yourself popcorn and coke, and you sit down and just have fun for one-and-a-half hours. I wanted people to go to the cinema and watch it and to have a nice time. And then, Corona came. We had some weeks at the cinema in Sweden. It went really well. It went from everybody can have eighty people, then thirty, and then we went down to eight. It was so sad.
That Berlin accepted the film was kind of, “What?!” I didn’t really think that it was a festival film. I’m very glad they took it in. It says that they liked it.
7R: Do you know what the plans are for Nelly Rapp going forward?
Amanda Adolfsson: I don’t know, really. We hope to try to sell it abroad. I know some countries have bought it in Europe. I don’t know if it’s for cinemas or just for video on demand. We are working on developing a Nelly Rapp 2. I had some ideas, both for two and three. We’ll start with two. Hopefully, we will film that next year. That’s really exciting, I think.
7R: I was going to ask you what you’re working on next, but I guess that must be Nelly Rapp 2.
Amanda Adolfsson: Just before now, I have shot a Swedish series on Netflix called The Bonus Family. It’s season four now. I did two episodes in season three. And now, I did the four first episodes of season four, and I’ve edited three. I’m home with my baby for one month, and then I’m going to edit the fourth episode. That’s what I’m doing right now. In the autumn, we’ll develop Nelly, I think.
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