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Tommy Wirkola on directing Netflix’s latest dystopia thriller

What Happened to Monday is streaming now on Netflix

Photo: Netflix

Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s best known films are Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, starring Jeremy Renner as Hansel, a witch hunter, and Dead Snow, starring an assortment of people as Nazi zombies. His latest work, What Happened to Monday, a dystopian sci-fi movie picked up by Netflix at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, has very little to do with either.

What Happened to Monday stars Noomi Rapace, the “girl with the dragon tattoo” in the original, Swedish adaptation of the Millennium series, as seven identical sisters. They’re forced to live in hiding in a near-future with a one-child policy — enforced by Glenn Close as the terrifying tech-CEO-turned-dictator who presides over the Child Allocation Bureau. So their grandfather, played by Willem Defoe, teaches them to share one public personality (a banker named Karen Settman) and they each spend one day outside the home every week. It’s a cute gimmick that goes dark quickly: 15 minutes in, one of the sisters rips off the tip of a finger in a skateboarding accident. The rest have to be put under a meat cleaver to match, or they’ll be found out.

That’s just the start in a rapid-fire litany of violent events, from stab wounds to head shots to drops off of buildings to plucked-out eyeballs, all inflicted on the same actress. At times it feels like too much — almost mean-spirited, but at the least a serious distraction from what’s interesting about the film.

So, recently, I spoke to Wirkola about how he came to work on a near-future dystopia, how he thinks about violence in his movie, and what he hopes Netflix viewers get out of What Happened to Monday.

[Some spoilers for What Happened to Monday below]

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you move from zombie Nazis to this movie?

I heard about it first from a director friend of mine, Morten Tyldum, who did The Imitation Game. He was attached to it before I was and so when he went to do The Imitation Game, I asked to read it and I really liked it. Then I met with the producers. I pitched it to them with Noomi [Rapace]. It was originally written for a man, but I pitched doing it with sisters instead of brothers. They liked that idea and that’s how we kind of ended up together.

How did you approach directing an actress who was playing seven different characters?

It was certainly a challenge. Both me and Noomi were not afraid, but a little in awe going into it. Our big concern was “This is a film, not a TV show; we have to be efficient setting it up and selling these characters.” Since Noomi came on board when I came on board and we did a big rewrite based on that, she did a lot of the work that was put into separating the characters. We used Noomi and parts of her personality and her ideas. The goal in the film was for it to seem at the beginning that there are just very superficial differences — like one is a sports girl, one is the sexy party girl, and one is the work girl. But as you go along you discover new sides to them and they’re not as black-and-white as you first thought they would be.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the violence in the movie. For me, it was kind of hard to watch the same woman be brutally injured or killed over and over.

I did want the violence to be real and brutal and the world to be brutal and unforgiving, as the world that we’re portraying is. I think if the film had been as written with brothers instead of sisters... I think people are more used to seeing men treated that way in action movies and not women. Going through that pain and suffering, I think you’ve seen it many more times with the classic action stars.

When I changed it, I thought it would make it more vulnerable and more brutal with sisters instead of brothers. It would matter more somehow; it would feel more real. The violence was always there in every draft of the script, even before I came on board. And yeah, it is violent at times. I tried in a few places to put in a little sense of humor and lighten it up, but it is a brutal and unforgiving world and we wanted to portray that.

It’s an old, well-known trope in horror movies for a woman to have sex and then be killed immediately afterwards. The scene in this movie where that happens is the one that threw me off a little.

I don’t think we ever thought about the horror trope but you’re right, it reminds people of a classical cliche for sure. For me, the scene was more about Saturday — who we think in the beginning is so sexual and in your face and the flirty one — when it comes down to it she’s the one with no experience and she’s the most vulnerable. I’ll admit, part of the appeal to the script to me was that you don’t know who’s going to survive. A few of these sisters go out in not-so-pretty ways. I always thought that made it unpredictable.

Photo: Netflix

You’ve mentioned the “unforgiving” world they live in — how did you come up with the world of this specific dystopia? What were the inspirations?

We wanted the world to feel not too far from our own. We wanted it to feel near-future. Everyone who’s made a film in the sci-fi genre, I think, would say Blade Runner is a big inspiration. I would say as well that Children of Men is a film I have a great love for. Besides that, in general and in tone, I’ve always been a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven and his films and how he can take a big idea or a big concept and still have fun with it. It’s violent and it’s brutal, but it still feels like a fast-paced thriller.

The character that Glenn Close plays reminded me a little of the character Tilda Swinton plays in Okja. They both happen to be blonde ladies, but there’s also this trend of a Silicon Valley-type villain who has a grand idea of how to solve the world’s problems with technology.

I think the most interesting villains in film are the villains who are kind of right. Their means are wrong and the way they’re doing it is wrong, but their worldview is kind of right. Humans are very bad at making hard decisions and planning for the future, so in many ways Glenn Close’s character is right. But of course, what she’s doing is very wrong. As for that character, I would say we ended up cutting a lot of stuff just because of time. But we had more backstory and more depth to that character that we had to lose, which is a shame because Glenn brought so much to the role. She had so many ideas and she was actually very knowledgable about the subjects — overpopulation and genetically modified foods. It’s a passion of hers. So using her and using her knowledge was something we tried to do.

You see these kind of characters trend a lot lately because it’s a reflection of the world and who’s really running the world I guess. These corporate bad guys, and not the villains in older movies who were over-the-top drug dealers or politicians. Now it seems to be CEOs or heads of corporations.

The genetically modified food element to the plot interested me because there isn’t any proof that they have an adverse effect on humans, but people are constantly talking about it and worrying about it.

It is like you say, it’s on a lot of people’s minds. I think there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to how far to push it and what the ramifications will be. So, when we were shaping that opening sequence and [deciding] what to put in and how to try to make it feel real and make it seem realistic that this could happen, that just felt like a natural thing to incorporate. We wanted people to feel like “Yeah, this future is very close,” you know, not 50 or 60 or 70 years in the future. This could be very soon.

What Happened to Monday is now available to stream on Netflix.