The Big Picture
- Mortiz Mohr unveils his feature directorial debut, Boy Kills World, at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
- The film stars Bill Skarsgård as the title character, a deafened and voiceless boy hellbent on destroying the individual who took his family from him, Famke Janssen’s Hilda Van Der Koy.
- Mohr and producers Zainab Azizi and Simon Swart discuss how they brought such a heavy amount of “bloody martial arts mayhem” to the big screen.
As though making a first feature isn’t hard enough, Moritz Mohr opted to make his directorial debut a film that incorporates a multitude of genres, a significant amount of world-building, and a slew of very ambitious and bloody action set pieces.
Boy Kills World stars Bill Skarsgård as a young man who becomes determined to topple Hilda Van Der Koy’s (Famke Janssen) post-apocalyptic dynasty after an incident that leaves him orphaned, deafened, and voiceless. After being trained by a mysterious shaman (Yayan Ruhian), Boy sets out to get his revenge, a mission loaded with “bloody martial arts mayhem,” including an incident with a cheese grater.
Just before Boy Kills World’s world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, Mohr and producers Zainab Azizi and Simon Swart visited the Collider media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL to discuss how they brought this bonkers idea to the big screen. The trio discusses how the script evolved, that brutal cheese grater scene, Isaiah Mustafa‘s nonsensical yet brilliant dialogue, getting to see a new side of Andrew Koji, and loads more.
You can hear it all for yourself straight from the trio in the video interview at the top of this article, or you can read the conversation in transcript form below.
PERRI NEMIROFF: A lot of our viewers will first be learning about your film through the festival, so who would like to give a synopsis of Boy Kills World?
SIMON SWART: It’s a wild and crazy mashup of every film genre and movie that Moritz grew up loving. It comes from every corner of his mind, and he somehow integrated elements from all of those great movies. He has that classic filmmaker story of having worked in a video store when he was younger and just being an avid cinephile. I think you see the influences of anime, of the great master action movies, the best comic book movies you’ve seen. He can talk about his own inspiration, but this movie is basically a revenge movie, but it’s fun.
MORITZ MOHR: It’s also about family.
SWART: It’s also about family and how families can be a little messed up. It’s kind of like revenge. It is an exploration of the path that you go on for revenge, but it’s also about being manipulated by other people. There is kind of a deep message in there buried beneath the mayhem, the wild and crazy action, and the comedy. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s fresh.
Given the fact that this movie is a little bit of everything, it was making me wonder, did you all have a break story moment? A particular thing you came up with that made you say, “Now that we have this, it’s coming together and we’re good to go with this script?”
MOHR: We worked on the script for a couple of years, I think. The first draft was done after a year and then we sort of finessed it over another seven, eight months. There were a lot of moments where I was like, “Oh, this is cool. Now we are doing something different, and now this is fun.” Stuff that we were sort of struggling with at first and suddenly it just clicked. I couldn’t tell you sort of a specific thing, but there are a lot of these moments.
To build on that a little bit, what would you say is the biggest difference between draft one of the screenplay and what everyone’s gonna see in the finished film?
MOHR: I don’t know if you should spoil that, but the biggest difference is Boy is talking to his ghost sister, and in the first draft, it wasn’t his sister. It was a younger version of himself. So there was a sort of Bruce Willis, The Kid moment there where we had him as a young boy and him as an adult. But we sort of talked about it, “Oh, his sister is dead. How does he process this?” So we had all these conversations about the old guy talking to the younger version about his sister, and at one point we were like, “Why are we doing this? Why couldn’t he just talk to his sister?” And that’s what changed, and that was a big change, and it was a big click, an a-ha moment for us and I’m very happy that that happened.
Both paths are interesting, but I’m glad you landed on what you did here.
ZAINAB AZIZI: And we brought on this amazing writer, Tyler Burton Smith. He did a lot of rewriting on the film, and he really punched it up and made it super original and wonky and kooky, as you know. [Laughs]
Zainab, I wanted to ask you about Raimi Productions a little bit because I love Sam Raimi. I’ve been following his films literally my entire life. For you as a producer, what was something about the company’s initiative that drew you to it and maybe made you think you could grow there as a filmmaker as well?
AZIZI: Sam is so supportive of young filmmakers, and it’s really important to us to really work on original stories. When we were developing Moritz’s script, everything’s original, it’s bold, it’s creative, and Sam loved everything about Mortiz’s brain.
I feel like there’s gonna be a million answers to this question, but was there anything in this script that made you think, “This is gonna be a first. I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to do it, but we’re gonna try it for the very first time?”
AZIZI: There is a lot. I don’t know what I can give away but there’s a lot of firsts. The cheese grater was a fun one. Evil Dead Rise did have it, but we shot it at the same time, I will say. All of the action was incredible and there’s just so much heart, and the world building. I mean, I can go on and on about how incredible the film is.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with calling 2023 the Year of the Cheese Grater.
AZIZI: [Laughs] The Year of the Cheese Grater, yes!
Now that we know that the cheese grater is in the movie, can you talk a little bit about the special effects involved on set in order to pull off action like that?
MOHR: Well, what had to do to even get a basic picture of how the action should look was doing all these pre-vis things where Dawid Szatarski, the action director, worked out the general gist of the scene, then we talked about it, then we made the changes according to the script, and then he shot the first draft of it in a warehouse, in the stunt facilities basically and then re-did it on set on the day. Obviously, even then there were changes, but that was sort of one big thing so we could really anticipate how much time it was gonna take us because it’s just so much action. We went in and really tried to have a plan way before that, and that affected the visual effects. Every time somebody goes in, like, “Yeah, he could shoot him in the head right now.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah. Bullet impact, blood spatter, another muzzle flash. Oh yeah, that’s another $1,500 or something.” [Laughs] So every time somebody had a small idea, it literally affected the budget, but we did it.
SWART: The crazy challenge you have, like Mortiz is covering, is you’ve got the action sequences, the drama sequences, the humor beats, and they’re all having to work together, and Dawid and Moritz created these crazy action sequences where Dawid wanted to create fight sequences that included things that he’s always wanted to do as a stunt designer and coordinator and never been allowed to do, and we sort of turned him loose and said, “You go ahead, Dave. Let’s go crazy. Let’s do this,” and then integrating them into the drama and the moments.
One of the biggest challenges is you’ve got a lead actor who has no dialogue. He’s deaf and mute. That leads to a very different challenge in shooting the movie that Moritz really did an amazing job with to capture the emotion and the heart with a lead with no lines.
I do want to know what was important for you visually to capture that emotion, but then also, when did you come to the conclusion that having that voiceover narration was also an effective way to bring all those emotions to screen?
MOHR: I mean, that was basically from the beginning, the very first moment we started when we shot the proof of concept trailer in 2016. That was one of the core ideas that we had to make this movie different, to add something that is not usually in an action movie. That’s where it started. That was one of the first ideas we had.
SWART: That was the importance of Bill. Bill was drawn to the action, but he loved the idea that he was gonna have this additional challenge of having to show and express everything while he’s in the middle of a fight or in the middle of a scene. And yes, the voiceover all helped that, but really his on-screen performance, the way he and Moritz worked together to make sure we captured that – the lead actor has to be looking in the direction of a sound or somebody who’s talking to him if he’s gonna react to it. Things like that. Little things.
Can you tell us a little bit about working with Bill as an actor’s director now? Maybe even something unique about the way he works that demands something different from you as an actor’s director compared to everyone else in the ensemble?
MOHR: One big thing was the fact that he didn’t have any dialogue, but he had dialogue, right? When he talks to his sister there is a dialogue there, so you had to shoot it in a way that you knew the timing, you knew the performance, the back and forth between the two of them. It was like, have her line, then him sort of mimicking the line, keeping the time in his head, then she answers. That was a big challenge, and we came up with all these crazy solutions – we’d prerecord it, putting it in his ear, putting it in her ear so we could have that. After we tried all of this, we came to the conclusion that simpler is better and basically just shot it once with him doing the dialogue so we had a sort of a baseline for timing and for his emotion and how he would act it out, and then just sort of winging it on the shoot for the timing, just sort of like, “Yeah, this will work.” Because also, you don’t have time to do these complicated things over and over for a line. A dialogue can’t be something that takes the longest in a movie.
I love talking about winging it. You already brought up pre-vis, you want to plan, plan, plan to set yourselves up for success, but sometimes the unexpected magic is the stuff that stands out most in a film. Can you give me an example of a day on set when things weren’t going to plan, you found a creative way to pivot, and it improved a scene?
AZIZI: It was a lot.
MOHR: Yeah, it happens a lot where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a lucky coincidence!” I don’t actually know if it’s in the script, but we sort of had the young version of Boy – Cameron or Nicholas [Crovetti], I don’t know who it was [laughs] – chopping wood. He chops wood and the head of the prop ax came off and sort of just flew away, and we kept it in the movie. I’m not sure if it’s still in there, but for the longest time we kept it in there. It was really funny because it came off and then he had this expression like, “Oh,” and that was really funny. But stuff like that happens all the time, either at the end of a scene or the beginning of a scene where we’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was coming.” It’s hard to pinpoint another.
AZIZI: Isaiah’s lines, and then the macaroon with Koji.
MOHR: Yeah, Isaiah Mustafa sort of just ad-libbed a lot of his nonsense lines that he delivered and it cracked me up every time.
[Laughs] I’m just hearing so many of them right now.
AZIZI: They’re so funny!
How do you convince yourself when you’re just looking at the page that something like that will wind up working? I feel like until the words are in his mouth, it could be hard to know for sure.
MOHR: We did it in casting, and even in casting, we were like, “Oh my god, this is gonna work,” because having somebody like him with a straight face delivering these nonsense lines, we were laughing so hard even in the casting.
AZIZI: Yeah, “golden toe jam.” [Laughs]
You need to make T-shirts and put those lines on them!
MOHR: And to his credit, he came up with a lot of them. I guess we doubled the lines in the movie. He only had half the lines in the script and he just kept delivering great stuff, so we were like, “Oh yeah, sure. That’s gonna be in there.”
SWART: He’d randomly change them between takes, too, just to mess with us all.
AZIZI: It was very hard to stay quiet. We were laughing so hard on set. It was hilarious.
MOHR: In ADR, he just added again. We were like, “Oh my god, there’s even more now!”
The more of those you have in this movie, the better!
MOHR: Me too!
I feel like he might be one of the answers to this question, but of all the supporting roles around Bill, which character did you find the toughest to cast where it required a real search to find the perfect fit? But also, who was someone who just magically appeared one day and immediately made you think, “We have the right actor for this character?”
MOHR: I think the last one was Andrew Koji because we were sort of looking for older actors for that role, more seasoned, just like 10, 15 years older because we were like, “Oh yeah, that’s gonna fit there.” I think Zainab brought him up.
AZIZI: We’re developing another film with Koji, a biopic, and he was just talking about how he always wanted to try comedy. He’s the lead in a show called Warrior, and he felt that he was always typecast. The role was originally Chow, and Moritz and Koji met, and magic!
MOHR: Yeah, it was. And I didn’t know that, but I thought it was always funny because he worked on Warrior and Warrior also shot in Cape Town, so a lot of the team already knew him from the show and they were like, “That guy is usually different.” It was only then that I realized he was basically in character the moment we got on the first call. He was already in character and that just blew me away. It was a big surprise.
So he came to the project the quickest and was easiest to cast. What about the opposite? Who was the most difficult character to find the perfect actor for?
AZIZI: I think the hardest was finding the young sister.
MOHR: Yeah, that’s true.
SWART: That was a global search.
AZIZI: Worldwide. Thank you, Nancy Nayor, our casting agent.
Casting directors need more shout outs. I’m happy you just name-dropped her.
SWART: Props to Nancy.
AZIZI: She did a great job.
MOHR: We looked at a lot of young girls and it was hard. It was really hard.
SWART: She’s an amazing actress.
Great success! That search paid off big time.
Zainab, because you just brought up another film with Andrew Koji, now I want to know about all of the other exciting things you have coming up in the future. You’re working with many other genre directors that I deeply admire and love. Is there any update on the project that you’re working on with Rob Savage?
AZIZI: I actually have three movies with Rob, only one has been announced.
There’s no better answer to that question than what you just said.
AZIZI: [Laughs] I have three movies with Rob. You know, it’s funny, I discovered him before he made any of his movies. He made those little shorts, and he was so brilliant, and then Blumhouse beat us. They made those films really quickly. He’s incredible. We have another movie with Andrew Koji in development, and the next film, actually, we’re shooting in Vancouver is also with Bill Skarsgård, so we will be teaming up with Bill again.
You keep working with good people!
I’m sorry if I’m pressing for too much information, but the films with Rob, are any of those going back to the screen life format, like Host and Dashcam, or are they gonna be more traditionally shot films along the lines of Boogeyman?
AZIZI: More like Boogeyman.
I’ll bug you about one more – Corin Hardy. Is that still gonna happen?
AZIZI: Yes, it is. We are working on it. He’s currently shooting a film in Toronto right now, and we are hoping that this film, Every House is Haunted, will be the next one for next year.
I’ll leave you all with a question that I like to end on quite a bit because I am a big believer that no one in this industry tells themselves good job nearly enough. Can you tell me one specific thing you accomplished on Boy Kills World that you know you can look back on and say to yourself, “Damn, I am proud we pulled that off?”
SWART: That’s a heavy question. I’m gonna let Zainab go first. [Laughs]
AZIZI: Honestly, I am so proud of Moritz. We’ve been working on this film for over six years, and I love how diverse our film is and colorful, and when you watch the film, everybody looks different. Everybody brings a little spice to the film. It’s so special. It’s nothing I’ve ever seen before or worked on before, and I’m really excited for everyone to watch it tonight.
SWART: I would say the same. The whole project, from the beginning until the end, was audacious, aggressive, it was really difficult, it wasn’t easy. There are so many devices that come out of this man’s mind that are integrated into the story, and I think the finished product is remarkable. But I can say honestly, with our production team, whether it was with Hammerstone, Raimi, Vertigo, and Nthibah Pictures, it was a really challenging movie all around. Really, my favorite thing was standing in the auditorium this morning looking at the movie at the Royal Alexandra and going, “This is happening. We’re at TIFF and we’re gonna show it to an audience tonight,” and I’m so proud of everybody’s work.
MOHR: I think for me, it’s really sort of having the team surrounding the movie – the action director, the production designer, the DP, all of them, and all of them love the movie. They really went out of their way to do their best. We had a lot of people yelling at other people going, “This is the best thing I’ve done for 10 years, and you’re not ruining this for me! It’s gonna go my way!” Stuff like that. They were really passionate about it, and you go, “Oh my god, that guy feels exactly the same as me,” and that was a great feeling to talk to these people and see that they feel so much for this movie so I’m really happy with that.
Special thanks to MARBL Restaurant for hosting Collider as well as additional sponsors Sommsation, a top wine experience brand and online shop, and Molson Coors’ Blue Moon Belgian White as the beer of choice at the Cinema Center. Additionally, Moët Hennessy featuring Belvedere Vodka featured cocktails and Tres Generaciones Tequila.