Although he’s best known to American audiences for his funny and gruesome spins on old-fashioned fairy tales that follow characters as wide-ranging as zombie Nazis (“Dead Snow”) and candy-seeking children (“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”), Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has some other tricks up his sleeve. With his “What Happened to Monday?,” Wirkola tackles high-concept sci-fi, thanks to an ambitious story that follows seven identical sisters (all played by Noomi Rapace) trapped in a future society that only allows just one child per household.
In the film, each sister is assigned a day of the week – and a matching name – in which they’re allowed out of their apartment (and the watchful eye of their surrogate dad, played by Willem Dafoe) for a little slice of living. Their fragile existence is upended, however, when one of them (the eponymous Monday) goes missing, and the other six must untangle a mystery with some major stakes.
Wirkola had grown up loving sci-fi movies and the possibilities that they afforded storytelling, but in “What Happened to Monday?,” he also saw a story that he could put his own spin on. “I always look for things that I think are different and just weird,” he said in a recent interview. “Not weird, but it’s just so much product out there, so many films, so many amazing films and so many choices. I just love that big idea in this film and the big hook of it.”
For the look and feel of the film, Wirkola cited a variety of inspirations, from “Blade Runner” to “Looper,” “Children of Men” to the films of Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch filmmaker could take “these big ideas and big concepts and somehow he made them real, but he still made them fun through action and violence and humor, and he somehow made it all work,” Wirkola said. That was the sort of film he wanted “What Happened to Monday?” to feel like.
Max Botkin’s original script first appeared on the Blacklist of “most liked” unproduced screenplays back in 2010, when it centered on a group of seven brothers trapped in a dystopian future where only single children are allowed.
The film went through a number of rewrites before Wirkola came on board, but once the director was attached, the production added one more – Kerry Williamson, who helped flesh out Wirkola’s big idea that the film should center around sisters. “Her pitch revolved around the characters, which was of course the most important thing to me,” Wirkola said.
Having seven characters, all played by the same actress, was its own kind of technical challenge, but Wirkola was adamant that the first step in cracking the inventive code of “Monday” was to build each character from the ground up.
“The biggest challenge is that in a movie, you have two hours to tell the story and you have a very short amount of time to establish these characters,” he said. “So, how can we do that as efficiently as possible, but also make them unique and real and not just have it to be superficial differences between them?”
In order to draw clear differences between seven very different women, Wirkola and Williamson started with basic tropes – as Wirkola reeled off, “the sports girl, the party girl, the workaholic” – and then expand them out and add new sides to each of them.
“It wasn’t as easy or as black and white as it seemed,” Wirkola said. “We also knew that we have seven of them and not all of them are going to feature as much as others, so we had to pick and choose and make sure that the ones that were most important to the story were the ones that stuck out.”
Wirkola credits Rapace for throwing herself into the project and turning in seven different performances, even when the requirements were a little bonkers. “I saw every day what she was doing and how fantastic she was delivering,” the director said. “It was a very challenging but fun process. I would say it was fun in the sense that we felt like we were doing something that hadn’t necessarily been done before.”
Because of the unique nature of the production, Rapace was often acting alone, ostensibly “against herself” in the form of tennis balls and other green screen stand-ins (the production used stand-ins and over-the-shoulder shots whenever possible, but that only goes so far in such a demanding production). Wirkola sought to make her forget all about that.
“It was about supporting her and also trying to make her forget about the technique of it all,” Wirkola said. “We’re doing a lot of green screen and motion control, and she has to act against tennis balls and markers and that can be also very tiring.”
Wirkola himself couldn’t forget about the technical demands of the shoot, however, and sought to strike a balance between crafting a film that goes beyond the demands of special effects while also utilizing them in shot after shot.
“Just every day, trying to figure it out, how can we solve this, how do we do this or that?,” Wirkola remembered. “But, of course, there was a balance. I’m not trying to get swallowed up by the technical side of it. It was important for me to [make] sure it doesn’t take over too much.”
As compelling and yes, weird, as the film’s big technical challenge is, Wirkola’s number one priority is making his audience forget the very gimmick that may have attracted them in the first place.
“The last thing I want to happen, is when people see this film, that they think about the process and think about the technicalities of it, or how cool it looks, and how she’s doing all seven siblings,” he said. “I tried to avoid shining a light on that. And the goal is just to make people forget about it after 30 seconds and enjoy the ride.”
“What Happened to Monday?” is now streaming on Netflix.