A24‘s Gen-Z horror film Bodies Bodies Bodies has now been in theaters for a few weeks, but there’s an amazing story behind how it came together under the direction of Halina Reijn. This is her second feature, but her first English-language film, as well as her first time working with a major American studio.
The movie stars Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give) as Sophie, who brings her latest flame Bee (Maria Bakalova) to a “hurricane party” at the mansion of her wealthy best friend (Pete Davidson). Sophie also wants to introduce Bee to her rich cadre of 20-something friends, who eventually play a drinking game called “Bodies Bodies Bodies” that quickly turns deadly when actual bodies start piling up.
As mentioned above, the A24 film came together in a fascinating way, as the studio tapped Reijn to direct after seeing her earlier film, Instinct. They allowed her to work with another writer to revamp the script and had a lot of input in assembling the film’s young cast before letting Reijn do her thing to make it all feel authentic. This also meant that the actors had to suffer through similarly difficult conditions as their characters, while also doing much of the lighting themselves using flashlights and their cell phones once the power goes out in the film.
Below the Line spoke with Reijn over Zoom earlier this week, and we learned a lot about how Bodies Bodies Bodies was made under rough conditions that actually helped motivate her cast to bring a new level of intensity to the set.
Below the Line: I realize you were an actress in Holland, but I had no idea you were so busy over there, as I’d only seen you in a few things, including Black Book.
Halina Reijn: I didn’t do that much here, but yeah, I was a busy, busy bee as an actress.
BTL: What motivated you to start directing just a few years back and make your first film?
Reijn: I grew up very protected by radical hippies. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, and then one day I saw Annie because my babysitter was so bored that she took us to the cinema, and that completely changed me. I thought Annie — Aileen Quinn, that’s the actress — I thought she shot that film and made it herself. That’s when I decided to become an actress, but of course, later I found out that the acting part of it is just the last thing that happens, and the making of it begins maybe years before the actors even arrive on set.
That really got through to me, because my first role ever was Ophelia in Hamlet. I was still in theater school when they sort of discovered me, and it was this whole thing, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to do this Ophelia part.’ It was, like, five scenes, and then I’m dead. I started immediately writing little scripts in the wings — I’ve always been doing that, but then my career took off, and I didn’t have time to really get to it anymore, but it always was in the back of my head: I want to direct, I want to direct…
I was always nagging Paul Verhoeven when we were doing Black Book, and he said, ‘You need a question if you want to direct.’ He says that [on] every film he makes, he has a question [that he’s trying to answer]. I thought of my question, which was like, ‘Why do I always fall in love with what is bad for me?’ I made Instinct, which is about a therapist who falls in love with a rapist that she’s treating in jail. This is a true story, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great story to examine my own nature as a woman falling for bad men.’ That was my first film, and then A24 saw that film, and they asked me to come on board this project.
At first, I was a little hesitant, but then, because it’s genre and the things I make are very dark and radical arthouse [laughs], I found my way into it. My question with Instinct and with this, and also with the TV show that I made about sex work was, “Are we civilized or are we beasts?” I think even if you make a comedy, these questions are also funny, in a dark way.
BTL: This movie is about very, very young American women, so when you read the script, was it really obvious where the humor could be found, even if it was extremely dark humor?
Reijn: When I got the script, it was very different. We [did] a complete rewrite. We hired Sarah DeLappe after I pitched that I wanted to make it “Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies.” She’s a playwright so we come from the same background and we started to rework the script into what it is now. She has a great [sense of] humor, and she’s just a genius with dialogue.
We were inspired by some heavy playwrights like Chekhov and Shakespeare and [Eugene] O’Neill — we took from all of them, and then Sarah has her own beautiful mind. Later, we also started to work with the actors and asked them, ‘Is this how you talk? Would you say it like this? Do you want to add something to it? Do you want to say it in a different way?’ And that’s how we created what it is [now].
BTL: So you essentially got to workshop with your cast as you might with a stageplay? I can imagine there were a lot of things to figure out beforehand.
Reijn: My style is to prepare like you’re in the army, so prepare well and really know all your lines, like a play. I need you to be able to do a run-through of the whole film when I ask you and be off-book before we even arrive on set to rehearse, and also [know] the blocking and the choreography of the whole film and everything. We really prepared and drew [things] out, and talked and tried [things] out. And then, when you’re actually on the day shooting it, you have the ability and the confidence to then let go in the moment and be open to anybody’s impulse or idea towards adding something. We also did table reads with them, where we would write down their ideas or change lines. It was part improvisation, [and part of it was] their contributions because we’re making a film about their generation. It’s better if it feels authentic to them because we don’t want to make fun of them at all.
BTL: Is “Bodies Bodies Bodies” a real game? I’m a little older, so I don’t really know if this is a new thing that kids are doing at parties. I probably would not play it if someone suggested it, though.
Reijn: The old game is called Mafia or Werewolf — everybody has their own version — but I’m the same as you. I’m always feeling like [the] one who doesn’t understand it. I [really] related to being an outsider. I always try to belong, but I feel [like] I’m not the cool kid. It is an old game, but we made our own version for the film because we wanted to make it visual to keep it visually interesting. They are also physically moving through the house, which is our version of it, and the slapping ritual in the beginning with the drinking also adds to the idea that this friend group is a very seductive, cult-like group.
BTL: This cast is just fantastic, including Lee Pace, who I’ve interviewed before and didn’t even realize that was him. The women are particularly amazing. I’ve seen Amandla and Maria and Rachel in other things, but nothing like this. So how did you assemble this cast and get them to be in the right headspace as frenemies who have known each other forever?
Reijn: It was amazing, the casting process. I really enjoyed working with A24 — Laura Rosenthal, our Casting Director, but also the studio was really involved in casting. I just wanted to have a group that wasn’t only serious actors like Lee Pace, who was trained at Juilliard, but also comedians and people who could improvise. We tried to assemble a group that was open to my style of working, which is rehearsal and learning all your lines and a pretty classical, old-fashioned approach, but on the other hand, also being able to be funny and improvise, and dare to go there. They really had to be open to really go into the darkness and the rain and the wind and the emotional scenes they had to do. We didn’t have a lot of shooting days at all, so there was incredible pressure on them as well. I’m just so proud of how they did it, and I think all of them are so great in the film. They all have their different moments, and some of them are very funny, and others have more tragic moments, but they all shine.
BTL: Was the character of Bee always intended to be a foreigner/immigrant or was the character modified when Maria Bakalova signed on to play her?
Reijn: Bee was just an outsider on the page, and we were talking to A24, and me and Laura were like, ‘What does that mean?’ I’m from Europe, and [when] I arrived here, I felt very lonely in the beginning. I missed my country a lot. I come from such a small town in Amsterdam, and I came to America, so I could really identify with Maria Bakalova and the character of Bee not being from America.
BTL: It’s a definite cliché to say that the house is a character unto itself, but it really is an important part of everything that happens, so how did you find the place to shoot this and did you have a set dresser to add all the bottles and everything else to make it look like the site of a crazy party?
Reijn: I was very nervous [about] the house, to be honest with you, because Sarah and I were typing away [going], ‘Oh, we could do this, then that, in this room and that room.’ But then, where [do] you find the house, because I was so obsessed with finding a house that would have all those rooms in one space and not having to film in different houses. [And] also because that would have cost us too much time. It’s not efficient, but also because I come from the theater, and I like everything to be in one building — the crew having space for the materials, the actors having their own dressing rooms. I wanted to have a huge “McMansion,” [as] they call it, so I was happy when we found it.
It [was] a huge, ridiculously decadent mansion. It was very old, and it was for sale for a long time, and nobody wanted it. Some of my team were like, ‘Yeah, but there’s mold everywhere, [and] there are dead mice,’ but I said, ‘No, that’s great because it will give us the freedom to paint the walls and I really [want to] make it our own and use it as a stage.’
We cleaned it up, and we just really made it look beautiful [and] really made it our own — painted it red and yellow and all these bright colors. It was like having a stage, and we were all imprisoned there [in our] COVID bubble. We were either in our little motel or at the house, and that was it, so we were all imprisoned together [in] the same pressure cooker as the characters were gonna be.
BTL: There are many production challenges in this film, and one of them is the rain, which adds a level of difficulty because everyone is going to get wet, and then they have to dry off again. Were you able to do a lot of takes out in the rain or was that an element you just wanted to deal with early so you could quickly move on?
Reijn: With the rain and wind, it was very hard on us because these things cost a lot of money to recreate, and we didn’t have endless money at all. We had quite a tight budget, and we had to be super-creative with it, and we had a great team helping us. The neighbors had complaints. We couldn’t use very intense wind machines — we really had to do it with the old ones. It was quite challenging, and we had people putting these machines really close to their faces to make their hair move, and they were battling the rain and the wind. It was intense, but in the end, it contributed to their feeling of really being in that extreme weather. But [the actors] were cold, and it was a very heavy shoot for them.
BTL: How did your DP feel about being in the dark with all these phones and flashlights with a lot of the lighting being done by the actors themselves, in many ways? How did you work that out to make sure that the movie still looked decent?
Reijn: That was a big issue, of course. My DP was Jasper Wolf. He’s a genius. I took him from Holland — we shot together my first film as well, and he did a film called Monos, a South American film where you can see his work [even] more. He’s amazing. He’s just an artist, and we talked about the darkness because we knew that 70 percent of this film [was] gonna take place in the dark, so we better, like, make a plan. He was involved from the very start when we did the big rewrite, and that’s why we thought, like, ‘Oh, my God, the hurricane party. That’s a great idea because that’s an American phenomenon, and then they would take some emergency lighting — some flashlights — and we could work with that so it would give us a little more freedom with the light sources.’
And also, Rachel Sennott, who plays the character of Alice, I thought it would be great to change her into a lighthouse, with all the neon around her head, so [that] she could light other people. But you’re right, it was so hard because they had to think about their lines and all of that, but also about lighting each other. Some of them had a headlamp and we literally would ask, ‘Can you please change the direction of your head, because you’re lighting Amandla at this point,’ and stuff like that.
BTL: Did you end up having to do a lot of extra rehearsal to make sure the lighting worked? As an actor yourself, you’re probably aware that can lose a lot of spontaneity if you over-rehearse.
Reijn: How we would work is that Jasper and I rehearsed, just with the two of us on location for two weeks, and we had people that could stand in for the characters, to choreograph everything, block everything, feel it all out, physically experience it ourselves. Not to put that on the actors at all, but to come [in] with a very good plan once the actors came in.
With the actors, we did a lot of readings at the table, then we rehearsed physically in the space, but I did tell them, I don’t want you to have any emotions. You don’t have to go there at all, just say your lines. It’s technical, it’s just to feel it out so that your body has already experienced it once, but we save the emotions and all of that for the day [of shooting] itself. But we practiced with the lights and the iPhones, and they had to get used to that as an extra technical thing, that they had to light each other. It’s a whole extra focus point that they had to do.
BTL: Plus some of them had to do stunts as well…
Reijn: We had a great stunt team, [and] because we also were limited in our means, we had to be very creative. I love everything to look real and animalistic and raw, so I told my stunt people, ‘Is that going to be possible? I don’t want it too smooth. We’re not doing The Matrix here. It should be real. These girls are actually trying to [hurt each other].’ We tried to also make it look a little clumsy and real. We had great stunt doubles, and it was a really wonderful experience. I love directing those teams, together with the stunt team, of course.
BTL: Before you go, I would like to ask you about the music. The movie starts out with songs you might play at a party, but then it embraces an original score, and you used Disasterpeace, who also scored A24’s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which couldn’t be more different than this movie.
Reijn: He’s amazing. He can do all the styles — he’s so versatile, but for me, it was really important that the music would be almost a little trashy. I listened to a lot of TikTok music, like that kind of thing. I didn’t want it to sound too artistic. There’s a film called Run Lola Run from the ’90s. I said to him, ‘Listen to that,’ because the moment my characters would sit down to reflect, the movie would stop. The moment my characters would actually wonder, “Wait a minute, what is going on here?” then the movie would not continue.
So I said to him, ‘The music has to constantly propel them forward. The music needs to have that agency, the same as they have like, ‘okay, let’s find out. Where is it? What’s going on?’ instead of really thinking about it.’ That’s how we created this very energetic score that seems to be of that generation, and then we have very exciting needle drops in the film as well, and the girls came up with a lot of those. And then “Bored in the House” is just one of my favorite songs ever. I love that song — it’s so nihilistic. It’s so funny, and I thought that would be great as the score for the TikTok moments.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is still playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of A24.