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SUNDANCE 2022 Midnight

Christian Tafdrup • Director of Speak No Evil

“The ambition was to make the most disturbing film in Danish history”

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- In the Danish director’s new film, there is such a thing as being too polite for your own good

Christian Tafdrup • Director of Speak No Evil
(© Kavian Borhani)

In Speak No Evil [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Christian Tafdrup
film profile
]
, a lovely Danish family (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch) meets a similarly lovely Dutch family in Italy. However, what could – and should – be just a holiday friendship has a follow-up: soon enough, they are invited to stay for a weekend with their young daughter. And they are just too well mannered to turn it down. We spoke to director Christian Tafdrup about his new effort, screening in the Midnight section at Sundance.

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Cineuropa: You mentioned that it was quite difficult making this film. Why?
Christian Tafdrup: Well, it’s always difficult – it just takes so much time. And then it’s a genre film, kind of a horror, and I am really not used to that. I had difficulties figuring out what it was: a thriller, a satire? We had to shut down after ten days – we started in February 2020. For a few months, I didn’t know if I would be able to finish it. Then we continued and were shut down again [laughs]. At one point, I asked myself: “Am I making Apocalypse Now? Every director has a nightmare film, so maybe this is the one?” I have lived with it for such a long time, and because of what was happening in the world, it was such a fragile experience.

It's an interesting scary movie because one freaks oneself out watching it – you’re just waiting for something to happen. And then it doesn’t, at least not for a while.
I don’t like jump scares or all those horror conventions. What I do like in these movies is the first half. I like suspense; I like it when you are doubting yourself. “Is there something wrong with these people, or is it just me?” It’s fun when you don’t know where the story is going and you can just feel it’s going to be bad. In the third act, so many people go over the top: there’s blood, spinning heads and the witches are burning, and you just sit there, eating your popcorn. I wanted to create one scene that would be so provocative that you want to look away but you are still curious – not another guilty pleasure that doesn’t really say anything about the world. I wanted to make room for social commentary, for laughs and for characters that were real people. It’s a very recognisable situation. We take it to the extreme, but many people end up spending time with complete strangers, not reacting to their gut feeling, because society tells them to be polite. It’s not a film about a family that can’t drive away. They can, but they don’t. As to why, that’s an interesting modern question.

Even Scream poked fun at the fact that, usually, we feel that we would never behave like horror-film protagonists. Here, we absolutely would.
I have experienced it myself – in so many situations, I just freeze or try to be friends with something I am afraid of. I would walk around the city at night and smile at people. In the film, the husband really thinks that if he just does as he is told, they will be fine. But when you meet evil, it’s real. And maybe we are not raised to recognise it? In Denmark, we don’t have war; we don’t have terrorist attacks every day. If evil were to come here, how would we behave? We are told that people are good, so maybe we would just smile at the devil? We start off in Italy, which is such a small bubble of Western civilisation. People drink wine and listen to music. When a snake slithers into paradise, you don’t say anything, even when you have a bad feeling about it.

The soundtrack doesn’t fit these first scenes, one could say. It’s so unnerving that it’s almost spoilerific, immediately suggesting that things are bound to go wrong.
It’s something we grappled with a lot in the editing. The problem was, without that kind of music, people thought they were about to see some kind of romantic comedy with adult couples. You didn’t see the darkness, and when you are dealing with genre, you have to plant it somewhere. People will debate that decision, but I think it leads you to this place a little, suggesting that what you see is not what you get. There is something bigger going on here than people just enjoying their vacation.

It remains a mysterious story, but in my experience, not knowing everything makes things worse. Would you agree?
So many people told me that I had to explain more. But every time we tried, it wasn’t a horror film any more, it was an American B movie. I wanted to keep things open, so that you will think about it afterwards. How do we, civilised people, react to pure evil? How much can you sacrifice for good manners? That was the main theme, and once you start explaining things, you take that premise away. I was wondering: “What would Lars von Trier or Haneke do?” If you watch Funny Games, which is something of an inspiration, he doesn’t explain why these guys are killing this family. Because it’s fun – that’s it. I like meeting new people on holidays, but if later on they invite you over, please say no. If you say yes, maybe you won’t die, but you are in for a horrible weekend. Many films like to please their audience, but I like the ones that leave you disturbed. The ambition was to make the most disturbing film in Danish history.

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