EPISODE 224: Speak No Evil
Christian Tafdrup had never made a horror film until he realized what really scared him.
CHRISTIAN TAFDRUP: … I’m more scared of other people than I’m scared of ghosts. And if you can get that feeling to an audience, then you are more scared.
Get ready for slow burn horror of Speak No Evil.
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BETH ACCOMANDO Welcome back to listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie, I’m Beth Accomando.
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BETH ACCOMANDO I got to see Speak No Evil at virtual Sundance earlier this year. It was my favorite film of the festival and it’s in my top ten for 2022. It’s intense and anxiety inducing but executed with such an elegant, subdued style that I was completely riveted from opening frame to last. Adding to my anxiety was the fact that my virtual screening link was about to expire and I wasn’t sure if it would just cut off the film at the expiration time and prevent me from seeing the end. Talk about stress! Thankfully I got to see the entire film but I have to say it scarred me. It took a left turn that shocked me in a way similar to Bone Tomahawk and it it made me uncomfortable in the same way Michael Hanecke’s films make me feel. So I can’t wait to dive into the horrors of Speak No Evil, which is currently streaming on Shudder. (:38)
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BETH ACCOMANDO Today I’ll be speaking with Danish director Christian Tafdrup about the challenges of crafting a horror film rooted in our fear of being socially awkward. In the post film discussion at Sundance He and his cast were cheerful and it was amusingly incongruous how much fun they all had making a film that puts audiences through the ringer. Kudos all around for their stellar work.
I need to take a quick break before getting to my interview. To lead us into that break here’s a Share Your Addiction from a Comic-Con attendee with his own thoughts about horror.
MIDROLL 1 [currently at 02:45:00]
BETH ACCOMANDO Welcome back to Cinema Junkie. Today we are going to investigate how a director makes us squirm. Let’s just dissect the opening of Speak No Evil to set the stage for my interview with director Christian Tafdrup. The film opens with a creepy shot of driving through the dark, we know it’s something bad and then the music hits a horror crescendo…
But the edit leaves the darkness behind and instead drops us into a gorgeous sunny pool in Tuscany.
The music rachets up the tension brilliantly by toying with us. It misleads us, confuses us, and goes from overt horror punctuation in the cheery and mundane scenes to almost sweet and lyrical when the story takes a brutal turn. It is contradictory and ironic and diabolically effective. If you were to remove the music, the film would have very little tension. This is just one of the carefully planned strategies that Tafdrup uses to keep us off balance and uneasy. I was eager to discuss the film with Tafdrup and began by asking where the idea for the film came from.
Well, it sounds weird, but actually real life experiences, and of course, not as far out as in the movie, but it was actually my experiences from holidays, because I traveled a lot like this, where you meet people you don’t know that well on holidays, and you make friends and it’s like the perfect week. And then sometimes I’ve seen these people again half a year after, and it’s never like the holiday especially is like half a year later. So it’s wintertime and they live in a place that is not exotic and you have really nothing to talk about. And there is this awkwardness, but it’s also in an innocent way, because you liked each other so much on the holiday that you tried to repeat that memory. And my parents traveled a lot like that. And then the very first thing where I said, let’s make a movie about it is that with my wife and kids, we met a Dutch couple in Italy in 2016. And immediately we became friends, and they were so nice, but also a little bit creepy, and I could not tell, are they really what they say they are? And then they invited us to see them, and I said no.But then I just came home and I started to imagine, what if we have went on that holiday with them? Or that weekend in Rotterdam? How would that look like? And then very fast, it was more interesting as a horror film in my head than a comedy. So I decided with my brother, let’s write it as a very dark tale where the worst thing that can happen actually happens. And how would that look like? So it is like a combination of all that awkwardness and discomfort that I know very well in life, combined with a more genre and horror convention that was something very new to me. I’ve never made a horror movie. I don’t know much about it, but it was such a liberating thing to discover what it can do to the ideas that we had.
You brought up this idea of social awkwardness. How does that play into the film? Because it seems very key.
Oh, yeah. Well, I think that was our basic conversations in the beginning. That when we look at our lives and the way we socialize with other people, we kind of discover how good we are at social rules but also how dictated we are by behavior. And especially when you meet people you don’t know that well, you really fight for having a good conversation. It’s very, very awkward. If we have a long pause or if you feel that I’m not that interested, I look away. And that is a field that is filled with tension, the language of small talk. Everyone is fighting, especially in Denmark where we are not that good at it, as in America, I think. But we just thought that sometimes we are so dictated by that and we are almost raised with social conventions. We are children. We are taught to be a part of the group. And if we do something else or we have another opinion, we are very ashamed of ourselves. So we thought that there was a lot of dramatic material there. And then we just really discovered how much we sacrifice ourselves for the good atmosphere or for pleasing other people. And there’s nothing wrong about pleasing other people, but there’s something wrong about not taking that inner voice seriously, where you sometimes have an intuition of maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I shouldn’t be in this relationship anymore. Maybe you should have not taken this job. Or the other day somebody called me trying to sell a newspaper and I was so polite. I was more like, oh, I’m in a meeting. I was not in a meeting. Can you call me tomorrow? And I could have said, I’m not interested, so why did I do that? And I thought, it’s such a human thing. So there’s a lot of humor in that. But it’s also like something it’s almost sweet.
Well, one of the things I really admired in the film is the way you do build tension. And it’s like, excruciating tension. I watched it virtually and there was a point where I sort of wanted to fast forward to see the end just because it was kind of unbearable to wait to see what was going to happen. But you open the film with a shot that kind of tells us this is all going to end badly. But then you jump to this beautiful sunlit pool and everything. So talk about how you kind of like, ratchet it up and then bring.
It back and how that’s because horror was such a new field for me. I thought in the beginning that we should also create a script filled with jump scares and maybe supernatural elements. And I was trying to build it up like that classic way to do a horror where you have more scares in the first half also. But I’m not good at that. And I found it silly and cliche. And then when we took away all that, I really discovered that the real horror is in between people is something that you can relate to. Real horror for me is not ghosts or aliens from outer space. It’s being with other people. And it’s like something that is not said. It’s something very subtle because we have this situation what happens when we are among strangers, what happens when we are guests. There are so much tension in that and it was really like a lot of gifts coming up. But the real struggle that we worked on for a long time is how you find that balance. Because if they are too crazy in the beginning, you would say, why don’t they leave? So we discovered that every scene should have two choices. Even they are intimidated or they could also just be overreacting. And that’s the way the characters are feeling. And I wanted the audience to have that feeling too. Maybe something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just me misunderstanding it. And then I discovered that I really like the build up in horror films that you know, something dark or bad is going to happen. I can feel that I’m on the edge of my seat, but I can’t tell yet. And somebody is guiding me a little bit towards that brutal end that I don’t know what’s going to be. And all that expectations of something. That’s something I find very doable in a horror movie and it works for me. And then in many horror movies, I think the endings are often very silly and too much and wants to explain everything. So I was trying to stretch that feeling of tension for so long as I could without giving it away. And then in the end, of course, makes it explode more. So it was out of lack of not being capable of doing a horror film right, but then also being honest about where is the real horror. And that is much relatable and intimate for me, more than Invaders from Outer Space.
And talk specifically about the music because it was almost like the music was going counter to what the visuals were. It seemed like the music was more scary when the images were not and kind of almost beautiful when the images started to get more disturbing.
Yeah, I worked a long time with my composer and he’s also a friend of mine. And we wanted to make a score that was not just underneath the characters feelings and all that, but was a voice in itself, a character in itself, and almost like an opera. We talked, let’s make the film as an opera. How would it look like if we were allowing ourselves to think big? And what we discovered was that the music was almost like the destiny that here we have a family that kind of live safe lives and they’re pretty nice and they’re just going on a holiday, but they don’t know that they’re going to end their life in a year. But the film knows and the music knows. And we thought there was this great element of going against the images. We also tried with nice music, but if you have a nice view and nice romantic music, people will think it’s a romantic comedy. And we made some tests where people thought it was like, call me by your name, too. And what you discovered there is that you have to guide your audience a little bit from the beginning. You have to give them a hint of we’re going to a bad place together, but you don’t know where yet, but it’s going to come. And then we just thought it had an expression to say, let’s go all the way with that. They’re just walking on a field having a small talk, but the music says that you just wait. So it was a choice. And some people really liked that. And some people find it a little bit funny, but if you look at the beginning of The Shining, for instance, they’re also just driving in the car and then the music tells you like, okay, this is going to be bad. So it’s also a trick you can use in horror films. And I like that the music has a voice and it’s not just there for the feelings of the characters. So that was what it was about.
Well, that kind of goes to another thing that’s in this film is like, horror intersects in interesting ways with both comedy and beauty, in ways a lot of people don’t necessarily expect in your film. There’s moments when we’re not sure if we should laugh or be really scared. And there’s moments where we’re kind of sucked into a certain beauty that’s in the film, even though if you really dissect the content, we shouldn’t think it’s pretty.
Yeah, I’m happy to say that because in the beginning I said I can make a horror film because it doesn’t live up to the conventions all the time. But when I look at films that I really like, I like that films make clashes of different things, like life. I mean, they’re both scary and funny and you don’t know where it’s going and it has something to say. And I think a lot of classical horror films from the 80s or 90s, they had nothing to say. They just wanted to be effective and scary, but had flat characters, flat stories. And what I discovered more in like, yes, also American modern American horror films, is that they mix Shangra’s more. I don’t know if Mid Summer or Get Out is a Fire a comedy or is it a horror film, but for sure it is both. And it’s also something that makes a lot of social comments. So I think nowadays you can bend the genre more and you can actually use a great genre also to say something about human life or society. And horror is such an effective genre because you want to disturb people. And many films doesn’t disturb you, they please you and they pick you up in the end. And I think horror is just the ambition of horror to make you scared or disturbed. Leaving the cinema shaken is something that film makers love to do. So I was more trying, to be honest, of using what I could use and think of horror in a more artistic way. When Haniky uses horror elements, he does it because he has a voice himself and he takes what he can use. But it’s never really like a classical horror. It’s more like a realistic take on horror. And I allowed myself to take that freedom. But we had many people who disagreed with me who said, this is not a horror. And some people said, this is a black comedy or this is a family drama. And some people said it’s a thriller. But my ambition was to do my take on Hora with the horror I love. And that is more unfamiliar with polanski or some of the 70s horrors where you also spend a lot of time knowing the characters, building up a naturalistic world where you break it. And that’s very effective for me.
BETH ACCOMANDO I need to take one last break and then I will be back with the second half of my interview with Speak No Evil director Christian Tafdrup.
MIDROLL 2 [currently at 16:48:02]
BETH ACCOMANDO Welcome back. Many contemporary horror films fail to make us care about their characters. And if you don’t care about the characters then it’s hard to build tension. But Speak No Evil makes us care so everything that its characters go through we go through and we fear for their safety. I asked Tafdrup about creating characters that engage us.
Yeah, and that was also the purpose of the film that I wanted to make. It hard to watch and touching and something you could identify with. We talked a lot about it would be nice if the audience audience actually felt they were up there on the screen with them and that it mirrored situation that they feared being in. That’s like relatable horror. And of course, I’m more scared of other people than I’m scared of ghosts. And if you can get that feeling to an audience, then you are more scared. I had a lot of feedback from people meeting strangers on holidays in Italy saying, oh, you ruined my holiday. I met this Dutch couple. Now I don’t know what to do. That is because they don’t write I met a ghost and that is because it’s so intimate, relatable. But I think horror has it’s been a guilty pleasure in many ways in Denmark. And you can see a horror, it has a bad stories, but you forgive it because it’s a horror. And I think that’s wrong because why don’t make it deeper and why don’t make it more interesting? Because horror as a genre is so effective.
So it’s a genre that we need to do something with, which I think many new filmmakers do. And as a filmmaker, you always want to work with the uncomfortableness and the awkwardness between people. It’s a very common artistic way, so it feels like a perfect match for many new directors to use horror in a more original, relatable way.
Your film screened at Sundance, but it was virtual and with a film like this, it just feels like it needed an audience. So did you feel kind of cheated by not being able to watch the audience squirm a little bit during your film?
I’m not just cheated, I felt devastated and I’m still not really over it, you must imagine. I made films for many years and also tried to get into Sundance before, and now it actually happened and I knew it for eight months and then it was canceled two weeks before and we were going there, the whole team. And I’ve been to Sundae so many times in my head, but I’ve never been there. And it was so hard because, as you say, we hadn’t seen the film with an audience, only at some screenings. And when that didn’t happen, it just felt like the worst movie not to see with an audience. I mean, we had a lot of feedback from online premiere, but it took me some while to accept it. And now I have more experience in different parts of the world, in festivals, so I could have that feeling, but it will never be the same. And I think someone took that experience away from me and it’s been a bit yeah, definitely cheated.
The film feels really precise in how it’s executed because it does feel like it’s very ramped up and very carefully ramped up. But how much work did you do in the scripting? Did you storyboard? Did you feel like you went in with a very kind of strict way of putting it together? Or was this a film where you also had some play in terms of that and some work that was done in the editing room?
Yeah, every face of a film, I stay in that phase for a long time. And when I think back up how we did the script, I think we had the idea pretty fast, but then we talked for half a year and then we wrote the very fast. We wrote it in a week, but then we rewrote it eleven times. And I think it’s because it was not difficult to get the situations, but be, as you say, precise and work with the details and actually work with what is underneath this very recognizable situation, what it is about. And it’s not just about somebody eating meat or vegetarian. There’s so much more at stake. So we worked a lot of what is in between the words and how do we get a feeling of something devilish underneath everything. I think we worked a lot with that and we worked a lot with preparing the film. When you do a horror, you have to find a horror house, you have to find a horror restaurant. Characters that looks like actors that have a horror face. I mean, everything has to fit in that elevated universe you want to create. And it also took six months to edit because we had to find the story underneath all the scenes and what it is really about and to find the voice there. So it was never like panic or anything, but I think we used a lot of time getting it really precise and it’s only an hour and a half but we caught a lot of away from the film and really tried to make it really precise. So, yeah, you’re right, it took a lot of time. But it’s a hard film to do because there are not big shocks, big turning points, it’s a slow burn and it takes its time. But you don’t want to get bored. You want to stay with the characters where you are all the time and not get you know, you have to be entertained also even though it’s small tools. So, yeah, I worked a lot with everything in this film for many years.
And one last question, talk about your casting and what you were looking for in each of these actors to fit these roles.
Yeah, it was fun because I wanted to find a very ordinary Danish couple that was almost looked like everyday life people. The truth is when you have great actors in a country, they all look so special and exotic and everyone that came into that casting was so confident. And these characters are a little more off. They’re kind of struggling just being themselves. And the two Danes who got the part were perfect but not experienced. Especially him had only done theater and they were overdoing it a lot. So I decided to show them the castings and work with them for a long time before actually shooting it. And it worked in that sense. It was a great choice because they became better. And then with the Dutch axes I wanted somebody who had a more demon like feeling and I didn’t know them, but they are apparently great stars in Holland and then I couldn’t say so much to them because then I would ruin it. They are so experienced, so it was more a question of guiding them in the right direction and then, of course, matching the couples. They have to be very different and it’s like Patrick, the character Practic kind of mirrors what beyond lacks in life and in himself.
And he’s more contact with the primitive nature and Beyon is so civilized and behaving great all the time. So it was almost like it was the dark side of himself that he was longing for. And all that you have to find in your access and you never know if you find it. So you go around being nervous because if you don’t have the access, you don’t have the story, you can create that message to the audience. So we also spent eight or nine months finding the right ones. But, yeah, I think I was lucky, and these were the best we could find. And there were also actors who didn’t want to be in the film, so, I mean, I didn’t have every choice in the world. I had a lot of nos because of the ending.
Well, thank you very much for talking about Speaking of Evil, and thank you for the excruciating experience.
Thank you so much.
One of my favorite films for the year.
Thank you. It’s very kind of you. I take that with me. Thank you.
That was filmmaker Christian Tafdrup. His film Speak No Evil is currently streaming on Shudder.
That wraps up another edition of KPBS listener supported Cinema Junkie. Remember to check out Cinema Junkie’s companion videos from the Geeky gourmet because I’ll show you how to make some food themed to my podcasts. You can find the videos and more podcasts at kpbs-dot-org-slash-cinema-junkie.
Next up, I will speak with author Mathew Klickstein about his new book See You At San Diego which looks to the origin of Comic-Con and the rise of Geek Culture.
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Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident Cinema Junkie.