Speak No Evil is a film you’re likely going to hear a lot about as it finally gets released this month. Having started the year by debuting at Sundance and proving a pretty big hit there, it has continued to pick up a lot of interest, and some brilliant reactions too.
The film starts with a highly relatable situation, as a Danish family are on holiday where they meet a Dutch family and they seem to click, so after they return they decide to go and visit them at their home after being invited. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unravelling, as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of increasing awkwardness and unpleasantness.
We spoke to the film’s Danish director Christian Tafdrup about the journey of its creation, and why the Scandinavians are so good at social awkwardness and how their culture is creating a new breed of daring horror. There are no spoilers here, and even some great writing tips for those looking for inspiration on writing a screenplay too.
Nordic Watchlist: Christian, I have to congratulate you because I was left staring at my TV screen for a good thirty minutes after your film finished with my jaw dropped to the floor. I think this is a good response but equally I can’t really forgive you for the nightmares I had afterwards. What I find truly fascinating is that this film wasn’t even supposed to be a horror film – what the hell happened?
Christian Tafdrup: I hadn’t decided to do a horror film because I am not that much into horror and I haven’t really seen that many horrors. I don’t think I am very good at it.
This idea just started off as two couples on a holiday where things get awkward and to me that sounded like a comedy. It could have been a funny cheerful drama but then it suddenly seem so interesting to us so I talked to my co-writer who is my brother and see if we could place this idea into another genre.
For example we thought to ourselves, ‘what would this movie look like if it was made in South Korea’ ? It is so interesting to compare it to something which doesn’t suit the idea and it was then we thought about this film being a horror – everything opened from there and made it so much more radical.
So Christian began to go places he hadn’t really been to before – he didn’t want the jump scares and horror clichés so instead he began to find his own take on horror and take the story from there. He swears it was the last thing he ever thought he’d end up writing, a smirk crossing his face.
Nordic Watchlist: Scandinavians are so good at making awkward situations in films; Ruben Ostlund is a great example with his work on Force Majeure and The Square – there are scenes within those films that are not horror but feel horrific when watching them. Speak No Evil feels that way throughout the film until you turn the notch to eleven at the end – what is it that makes the Scandinavians so good at this? Is it the culture perhaps because they can seem quite reserved?
Christian Tafdrup: You are absolutely right, when I look at my two previous films, [A Horrible Woman and Parents], they are like horror films as well only it is more about the horror between two people and their relationships.
Everything I work with is based on awkwardness and that cringe-ness – this is something that has come more naturally for me rather than from seeing other directors works. It is just a Scandinavian thing. You see, we don’t like to talk about how we are feeling, we try to stay polite and behave nicely, supressing what we really think. That is very Scandinavian – we are so dictated by social manners and social views.
If you compare it just to American or English people we don’t talk about our feelings so much, we don’t show so much excitement – we just underplay everything. So that creates a lot of awkwardness in social gatherings.
Nordic Watchlist: So what happens when something within that space goes wrong?
Christian Tafdrup: For many directors that is where the horror lies in film and I think it is very good thing that we don’t want to move away from that. That as artists we want to stay in these embarrassing situations because they are so human, some films will cut away but I like to stay in those situations for too long to show the weakness of people. It becomes so laughable but equally that is where there is the feeling of horror.
So, yes, it is definitely a Scandinavian thing to suppress things and to be so dictated by the social conventions. Speak No Evil is a film that is totally about that and the angle we ended up going with.
Nordic Watchlist: Another aspect of the film I really enjoyed is that it is a slow burn that has a rewarding, if you can call it that, pay off. Do you think there is danger in trying to keep people engaged during the film and then delivering a pay off that might go too far?
Christian Tafdrup: From the beginning I was never really looking to make a slow burn, it was slower because we weren’t very good at creating these moments you expect in horror film – the first jump scare for example. So it was something we really had a hard time doing – creating this supernatural element with ants coming out of the wall but it just didn’t work so that was when we went down the more naturalistic route.
We focused on getting into these people’s lives before that third first act – it is something I really love about movies when you take your time. You know something bad is coming but you don’t know what it is yet – so I think the payoff at the end is so much bigger if you took your time with the audience staying with the characters.
Christian Tafdrup: I was trying to create this build up for as long as I could and I know that this can divide people a little bit because there are people who expect more plot or more tricks and effects, we just didn’t have the talent to do that but instead we realised that this was terrifying because there is this empathises on what we do as human beings – that the audience feels that that could easily be them up there on the screen.
Christian makes a very valid point here – Speak No Evil doesn’t deliver any monsters or folklore witches but instead it gets under your skin by making you wonder what you might do in the situations, how would you react or cope? He singles out Michael Haneke as a great example with his film Funny Games, how the film stays with the characters for a very long time before things go wild and this was a great bit of inspiration for his film.
Christian Tafdrup: The film had to go some place dark, and I know some people could not cope with the last part of the film but some films have to take chances and mix the genres a little.
Nordic Watchlist: I’d like to touch on this big Nordic horror trend that seems to be happening in 2022. We’ve had Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents, Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching, and hopefully a new film from Kasper Juhl too – what is behind this do you think?
Christian Tafdrup: I think the tradition for Scandinavian films for many many decades has always been about naturalism, kitchen sink naturalism. There are films about marriages going wrong, someone having an affair, and just general everyday life problems – we got really good at that! Then came the crime stories and television series with the detective who has the solve the case but has their own problems – and I think we got fed up with this take.
This fascination with horror opens a door that is more cinematic and interesting – we are not making the classic horror American movies; instead the Scandinavians are mixing it a little bit with what we know.
Take The Innocents for example; it is in the suburbs of Norway, its a family and their kids but then they mix in this supernatural element which gives this new feeling to it.
Denmark hasn’t made many horror films – you have The Kingdom from Lars Von Trier mixing a bit of comedy and horror, but a clear horror movie we don’t do too often. So it is exciting tackling this genre in a different way.
Christian sights the likes of Get Out and Midsommar as inspirations to the Danes in terms of horror that had that mix of humour and social comment. In Denmark they like to have a social commentary, so to have films that have something to say rather than just be there to shock you is interesting to them.
Christian Tafdrup: We have been a little too boring sometimes and need to get a bit more daring with our films, to get our of our comfort zones more.
Nordic Watchlist: So it does beg the question – what are you looking for people to feel after watching Speak No Evil when it finally comes to our screens?
Christian Tafdrup: Well I’d love people to sit down and discuss it and think about their lives – how they interact with other people. That they don’t just go watch the film and then afterwards think about something else; of course I want people to have a great ride, and be scared, but I want people to wake up the next morning and for that film to still be there in their psyche.
We can guarantee you that Christian’s movie will certainly still be in your psyche the next day, maybe even for the rest of the year!
Speak No Evil will have its International Premier on Shudder on the 15th September.
Interview by Alex Minnis