Absent of jump scares, supernatural elements, and most clichés that come with horror, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil is more interested in the ways as humans we give the benefit of the doubt to others, despite a rotting malfeasance that may be lying under the surface. The Sundance premiere, which has now arrived on Shudder and in theaters, follows a family who accept the invitation of another while on vacation to come to their home––and things get much creepier from there.

I spoke with Tafdrup about resisting horror tropes, approaching the film as a reverse Funny Games, the importance of crafting a truly brutal ending, understanding negative reactions, the eroding sense of masculinity, and much more.

The Film Stage: A lot of the film deals with pushing societal boundaries until people can kind of explode, being pushed really outside their comfort zone. Can you talk about fine-tuning the script in this regard? There’s moments you want to scream at the characters to get out of there, but you also weave a grounded emotion through the story.

Christian Tafdrup: Well, we worked a lot and a long time on the script and it was kind of funny because it wasn’t that difficult when we had the idea to lay out the scenes. And we wrote it real fast, actually. I think we talked a lot for half a year and then we wrote the script in almost just one week. After that, we spent almost a year rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it. And I think what you’re mentioning here is actually the core of it that we were working so long with the balance of a comfort zone.

We discovered that, in the beginning of the script, they were just too crazy from the start and no one would kind of believe them.They were just like, “Why? Why don’t they leave?” We had a scene in the beginning where they were treating their son like a dog and they were getting him in a wire and they were just so crazy. And then, later on, we discovered that every scene had to have two options. That that the main characters, but also the audience, had to say either they are intimidated or they were overreacting. And there should be these two options all the time because you should doubt it a little bit. And then we worked so long at the build up, so it got more and more into something that was more and more crossing the borders. But in the beginning it could have been a misunderstanding. And maybe you forgot that I’m a vegetarian.

So I think we spend a lot of time being very subtle. And that was difficult because the fear of that was, of course, that it was boring and we did not have any aliens or ghosts. I’m not very good at jump scares or anything. So we just had the atmosphere, the psychological tension between the characters. So I think when we were actually on set shooting the scenes, we had worked such a long time with them that it wasn’t that difficult to shoot them. And that’s what I like sometimes: when it goes well, if you cast right, and you work so long for the script and you know what you want, it’s actually full of joy to shoot it. So yeah, working on the balance was definitely something that took almost a year after we got all the main situations actually and ever.

It’s very relatable, as you mentioned, even if it gets to crazier moments by the end. How much was pulled from real-life experience, where you may be wondering how you got away with something? Are people too nice?

Yeah, a lot I think. I’ve always been in a way very social and I’m very used to small talk and I like to meet new people. But also, maybe because I write and direct, you have like a double eye. You also see all the situations from the outside. And I always notice in myself and with other people, how awkward it can be, how much people are fighting when they don’t know each other. You meet somebody at a reception and you’re going to have a small talk and the most horrible thing that could happen is if there is a pause or you don’t know what to say to each other. Or if somebody you talk to, they just look at somebody else or you feel humiliated. And I just thought in this world of small talk, there is so much drama.

The film was actually partly inspired by a trip I had in 2016 in Italy with my own family, where we met a Dutch couple and we became immediately friends. It was a little bit like in the film and they were very charming, but also a bit creepy. And they invited us. We talked about visiting them again and then I said no to my girlfriend, that we shouldn’t go. And then when we arrived at home I started to imagine what would have happened if we had went, how would that weekend look like? And of course, immediately it felt more like a comedy, but it was very flat in that sense. And so, after that, my brother and I decided, what if we placed this idea in a horror genre and are we capable of doing the horror? It’s something that is not very close to me. And then something very radical happened with that idea, and we allowed ourselves to take it very far. So yes: it was partly based on situations on holiday with strangers.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to bring it up, but The Vanishing is one of my all-time favorite films and seeing another film like it—this slow-burn suspense with an unforgettable end—was refreshing. You really get to live with the characters, which makes the end all the more impactful. You mentioned you got some pushback from financiers about the finale. Can you talk about the perseverance you had on your end of just sticking to your guns and knowing people will react to this and it is what makes this film special?

Yeah, it’s funny—because I did not know The Vanishing and I still haven’t seen it. But there are of course other films that we were not looking at, but talking about. Of course, a film like Funny Games where I think, the great thing about that film is that he uses horror in a very artistic way, and he kind of uses the genre as he wants to. And it’s very realistic and relatable and cynical in a way. And we just thought it was fun also to do almost like a reversed Funny Games. You know, here we have a couple visiting someone and it’s in a more psychological way. I like Funny Games, but it is very easy—with the doorbells, and they hit them, and they tie them up, and they don’t have a chance. And [with my film] I thought it was fun if they could just drive away all that time that no one was using these horror clichés: no creepy basement, no violence until the end.

It was also out of not knowing how to write a horror film, because I wanted a more classic horror in the beginning [of writing] with jump scares. We also tried some supernatural elements and we really failed there. I could not write that. We tried with arms coming out of the walls and creepy eyes on the floor and all that. It just seemed like all the clichés I don’t like. And then when we looked at some horror films––I remember we saw Hereditary and maybe we saw Midsommar more at a later stage. And what I really like about many horror films like that is the first half, the build-up. And then I think, in the end, it just goes too crazy or they want to explain everything and it’s more like something they made up. I told myself: what if we can use the build-up for the longest time we can and it’s still exciting.

Then of course, right up to some horrible third act where everything’s gone out of line, but in a very subtle way. We talked about the tongue scene from the beginning almost as a comment on violence—that many films use violence in a very extreme way. But we still sit there entertained. We’re eating our popcorn. If we could just use a little bit of blood, a little bit of violence, but do it in a way that was so horrible that people would look away or still be disgusted after the film. And of course, when you use children and a tongue, it’s very brutal. So I wanted to rely on small tools and small effects.

When you do horror I found it was so liberating during this film that you have to be radical. You have to have an ending that is bad, that is evil––almost like you tell a fairy tale or an opera. I mean, it was not enough that they were just killed. It had to be in the most brutal way. It had to be a stoning. These elements are more like mythology or Biblical references. It reminded me more of an elevated universe that we often see in horror films. So that was also the genre dictating what could happen. And for me, coming from Denmark, where we do a lot of realistic stuff, that was just such a liberating thing to do it in a more conceptual way.

The film has gotten pretty great reviews across the board, but is there a part of you that delights in people who are completely revolted by it? Are you shocked by that at all?

No, I kind of expected that. I think I expected more negative comments. Of course you like when people like your films. I believe in the audience and I want to give people a good experience, but sometimes it’s not enough just to please them. I think a lot of films please, also very good films. And we really wanted to make a disturbing film. We agreed that we should make the most disturbing film in Danish history. When you shake hands on that, you cannot have everybody with you. But what I really wanted was a reaction that people would reflect on it, get angry, discuss it the next day and the next day, and that it was a physical experience. And even all the bad comments I read or somebody writing directly to me and are mad at me, there is still a reaction.

I remember in Germany, at a festival, someone stood up and yelled that you should be ashamed of yourself. And he was almost crying. And he walked out of the theater and I was not shaken or mad. That’s a reaction. So many films are met with silence or like, “oh, that was a good film and another good film.” And I wanted to stand out in a way. It got very good reviews, but at home here it also divided the audience. There are some who also expected it to be more horror-ish. And the truth is that that it this is a clash between different genres. It’s also a family drama. And they talk a lot and not much horror in the beginning at all. And when you do that, you have to expect that people have mixed feelings about it because their expectations are different. But it’s an artistic film and that’s what I like to experiment with.

With Bjørn, you’re waiting to see if he’s going to buy into what Patrick is selling just to get on his side about anything. When they go off together and talk about masculinity and how they are stuck in a rut is when it first happens. Can you talk about the theme of today’s eroding sense of masculinity?

I did three features and also some short films during many years and I think one of the main themes, without even really realizing, is that it’s a take on at least Scandinavian masculinity. But I kind of realized that it’s a more global issue. What I knew from movies, especially American movies, was masculinity was something where the American hero in the end, this ordinary man, can suddenly fight and shoot and save his family and run through the woods and all that. And I could not recognize that from reality or myself. And I think many Scandinavian men are not introverted, but a little bit pathetic and a little bit vague and live very good, safe lives and are good people. But they’re not really in contact with their darker side or their more primitive nature.

We have been in, especially in our parts of the world, very, very civilized, very privileged. We talk about, you know, everyday life, material stuff, the kids, and all that. And suddenly I had that feeling, what is my primal nature and what would happen if something very evil or very bad would happen to me? Would I be capable of saving my family or fighting back or would I just freeze or run away? And the true answer is: I think it’s the latter.

I know many Scandinavian directors, like Ruben Östlund, have dealt with that in their movies. Like when the guy runs away from an avalanche in Force Majeure. It’s also a very sad comic take, but a normal reaction. And what I like about that is it’s not something that you are proud of or you don’t want to talk about it. And sometimes I think movies are a romantic view of how we want to be. But I was just looking at myself, looking at my friends, looking at something that I didn’t want to admit, and then tried to place it up on the screen.

This is also a midlife crisis film. This is a man, Bjørn, who kind of has a perfect life, but he’s longing for some chaos. And he’s falling for a man who is very much in contact with his more aggressive side and says what he wants, lies if he wants to, he’s more physical. And I think he mirrors what he lacks in life. And that’s why he almost falls in love with him. He wants to be a little bit more like that because you have all these layers as a human being. If you suppress the darker side to not even talk about it with your closest friends or in society, I think that’s a dangerous way that we have taken.

And we live in very politically correct times where we don’t want to offend anybody and we don’t want to admit something we’re not proud of or something we once did. I think that’s a very dangerous development. So so this was also a take on that political correctness that happens. What happens if we close our eyes for the darkness in ourselves, but also when we meet it, that can be fatal. Because in this film they could have said stop, but they don’t because they are so dedicated to behaving nicely. So it’s a criticism of that. I find that very, very common right now in society.

Speak No Evil is now on Shudder and in theaters.

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