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I'm Afraid of Other People and Myself: Christian Tafdrup on Speak No Evil

One of this year’s most disturbing and provocative horror films might make you think twice about traveling abroad. 

In Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil,” a Danish couple vacation in Tuscany with their young daughter, meeting a Dutch couple with a child of their own as both families lounge in the summer sun. After returning home, the Danes—Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch)—receive an unexpected invitation to visit the Dutch—Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders)—in southern Holland. 

They oblige, only to realize after reuniting at the Dutch couple’s country home that they scarcely know these new acquaintances. Determined not to let such a discomforting realization dampen the mood, lest they appear rude to their generous hosts, Bjørn and Louise do their best to warm up to Patrick and Karin—though, to do so, they must look past a slow-accumulating series of small affronts, and the inexplicable sense of unpleasantness that’s beginning to settle over the visit like a black cloud. 

It’s an ideal setup for cringe comedy, though writer/director Tafdrup (previously best known as an actor in his native Denmark) proves himself capable of twisting the knife in more ways than one. As Patrick and Karin start to cross personal and parental boundaries, seeming to delight in doing so, their guests question whether something more sinister is going on—and, if so, how to best respond, ideally without offending. 

As “Speak No Evil” heads from this place of simmering dread and social ambivalence toward a shockingly brutal conclusion, the film reveals itself to be both a squirm-inducing social satire and a work of grueling psychological horror, with much to say about societal contracts, bourgeois complacency, and the true nature of evil. 

Even before world-premiering in the Midnight section at Sundance this past January, where it became one of the festival’s most buzzed-about features (no easy feat in an all-virtual year), “Speak No Evil” was acquired by Shudder for stateside distribution; it starts streaming there September 15. IFC Midnight, meanwhile, is overseeing a limited theatrical run for the film, with “Speak No Evil” opening in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and expanding in subsequent weeks.

Below, Tafdrup spoke to RogerEbert.com about the terrors of overstepping, his challenge to the Danish film industry, and the moment he realized he was making a horror movie.

Spoilers for “Speak No Evil” follow. The following interview has been edited and condensed. 

I caught “Speak No Evil” at Sundance, and watching it alone at midnight was extremely unsettling. It’s since played at in-person fests, including Chicago Critics Film Festival, and seeing the film with a crowd is a uniquely creepy experience as well. How has it been to travel with “Speak No Evil” along the festival circuit?

I was devastated to only have online feedback at Sundance. I was happy with the feedback it received but, when you make a movie like this, you want to see how the crowd reacts. Of course, we had test screenings during the editing process, and those reactions were wild. Some people loved it, and some people really hated it. I was looking forward to the world premiere, to seeing it with the crew up there. We had to be patient. 

Eventually, though, I traveled to different festivals and met different audiences. The reactions have been different depending on which country you see it in. In Germany, people were louder, laughing and screaming. People also walked out, some yelled at me that I should be ashamed of myself. Others said it was bullshit. Some cried and loved it. In South Korea, everybody was silent from the first minute to the last; after that, they were shaking with love for the film. They were very nervous, polite people who asked a lot of questions.

What has surprised me, and been very pleasing, is that it’s a more global film than I’d anticipated. I once thought suppressing feelings and being dictated by social behavior was a very Scandinavian problem. Now that we’ve played in so many different parts of the world, it’s clear we’re all in conflict about how we should behave and what we really feel. That’s so human. 

Even though the cultural differences have elicited different reactions in theaters, everybody mostly gets that same idea out of it. Some like it, some don’t, but most think it’s a very recognizable film to watch. It’s universal in its themes. I was not aware of this when we made the film.

You often see social anxiety and compulsive courtesy explored in comedy, but to see those behaviors pushed to the extreme of psychological horror is less common. At what point in the writing process did you find this film’s genre and tone?

I often get ideas that would fit well for comedies or satire. That’s what I'm familiar with: looking at the awkwardness of human behavior. This “cringeness” between people is something I feel very close to. I’d had the idea [to make “Speak No Evil”] for years. It’s based on my own experiences, because I’ve traveled, I'm a social person, and I love small talk. In my travels, I met people I didn’t know. I met people I thought were cool, and it turned out that they were not. 

I thought I should make a film about this simple idea. For a long time, I wondered if it could be a comedy, about couples and misunderstandings. But that was too easy. I like to place myself in deep water, with genres I'm not familiar with, and the last thing I thought I should do was dare to make a horror film. I had not seen many horror films; the genre has clichés, and I was afraid of that. And yet, if you make a good horror film, you can raise the bar. Many horror films have flat characters and flat stories. They want to explain themselves, but they’re not about anything. I thought, if I could combine a social satire and family drama with conventions of the horror genre, it would become more interesting. When I did that, the film opened up in my mind. It became darker, more radical—and about something. 

My brother and I ran this test, which can be helpful when you have an idea for a film. We said to each other, “What if this idea had been for a movie from South Korea?” In South Korea, they dare so much to mix genres; their films can be slapstick, crime, and horror. We asked what this idea would look like; it’s a good exercise to do when you start fleshing out an idea, not to make it the most obvious. Then, we shook hands and made a promise: “Let's do the most disturbing film ever—in Danish cinema.” 

Danish cinema is great, but also very neat and pleasing sometimes. We have Lars von Trier, of course, but besides him people largely stay in their comfort zones. “Speak No Evil” was a way to challenge myself and the industry in Denmark: for example, to have an ending without any hope. To disturb the audience instead of letting them go home feeling nice. To create a physical experience that stays in your body for weeks. First, the film was an idea in my mind. Then, there was a genre I was afraid of. I found it liberating to write, because that was new to me.

Chilling as it is, the film also has this vein of dark humor running through it. I’m thinking most of Bjørn and Louise’s efforts to remain polite in the face of their hosts’ strange, eventually callous behavior. Tell me about achieving that pattern of escalation within the social dilemmas your characters are forced to navigate.

We spent a lot of time doing that. We talked about “Funny Games,” by Michael Haneke, who also uses horror in a realistic way. In that film, somebody knocks on the door and, after five minutes, they're violent. Here, we didn’t have that. We had a couple who could leave every minute but did not. And why don’t they? In situations where somebody is testing you or crossing boundaries, how do you react? If you read our first script, Patrick and Karin were too crazy from the beginning. You would have thought, “Why don't [Bjørn and Louise] just run away? These characters are stupid.” 

But in every situation we wrote, we believed there should be two possibilities all the time: the possibility that they were actually being intimidated, and the possibility it's a misunderstanding and their own fault. It’s like, “I’m a guest at their house. Why should they be rude? That’s typical of me to think.” We wanted to create that feeling in audiences. 

You have a sense, underneath these comedic situations, that there’s suspense and darkness, which suggests everything is not what it seems. You could easily write a scene about some guy offering a girl some meat, but the girl is a vegetarian, to be funny. But underneath, you can still establish an atmosphere of horror. We built up that suspense, leading into darker scenes where [Bjørn and Louise] are being increasingly tested but never say no, until a point that might be fatal. It was a balance between keeping it subtle but creating the sensation of characters going to a bad place without knowing where, why, and when. 

What was the most difficult part of striking that balance?

Finding that balance was the trickiest part of crafting the script. For a long time, I doubted the script, because the jump-scares we had did not work. I took them out, and we also tried some supernatural elements. That did not work. In the beginning, I had in mind that our horror was between people and about what you don't know about others. That’s what frightens me. I’m not afraid of vampires or ghosts. I’m afraid of other people and myself.

We were also working with ideas of political correctness. Your child is being babysat by a dark stranger, and you're afraid, but you don't want to seem racist, so you don't say anything. We wanted to explore taboos; the audience could say either “I would never do that” or “I understand that response. I’m not proud of myself, but perhaps I would do that too.” We don’t speak about it, but that’s underneath social situations. 

For a long time, we also worked with mythology. We decided Italy should be heaven, Denmark should be limbo, and Holland should be pure hell. You have to be precise with the details, and that's what I like as a director: turning over every stone, and making the lines precise. It’s almost like music. This all took years, because it was simple but also about something bigger that the audience could not discover until the end.

Morten Burian captures Bjørn’s unease and self-doubt, that instinct toward complacency over conflict, in a way I found so compelling, but he’s also the character I could imagine infuriating audience members the most. Watching him, I was reminded of that line from David Fincher’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remake: “It's hard to believe that the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what? It is.”

Which is certainly not something we’re proud of. And when people watch movies, they often don't want to see what they’re not proud of. That’s why there are so many films about ordinary guys who turn out to be superheroes and beat the bad guys. Once, in 99 percent of American films, you got that ending. But if we’re honest, we can all look at situations from our lives where we were supposed to act in a specific way, but we did not, because we were too scared. Sometimes, the worst thing is to lose face. Sometimes, that is even worse than dying. We do so much not to lose face. It’s unbelievable. 

I had to be honest about situations in my life where I met bad people and was afraid. How did I react? My personal reaction was either to freeze or try to make friends with those bad guys. I once met a gang of 14-year-old boys in Marrakesh; they were throwing things at me, and I tried to smile and be polite, to be friends with them. That was my reaction. I was not fighting back. I was not even running. My fear was coming out in friendly ways, because these reactions are what I know. They are my tools. I’ve discovered that many modern, civilized people are not used to evil — not in their everyday lives. They don’t know how to react if they actually meet it. Perhaps they permit evil themselves and allow evil things to happen; they’re not fighting it or trusting their gut, so they let it happen for too long. 

The Danish actors drew on situations in their own life they were not proud of, where something bad happened, or they stayed in relationships too long, or they’d taken jobs even though they didn’t like what was asked of them. These were all times they’d sacrificed themselves, to please others.That’s why Bjørn freezes. He can’t even save his own family, which provokes audiences.

Why is he not doing anything? That can be a natural human reaction, not for everybody but for a lot of us. We don't expect to get killed. This is how people fool us and how dictators come to power; we allow them to fool us for too long. 

You filmed “Speak No Evil” during the pandemic. How did that impact the production?

We were stopped all the time. It took seven weeks to shoot the film, spread out over 12 months. We were stopped four times. To be honest, I did not know if I could finish the film. The house we shot had to be torn down. The kids were growing up. Some actors had a fear of traveling. We had to shoot in the summer, but it had to look like winter. All the time, we had to exercise this patience, be mentally clear, and maintain our vision. 

We were challenged by not having any form of continuity in shooting the film. It was depressing in many ways, not to know if we could finish. Actors were going onto other jobs. You had to keep your spirits up. But the movie became better. I rewrote elements of it and became more wise about what I wanted to say. I’m most proud that we did the Italy sequences on our last days of filming, though we were supposed to do those first. When you have the rest of the film shot, you can change the ending, so you can create a bigger stretch to move out of the film. The ending and beginning look different than they did in the script. But I knew where it was going, so I could adjust characters and so on. Filming scenes in themselves was not so difficult. We were fighting against a worldwide disease back when nobody knew how things were going to turn out, so I've been very exhausted. I only just started writing again, two weeks ago.

That you shot last in Italy explains why that’s the most unnerving shot I’ve seen of a child’s hand running through a sprinkler. I was wondering, “Why is this so ominous?” 

It’s funny you mention that, because it’s my favorite shot. It gives me goosebumps. It’s these kids moving in slow-motion through sprinklers, and they were just extras, but it works because I knew the rest of the film. These are small gifts that you cannot think through while writing the script. You have to get a little lucky as well. 

You mentioned Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. The isolated setting of “Speak No Evil” reminded me of the latter’s “Antichrist” for reasons that become more apparent once the film enters its third act, but tell me about drawing that wrathful Old Testament quality out of the landscapes you filmed. 

I was keen to elevate the film. It’s not just about a couple. It's about masculinity and femininity. It's not just about bad guys. It’s about evil itself. We decided that Patrick and Karin are not just some criminals. They’re devils themselves. I started to ask, “What if this film were an opera or a Greek drama?” Allow yourself to think bigger, even though your situations are small. If you think mythologically, that can give you gifts; let’s not end the execution with a gun or a knife, but with a stoning! Normally, you do not allow yourself that in more naturalistic cinema. It seems weird. Here, it already felt larger than life. It felt Biblical. 

With [director of photography] Erik Molberg Hansen and [composer] Sune Kølster, I discussed creating a more dreamlike universe, perhaps Bjørn’s worst nightmare. Erik is a gifted DP; he’s worked with realism, with Pernilla August, and with sensible directors who keep you very close to the characters. I wanted to take that realism and also work with light. We talked about how the film should move from bright light to darkness, from heaven to hell. We wanted suspenseful images of nature where nothing happens, to get close to the characters but also look at them from the outside. 

The set designer [Sabine Hviid] imagined it as a fable as well. When you watch the film closely, paintings on the wall reference Biblical ideas. In an intuitive way more than an intellectual one, I thought the story had to be a dark adventure of sorts. I did not want to explain why the [Dutch couple] did what they did. I didn't want to say, “Where are the police?” I wanted the story to symbolize evil in the world and how we react to it.

“Speak No Evil” is now playing in NY and LA, ahead of its streaming premiere on Shudder on September 15th. 

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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