Christian Tafdrup: “’Speak No Evil’ explores how bounded we are to social conventions”

A Dutch and Danish family meet while on vacation amid the rolling green hills of Tuscany, Italy. The Dutch couple then extends an invitation to spend a long weekend at their house in the Netherlands. The Danish family decides to accept—they think it might be rude to turn it down—and once they arrive there after their day-long drive, things look great. They’re happy to be reunited, there’s plenty of wine and enough to talk about. But as the guests begin to realize they hardly know their hosts and things get very uncomfortable, they’re aware that their initial compulsion to be polite and gracious may come at a very high cost. Their long weekend in the woods gradually escalates into a gruesome and highly disturbing nightmare. What happened in Tuscany, should have stayed in Tuscany.

With frequent winks to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (1997), which he remade a decade later in the U.S. with Noami Watts and Tim Roth, “Speak No Evil” is a complex horror film with the same brutal shock value as George Sluizer’s Dutch-language “Spoorloos” (1988), which he also remade in the U.S. as “The Vanishing” (1993), starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.

“Speak No Evil” is a Danish film, originally titled “Gæsterne,” and is shot in English; it’s the third feature directed by Christian Tafdrup (b. 1978), a Danish filmmaker and screenwriter, who began his career as an actor in the 1990s in films and TV series in his home country.

The film had its world premiere on January 22, 2022, at Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight section; the Festival’s website states that the film ‘masterfully builds tension and suspense, with a visual crescendo that is sure to leave a lasting impression.’ In her introduction to the film, Sundance Institute programmer Ana Souza described the film as ‘one of the most twisted films of this year’s Festival.’ On January 29, 2022, the European premiere of “Speak No Evil” took place at the Göteborg Film Festival in Sweden; since then, the film was also screened at other festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this month. “Speak No Evil” was released in Denmark in March 2022, and international territories are scheduled to follow.

The principal cast, with the Danish couple, Bjørn and Louise, is played by Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch; Dutch actors Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders, also a couple in real life, play the Dutch couple, Patrick and Karin.

In “Speak No Evil,” a lot is happening in the course of an hour and a half; throughout the picture, you’re reminded that the age-old parental advice, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ still makes a lot of sense.

When talking about the film via Zoom with Christian Tafdrup at the Ostend Film Festival last month, it was impossible to avoid spoilers.

The Sundance Film Festival, January 2022: Danish film director Christian Tafdrup introduces “Speak No Evil”

Mr. Tafdrup, how did the story of “Speak No Evil” come about?

Three years ago, when I was with my girlfriend and our three-year-old daughter on vacation in Tuscany, I had a similar experience to that of the characters in the movie. We had met a Dutch couple and became friends. They also had children and they invited us to their place in Rotterdam. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and said, ‘Should we go? Should we not?’ We decided not to go. But it was then that I started imagining what could have happened if we had visited them. I talked about it with my brother and we imagined all these funny, but also scary things that could have been. We started brainstorming on weird situations; it could have become a comedy or a drama, but we thought, ‘What if the worst thing that could happen actually did happen?’ So we started to write it as a horror film, partly based on my own experience and on our free imagination.

I love your sense of humor. When the film was screened at The Sundance Film Festival, they posted a great intro of yours on their YouTube channel [see clip above] to promote your film with negative comments you got.

[Laughs.] We did test screenings early on, and I was sad about some of the comments. But then I thought, ‘Maybe I can use them in a creative way?’ Because it would be great to present a movie based on critical comments—with a little bit of irony in it. So they were real comments that I translated into English; they were some of the worst comments ever, and they were not just negative. They were also a reaction to my work, and that’s something I like because you don’t want to be met by silence when you do a film. You hope to get some kind of reaction, and I think this film will do that. So it was also a statement for Sundance that people can react to a film.

You are a film director, a screenwriter, and an actor in theater and film. Suppose someone comes up to you and asks you, ‘What do you do for a living?’ What would your answer be?

Until four years ago, I would have said that I was an actor that also directs. But now I think I can call myself a director, and it feels very good. I always wanted to be both an actor and a director; I have been acting since I was a child. But I also directed shorts since I was a teenager; in this part of the world, you have to choose one thing if you want to educate yourself on something. So I went to theater school, and on holiday breaks or on weekends, I just directed and directed. I never felt close to any film directors in Denmark because I was not in a film school; I come from the theater world. So I decided early on that one day, I would try to work towards a career as a film director. Now I have done three feature films—two were very low budget films, and “Speak No Evil” is the first one with a normal budget. Directing is the most fulfilling thing for me. I never had so much fun in my life. I think I am an actor that has always been good at creating my own things. I love to get an idea and see how it develops into something. When I did stage work and appeared in Shakespeare and Chekov plays, I liked to perform, but there was something about it that didn’t make me feel quite at home. While in this creative process—coming up with things, imagining your own world and make it into a product—that is really a big passion of mine. And now, at 43, with two kids and a wife that doesn’t work in this business, it wouldn’t very nice to work every night on a stage; life is quieter now when I write at home and don’t have to go to the theater every night. I feel more like a director now than four or five years ago. So I dare to call myself a film director, but it took me many years to really believe that I had become one.

Poster “Speak No Evil”

When you look at “Speak No Evil,” you can see that it’s made by someone who loves his craft and knows what he’s doing. You have a limited cast, so the focus, the power and the empathy are all the more on the setting, the dialogue, the silence, the close-ups, especially with the scenes that are shot at night. You know horrible things will happen, but you don’t know exactly what or when. Was that the concept of the film?

Well, you’re always searching and you try to develop your own film language. Every time I do a new project, I like to place myself in deep water and go to places that I’m not very familiar with. Then you take what you are familiar with into that specific place; for me, a horror film was the last thing that I imagined doing. My favorite horror films are “Rosemary’s Baby” [1968], “The Exorcist” [1973], and “Don’t Look Now” [1973]. These are not pure horror movies; they’re done in a very artistic way, and they deal with naturalism with great portraits of people. They are very suspense-like. In these films it takes a lot of time before anything expressive happens. And if you look at the horror films from the 1990s, there you see a lot of blood, but that doesn’t interest me at all. I come from a world where you have very nuanced characters, and I also had a flair for absurdism. When I was young, I read a lot of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and I loved [Luis] Buñuel; they work in a more twisted universe where things are not always straight. In these worlds of absurdism, it is also a little bit horror-like. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I make a film that is in the middle of many things, that still would reflect some satire or comedy while observing everyday life?’ You know, absurd ways of human behavior. I like to look at the world and see how we relate to one another. I have a very nice family, my parents are still together, and I live in a very civilized way. But the way we talk to each other when we are on holiday or go to a reception—this world of small talk—that’s such a fun way to communicate when we talk about the weather, the difference between countries, food… I always felt very related to this world. But underneath, there’s something very scary because who are we as human beings? What would we do if we were challenged by people who wanted to test us or want to do evil to us? If we were these middle-class human beings, would we be able to recognize evil or fight against evilness? And then you can take some comedy tone into a more dangerous film. So the characters that I describe in “Speak No Evil” are people that I recognize very well because we had vacations like this, where our parents also met foreign couples in countries like Greece or Italy, and then sometimes they invited us to come over. That was never a nice experience because when we drove home, we always said to each other, ‘Why didn’t we say anything? Why did we eat their lousy food? Why didn’t we say anything when their ugly dog was licking our faces?’

Fedja van Huêt, Sidsel Siem Koch, Karina Smulders and Morten Burian in “Speak No Evil” | September Film

You didn’t because you wanted to be good guests.

Yes. And what I wanted to show in “Speak No Evil” is that it scares me a lot if the world close to us should become very dangerous. What kind of man would I be then? What would I do in moments of fear? Am I too naive, or am I too good to fight against evil forces? These are critical questions that I ask myself because I don’t know that world very well. And I wanted a film that was supposed to be funny, but also very scary about modern civilized people that live very privileged lives, people that used to go to Italy, drink wine, and talk about nothing. What would they do if they met the devil? That was a difficult question for me. I think I come from a world of more observing and satirical ways of human life and behavior, and I wanted to combine that with more dangerous stuff, like with the inspiration of cinema and a director like Michael Haneke, for example. He also describes the middle class and makes very disturbing movies; I felt very inspired by that.

Life is all about making choices. The Danish couple in the film has to make a choice: will they accept the invitation and visit them in Holland, or should they simply turn it down? Is that maybe the message you try to convey with your film? It’s all about the choices you make, and about the consequences?

I think you’re right, but the truth is we’re not always making the right choices. We may be doing it with the best intention, but we are sometimes digging our own graves because of our choices. The fun thing about a movie like this is that you kind of scream to the audience. ‘Please, don’t do that!’ The crucial thing in the movie is, do you want to behave like society expects you to behave? Do you want to be nice and polite, according to the social rules? You also have this inner voice, this alarm—this intuition—but in crucial situations, sometimes we choose not to listen to that. If we feel intimidated by others, we have a tendency to say, ‘Oh, we’re overreacting. People are not as bad as I think. This might be a misunderstanding.’ Because we don’t expect the worst thing to happen, and we don’t know ourselves in very dangerous situations. It’s easier to ignore that intuition of ours and pretend that everything is okay. That’s also a good thing—that’s what makes the world go round—but if there is a message in the film, it is not to let down your intuition. Many of us have a very good idea of how we really feel. But we have moved away from our own human nature, and instead we’ve been moving closer to our civilized selves, the way culture tells us how to behave. That it’s very dangerous to say, ‘No!’ or that it’s very dangerous to say to the group, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Because then you’re no longer a part of the group and you can put yourself in dangerous situations where you are not used to be. So it is a message to be kind to yourself and to trust your inner gut feeling instead of being the version that other people want you to be. That is the dilemma of the film, and I think the Danish family could have been saved if they had only listened to that voice. In the film, there is a car outside, and they can always drive away. There are no guns, they are not locked down in a basement, so they have the free choice to go away, but the film explores how bounded we are to social conventions. Even though we have a free will, and even though we know what’s the right thing to do, we want to behave, we want to be good people. We don’t want to be in awkward, embarrassing situations, so it is easier to pretend. It’s easier to do nothing and look away. And that’s very dangerous. The film tells you in a very dark way what is the worst thing that can happen if you don’t say, ‘Stop!’ It’s a warning in a way that we should not be so keen on how to behave sometimes and that it is okay to rely on our human instincts.

Christian Tafdrup during our Zoom call | Screenshot Zoom

You wrote the screenplay with your brother Mads. How did you work together?

Well, I am eight years older than my brother. I always knew what I wanted to do; I have also been writing stuff of my own while he had another life. He has been traveling a lot; he lived and studied in Thailand. But one day, with my second feature, “A Horrible Woman” [2017], he suggested to write it together. The film is based on some of my own experiences and relationships with women—I think women can also be very hard on men, so he told me, ‘Let’s explore that.’ He knows me very well because we are brothers; he said, ‘Well, it shouldn’t be like a diary. You need another voice to write it.’ And without knowing it, he was such a brilliant writer, he writes very good dialogues, and he works very fast. So now, we have done two films together. We can be very critical. Sometimes when you write alone, you can go with an idea for months, and you don’t know if you’re going in the right direction. But with my brother, I can speak out loud, and we’re not afraid to get into any conflicts. We have a very free writing space and, even though we’re very different, we have the same taste as far as humor is concerned. I know a little bit more about crafting a film, but we have many of the same references to our lives. We write about ourselves and our parents, holidays and all the things that we relate to. It’s something that I did not expect at all, but now we’re actually making a career out of it.

When you write a screenplay—any screenplay—or when you shoot a scene or do a retake, when do you know it’s exactly what you want?

It’s often very late in the editing process that I discover what kind of film I’m making. After spending years of writing, and weeks and weeks of shooting, it’s only in the last week of editing that I find the film. When I start shooting, I know what I want, but writing and directing can also be a frustrating process because you always doubt a little bit, and sometimes it can be difficult to know what the film is really about. You have different themes, and while you’re shooting, a film can head in many different directions. The magic of films is that you have to dig a long time to find that very precise premise that’s in there. And it’s true what they say, that you make a film three times: when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it. But that’s also the fun of it: you have to trust that the film you want to make is in there. But it can be hard to find that. We had screenings of “Speak No Evil” where the audience thought it was a totally different film. That was because we had a few scenes in the film that we later cut out: they led to another understanding of the film. In the beginning, people thought this was a film about a bad relationship and that the Danish couple had to go to a retreat in Holland. That is also in the film, but that is not what I wanted to say. Maybe they have a bad relationship, but it can be a good one as well. They certainly love each other, and they have young kids. So with film you have to be extremely precise; a film is like a poem, with only a few words you say something about the world. A film scene is often just a half-page, while in a theater play, a scene can be twenty pages. In film it’s very concentrated, and maybe that’s why it takes such a long time to make it. But in the end, you find the film that you were looking for. The fun thing about “Speak No Evil” is that the final version is very close to my first notes, before I talked about it to anybody. I guess you have to go through all these sideways to realize what direction you’re taking. That’s very magical. I talk to other writers and directors that are much more experienced than I am, and they all go through this process.

The Dutch couple, played by Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders, invites the Danish family, played by Liva Forsberg as the daughter, and Sidsel Siem Koch and Morten Burian as her parents | September Film

What will you do if an American producer or an American production company asks you to do a Hollywood remake of “Speak No Evil”?

They have asked that question, and we already have a contract with an American production company to do a remake. They have been very fast. But I am not interested in doing the remake myself. I would rather spend the next four years on a new idea instead of repeating myself, although I will follow it. So it will be made with another screenwriter and directed by another filmmaker. But it’s great that they reached out already. I’m talking to people in Hollywood every night on Zoom; there’s a lot of hype about this film, and they know so much about Scandinavian and European films. So in a couple of years, there will be an American version of the film; that’s wonderful news.

Film-wise, Denmark has always been a thriving force, with Carl Dreyer’s silent classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc” [1928] considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and there are a quite a few notable Danish directors such as Bille August, Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. With the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, there’s an Academy Award named after a Danish actor. So what’s the secret of Denmark and the Danish film industry?

I don’t know. We certainly don’t look at it that way. In Denmark, we don’t go around and feel like a success all the time. But we did have a movement in the 1990s with these darker films made by Lars von Trier and some of Vinterberg’s early films. They were very young at that time. They started a small revolution in cinema when you could experience more, you could be more original. Before that, most films were based on books; they were very classical Nordic films. I worked as an assistant when I was very young, and I wanted to be a film director because I envied this generation. I looked at Lars von Trier; I read his scripts, I copied them, I wanted to be like that. I think the generation now is very aware of taking chances and make darker and bigger films, and make them to be stand-outs because if you have Lars von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg in your country, it inspires you to film more freely and not to be too conservative. So I think they did a lot for a small country like Denmark. You always try to do something else, and not just do what the previous generation did. And now, there are a lot of young people making movies in Denmark, a lot of short films as well; you have to take them very seriously and you have to believe in the talent. You can not just be a one-hit-wonder; you have to build that talent, and that can take a decade. But if you’re patient and believe in the talent from a very early stage, you will see great films. I think Denmark is very good at that. Also, the Danish Film Institite—it’s okay if your first films are not seen by many people, because maybe in ten years you will make a film that is a big hit. You can’t be a success from day one, and the Danish film industry understands that. I think that’s one of the secrets; it takes a long time, but it’s worth it.

Zoom interview, Ostend Film Festival
March 6, 2022

“Speak No Evil” (2022, trailer)

FILMS (AS A DIRECTOR-SCREENWRITER)

FORÆLDRE, a.k.a. PARENTS (2016) DIR – SCR Christian Tafdrup PROD Thomas Heinesen CAM Maria von Hausswolff ED Anne Østerud, Tanya Fallenius MUS Sune Kølster CAST Søren Malling, Bodil Jørgensen, Elliott Crosset Hove, Miri Ann Beuschel, Anton Honik, Christian Tafdrup (Real estate agent)

EN FRYGTELIG KVINDE, a.k.a. A HORRIBLE WOMAN (2017) DIR Christian Tafdrup PROD Thomas Heinesen, Marta Zein SCR Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup CAM Niels Buchholzer ED Nicolaj Monberg CAST Anders Juul, Amanda Collin, Rasmus Hammerich, Sidse Mickelborg, Søren Hauch-Fausbøll, Vibeke Hastrup, Christian Tafdrup (James)

GÆSTERNE, a.k.a. SPEAK NO EVIL (2022) DIR Christian Tafdrup PROD Jacob Jarek SCR Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup CAM Erik Mohlberg Hansen ED Nicolaj Monberg MUS Sune Kølster CAST Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev