Sundance 2022: Interview with Speak No Evil Director Christian Tafdrup

“Actors didn’t want to go to the audition because of the ending,” laughs Danish director and writer Christian Tafdrup. “They told me, ‘I want to be in your movie but you have to rewrite the last 20 pages’.”

“[Financiers] didn’t want to give us funding—only if I changed the ending. So I tried to write [their ending] and it was so bad. It was so flat, like a B-movie,” Tafdrup continues. “I doubted myself but at the last moment I said, whoever wants to join this film can join it, because it’s going to be like this. It took me time to accept my intuition.”

If you’ve seen Tafdrup’s latest film, you’ll understand where the hesitancy comes from. That ending will stick with you for days after. Speak No Evil isn’t just a straight horror with gratuitous violence, though. It’s a film that cleverly weaves satire and humour together to create an intriguing commentary on the world we live in.

The movie follows a Danish family on vacation in Italy where they meet and befriend a Dutch family. Two months after the holiday, the Danish family receives a postcard from their travel mates inviting them to come to Holland for a weekend getaway. While hesitant, the Danes decide to make the journey and drive over to see their new friends.

As the Danes get settled in, they almost immediately feel awkward and discomforted—feelings which get progressively worse over the next few days. Although the Danes have their own car and are free to leave at any time, the couple wrestles with whether or not to stay. Ultimately, their overwhelming fear of appearing to do and say the wrong thing wins out. So rather than acting on the obvious red flags presented to them, they continue on, resulting in a rather tumultuous end to their getaway (to say the least).

Tafdrup’s film touches on many interesting themes, including discontentment with life and the evolution of masculinity, particularly among Scandinavian men. But what stuck with me was the subtle and not-so-subtle criticisms of political correctness.

When Tafdrup sat down with That Shelf over video conference during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, we dug into Speak No Evil’s main theme and what inspired him and his co-writer (and brother) Mads Tafdrup.

“We live in very moral times and when you suppress the darker side of what life also is, what will happen when you actually meet it? Will you recognise it, will you have the tools to fight against it? Or will you just try to smile at it?” muses Tafdrup. “That was the clue here. That if you’re only behaving, will you be able to feel the authentic side of yourself when someone is actually forcing you, testing you. That was a very interesting, modern conflict to write a horror in.”

Christian Tafdrup, director of Speak No Evil. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kavian Borhani.

As a filmmaker, Tafdrup is particularly discouraged by a brand of political correctness that attacks art. Recently in Denmark’s film schools, there has been a discussion about what kind of films can be shown to students. “They [students] are offended because the teachers showed them films that the students [found] offensive, so they were walking out,” Tafdrup says with incredulity in his voice. “They only allow films that are the ‘right’ opinions. And maybe in a political way that’s interesting, but when you talk about art, it has to be free.”

Tafdrup continues: “You also have to learn something about history. You can’t just censor, delete things that happen, put away sculptures, put away paintings, rewrite songs. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. To look away, to not talk about things. To erase it. That’s also what this film states, why it’s called Speak No Evil. It’s not good enough to just close your eyes or behave nicely, you have to deal with all aspects of life, also the bad things.”

Tafdrup uses this dichotomy (in extremes, of course) when forming the relationship between his two adult male characters. Bjørn (played by Morten Burian) lives in Copenhagen in a nice flat, and does and says what he thinks is expected of him. When he meets Patrick (played by Fedja van Huêt), he’s struck by Patrick’s disarming honesty. Patrick lies and then freely admits to lying because he wanted to make a good impression. He openly criticises his young child for dancing off beat and generally acts in a way that perhaps Bjørn would want to.

“Bjørn is very attracted to Patrick because he mirrors his dark side. Patrick does exactly what he wants to. He lies, he yells at his children. He’s the truth in a way,” Tafdrup explains. “And if you behave so nicely like Bjørn, have the right friends, eat the right food, don’t fly more than twice, sitting there clapping at your daughter who plays lousy on the flute. Bjørn actually enjoys it in a way, to be offended, to feel his own limits.”

“That’s also why we watch news and horror movies, mass murders, true crime series on Netflix every night. Why do they do that? Because it’s attractive. Because it’s not allowed,” Tafdrup observes. “There’s a screen between you and the film that makes it safe. That’s why I think horror films are extremely modern right now, because we want to see the dark side.”

Reflecting upon the horror films of the ‘70s, when films like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist were released, Tafdrup notes that there was something else to these movies than “just” horror: “They use a lot of time building up, you really feel the characters, it’s almost naturalistic and suddenly this supernatural element comes in, or biblical elements come in.”

And after the rise of slasher cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tafdrup finds himself inspired by what the genre has become. “When I look at modern horror films they tend to mix humour, satire, deeper characters, a statement upon human nature or society. There’s so many guilty pleasure horror films, B-horror films that are very entertaining but are also a very flat experience. Using it [horror] in an artistic way is very interesting,” Tafdrup explains.

Test audiences had a strong reaction to Speak No Evil’s ending—anyone with a soul would, really. But it isn’t just the violence that will rub people the wrong way. The movie, one that acts as a warning for where our obsession with political correctness can lead, has absolutely no optimism in its conclusion. But that’s the film Tafdrup wanted to make.

“Sometimes there shall not be hope. That’s an extremely provocative statement in films, because most films pick you up, make you feel okay, so you can go home and be safe. But I like these films where you sit back in the cinema with the credits and you think about it the next day. It makes you think and reflect on who you are.…And it is just a movie,” Tafdrup reminds us with a laugh. “It’s not real life happening.”

That being said, I should probably stop chatting with strangers when on holiday.

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