Screen Daily: Sundance Q&A: Christian Tafdrup on embracing darkness with ‘Speak No Evil’

By Screen Daily / Wendy Mitchell



Christian Tafdrup’s third feature film, Speak No Evil, has its world premiere in Sundance Midnight on January 21.

The film blends genres from satire to horror in its story of Danish and Dutch families who meet on holiday and then decide to have a weekend reunion back in real life, where things get more awkward before turning decidedly disturbing. The director also wrote the script alongside his brother Mads Tafdrup.

Jacob Jarek produces for Profile Pictures (Oak Motion Pictures of The Netherlands co-produces) and supporters include the Danish Film Institute, FilmFyn, the Netherlands Film Production Incentive, with co-financing from DR and Nordisk Film Distribution.

Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja Van Huêt and Karina Smulders play the parents with newcomers Liva Forsberg and Marius Damslev as the children. TrustNordisk handles international sales.

Where did the idea for Speak No Evil first start?
When I was a child, we had many experiences when we were travelling in Italy and Greece where you socialise with people you don’t know that well. You make holiday friends, and I remember we went to Nuremberg and Cologne and some place in Belgium to spend a weekend with a family we met six months before on holiday, and it’s a totally different atmosphere.

Then, I was in Italy three years ago with my girlfriend and our daughter and we met a Dutch couple who later invited us to Rotterdam. We didn’t go. They were very nice people but I was a bit scared and I couldn’t place why. My imagination started to come up with ideas and situations. From there, it was a fun, simple idea for a film that’s almost like a chamber drama. I talked to my co-writer – my brother Mads – and we thought it could be a horror film, that we needed to go all the way and not just make a fun little comedy. What if the worst thing happened?

The film starts out as a comedy of manners and then goes very dark. How did you navigate those different tones?
What I like in modern horror films is that they allow themselves to mix different genres. Films like Get Out or Midsommar are scary but also funny and mix in social satire. I thought that was interesting to use horror conventions and combine it with a more arthouse feeling. I like to call it a horror film, but in the same way it’s a comedy and it’s a sad drama. It took courage along the way of writing this script, there were a lot of comments about having more hope in the ending.


The film plays with this idea that the middle classes are obsessed about politeness in a way that doesn’t serve us well.
I was looking at how many troubles I’ve had just because I’m a very polite human being. That could be doing work you don’t want to do, staying in a relationship too long, or just an awkward conversation but you don’t want to be rude. We are so dictated by social conventions. At first, I thought it was a very Scandinavian thing, but people have told me it’s universal. That grew into the premise of this whole project: how do we permit evilness? This couple is not locked in a house, their car is outside, they could drive away – so why don’t they?

Your previous two features Parents and A Horrible Woman were smaller in scale and shot only in Denmark, whereas you shot Speak No Evil across three countries. Was that a huge challenge?
My first two features were low budget: A Horrible Woman was shot in 16 days and Parents in 20 days. This was the opportunity to make a “normal” film [on a budget of €2.8m], to shoot for longer.

We had a plan for seven or eight weeks of shooting, but then of course Covid ruined everything. We had a very difficult shooting period, from February to December 2020, with a lot of breaks. At the same time it was great to have this bigger budget – I wanted this film to be like an opera, to have a mythology. Even with the ‘small’ scenes, I wanted to have the feeling of the devil and angels underneath.

We won’t spoil it for our readers, but the film has one of the darkest endings we’ve seen in years. Were you ever concerned it might be too much for an audience to handle?
From the beginning, me and my brother looked at each other and said, “Let’s promise each other we go all the way.” If the premise of the film is that politeness leads you to death, then the end has to be brutal. It was a challenge in financing, and casting, but I just tried to be true to the premise. It’s the aim of horror that you can feel very disturbed. Let’s see how people respond to it.

What else are you working on?
I directed a Danish TV show that we’re editing now, and then I’m starting to discuss new film ideas with my brother. We have four or five ideas but they won’t be horror. I just want to continue to work and continue to get better.

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