Christian Tafdrup, director of ‘Speak No Evil,’ an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute / photo by Kavian Borhani.

Implicitly entering into an unscrupulous situation at the urging of an acquaintance because it’s the seemingly polite thing to do is a far more common occurrence than society is willing to admit. That’s certainly the case for actor Morten Burian and actress Sidsel Siem Koch’a characters of Bjørn and Louise in the new horror thriller, ‘Speak No Evil.’

In the film, the Danish spouses decide to accept the invitation of their fellow married couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), to visit them at their home in the Netherlands after they met while on vacation at the same Tuscan villa. The well-meaning invitation quickly turns into a long and awkward weekend, however, but Bjørn and Louise initially feel like they had to be polite to their hosts’ growing unpleasantness, based on a cultural dictation to not offend anyone. But the guests soon realize that in order to protect themselves, both physically and emotionally, they have to risk being rude to the dark forces working against them.

Christian Tafdrup directed the provocative, satirical work of horror, in which he set up his characters for an unnerving descent into darkness. He also co-wrote the script for ‘Speak No Evil’ with his brother, Mads Tafdrup.

‘Speak No Evil’ had its World Premiere in the Midnight Section of last month’s Sundance Film Festival. Shudder, AMC Networks’ premium streaming service for horror, thriller and supernatural movies and television shows, acquired the rights to the feature before its premiere at the festival. The drama is set to be released in North America, the U.K. and Ireland later this year.

‘Speak No Evil’ centers on two families – one Danish, one Dutch – who meet while on vacation in Tuscany. When the free-spirited Dutch family extends an invitation to the more conservative Danish for a vacation weekend at their countryside home, the lure of a fun, quick getaway is too delightful to resist. But the Dutch family’s hospitality quickly turns sour for the Danish couple as they find themselves increasingly caught in a web of their own politeness in the face of eccentric – or possibly sinister – behavior.

Tafdrup generously took the time during this year’s Sundance Film Festival to talk about co-scribing and helming ‘Speak No Evil’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the Danish filmmaker discussed that he was inspired to pen the script for the thriller with his brother because they’ve had experiences staying in touch with people they met while traveling across Europe because it’s considered to be the polite thing to do, even when it feels awkward. He also mentioned that while he was disappointed that he couldn’t travel to Utah to attend the Sundance Film Festival in person this year, he’s honored that one of his projects was accepted to play at the festival.

The conversation began with Tafdrup explaining why he and his brother were inspired to pen the screenplay for ‘Speak No Evil.’ “It was a long process, of course. I developed the idea for the film many years ago. It’s actually based on my own experiences traveling to places where you spend some time with people you don’t know for a week or two,” he revealed.

“It’s a very normal way to travel in Denmark, and I suppose other European countries – you go to a villa in Tuscany, where you have your own private room. But at night, you socialize with other couples, especially when you’re a family,” the writer explained.

“I had a lot of experience doing that. Sometimes you exchange phone numbers or emails, and sometimes you see each other again,” Tafdrup shared. “I had experiences like that as a child with my parents. We went to different parts of Germany, and spent a weekend with people we met on holidays.

“Since it was about eight months later and you’re in a private home, it can be a totally different experience, and not as delightful and easy as it was in the heat of Tuscany. Sometimes I felt like it was boring or we didn’t have any chemistry anymore,” the filmmaker admitted. “But instead of leaving early, we tried to stick it out because we were being nice, polite human beings.

“I actually had an experience two years ago where I met a Dutch couple and they invited” Tafdrup and his family to their home a year later, but they didn’t go. “I then started imagining what would have happened if we had spent a weekend with this couple.

“My brother, whom I write with, and I just started collecting ideas” about this type of situation, and how they could fit into a horror film, the scribe continued with a laugh. “We asked ourselves, ‘What could be the worst thing that could happen in that particular kind of situation?’

“We then decided to go all the way. We landed somewhere in the middle of absurdity, social satire and, of course, a hopefully scary movie with a situation that was recognizable for ordinary people. I think many people have spent time with strangers some way or another, and that’s the way it started,” Tafdrup divulged. “We then started writing the script, which is based on that idea.”

The filmmaker then delved into how penning the script helped influence the way he approached directing ‘Speak No Evil.’ “It takes years to write a good script. Normally, my brother and I write the first draft for our films really fast. But after that, there’s a year where we re-write and do it completely differently. All the way to almost the first shooting day, I was re-writing stuff,” he shared.

“When we had our first shooting day, we had a script that we followed, for the most part. But it was difficult because we shot the film in three countries-Denmark, Holland and Italy. It’s a bigger film than I usually make; I usually make lower budgeted movies,” Tafdrup shared. “So this was a bigger project for me. It’s the biggest film I’ve done, even though it’s not a big film.

“It’s also been a challenge to make in certain ways because of the Corona virus situation. We started shooting just before Corona arrived in Europe,” the helmer revealed. “We only got 10 days worth of shooting in before we were stopped. We then had to wait four months before we knew if we could continue.

“It’s a winter film, mostly, except for the beginning. We then had to shoot again in the summertime, so we had to make summer look like winter,” Tafdrup shared. “Also, the kids were growing up, and some of the actors were a little afraid of shooting because of Corona. Also, the house we were supposed to shoot in was set to be torn down. So there were a lot of obstacles all the time.

“So the shoot occurred over the course of almost a year; we started filming in February 2020, and ended in December 2020. So the film has been finished for over a year, but we couldn’t get a premiere because of Corona,” the filmmaker continued. “So it’s been really tough in that sense.

“But making the film and working on the story has been extremely nice, especially with this type of fairytale. I think of the film as more of a fable,” Tafdrup admitted. “It’s an elevated film in the sense that it’s not realism; it’s an allegory of something that’s very relevant to human beings and society. But we tried to tell it in a way that’s a little larger than life.”

Further speaking of the fact that the movie was shot in Denmark, Holland and Italy, and is primarily set in Patrick and Karin’s house, the director shared what the experience was like of shooting the feature on location. “Taking the Corona situation into consideration when we were able to shoot again, we had to follow very strict rules. We had to wear masks, and there was a nurse on set.

“But in the beginning, we didn’t really know what Corona was, so we could only have six people in a room, which is very very difficult if you have five actors and a director of photography (DP) and sound person,” Tafdrup revealed. “So for some of the shots, we had to set up with the DP outside, operating the camera with a remote control.

“That was too difficult, so we changed the rules a bit. But then we worked under extremely strict rules, where lunch was served in another way, as we had to remember distance. We also couldn’t have many people on set,” the filmmaker shared. “It wasn’t the way we were used to working.

“But I think most filmmakers and crew members are extremely good at adapting to different circumstances…The nightmare would be if we had to cancel the film. So we just had to adjust to that situation,” Tafdrup continued. “There, of course, weren’t any social events or parties after the filming.

“The great thing was that the crew was extremely professional. But we had to change the crew a bit at each location,” the helmer shared.

“When we were in Italy, we had an Italian crew, and they have a totally different way of working,” Tafdrup revealed. “In Denmark and Holland, we have stricter rules; we can only work eight hours, and we have to apply for everything.

“In Italy, if you want to block a street, you have dinner with the mayor and you sweet talk him a little bit. Then the next day you have your street,” the filmmaker added with a laugh.

“The fun about this film is that it’s divided into three chapters, in a way; there’s a part in Italy, a part in Denmark and a part in Holland,” Tafdrup explained. “We tried to make it the same film, of course, but we added a different touch in each of these three locations.

“We talked about how Italy should feel like a paradise for the audience. Then Denmark should be a boring limbo, where everything was normal and trivial. Then Holland should be like hell, so we tried to find locations there that were gray, dark and scary,” the director shared.

“So we worked with different kinds of settings and lights for each location. We thought about the mythology that should be under the atmosphere, so that the film could have the feeling of elevated horror,” Tafdrup explained.

With ‘Speak No Evil’ also being heavily driven by the conflict between the two families, the filmmaker then delved into what the casting process was like for the feature. “That was also a special experience. I like to work with people who aren’t huge stars or have a lot of experience,” he revealed.

“The Danish couple who ended up in the film only have a little experience in front of the camera. But they’re theater actors,” Tafdrup shared.

“Morten, who plays Bjørn, has a big theater career in Europe, but he never gets parts in film,” the helmer shared. “The woman, Sidsel, had been out of theater school for two or three years before the film.

“They were perfect for the parts, but they needed some training. So we did some workshops, and I was really brutal with them,” Tafdrup admitted. “We filmed everything, and I told them what worked. I also looked at their bad habits, so that they could change them.

“To be honest, I was a little bit nervous about whether they could carry the movie. But on the first shooting days, there were absolutely no problems,” the filmmaker divulged. “I think that’s because when you work with new people who don’t have that much experience, they really want to do their best. They were so dedicated to their work.

“But in Holland, it was a different story. The couple I ended up using are married in real life, and they’re both very experienced and are big stars in Holland,” Tafdrup also shared.

“This film isn’t easy or for everyone. But the actors who joined loved it, which is the most important thing,” the director added.

Once the actors signed on to star in the movie, they spent some time together and with Tafdrup on developing their characters. The filmmaker then delved into what the experience of collaborating with the cast was like as they began production on ‘Speak No Evil.’

“Some directors rehearse a lot and only shoot one scene per day, but I’m not like that. I’ve made three features and three shorts as a director now, and I’ve also worked as an actor for 20 years,” Tafdrup noted.

“My experience during that time is that if you’re well prepared, have a good script, cast right and really work during the pre-production for a long time, when you’re finally on set, it’s not that difficult,” the director noted.

“I don’t do a lot of rehearsals; sometimes I don’t even do any at all. Sometimes I just like to talk a little bit and see what I can get, and then see if I can make it better. Or I’ll try to discover new ways to work with the actors, and discover different versions of a scene,” Tafdrup continued.

“But I don’t want to explain too much to the actors, or dictate to the what they should do. It’s very important to make the actors fell safe,” the filmmaker added. “So that’s how it was like on this film; I relied on them, so working with them wasn’t very difficult.

“The Dutch actors have done an extreme amount of films, so it was just there with them. I know the Danish actors a lot better, of course, and we had more conversations in the evenings,” Tafdrup divulged.

“Of course, there are also children in this film, and they were only 7 and 8 during the production. So we had to create a safe space for them. We also had to know their parents, and they had to be present,” the helmer also pointed out. “We also had to make it like a game for them on this film, especially since there are brutal scenes.

“When you work on dark scenes and tragedies, you have to create a fun set. Sometimes when you do lighter stuff, like comedies, it can be very difficult,” Tafdrup admitted with a laugh. “With this film, it was important that everyone was enjoying themselves, and not being too influenced by the brutalness of the story.”

With the horror thriller being driven in part by that brutality, the filmmaker then delved into what the experience was like of working with the actors specifically on creating their physicality for their roles. “Of course, there are some scenes in this film that have a lot of nudity. I’m not a director who wants to force anyone to do things they don’t like. If they don’t want things, we’ll talk about it and maybe do something else,” he noted.

“We had a lot of meetings about the physically difficult stuff before we began shooting,” Tafdrup also shared. “There’s one big scene where the two lead actors have to be naked, and we were actually supposed to shoot that in February, when it’s extremely cold. But since the production postponed, we ended up shooting in the summer, which made it easier.

“When you work, it all becomes so technical. We worked a lot with a stunt guy, and we rehearsed the ending a lot; we storyboarded the scenes, and worked with a stunt guy for a couple of days. We created choreography, like a dance,” the director explained.

“It’s weird what sound and editing can also do when you see the film. Sometimes when you’re there shooting a scene, it looks very silly. It’s a magical thing when all of the elements of a film are put together,” Tafdrup also revealed.

“So it was a challenge for me and the actors, especially the Danish actors, to make this film. But they wanted to give everything they had. I don’t know if I could achieve this film with experienced stars, especially in Denmark, as they may not have wanted to go that far,” the filmmaker admitted. “But we talked about everything before we shot it, so it wasn’t that difficult to do.”

Once production on ‘Speak No Evil’ was completed and accepted into this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Tafdrup was thrilled to share the feature with audiences through the festival’s virtual edition last month. “I have to admit that I was devastated that we couldn’t show the film in person in Utah, since the festival was cancelled. I’ve always wanted to go to a bigger festival, especially Sundance; I tried getting in with all of my films, and was close to being accepted,” he revealed. He added with a laugh: “When that finally happens, you don’t want that to be cancelled.

“We also wanted to see the movie in person together because the actors have only seen it once, a year ago. At the time, we didn’t yet have this feeling of, now it’s out there, and we can see it in a cinema with others. I think it would have been a big experience to see this film in a cinema,” the helmer also shared.

“But with that being said, I can really feel that this is a good window for us to share the film with the world, and allow them to see what we can do. There are a lot of filmmakers out there, so it can be extremely hard to get attention for your work,” Tafdrup admitted. “But I feel like you can get a lot of attention through a film like Sundance, and that, of course, is a gift when it happens…My time will come when I’m able to bring one of my films to a physical festival,” he concluded.

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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