Christian Tafdrup Interview: ‘Speak No Evil’ director talks about creating his first horror film

Photo by Erik Molberg

When it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director Christian Tafdrup was nervous that viewers wouldn’t find his first horror film, Speak No Evil to be scary. But he soon discovered that it was quite the opposite. Speak No Evil quickly became the talk of the festival, with many viewers loving it for both its social commentary and unnerving imagery. Check out our review here. 

Tafdrup wrote Speak No Evil with his brother, Mads, and based it off their own experiences meeting people while vacationing. 

We got to sit down with Tafdrup and talk about the film’s wild ending, modern masculinity and more.

Spoilers for the film are discussed in this interview. Proceed with caution.

After the film premiered at Sundance (or any other festival), did you get any texts or calls from people so freaked out about the ending? What was the overall reaction like?

The first reaction was someone writing “I hope this director has a therapist, and I hope his therapist has a therapist.” It was kind of fun because we were devastated that we couldn’t go to Sundance because it was canceled. 

I was a little bit scared that people would say that the film wasn’t scary because my brother and I were trying to make a disturbing film. I’ve never made horror before, and I wanted to make something where I felt a little bit off. Fortunately, when the reactions and reviews started coming in, they were all talking about how disturbing the film was.

Now that it’s eight months later from the premiere, I think why people find the film unnerving is because it’s so intimate. It’s a situation you could find yourself in. People aren’t scared of ghosts; they’re scared of other people, and we were trying to take that to an extreme. 

I read in another interview that you actually had trouble getting financing because of the ending. What was that journey like for you?

Yeah, it took some time. In Denmark, you get most funds from the Danish Film Institute, and they were really excited about the film. But we also had to get more funding from other sources, and some had trouble with the last 20 pages. My brother and I were encouraged to rewrite the ending and put more hope into it. We also had a lot of actors canceling auditions saying that they would only come if I changed the last 20 pages. 


I at first doubted the script because I believed what other people were telling me. We tried to write other endings, but it just didn’t work. We would have let ourselves down if we didn’t have the courage to go all the way. It was important for me to be true to the vision we had.

This is a very intimate film, with the focus being on primarily six characters. How did you find this ensemble?

I wanted to find a Danish couple who felt a little bit off about themselves. Morten [Burian] and Sidsel [Siem Koch] were actually the first actors who came to the audition and they didn’t have much experience in front of a camera because they had theater backgrounds. But I could tell they were perfect for the role, so I workshopped with them to show them what they could improve on. 

It was a little different working with Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders because they are huge stars in The Netherlands. They were very experienced, and I just needed to give them clear direction and “not talk so much.” 

Some of the most pivotal scenes involve the child actors. How was it working with them and navigating through the dark material? 

That was something I was very focused on. I had some children at the audition start crying during the test screening. I’ve heard that when working on a dark film, you have to create a very light and fun set. The kids’ parents were on set at all times in case they needed them, and I was calm and nice to them as well. In fact, during the scene where they cut out the tongue, the girl [Liva Forsberg] kept laughing the whole time, so I think they were having a lot of fun while making the movie. 


 This film could have been a mixture of genres: horror, thriller, satire, etc. Did you always know this was going to be a horror movie?

We decided first off that we wanted to make a horror film. When we were shooting, people were saying it was more thriller or black comedy than horror. So when it came to putting it in a box, it was pretty hard. But then I realized what I liked about films was that they could be a clash of different genres. I was watching a few modern horror films like Get Out and Midsommar which were very good with mixing genres. But in the end, I decided that it was a horror film because it has an effect on people and it deals with evilness. It’s my personal take, and maybe it will help expand the genre as well. 

However, there were hardcore horror fans in Denmark who were disappointed. But if this film was labeled a drama, people would get so shocked at the ending.

You said hardcore horror fans in Denmark were disappointed. What do you mean by that?

In Denmark, we don’t have a lot of horror films, so the fans grew up watching classic horror films. And, so they expect more jump scares, supernatural elements, etc. In the film, there’s a lot of talking and satire and is more of a slow-burn, so if they went in expecting typical scary movies, then I can see why they would find it disappointing. 

When I watched the film, I was automatically reminded of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games because of the tone. Was that an influence at all or did you have any other influences when making this film?

When we were writing the film, we were not aware of Funny Games. It wasn’t until somebody asked if the movie was like Funny Games that I decided to watch it. I love Funny Games and Michael Haneke, but I think the biggest difference between that and Speak No Evil is that my characters could have left whenever, whereas Haneke’s cast was doomed from the start.


Another interesting recurring theme was modern masculinity and the difference between Bjorn and Patrick. How was it writing that relationship? 

I think for us that was the spine of the film. The theme of modern masculinity—or the lack of masculinity—has been present in three of my movies. It’s a take on the modern Scandinavian man who is very privileged and very “civilized” but has not been in contact with his inner primal self. Bjorn [Burian] craves this darkness which exists in Patrick [van Huet]. He just wants to scream.  I wanted to show what happens when someone who lives to society’s standards has this darkness suppressed. 

Speak No Evil is out in limited theaters now. Watch the trailer below.


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