“What if the Worst Thing That Could Happen Actually Happened?”: Director/Co-writer Christian Tafdrup on Speak No Evil
Two European families—one Danish, one Dutch—meet during a picturesque Italian vacation in Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil. Their bond is immediate, and soon enough the Dutch couple enthusiastically invite the Danes to visit them in Holland. The gesture is friendly enough, but the sincerity of the statement isn’t necessarily taken at face value.
Shortly after the Danes—Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louisa (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg)—return to their well-kept abode, they receive a postcard in the mail. As it turns out, the Dutch family was completely serious about their offer, inviting them to visit their home in Holland and stay for an extended weekend. They set a date, hit the road, and arrive in the Netherlands without issue. They’re welcomed by Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son Abel (Marius Damslev), and everyone appears eager to reconnect.
However, the chemistry between the two families soon transforms into friction. Though the Danes remembered the Dutch couple as warm and sociable, they now act increasingly rude and unpleasant. Boundaries are consistently being crossed, from the repeated insistence that Louisa, a vegetarian, eat meat to their intentional intrusion on Bjørn in the bathroom. Though these transgressions escalate in creepiness and indecorousness, the Danes find themselves paralyzed. After all, no physical harm has technically come to them or their daughter, and wouldn’t it be so rude to just up and leave?
Speak No Evil is fascinated with the idea that the human instinct to be polite has eclipsed the instinct for self-preservation, relishing in its exploration of just how much violence and vitriol good-natured people will swallow to avoid confrontation. As a first-time horror helmer, Tafdrup and his co-writer/brother Mads have crafted an impressively bleak and exhilaratingly edgy slice of social horror, culminating in a shocking final scene that had audiences buzzing after the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance.
Tafdrup spoke to Filmmaker via Zoom, a conversation that detailed the personal origins of the film’s premise, the current state of Western masculinity and the director’s crash-course intro into horror filmmaking.
Speak No Evil has its streaming premiere on Shudder Thursday, September 15. It opened theatrically via IFC this past weekend in New York City and Los Angeles, with a larger expansion to follow in the coming weeks.
Filmmaker: You’ve stated that the film is somewhat inspired by the vacations your family would take when you were younger, and that recently you and your girlfriend decided to eschew that tradition when you received a postcard invitation to visit a family in Holland that you met on vacation. Clearly, you now feel that home visits are a lot more trouble than they’re worth. Can you expand on how you and your brother Mads settled on a storyline?
Tafdrup: It’s funny because as a director or an artist, you try to seek [out] ideas all the time and sometimes the ideas are just next to you. That’s why I sometimes just look at my own life or things that I’ve experienced to find an idea that is very recognizable—not only for me, but maybe for a lot of people. I remember when I saw a postcard on my parents’ wall, they were invited by an English couple to see them again after they met them in another country. It was such a creepy postcard! I immediately had images in my head. Oh my God, how would that weekend go? [My parents] said they were so nice, but this postcard looked like something from a horror film.
And then I had an experience with my own family in 2017, I think, where we met a Dutch couple [on vacation] and immediately became friends. We were not making friends with the Swedish people or English people or French people. With the Dutch people there was just such a chemistry, but they were also a little bit scary. When we talked about whether or not we should go see them, I said to my girlfriend, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Because my parents did that many times—I was also sometimes with them when I was a child—and it was not exactly a horror film, but it was definitely not a pleasant weekend. Having these experiences over the years, you suddenly [start] making up scenes in your head.
But for me, the film was more of a comedy in the beginning. You know, a little farce. Couples meeting each other and having misunderstandings, something we can all laugh about. But then I thought, “What about making [the film] a horror? What would that look like?” Then it totally became something else. It became a more dark and radical genre film. I mean, what if the worst thing that could happen actually happened? So that was actually the jump.
Filmmaker: I think the portrayal of the nuclear family in this film is also one that’s really sinister. It’s a facade on so many levels—that it’s “natural,” or that it offers absolute protection from these terrible situations. For the children in this film, their parents put them in situations that they’re ostensibly supposed to protect them from. Does this depiction of the nuclear family as flawed stem from any anxieties of your own?
Tafdrup: Yeah. I don’t think I could have made this without having children. I have two girls and many of these thoughts and situations that are in the film—looking for a body, for instance—is something I’ve experienced myself. When you get a little bit older, you also meet other families. You socialize with other people who have kids. I come from a part of the world of Western societies where you live good lives and you live very safe lives. You don’t have that many bad experiences on an everyday level. You live okay. You have money and you want to do everything for your children. My girls go to dance [classes], do a little choir on Tuesdays, have playdates and eat the right food.
But I also found myself standing there looking out of the window into the darkness, kind of longing [to be] away from all that perfectness. I think we live in a time right now where we’re very dictated by how we behave and doing the “right” things. Eating the right food, not flying too much, having the right opinions, and we get easily ashamed [when we don’t do these things]. At the same time, I look at my friends and I look at the world and I also think we are suppressing a lot of things—darkness and emotions that are not welcome. We don’t talk about these things. We have these facades, these artificial lives where we just pretend. For me, of course, this is a film about politeness, but it’s also about the consequences of pretending.
You have to go to a more dangerous place [in order for] somebody to break all these facades down and go over your boundaries. It would be unfair to say that this is a film with a happy ending. It is not. But I tried to add some poetry in the ending, because maybe this couple is closer to each other in the end than they were in the beginning. They’re naked, they’re crying, they’re hawking. In the beginning, they’re just sitting having the perfect dinner and good wine in an artificial theater. They had to go on this journey. So for me, it was very much like looking at my own safe life and saying, “How would I react to evilness?” At the same time, I’m also kind of longing for something chaotic to happen. So these were key thoughts that I talked with the actors about. They’re nice, polite people, but also people who want to get more in contact with their human nature.
Filmmaker: There is also definitely a commentary on masculinity that runs through the film—the Danish husband, Bjørn, is much more easy-going, polite and submissive, while the Dutch husband, Patrick, is intimidating, rude and domineering. What do these two extremes of the traditional father/husband role represent?
Tafdrup: Well, with the Danish character, it’s something I can relate to a lot myself. It’s a modern take on what has happened to masculinity. Ten years ago, that kind of man was not very popular, but nowadays we are also afraid of this stereotype of a more aggressive man. I know a lot of great fathers who are very nice people, but their most masculine moments are finding their children’s [stuffed] bunnies. They’re not fighting, they’re not arguing. They’re having a kick out of the small things in life. So I was trying to place that kind of pathetic masculinity in a situation where you meet a real threat. How would you react to that?
I had to look deep inside myself and I had to answer that in an honest way. I think I would freeze. I think I would be so afraid, because I don’t know violence, I don’t know aggression. I never had anybody try to kill me. Would I just try to smile or talk myself out of it? Because that’s what I’m used to. That scared me a lot. At the same time, I think that Patrick mirrors what Bjørn misses in his own life. He’s falling a little bit in love with him—a guy who is more close to his primitive nature. He’s charming one moment, scary the next moment. He can say he’s a doctor, then he can say, “Oh, I just lied because I felt insecure.”
I think nowadays we have so much social behavior that we are dictated by. It would be extremely rude, or we would be so ashamed, if we just said what we felt. Patrick is a side of Bjørn that he has inside him and is longing for. Bjørn is a man who wants to scream, who wants to feel something. He’s tired of just pretending. He wants to go on an adventure. With Louisa, it’s a little bit different. She has an intuition from the beginning that this is not good, but she’s too keen on keeping up appearances. So I wanted to make the characters very different, and I know that man very well from my own group of friends and from myself. I was just trying to be honest, even though I’m not very proud of it.
Filmmaker: I noticed a lot of horror touchstones that were either referenced in the film, ranging from Americans like Shirley Jackson and Jordan Peele to Europeans like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. Can you talk about how you waded yourself into the horror genre? I know this is your first time directing a horror film, so I’m curious if you had any visual or narrative inspiration that particularly influenced the film?
Tafdrup: Well, it’s funny because the last thing I thought I would do was [make] a horror film. But I looked at the previous films I made and the films I’ve always been a great fan of, and there’s often discomfort between people. What I like about Michael Haneke’s kind of horror is that it’s used in a very artistic way and also in a very realistic way. There are really no supernatural elements, it’s just what people do to each other. Instead of looking away, you’re looking at it for a long time. That is a horror that I can feel. It intimidates me, but it’s also something I can recognize.
At first, I did not watch that many horror films, but then I watched some from the ’70s, like Polanski [films] and The Exorcist in particular, because what they do is they take their time to build it up. You get to know the characters, there’s a lot of suspense. I don’t know where it’s going, but there’s suspense underneath every situation, even though the situation is seemingly normal. I looked at that realistic tone that I love in ’70s films, then I also looked at modern American horror films. What I like about them is that they can combine humor with horror and have some social statements to them. If you watch Midsommar or Hereditary—especially Midsommar—you don’t know if it’s a farce or if it’s actually a horror film. I like that you don’t know, because I was not influenced by Netflix horror films with a lot of jump scares and supernatural elements. That doesn’t really say anything to me.
I have to be honest, in the beginning, I wrote a lot of cliche things. I thought that you had to have a jump scare, and it did not work. So we took it out, but it was definitely an experiment to take stuff I’m more familiar with and combine it with some conventions that I did not know much about. I knew we were going to have a third act that was crazy, that we were going to build it up and that it would end badly. Most horror movies do that, you have to deal with evilness. It took some time to get to know that because I’m not schooled in horror.
Filmmaker: There’s also the use of English in the film, which I think adds a layer of murkiness to the families’ escalating discomfort: are things simply getting lost in translation, or are they being willfully ignored? In your eyes, does defaulting to this non-native language also pose a challenge for the Danish family when it comes to expressing discomfort and disgust?
Tafdrup: First of all, I would like to say that it was fun to write [the script]. We wrote it directly in English. The lines we wrote had a lot of mistakes because it’s not our native language, and we had a translator who translated it into perfect English. But we wanted to keep all the mistakes, because we thought it was fun to have this touristy way of speaking English. And the thing about Danish people and Dutch people is that they’re actually very good at English.
We also thought it was such a creepy situation, to be with strangers that you sometimes don’t understand and who might be talking about you. Danish and Dutch are very small languages. That’s why we decided not to translate the Dutch [via subtitle]. When we took those away, we sided more with the Danes. We begin to think, “What are [the Dutch] saying? Are they laughing at us?” They’re actually saying nothing, just asking what time it is.
The film is also about not speaking up, or having the opportunity to speak but not doing it. The child wants to speak, but doesn’t have a tongue. So yeah, language has something to do with the main theme of the film. That’s why it’s almost in three languages [English, Dutch and Danish] and a little bit of Italian, as well.
Filmmaker: Speaking of these tensions, I was curious if any internal European cultural conflicts might go over American viewers’ heads, even without a language barrier?
Tafdrup: No, not really. I mean, I have a funny story from when we showed this film in South Korea. They liked the film, but they could not understand how I could go through with this in Europe and not be sued by the Dutch government. This Japanese guy said, “If I made a film where I go to somebody’s house from South Korea and I kind of mock them, people would not accept that. We have too much respect.” But I think in Europe, there’s so much humor and irony that we have a tradition of making fun of each other.
The thing about Dutch and Danish culture is that from an overall view, we are not that different. We both have democracies, left-wing governments, flat countries. We bike a lot, we eat the same. There are small differences, of course, but it was funny to play with that a little. We drove around in Holland for a year and I thought it was totally different because I got aware of the small differences. If you zoom in, we have a lot of differences, but again, we are related in many ways. I wanted to take two countries where it takes an hour to fly there, but they can’t understand each other’s languages.
Filmmaker: It almost reminds me of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, where that one Swedish doctor calls the others “Danish scum” all of the time. Meanwhile, I don’t really see the difference!