We’re all Golden Eagles here. Gemma is away on festival assignment, so Slim and Mitchell are joined by Julian Higgins, director and co-writer of God’s Country—his neo-Western debut feature which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We also dive deep into Julian’s four favorite films: Rashomon; Chimes at Midnight; The Return and Foxcatcher. Plus: Julian growing up with college professor cinephile parents; why he’s never seen a Star Wars movie; Toshiro Mifune is the last 30 seconds of a bag of Skittles; Slim (still) isn’t a Shakespeare person; going “full-on Orson Welles”; Julian being afraid of reading reviews from writers he loves; Mitchell watching Foxcatcher in the heart of du Pont country; and Julian’s childhood hero Basil Rathbone.Read transcript
The Danish brothers behind the slow-burn holiday horror Speak No Evil talk guilty pleasures, why Face/Off should have won Oscars and the vitality of contemporary Korean cinema.
What’s the price of saying “no”? How bad can it be, really? The cost of everyday politeness is what Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) discover in Speak No Evil when they take their daughter on what should have been the perfect weekend away. As they holiday with Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), a Dutch couple they befriended on vacation, innocuous faux pas cascade into a waking nightmare.
In the spirit of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, the terror of the film is one that creeps up slowly, and then intensely. Frankly, the anxiety of the uncomfortable social situations will be more than enough to get under your skin before anything else that happens in Speak No Evil. “This family could actually get away at any given moment, but they don’t. Why? I found that a much more interesting premise,” notes director Christian Tafdrup, who co-wrote the feel-bad film with his brother Mads Tafdrup, marking their second collaboration after 2017’s A Horrible Woman.
“I wonder if we are reaching peak bleak horror,” contemplates Adam Hursey in a review out of the film’s debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I love when filmmakers take gigantic risks and don’t treat audiences like little babies and just allow us to be truly gutted, traumatized, and haunted for a film’s entirety,” writes Whitney, who doesn’t stop short of proclaiming Speak No Evil “the best movie of all time.” Allow us to issue a quick advisory warning right here: it’s not for parents.
As Speak No Evil arrives on Shudder, we gave the Tafdrup brothers the Letterboxd Life in Film questions, in order to find out about the (unbearable) home movies from their childhood, the films that fill them with hope for the future and the last horror movie that rocked their world. You can’t say no, that would be rude.
What film made you want to become a filmmaker?
Christian Tafdrup: As I teenager, I worked as a runner at Zentropa Film, the company founded by Lars von Trier and Peter Aalbæk Jensen. I copied scripts like Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom and The Celebration, and I took them home to read even though I was not allowed to. I wanted to be as good as my idols, and in fact, I’m still trying to!
Mads Tafdrup: Well, I’m not sure if there was one film in particular that sort of defined my path towards becoming a filmmaker. Truth is, I was about 30 when I decided to go all-in on becoming a screenwriter, which was right after I wrote the script for A Horrible Woman. For the first time, I felt that I was really good at something, and that I didn’t have to fake anything.
I do, however, remember watching the Italian film Cinema Paradiso as a child, knowing instantly that I was witnessing something truly special. It sort of touches something very fundamental inside me every time I watch it, which is hard to describe, and a very rare feeling too. Also, the score by [Ennio] Morricone is fabulous. I guess that was when my curiosity for telling stories was awoken.
What fond memories of family viewings or annual movie traditions do you both have?
CT: We sadly do not have any big traditions in our family! Personally, I do have a film group with five of my best friends. We meet every final Sunday of the month and watch films with different themes, then review them. This has been a way to know much more about the artform. We’ve had the group for twenty years!
MT: No. We come from a family with no traditions, besides Christmas. Sorry. I do recall though, when I was five, my brother forced the whole family to watch a film he had made with some friends. They were basically just sitting in a container singing homemade songs. Tough watch.
Please take us beyond the Lars von Triers and Thomas Vinterbergs. What are the deep-cut Danish classics we need to add to our watchlists?
CT: First of all, Carl Theodor Dreyer is the biggest Danish director that has ever lived. Films like Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr are eternal classics in Danish cinema. Of recent times, you might be aware of names like Bille August, Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. One you might not know is Nils Malmros, one of the biggest Danish auteurs of all-time. His films Tree of Knowledge and Beauty and the Beast are sensitive dramas dealing with the transition from childhood to adulthood. Both are masterful and heartbreaking movies that I’d recommend.
MT: Nils Malmros’ Beauty and the Beast and Tree of Knowledge are both must-watches! He can describe youth and the rite of passage between child and grown-up like no one else can.
Did you have any specific film influences for Speak No Evil?
CT: We tried not to look at other films! Some people mentioned Funny Games by Michael Haneke. In the beginning, I was afraid that our film would be too much like his film, but in a way Speak No Evil is quite the opposite! No closed doors, no weapons. This family could actually get away at any given moment, but they don’t. Why? I found that a much more interesting premise.
MT: To be honest, none! I know many critics have drawn parallels, especially to Haneke’s Funny Games, a few from Lars von Trier, Ruben Östlund and Ari Aster, but Christian and I never sat down and actively used other films as inspiration. However, I think that when you write films, you will automatically use the entire catalog of films you’ve seen since you were a kid and the sum of all those will influence the decisions you make, the thoughts you’re having, and even just your worldview in general. One thing, however, that has been quite an inspiration while writing Speak No Evil has been Korean cinema and the way that they’re not afraid to clash genres.
What filmmaker, living or dead, do you envy the most? What films do you wish you could take credit for?
CT: I have envied Lars von Trier all my life. Breaking the Waves did it all for me. After watching this film, I decided to try to do something pure genius myself… haven’t quite managed to do that yet. Besides Lars, I have always been a big admirer of Luis Buñuel. I wish I could have made Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And to mention a more modern name, Charlie Kaufman. Being John Malkovich is one of the best ideas for a movie ever.
MT: There are so many, I can’t say just one. I like Noah Baumbach a lot. I remember when I watched The Squid and the Whale for the first time. I had the feeling of watching something that was extremely well-written, and that was way before I even knew I was going to become a filmmaker. It is so sharp, funny, and simple.
Also Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich are screenplays I wish I had written, or will be able to write one day. Maybe I will! But if there is one film I could take credit for, I think it has to be Burning by Lee Chang-dong. One of the best and craziest film experiences I’ve ever had. And such a strong commentary on the inequality of Korean society.
MT: The poster of The Exorcist. Such a beautiful image! It really captures the entire atmosphere of the film in one picture. It’s man versus... something much, much greater than man. I dunno what to say really, I just really love the poster, and the film too, of course. A masterpiece!
What are your guilty pleasure movies?
CT: I don’t have that many guilty pleasure movies, besides maybe the ‘true crime’ genre! I will say, any movie with Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford in it, I need to watch from time to time. I’m not sure how guilty that is, but there is something about these two actors that make me feel so comfortable. And, well, I do love Dumb and Dumber with all my heart, and don’t really tell that to anyone…
MT: Since I’ve grown older, I have a hard time relating to the concept of “guilty pleasure” as I don’t care really what other people think, which I guess is at the core of the guilty pleasure thing. However… Wedding Crashers is a masterpiece in its genre. Con Air is one that I can’t stop watching once I have turned it on, and Face/Off I’ve watched like twenty times. The first time I watched it was with my Dad on the premiere day. I remember telling him that I was sure this one would win every Oscar that year! It didn’t.
What films fill you with hope for the future?
CT: The films coming out of South Korea I find very vital and refreshing. I wish we all had that courage to mix all kinds of genres like they do. I find their movies to be so inspiring.
MT: The Salt of the Earth by Wim Wenders puts everything into perspective, no doubt! What a brilliant film! And the pictures and the stories told by Sebastião Salgado are beyond comparison. This one leaves you with a lot of hope for the future. For our planet and for mankind in general, especially if there were more people like him. I do think, however, that there is plenty of hope for the future. Maybe not when I watch the news, but the small things of beauty in the everyday life gives me a certain belief that things are gonna be fine.
What films have the most unforgettable left-turn endings for you?
CT: Well, it must be another Haneke movie. His first feature, The Seventh Continent, was definitely surprising, but above that, it had one of the most disturbing endings in the history of filmmaking. For an hour, we follow a middle-class family of two parents and a seven-year-old daughter in total despair over life, but we don’t know that the parents actually have a plan and that is to kill themselves! The ending takes about 30 minutes and shows every part of a collective suicide. That ending shocked me the most, but I will never see it again. Many people told me they liked Speak No Evil, but that they would never see it again.
MT: One that still haunts me is the ending of The Secret in Their Eyes by Juan José Campanella. It’s shocking, yet so obvious—this is the only way it can end—with Morales keeping Gómez locked in his house to give him the lifetime in prison that the system promised but couldn’t fulfill, and the way it’s told is just brilliant. One of my favorite films!
On a final note, what movies do you like to watch stoned?
CT: I have to say, I’m never really stoned, but sometimes drunk! I kind of get the feeling of being stoned when I watch Todd Solondz movies. Happiness is one of the best ‘pretty stoned’ experiences I have ever had. Such a great film!
MT: I’m a really bad smoker, unfortunately. I’m a very talented drinker though! But watching films drunk doesn’t work for me. I did watch Irreversible stoned once. It wasn’t a success.