Danish cinema is great, but also very neat and pleasing sometimes. We have Lars von Trier, of course, but besides him people largely stay in their comfort zones. “Speak No Evil” was a way to challenge myself and the industry in Denmark: for example, to have an ending without any hope. To disturb the audience instead of letting them go home feeling nice. To create a physical experience that stays in your body for weeks. First, the film was an idea in my mind. Then, there was a genre I was afraid of. I found it liberating to write, because that was new to me.
Chilling as it is, the film also has this vein of dark humor running through it. I’m thinking most of Bjørn and Louise’s efforts to remain polite in the face of their hosts’ strange, eventually callous behavior. Tell me about achieving that pattern of escalation within the social dilemmas your characters are forced to navigate.
We spent a lot of time doing that. We talked about “Funny Games,” by Michael Haneke, who also uses horror in a realistic way. In that film, somebody knocks on the door and, after five minutes, they’re violent. Here, we didn’t have that. We had a couple who could leave every minute but did not. And why don’t they? In situations where somebody is testing you or crossing boundaries, how do you react? If you read our first script, Patrick and Karin were too crazy from the beginning. You would have thought, “Why don’t [Bjørn and Louise] just run away? These characters are stupid.”
But in every situation we wrote, we believed there should be two possibilities all the time: the possibility that they were actually being intimidated, and the possibility it’s a misunderstanding and their own fault. It’s like, “I’m a guest at their house. Why should they be rude? That’s typical of me to think.” We wanted to create that feeling in audiences.
You have a sense, underneath these comedic situations, that there’s suspense and darkness, which suggests everything is not what it seems. You could easily write a scene about some guy offering a girl some meat, but the girl is a vegetarian, to be funny. But underneath, you can still establish an atmosphere of horror. We built up that suspense, leading into darker scenes where [Bjørn and Louise] are being increasingly tested but never say no, until a point that might be fatal. It was a balance between keeping it subtle but creating the sensation of characters going to a bad place without knowing where, why, and when.