NIFFF 2008 - Let the Right One In Interview
Tomas Alfredson has crafted one of the most memorable films I've ever seen with his latest effort, Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in). I recently had the chance to talk with him about his film. Magnet will be releasing the film to US theaters in late October and festival audiences can catch it at the upcoming Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Sitges International Film Festival of Catalonia in Spain. The interview follows after the link bump.
In times with endless remakes and a general malaise in cinematic storytelling, it's refreshing for a film like Let the Right One In to come along that weaves classical stories we are already familiar with, that offers up something new and fresh that we have never experienced before on the big screen. We have seen coming of age films dealing with isolation and bullying before. We have seen films that deal with vampires before. Alfredson and crew go beyond where previous films have gone to offer up this universal tale that take us the audience to new terrain and unimagined heights of classical cinematic storytelling. Like the best films it lets our imagination soar, our hearts connect to what is happening on screen, a relief from our daily grind and that rare moment of redemption and euphoria where we feel our lense of life is forever altered. The films redemptive powers not only work for the characters in the film, but for the audience that experiences it as well. There is no bigger joy in cinema for 2008 than Let the Right One In. With it paving the way and becoming a festival darling from Tribeca to NIFFF to Fantasia and more, the future of new cinema has never looked brighter.
BLAKE: I first came across your film at the European Film Market at Berlin where I saw people file out from your film literally stunned. Only recently was able I able to see it for the first time at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland. As the films end credits rolled, there was a universal quiet with everyone seemingly moved without words and glowing with delight.
How important is the film festival circuit and experience for you as a filmmaker and what was your Tribeca experience like?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: It's of course fantastic to have the opportunity to travel the world with your work. The world of film festivals can really be a gamble - In worst case you arrive after ten hours in different means of conveyance at The No Name International Film Festival to a dead quiet hotel room, sitting on the bed like Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation.” Nobody tells you anything about what to do or where to go. In the evening you're invited to a party celebrating the car manufacturer who's the main sponsor. You and end up in a corner with as greasy bacon snack in one hand and a glass of undrinkable sparkling sweet wine in the other, like a shy idiot from Sweden with a badge on your chest with your name on it. Nobody's seen your film but say they have heard about it and that they probably will watch it on Sunday. Maybe. The volunteers are running around stressed to the breaking point and the screenings of your film are not punctual, the projection is horrifying and people are going in and out of the theatre and on the Q&A nobody asks any questions except the moderator who pronounces your name incorrectly.
And it can also be fantastic, dynamic, professional, full of interesting meetings and bring you $25,000 dollars and the big prize from the hands of Robert de Niro like I did in Tribeca. That was one of the most memorable moments in my life.
BLAKE: John Huston once said, "On paper all you can do is say something happened, and if you say it well enough the reader believes you. In pictures, if you do it right, the thing happens, right there on the screen." I find this particularly true with your film where reality and horror and the supernatural are shown with a sense of profound naturalism and realism that leaves viewers gaping in awe with the striking moments it creates.
Can you talk about this naturalism you approached the films narrative with as it unfolds?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: There's hardly anything more incommodious imagining yourself making a cheesy horror film…
I’ve been doing film and television for twenty years and this is the first time I’ve gotten into the horror business, and the true horror for me as a filmmaker was to create this supernatural story in this very naturalistic and everyday environment. For me, the key into this film was to omit as much as possible of the graphic details concerning the most fantastic details of vampirism, and in the opposite cases where we do show it, I wanted it to be as dull, dry and skimpy as possible.
BLAKE: The genesis of this film from what I've heard is that you read the book and it immediately jumped out at you. Was there a specific scene or moment you found particularly transcending that hit you close to your filmmaking heart and soul and made you then and there began that journey to get the film made at all costs?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Having experienced some hard times in school myself, the strongest component that hit me hardest, was the unsentimental and downright description of the bullied boy, Oskar.
BLAKE: As a follow up to that question, filmmakers often cite various inherent difficulties in translating a novel to the big screen. What would you say were the toughest parts on translating the John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also helped with the screenplay) novel to the big screen?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: To maintain the unsentimental ambience of the story and to make a trustworthy portrait of this very particular Swedish suburb in the beginning of the 1980’s, without devoting to nostalgia. It’s strange, the story could really be set anywhere at any time, but it meant a lot to me that it’s set where and when it’s written for. The specificness makes it universal.
BLAKE: Visually your film is packed in things I haven't seen before, the framing of scenes and moments are perfectly captured by your film voice and the lensing of it by Hoyte van Hoytema. What was your collaboration like in working with them?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Hoyte is a true poet and I’m so grateful to have met this Dutch painter. It's really easy, specially in this kind of genre, to end up with endless technical discussions with the D.O.P., but with Hoyte, the conversation was also on a philosophical and humanistic level as well as on the visual aspects. We explored a lot of renaissance paintings trying to capture the delicate lightning.
Before I die I will build a monument celebrating Hoyte in the harbor of his hometown Rotterdam, depicting him when he's out on a walk with his ridiculously small dog "Myggan" ("Mosquito").
BLAKE: What cameras did you prefer for lensing the film and what was your favorite visual moment of the film, as well as the most challenging to shoot?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Hoyte’s a true purist when it comes to analogue shooting and, though there are a lot of benefits with the digital stuff, I'm prepared to join his celluloid monastery. We are a few monks still left moaning the Kodak Gospel. This film would definitely not have the look it has if it was made digitally.
My favorite, as well as the most challenging scene is the swimming pool scene in the end of the film. It took hundreds of hours with all people involved to make this single shot come true. It was really a tough effort and I love every frame of it.
BLAKE: Although mostly spatially lensed minimally, each frame is filled with dense details and supporting motifs of narrative themes. Every aspect of the film feels perfectly woven together. What was the editing process like in getting this one cut locked down? Were there any earlier versions?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: The editing process started in storyboarding the film. I had a fantastic month together with storyboard artist Magnus Jonasson who was really inspiring and is a great source to the final feel of the film.
The editing process was in one way easygoing because of the rigorous preps and the plainness of the visual storytelling. I worked together with editor Dino Jonsäter experimenting with chronology and timing in a very interesting period. Once a week Louise Brattberg with whom I have worked together with for nearly twenty years, came in as the fifth and the sixth eye and told us what to do and not. I find editing like solving crosswords, it could really drive you mad sometimes – you know how many letters there ought to be, you know that the final letter is "F", you have it in the back of your mind day and night – and suddenly – when sitting at the dentist, you have the solution! You run out of the puzzled dentists' reception with this silly little napkin under your chin and sit down in front of the editing machine to try the idea out. It totally corrupts me twentyfour seven. Then, of course there are people involved watching the editing process that you have to convince and explain to and get nagged by. That's truly one of the hardest parts of moviemaking – in Sweden we have like ten directors that can accomplish a film of this level, and if you have a work-in-progress screening for some people who don't direct or know anything about the craft – suddenly turn into full-fledged film directors. They're yawning, complaining, suggesting scenes to be taken away that doesn't exist and so on – and these people have influence! I assume we have like ten brain surgeons, toppermost of the poppermost, in our country – would you dare to interfere with his or her work, suggest a little cut here or there? I don’t know how that works in other countries, but here everyone’s a film director.
BLAKE: Any moments of note that were left out of the final cut?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: None that I recall.
BLAKE: Some of the aftermath scenes, like where we see a victim removed from ice feel perfectly real, breathing with dark humor and the practical effects are amazing. Can you talk about crafting the practical effects throughout the film to show horror, whether as I noted here with a victim being removed by police and as well in many other key places in the film.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: I’m very happy that you're convinced. And because of that I'm not so happy about talking about the crafting of each specific shot. We decided in an early point that we didn't want to have any behind-the-scenes material circulating, or interviews with the kids laughing about the artificial blood or images of stuntmen in front of blue-screen backdrops. Not that we want to hide something, but to protect the fairytale, sort of.
BLAKE: Vampires have been featured so many times in cinema with their myths, movements, mannerisms and bloodletting forming a world audiences walk into with an already formed predisposition and familiarity.
In this regard, many filmgoers come into a film that features vampires with a certain sense of baggage where they already have expectations and are weighing what they are seeing against what they previously have. Saying all that your film plays perfectly within the vampire universe within cinema, while at the same time progressing it forward.
What was it like working within this character type, its lore and history and crafting allowing yourself to be creative while not veering completely away from its central identity?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: You're talking to a perfect idiot in these vampire matters. I have no history whatsoever of reading or seeing vampire stories. I’ve had total respect and confidence in Johns’ knowledge of this. My impression has always been that the vampire bite has been a sexual act - the beauty turning herself over to the beast. In this story sex is totally left out, the urge of drinking blood is just a matter of nutrition. It’s so beautiful with this love story between these teenagers without a moment itching hardons, incipient breasts or parents who wants to talk about pregnancy.
Just plain tenderness and eternal love. That’s really cool. No sex please, we're Swedish!
BLAKE: I love the barren playground location in the film and how it is used onscreen. How much of it had to be dressed? It has this perfect spatial symmetry in every scene we see with Eli and Oskar!
TOMAS ALFREDSON: It's a location that was really hard to find, it's supposed to be set in this 1950's suburb Blackeberg outside Stockholm, but it's shot in Luleå in the very north of Sweden, because we wanted to be ensured of the darkness, the cold and the snow. Set designer Eva Norén designed the playground that they’re climbing on. It’s quite a nice piece and it's also designed to fit harmonious to cinemascope. The close-ups are made in a sub-cooled studio. You don’t want to have your starring child actors in thin clothes, turning into blue ice cream on location in –20° if you don't have to.
(For the specially interested: there is a quiet nice sub-theme I think in these particular four scenes, with the unfolding of the eye contact between Oskar and Eli.)
BLAKE: What did you make of the near indifferent and fractured relationship Oskar has with his father? This relationship seems to mirror his alienation in one of his goals is to connect with a father that never seems perhaps to be there for him, that then creates an additional void for him with the world and wanting to find someone to connect with.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: At several screenings in the US, I've heard people say that the father's a homosexual! This for me came as a total surprise, but of course I found it interesting. I didn't want the grown-ups to be actively mean or evil-minded. I wanted them to be uninterested, floppy or ignorant, but always physically nearby the nasty events – if they'd just turned their heads a little, if they'd just listened a little more accurate, if they'd just asked one more time.
BLAKE: Cinema tales of outcast cinema seem to always perfectly weave a sense of reality and fantasy in their tales. Films like René Clément’s Forbidden Games or Night of the Hunter, sprung to my mind while watching Let the Right One in. Both create captivating onscreen realities that feature remarkable performances by their child actors, while dealing with dark and sometimes adult themes. The little moments they create, especially in the moments where revelations are made are quite impressive! So much of their roles are in not what they say but how their physical body language, which they do an exceptional job in being able to be transcending beyond just where they have dialogue. I imagine the non-dialogue scenes for child actors can be even tougher to pull off.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: The screenplay is really a piece of silent movie, I find most of the dialogue as a poetic layer of the entirety. Both Kåre and Lina who plays the leading parts are extremely intelligent, have exceptional integrity and are both kinds of strange old people. You meet kids some times that have eyes of an eighty-year old man or woman and seem like some sort of reincarnation. It took us a year to find them, and I think they’re unprecedentedly fantastic. I’ve worked a lot with kids and for me it’s all about the right casting and then, in a short amount of time, establish some sort of mutual confidence. Never lie to a kid, never hoax them into things, tell them when they’re bad and don’t forget to play and have fun from time to time (in brief – the stuff you don’t do with grown up actors).
I always imagine the characters in my films as animals. "Oskar" is a roe deer; "Eli" is a dog.
BLAKE: Eva Noren does a great job at contrasting Eli and Oskar, can you talk about Noren's work in helping to fully realize both characters?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: It's really hard to stage emptiness – as well as it's hard to stage silence. To stage silence the classical way is to have some sort of very subtle sound to put in contrast with silence: gentle rain on the window, dripping from the bathtub. It's the same with emptiness – you have to find the right components to contrast the emptiness, and I think Eva's made a tremendous job with Eli’s empty apartment. It was also a tough task to solve the lightning in Eli’s apartment. I didn’t want it to be Dracula-dark, it would have been to simple, and I didn’t want lightning coming from lamps, so we invented "spray-light" – imagine you could capture boring grey daylight into a can and then spray it out just before shooting!
BLAKE: In particular the world and actions of vampires in your film are void of hyper editing, hyper cutting and over the top CGI, which dominates so many horror films and vampire tales of late. The realism of action in Let the Right One In is macabre without being stylistically excessive and never feels artificial. There is also a very vibrant energy when action and horror does happen.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: The film is really complicated and it's really stuffed with CGI (for Swedish standards), though nobody seems to notice, and that's really a conquest! Nothing bores me more than sitting on endless meetings about technical solutions without talking about what they're communicating. Special Effect Land is really the men's world (and I don't know why) and everybody suddenly turns twelve years old when talking about these things. I guess I tried to work with these matters as a grown-up and with the other side of the brain. It's quite fun to talk to a CGI-person in terms like, "I want this room to smell like rotten eggs."
BLAKE: Another great quality of the film is the sound design and I'm curious if you can talk about it and working with its team. When action happens it lifts with often times an accompanying kinetic sound that reinforces and sells it. Throughout the film the sound design really works so well we the audience never even realize its there.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: The soundscape is fifty percent of the experience. Any kid can nowadays easily point out where and how you've made certain visual effects, but very rarely what they've experienced with their ears. This is still an enormous orchestra to conduct, which is in the dark for the audience.
The soundscape to
BLAKE: The film fills a complete narrative and emotional landscape for viewers. We feel tragedy in the plight of the lead characters, shock in moments of horror, the relentless childhood terror of the bullying, laugh with some of the dark humor and ultimately despite the wintry terrain of the film feel basked in clear sense of hope and light. With so many emotions and ground to cover it seems an impossible task to in each frame pack in minimal settings such a dense world that feels perfectly tonal throughout. Perhaps it's your perfect balance in realizing the light foreground and dark background like a Charles Dickens novel that lends itself to such a tonally perfect film.
So of course I'm curious to hear your thoughts on crafting the tone of this film and keeping it consistent throughout.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Some twenty years ago there were some quite nasty killings in Stockholm. A guy arrived at a club with a machinegun and he massacred people that were standing in line in front of the club. I lived in that house where this was happening and I remember this early morning, all the expected drama: the police, media, curious by-passers and victims covered with blood on the pavement. Like a TV-drama in reality I was watching it all from my window, but simultaneously – I lifted my eyes to the park beside the crime scene – an old lady exercising her dog, bus 55 driving slowly up hill, the everyday life that goes on whatever happens.
Imagine a scene with a woman getting a phone call from the doctors' office telling her she's got fatal cancer. In most films this scene is set where the woman is driving a car, she will hang up, stop the car, she will watch the waves of the sea beside the road, she cries, dreary underscore.
I would rather set it in a children’s party where the woman's a clown, she hardly could hear what the doctor’s saying, she can’t hide, or cry, she has to keep on clowning because that’s how life looks like.
Is there a possibility to make a smile in this grievous situation? Is there a possibility to accomplish unexpected conflict – in colors, in reactions, scoring and framing?
BLAKE: Let the Right One In is a great example of a multi-dimensional film, basic viewers can follow along, as well as those looking for drama or those looking at it more towards a horror fan point of view. The transformative and transcending experience of the film can equally be felt by the audience that isn't fully digressed into it and the audience that is fully immersed and on the edge of their seat throughout its running time.
What are your thoughts on this tale not fitting into any simplistic categorization or genre? Everyone seems to be in a rush to pin the down as this or that. At the heart of Let the Right One In, it does sway towards the classical tale of boy meets girl and the obstacles they must go through in overcoming their inner demons to achieve their goals, but rarely have we seen so many disparate genres fused like this in perfect harmony.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: I do think that categorization of films is not for directors to make, genre is a word for marketing people. I aim to complicate subsistence as much as possible; I think it's my task as an artist. Categorizing is for people who want the opposite.
BLAKE: Now with Per Ragnar as Hakan who turns in a great performance, especially in his more solemn scenes. There seems to be some intent to leave his motivations and back-story ambiguous? I'm told in the novel there is much more explained on who his character is.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: In the novel “Håkan” is a pronounced pedophile. I think that child molesting is used carelessly in television and film. It's too complicated a matter to just use as an emotional special effect.
The film suggests that “Håkan” is an old aged lover to Eli. Maybe Oskar is becoming the same in the future?
BLAKE: Scoring by Johan Söderqvist is another element that works in harmony with all the other elements perfectly. I'm curious on your with with them and in finding the right music to accompany the film, as well as its leitmotifs.
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Johan's one of he most experienced film composers in Scandinavia and this is our first time working together. We wanted to move with the romantic vein in the story; we listened a lot to Mahler and Fauré which contains a lot of innocence and purity.
The darkness would have been unbearable without the lightness and hope in Johan's score.
It's all analogue instrumentation and the orchestra in Bratislava really had the right touch with its central European sentimentality. Johan found a really spooky instrument called “Waterphone” which gives a really creepy, glassy and wintery sound to the suspense parts. I wouldn’t mind if the king asked him to write us a new national anthem.
BLAKE: For cinema and making it, where do you draw your biggest influences?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: I would say listening to music. Music gives me shivers like no other art form and make the strongest images.
BLAKE: Growing up what films or filmmakers had the biggest impact on you?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: My father's a filmmaker and I grew up on different movie sets since I was a baby. Watching him and his colleagues work was my university.
I have a bunch of favorite films but I really don’t like telling people which they are – I feel naked if I do.
BLAKE: What are you working on next? Any details you can share? What are other types of films you would love to make someday?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Next week we start the rehearsals of "My Fair Lady" on stage in Stockholm.
I would like to do films I didn't know I could do, like “Let The Right One In."
BLAKE: And lastly, any memorable stories while making Let the Right One In?
TOMAS ALFREDSON: I'm sorry, I hate that question, probably because there never are any memorable stories in filmmaking - just concentrated labor. When my children come to visit me on the set, they hate it. They find it the most boring place in the world. When my son, Petter, was five years old, he had a friend on a visit. The friend asked him "What does your father do?", Petter replied, "Well, there are some people gathered. They say something that’s written on a piece of paper. When they have said this four, five times, my dad comes up to them and complain."
BLAKE: I can't wait to catch your film again at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and as well additionally when I make my annual pilgrimage out to the Sitges Film Festival in Span! Thanks for your time and making a true cinema classic!
TOMAS ALFREDSON: Thank you – and don't forget: "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain."
Thanks to Todd and everyone at Magnet for helping set up this interview, as well as a huge thanks to NIFFF for finally allowing me the chance to see it.
I should also note I'm a huge fan of the review for this film over at Headquarters 10 (read here).