Since it’s only a couple weeks to Halloween, it’s time to roll out the horror movies – though one foreign country that might not be the first to come to mind for the genre is Sweden. In fact when you think of Sweden, you probably think of Ingmar Bergmann or Pelle the Conqueror, with only Mikael HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m, director of 1408, being one of the better known recent genre directors to come from the country.
Then along comes Let the Right One In, possibly one of the best vampire movies of the last 20 years, and you realize how much potential the country has for creating horror unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Based on the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, which the author adapted for the screen himself along with director Tomas Alfredson, the movie tells the story of 12-year-old Oskar, a boy bullied at school who finds a new best friend in the mysterious girl Eli who has moved in next door, and though he knows she’s different, he doesn’t realize how much until he gets closer to her. Meanwhile, people have been dying around their apartment complex, the work of a serial killer who just happens to be Eli’s father.
The movie comes out at a time when vampires are very much in the public consciousness due to Twilight and True Blood – in fact, it’s already slated for an American “remake” by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, scheduled for 2009 – but Alfredson handles the material more like a coming-of-age romance, the majority of the movie being about the relationship between these two young people, played by first-timers KÃ¢re Hedebrant and Lina Leanderson. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t exceedingly creepy and violent, as one would home from a vampire flick, and Lindqvist and Alfredson do some fascinating things by incorporating vampire lore into the story.
ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to talk with director Tomas Alfredson about making the movie, and though Alfredson doesn’t seem to have any intent or inclination to continue in the horror genre, he can rest assured that his movie will be held close to the heart of vampire fans who see it.
ShockTillYouDrop: I know this started out as a book that was very popular and that it was translated into English, though I haven’t read it myself. How did you originally get the book and get involved with the movie?
Tomas Alfredson: Well, it was a friend who gave it to me originally, and usually I really hate being given books, because it’s a private thing to choose what to read. But this one, it was there on my nightstand for some weeks, but then I opened it and then I got immediately stuck. I suppose it was this very unsentimentally told story about the bullied boy that touched me the strongest, maybe because I had some periods in my own childhood when I was bullied, so that really brought me back to this. It’s set in 1982, so it was also a trip back to my own teenage or pre-teen years.
Shock: So that part of the story was what really attracted you to making it?
Alfredson: Yeah, and that it was unsentimentally told, so very harsh and dry and down to earth.
Shock: At the point you read the book, had John already written a screenplay or was it even being thought of to make into a movie?
Alfredson: They was a crowd banging on his door to make a movie, so I was #40 or something. When we met, he knew of me and he liked what I’d done previously, and we got along together very well.
Shock: Calling this a “vampire movie” is a little simplistic, since it’s more of a coming-of-age young romance… there’s a lot more going on then the vampires, but even so, you don’t really think of Sweden when you think of vampires. Was he just inspired by the idea of vampires and wanted to try them in that setting?
Alfredson: I don’t know really what his original idea about it, but I suppose Sweden in the winter would be a good place for a vampire to live with 20 hours of darkness every day. This is in the Southern parts, but it’s quite dark there, but I suppose he’s a big fan of horror stories, so he found this way of blending these two worlds.
Shock: How did you eventually get the job directing it? Did you just approach him to make the movie and optioned it or did the producers bring the two of you together?
Alfredson: I think it was because he liked my previous work, so he thought “this is the right guy to do it,” then it was the production company and everything, as usual.
Shock: Was it anything specific in your previous movies they saw that made you right for this? Had you worked with kids before?
Alfredson: Yes, I have, a lot.
Shock: That’s interesting, because I would think that would be the hardest part of making this movie is finding the two kids.
Alfredson: Yeah, yeah, it was a huge thing to do. It took nearly a year to find those two kids in opening castings. We don’t have professional children’s actors in Sweden, so that was a very big thing to do. If one of the children wouldn’t work, the film wouldn’t work.
Shock: What were you looking for specifically when you knew you had to cast them and what did you have them do in auditions? Did you have them read or did you just talk to them to figure out their personalities?
Alfredson: They didn’t read at all, and not during the shooting either. I never let them read anything from paper, so I always read it aloud to them, so they learned by ear, rather than eye. They didn’t know what it was all about really, but they started to make this puzzle every day. “Okay, I’m coming in here now” because I think the best way to get the best out of a child actor isâ¦. You really cannot say “you are disappointed with adults.” They cannot do anything with that, but if you say, “You’re very upset with this specific person right now in this very moment because you’re very hungry and he’s just taken your food away.” You really have to take every and each situation for what it is, and not trying to make it into a bigger puzzle. That’s my way to it.
Shock: You obviously can’t shoot a movie like this in order, so did they have any idea about the overall story at all?
Alfredson: Yes, a little.
Shock: What about their parents?
Alfredson: Yeah, they had read it and they had made their approval of course, but this was for artistic reasons.
Shock: This is the way you normally work?
Shock: Since John wrote this screenplay, did he have something already written from the novel before you came on board or was that something you developed together?
Alfredson: No, but he was very stubborn about doing it himself, and to begin with, I thought that was not such a good idea.
Shock: Not a lot of authors are good at adapting their own novels, and that can sometimes be a bad thing.
Alfredson: Yeah, and it’s like 360 pages or something to lower that down to 90 dialogue sheets, and that’s a hard thing to do for an author, but he did a really good job, so I’m happy he did it, because he’s a very visual writer and he really understands how to make it work for the screen.
Shock: The movie is very visceral at times, but also very sweet and sublime, so was a lot of that in his writing in the novel and screenplay or was that what you had to bring in terms of creating the visual mood?
Alfredson: Well, a lot of it is in the book and a lot of it is made by me and the photographer, but the best thing about the screenplay I think is that it could almost be told as a silent movie. It’s very visually written, so all the dialogue has some kind of poetic shell or layer to the story, which is beautiful and is very good, but you really could turn off the sound and comprehend it anyway. That’s so beautifully written in that way and yet, it really gives you a lot of energy as a filmmaker to deal with that. There’s nothing more boring than making telephone calls or dialogue-driven drama, unless it’sâ¦ television could be very good in dialogue-driven dramatics but making this kind of epic visual style.
Shock: I noticed you used a lot of long shots and shooting things from a distance where things are happening more in the background, which is very different from what is the norm these days, and I was really curious about that decision.
Alfredson: That’s very nice to hear when you said that you had a good experience watching it on your computer, because I think television and internet has driven it to filmmaking with tighter shots, because the frame is so small, but it’s so grand to make a nice cinemascope shot and let the audience have a look around in the frame, what’s in there and what’s not in there. I think that framing is so interesting to work with active framing that you point out of the frame as much as you point into the frame. What don’t we see is as important as what we see, and there are so many details that you can see and put your eyes on in wide shots that’s so interesting.
Shock: I think that when the nurse walks outside the hospital looking for Eli is the best example of that. As far as working with the kids and their parents, there’s some violence and sexuality, so how did you work with them to understand what is happening?
Alfredson: As I told you, the most important things are to have them there and now, that’s the most important thing with a child and then I also talk a lot to the children when the camera is rolling. “Somebody is knocking on the door (makes knocking sound) and the telephone is ringing. Answer and pretend you’re not there.” The camera is rolling and you get those very fresh moments and I talk a lot while the camera is rolling, so that’s a thing that becomes very good, but the sound editors hate it of course.
Shock: That’s interesting because the movie has this ambience to it where there seems to be a lot of silence, maybe that’s because you’re not using the sound from the set or location.
Alfredson: It hasn’t to do with that really, but to work with sound as we did in this film is really to frame out certain kind of sounds surrounding them with silence or what you think is silence, because it’s not really silence.
Shock: No, you have very good sound design in the movie between the score and the ambience.
Alfredson: So it’s very close to the characters and you can really hear…in one scene, you could hear the eyelids shut. We put the microphone here (points next to his eyelash) and you can hear (makes eyelid closing noise) and it really does give life to it. It puts out certain things to surround it by silence, and it’s very efficient. All the sounds that the vampire has is all real live sounds. There are no synthetic sounds whatsoever in the film, so everything is analog instruments or real analog sounds from reality. The vampire for instance is a combination of frogs and different kinds of animals (makes growling sounds) and the sounds from her mouth and her breathing and everything, which works very well.
Shock: Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next? This movie will be the first movie of yours a lot of Americans will see, and a lot of genre fans are embracing it because it’s a very different take on a very familiar genre. Is that something you want to explore more of or do something completely different?
Alfredson: Well, why not, I say. But I really don’t know because I have a fish memory, ten seconds behind and ten seconds ahead, so if somebody gives me a good script that I get turned onto, it could be anything really. Right now I’m going to work with a stageplay at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, a comedy, and before this, I did “My Fair Lady,” a musical show, you know? So I do a lot of different stuff, but if it’s an interesting horror thing, why not?
Shock: Have you started getting chased by Hollywood to direct things since this has been playing so well at festivals?
Alfredson: Yeah, they have.
Shock: Are you interested in pursuing that because there seems to be a lot of space in Sweden and Scandinavia to have more home-grown filmmakers in the industry?
Alfredson: If it’s a project that has some air around it and not 50 lawyers…
Shock: Well, so much for Hollywood.
Alfredson: Yeah, yeahâ¦ (laughs) or too many people that I don’t know around me. I wouldn’t be doing a good job.
Shock: And what about this remake they’re doing? Are they just going back to the book and doing a version set in America? Do you know anything about that at all?
Alfredson: I’m not involved in that but the Swedish producers are, but that’s a separate thing and I’m not involved.
Shock: Do you think this story could work in the same way if not set in Sweden?
Alfredson: I don’t know, I really don’t. We’ll just have to wait and see.