guilty-posterWhen police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is temporarily demoted to desk work, he expects a sleepy beat as an emergency dispatcher. That all changes when he answers a panicked phone call from a kidnapped woman who then disconnects abruptly. Asger, confined to the police station, is forced to use others as his eyes and ears as the severity of the crime slowly becomes more clear. The search to find the missing woman and her assailant will take every bit of his intuition and skill, as a ticking clock and his own personal demons conspire against him. This innovative and unrelenting Danish thriller uses a single location to great effect, ratcheting up the tension as twists pile up and secrets are revealed. I sat down in Los Angeles, with director Gustav Möller to discuss this nail-biting film, winner of the audience award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and Denmark’s pick for next year’s Academy Award competition for Best Foreign Language Film.

Danny Miller: Well, I was at the edge of my seat the whole time. The crazy thing is that even though it all takes place in the police station, I think I’d pass a lie detector test that I had actually seen the other characters and locations. It’s so strange how our brains work. Were you at all worried that this device of setting the whole film in the police station might not work?

gustavmollerGustav Möller: Honestly, I wasn’t too worried about that because the origin of the film was actually me hearing a 911 call, also from a kidnapped woman in a car, and I had exactly the same sensation you had watching the film — I really felt that I was seeing the whole thing. I would play this 911 call for my producer and co-writer and they felt that way, too, but then when we talked about what we “saw,” it was always different. I thought it was a great premise for making a film in which you can really play with the audience’s imagination.

I also love how I was constantly changing my idea of who was guilty, who was innocent, what the characters’ motivations were, and so on. It’s fascinating how much we fill in when we’re watching a movie like this (and we probably do the same thing in our lives!) when we don’t yet have all the facts. And I appreciate how you never over-explain anything as so many American films do, so we’re left to figure things out on our own.

I think that the strongest experiences in cinema come when you really trust your audience and let them be co-creators of the story.

Yeah, I think audiences crave that kind of participation, I know I do. Jakob Cedergren gives such a taut, amazing performance as Asger, but I was also very impressed by the offscreen characters that we only hear. Was it harder to direct them since they’re not actually seen on camera?

I was trying not to direct them any differently than I would an on-screen actor because I didn’t want them to overact with their voice. I didn’t want it to sound like some radio plays where people try to describe everything with their voice because that’s the only tool that they have. We shot the film in sequence, and I had the voice actors in a separate room from the main actor. It was built almost like a theater stage with a mock-up of a car for the people in the car, or when we had someone walking around a house, we’d tape off the rooms of the house so it sounds like they’re really walking around. I wanted them to feel like they were acting on a stage, not just using their voices.

There are so many twists and turns with the characters, did you always know where they were going when you started writing the script?

No, I didn’t. It was very important for me to really flesh out these characters so that they didn’t feel like clichés. We had to know what was important to them, both the kidnapped woman and her abductor, and the other people that Asger talks to. We would start off with a character being one way and then we would further develop the character and try to figure out how they ended up there and suddenly we’d find another layer of the character that we’d add. In some cases it changed how the story plays out. We did a lot of improv work with the actors but very little actual rehearsal. I wanted that kind of first-take freshness.

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Did the actor playing Asger know everything that was coming?

He knew the major plot points, of course, but sometimes I’d throw curve balls at him to get a reaction — to make him laugh or be a little confused or something like that.

Did you ever have a version where you revealed more about the characters, and Asger’s own personal life?

We did take some things away in the editing. The structure remained the same but we’d remove certain information about the characters or add it later in the film. We wanted to keep the audience engaged, but also keep them as co-creators.

In terms of that co-creating, it’s interesting that I was so involved in the story that I barely remember that the characters were not speaking English. I love foreign films and have no problem with subtitles, but there was something so engaging in this film that I kind of forgot it was in Danish.

It’s funny because, unlike many Danish films, this one has sold to almost every territory in the world. It was a huge hit in France this summer, and some other countries. I’m thrilled that it doesn’t work only in a Danish context. I think the kinds of complex emotions you see in the film are pretty universal.

Congratulations on being selected as Denmark’s entry for the Academy Awards this year, that’s pretty impressive for your first feature film! I wish we got more Danish films here but we get so few, and when we do they’re usually films by well-known directors such as Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Thomas Vinterberg.

We were actually up against some of those more established Danish directors this year, so being selected as a first-time filmmaker, I was surprised and very honored.

I think one of the reasons I got so involved with Asger is because you never shied away from showing his flaws. You can’t really tell if he’s good in his job or not, it’s kind of shocking when he hangs up on people calling with emergencies because he’s so involved in the case with this kidnapped woman. Is he a good cop in general? What did he do to get himself demoted to the desk job? What’s his personal life like? I love that there’s no black or white here.

I’m glad to hear you say that because it’s exactly what we were going for. We wanted the film to start out black and white with a clear idea of good and evil, like a genre film. But then, as the film progresses, we wanted to get into a much more gray area, both in terms of moral ambiguity and the style of the whole film.

The Guilty opens Friday, October 19. Click here to see if it’s playing at a theater near you.

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