“I think the most horrifying images are the ones you make yourself. Is there someone standing behind the door, or is it just two shoes standing there?”
While at the 2008 Thessaloniki International Film Festival, several people excitedly told me I had to go see Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new film, Let the Right One In. A horror film about vampires attacking a small town, every scene ends with a compelling “beat” that makes it riveting. Curiously enough, I didn’t feel I was in a horror film. Yes, there are vampires draining the cadavers for blood in buckets and splashes of blood in pristine snow, but it is mainly the story of an elfish-looking blonde boy, Oskar, who is beset by bullies in school — and the surprising love affair that ensues between him and a pretty little vampire girl. It is one of the most extraordinary love stories on film today — a love between children, between a vampire and a human, a love affair without any romantic consummation — and it is perhaps this unusual (and uplifting) treatment of love, more than the suspense of violence, that led to the thunderous audience applause.
I met with director Tomas Alfredson in the lobby of his hotel in Thessaloniki.
What inspired this film?
The story of love. The script is based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I worked with a screenwriter: he wrote and I added structure. I cut the novel to only one track: the love story. What makes it unusual is that it is a love story with no sex, with a castrated boy. This is pure love. It’s very rare, but I have seen it. Also, when a child, I had dreams about such a love, what it looks like. It is pre-sexual love, total love, a devoted love. Sex stresses people a lot. You put pictures of food in front of starving people, and it provokes the strongest feelings. Sexual needs make us animals, sexual needs. Being surrounded by sexual messages all the time makes us anxious. No one can live up to these expectations. I was once in Poland , in a small summer town on the North coast, with wooden houses, and suddenly after some days, I realized that I felt very calm. It was a sex-free place, no sex in the ads, none on the magazine covers, none in the streets. It was very free from that, very calming.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I remembered my own teenage years: the very cruel kids in school. I had rough times. The boy looks at the situation from a very practical perspective. The bullies are there: which way am I going? This is heartbreaking. He is very unsentimental about it. Usually such a story is told from the perspective of a sweet sensitive boy. Oskar is not that.
Yes, the real violence of the film is not the vampire killings but the tension caused by the bullies. What do you personally think about the phenomenon of bullying?
The complicated thing about bullying is that the victim does not get humble from it. He gets very angry from it, and loads a lot of wrath inside, and so to me, maybe the film suggests that the vampire is a creature of his wrath. That’s not so beautiful. What’s also interesting about bullying is the mob psychology: the victim has something you don’t like: they have bad timing, or acne, something awkward that disturbs the group. When you are a kid, you do not want to be very special or original. You want to be part of the group. Children can be very cruel. George Klein — a survivor of the Holocaust — says we should stop asking how could the Holocaust happen. We really have to go to the next step and accept the way we can treat each other. Look at kids in a playground, accept it, and figure out what we can do about it.
What is the meaning of your odd ending shot, where Oskar is on the train? The film could have ended instead with the preceding scene, with the revenge on the bullies.
Oskar lives in a society that cannot handle him or respect him. He takes full responsibility for that, and he leaves. He cuts off the bonds, the teachers, the family, and leaves society. And that is quite an interesting movement. I like that he does that. For me, the preceding pool scene is his fantasy. He actually dies here. In reality, he would die. Instead, he leaves. I like my ending scene on the train. The window shot was inspired by a memory from my childhood. As a child, I saw an open curtain in the window. My ending is very bright and promising. Some viewers see Oskar as the new blood provider to the girl. Another idea is that he decides to be a vampire himself so she lets him contaminate himself, and they live happily ever after as a children vampire couple.
Your use of violence is oddly not violent: it doesn’t seem like a classic horror film.
I think the most horrifying images are the ones you make yourself. Is there someone standing behind the door, or is it just two shoes standing there? A lot of filmmakers have monologues, up in your face: it is much more interesting to suggest different things to the audience, so they can get involved. It would be easy to make an audience feel sick. This film is much more about reaction not action: how people react to the actions rather than the actions themselves.
And your own feeling about using violence?
I try to be true to myself: use violence only when it is necessary to say something. I tried to do a flashback scene, where we see the castration of Eli [the girl vampire] two hundred years ago, with very close shots of a knife coming close to skin, starting to cut, and I said to the make-up guys that I want to do this. They said you can’t do this unless it is real animal, because if you are so close to the camera, you can’t use rubber or special effects, so I said okay, let’s do that then, then I forgot about it, and the assistant director said, we have the pig here now. I said, what pig? The pig for the cutting shot. A living pig. He is outside together with the slaughterer. So I went outside the studio and a butcher was standing with his knife, and this pig looking with his sad eyes. I said no. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if we killed him. That’s bad karma.
Do you believe in karma then?
Yes, I do, don’t you? I try to be a good in all my actions, big and small, from opening a door to somebody. It accumulates good karma. It has a cause and effect. I try to ask myself in each and every action, whether it is a good or a bad one.
How did you first get into film?
My father, Hans Alfredson, was a film director. He was also a comedian and a writer, one of the most celebrated persons in Sweden . I grew up in the environment. I started when very small during summer vacations, when I was ten, with props. I myself started in television: children’s television, and rock videos.
Did you yourself suffer from bullies as a child? I imagine you would have had a protected situation as a child, given your father’s celebrated status as a film director.
Being the son of a director is quite disturbing. We were special. A lot of attention was drawn to my father, especially in the old days when media was different, with just two channels. His celebrity gave prestige, but not to me . . .
Why rock videos?
I have this very sad love story with drumming. I was a drummer for ten years and I was so-so. Dreaming of being a rock star is tough when nobody wants to listen.
How does this musical background influence your filmmaking?
I use it a lot, with my sense of shots: giving rhythm to the staging. When to put the beat down, and when not to put the beat. Someone said a very good thing about Frank Sinatra: as a singer, he is one of the best drummers in the world. I am a better drummer with film. An artist just has to find the right voice. Music is the strongest of the arts; nothing moves an infant more than music. I like any kind of music that provokes strong emotions and images when I listen to it. Whenever I am doubtful, I listen to the song like a mantra. You can throw yourself into one specific song, and listen to the drums, or be with the horn section. So you can be in different places with the same music. I go to music to help me with my film: how do I want this scene to breathe? I ask this song for an answer. I follow the clarinet in this scene; it has some mellow feeling in this scene. And in another scene, I follow something else in the song. I ask other questions as well: how does this scene smell, what temperature is it . . .
How about the craft of filmmaking? How did you learn it?
I was very afraid to make my own first film, which was about a teenager writing his diaries. I learned everything about film before making this first film, at age 28. I started to learn the craft at the editing table. I am very much an editor. What I like best about film is learning how to construct first a scene in your head, and then deconstruct it to all the people who help make the film, from the sound to the camera. No, I do not explain my vision to my crew. It is too heavy to explain your film to fifty people, in fifty ways. You talk about sound to the one person, color to another. You don’t have the time or energy to explain why. It is not so much fun to shoot. It’s much like a military work. It’s labor. When you have done it for twenty years, you think: here comes this hysteric actor, this rainy weather, or this person complaining about the schedule. The most fantastic moments are before and after.
What is the most important skill for a film director?
Part of being a filmmaker is to know that any decision is better than the wrong decision or the right decision. The set designer comes with a blue cloth or green cloth. What is best is just making a decision. You can always change the decision later.
I noticed the visuals are very important in your film: the snow landscapes in the forest are stunning, for example. What influences your visual choices?
I am very tired of hearing filmmakers talk about other films like visual cannibals. When my crew and I discussed the look of the film, I tried to get into it through Renaissance painters: namely, the lightning, the composition, how the eyes meet the viewer. I was especially inspired by Hans Holbein, the Dutch painter who painted at the British court in the 1500s. In his paintings, the people are looking slightly out of frame or under the frame. We worked a lot with the angles of the eyes to create a strange feeling. As for the forest scenes, I was influenced by Raphael’s painting from the Vatican, his way of treating white. He uses it really effectively, a deep grey tone with lighter grey tones. Snow shots can be very flat and ugly. I achieved the right color for the snow by having all the lighting come from very far distance, from a forty-foot distance above, so it is very soft. We invented a name for it: “spray lighting.”
The locales seem very deliberately chosen.
I have a very strong intuitive feeling when composing pictures. And I am very sure what I want, and how to move the camera and how to choose the locale. For the locker room, I looked at over forty locker rooms. In the scene where the man is sitting there in the locker room with the acid, and in the background, the boys are using sports equipment to push the door open, I knew what I wanted that scene to look like. I know what kind of space I want and found it. I also knew that the building where Oskar and the girl live had to be an arena. I wanted the apartments side by side, so the children could be communicating by tapping the wall. I also wanted a building that you could see both apartments at the same time. All the scary activity is going on close to the grown-ups, but the grown-ups are turned away. The teacher is at the window, but she is doing something else. The adult slips to the side.
And the choice of this eerily enclosed town?
The film is set in the Blackeberg suburb of Stockholm , a million-dollar social democratic community project developed in the 1950s. The Swedes did not participate in WWII, so we had a lot of money in those years. We had many ideas of how to do things: build hundreds of suburbs for upper-working-class or lower-middle-class people, with everything planned. The square in the middle of the town is typical: there is the social security office, the co-op, the library, the liquor monopoly, and other such state-controlled institutions. It is a calming environment, behind the Iron Curtain. You could choose from only three kinds of toothpaste. My film is deliberately set in 1982.
Your two child actors are also extraordinary.
It took a year to find those two. The girl is half Iranian, half Swedish. The boy does not win your love in two seconds; he needs a little time to gain our love. When I cast, I try to find out what kind of animal every actor is. I would say this character is a fox, so I look for the fox quality. Casting is 70 percent of the job; it’s not about picking the right people to make the roles. It is about creating chords, how a B and a Minor interact together, and are played together.
How do you work with child actors?
I don’t give them too much. Some key words. With a child, you have to be playful. I didn’t let the children read the script, because I did not want them to have too much responsibility with creating the character. I give the child specific cues in each scene: i.e., you are looking very intensely at her hair, and she has this awkward hair. There is something strange about her hair, when snow falls on it. You are asking yourself why it does not melt. I also talk to the children while the camera is running. I tell them — look, someone is watching you two stories up! Or: you are talking to the headmaster, there is a spot on your back that itches, and you cannot itch it.
What are your previous films about?
One is called The Office, about an office where people get hurt in the environment of the office, and then I have a film in two parts called Four Shades of Brown, made together with a comedy group with which I have been collaborating with for twelve years. We are six people, writing, collaborating, and creating a lot of television shows together. I have also staged plays in Stockholm. I am now directing My Fair Lady, with a traditional set. I wanted to do that play because Sweden has been for so long a socially equal country, and now it’s going back to being a class-based society. There are ten families owning half of Sweden; still, at the same time we are famous for being a democratic country.
How is your work different from your father’s?
My father was a novelist and an actor, and made very Monty Pythonish films. He did not concentrate so much on film craft as I have. His films are installations. They are attached to the time they were made.
How is Let the Right One In doing now?
This film is going very well. We have sold it to forty countries, so it has to be very universal, what with its specific quality. The look of it, the style is very Scandinavian, which makes it exotic, and yet it could be set anywhere. It’s a big thing for me and for Swedish film as well. We haven’t had this success since Bergman. It’s very beautiful that you can create a very specific universe and bring it to Greece, for instance, and it looks the same here as anywhere. It is so beautiful that you can bring your own universe anywhere.
What effect would you like your film to have on your audience?
I would hope that I have complicated something for the audience. I think film and art in general do that. I am happy if people begin to think of things they did not know they had inside. I am also always very happy when people have very different experiences with my film than I do. Some people might think a film is a wonderful movie about cars, because they saw the cars in the movie. Others might see it as comic. The more different the experiences, the merrier I am.