One of the year’s most captivating films hits North American theaters this weekend in the form of “The Guilty,” the debut feature from Danish director Gustav Möller. This inventive thriller takes audiences through a nerve-wracking kidnapping investigation, as it plays out through a phone call set entirely within the confines of an emergency dispatch center. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “The Guilty” now aims for a bigger prize as the official Danish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. In recognition of its release and upcoming Oscar campaign, I recently spoke with Möller to discuss the making of the film. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater/Awards Circuit: What was the inspiration behind this film?
Gustav Möller: The plot of the film came from research. We had this very simple idea. Making a film in one location but feeling like you went all over Denmark through the sound and through your own inner imagery. So that was the starting point. Then from that, we went out and did a lot of research. We went to dispatch centers and realized there were police officers working there and it led us to talking to them and also interviewing other police officers who have been in the same situation as our main character.
We were trying to make a film that we would want to watch and would discuss issues of prejudice and empathy and morality. I stumbled on a real 911 phone call on YouTube and I was fascinated by how suspenseful a phone call could be. But mainly, I was fascinated by how I felt after I listened to the call. It felt like I had an image of the people and the places they were in. I thought it was very fascinating that you and me listening to that same call, we would see very different images.
SS: Were there any films that influenced your approach?
GM: The two films that inspired me the most were “Taxi Driver” and “Dog Day Afternoon”. “Dog Day Afternoon” is a one location film in a lot of ways. “Taxi Driver” we talked about in great length. The whole way that film describes New York City through the eyes of the main character, we wanted to do the same thing. Describing the surrounding world through sound in our main character’s ear.
“Dog Day Afternoon” was a great inspiration in its authentic sense of stress in real time. A lot of the ways we shot the film – we shot with three cameras and in very long takes – was very inspired by that film to capture that authentic, real-time acting.
SS: So much of the film’s tension relies on the vocal performances. How did you approach the casting for the supporting roles?
GM: The premise of the whole film is to make the audience a co-creator and to rely on the audience’s ability to create images in their mind. I think these images are the strongest ones in a lot of films. The things that are just outside of the frame.
It was the same with the sound design and the voice actors. We were looking for voices that would be so specific that only a voice would tell us the whole story of who this person is. What is their background, what they look like. And the way we approached that was basically a blind audition. The casting agent would do scenes from the film with actors but I would only receive a sound clip. So I would not know how they look, their name or if they were a famous actor or not. I had only the voice to go on. And then it became very clear what kind of voices were specific enough to create these images.
SS: This must have been quite an intense role for your lead actor. What was that collaboration like?
GM: I brought him in at an early stage and shared all my thoughts on the intents of the film and all the research we had done, trying to give him a full background of the character. Then there was a very analytical process of going through the whole script word by word, making him understand why he says every single word in the film. I didn’t want to do that in rehearsals. we did no rehearsals for this film. The first time he speaks to the kidnapped woman for example, that is the first time they have lines together. And we were rolling at that point. I wanted this fresh feel in the acting, so I didn’t want to rehearse.
SS: Denmark has been quite successful in the Foreign Language Oscar category and you have been selected this year with your debut film. What was your reaction to this announcement?
GM: I was obviously super happy and honored. We were up against established filmmakers from Denmark who’ve been around for decades. So getting this opportunity was a great honor, not only for me but the whole crew. The whole team of filmmakers I went to school with. The director of photography, editor, co-writer, producer. We all graduated together and made this film right after film school. A lot of people really pushed themselves making this film. So it’s a great honor for everyone involved in this process.
SS: What kind of filmmaker can we expect of you going forward?
GM: What I tried to do with “The Guilty” is what I’m going to keep doing. Trying to make a film that is both inviting and challenging. You know, a film that is both taking you on a thrill ride but also to some morally complex places. Those are the films I love the most. They are the films that make you lean into the screen and not sit back and be analytical. I want to keep looking for angles that feel fresh. That’s a great driving force when making a film. That’s what we had with “The Guilty” and that’s what I’m going to keep looking for.