Danish filmmaker Gustav Möller takes audiences on a nerve-racking journey over the course of one night with his directorial debut, The Guilty. Set inside the single location of a sterile emergency dispatch center in Copenhagen, this tense Locke-meets-Buried thriller follows the recently demoted and deskbound officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) as he responds to a kidnapping case and exhausts his limited resources in real-time through a series of complex phone calls. “The films I love are both inviting and challenging [for] the audience; [they] make the audience lean into the film,” the first-time director told Vulture on the phone before his film’s theatrical release. “I think you can hit the audience the hardest if you invite them on a ride before you do so. That is definitely what I wanted to do with The Guilty and also [what I want to do] with film as a whole.”
The winner of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in World Dramatic Competition, Möller’s cinematic page-turner is now Denmark’s official entry into the Foreign Language Oscar race. “It’s a great honor to be mentioned in that form, among other filmmakers that have been around for so long,” Möller says of the early days of the awards race. “This is my first film. I made it with my co-students from film school: the DP [Jasper Spanning], the producer [Lina Flint], the co-writer [Emil Nygaard Albertsen], the editor [Carla Luffe] … We were all in the same year at the National Danish Film School. We said we’d put all our money on black at the roulette table making this film. And to be in this discussion is a fantastic compliment to the film and to all these people.”
Fair warning: The less you know about The Guilty prior to seeing it, the wilder your experience will be. Acutely aware of this, we kept our chat with Möller as spoiler-free as possible, while dissecting his influences and filmmaking process.
You mentioned earlier that the movies you love manage to be both entertaining and challenging for the audiences. What are some of those specific films you respond to that accomplish the hard-hitting quality you were referring to?
I think what embodies this the best and probably my favorite era is American ’70s cinema. There were a lot of films that came out that were about political issues, problems with society, complex situations about characters that you don’t see in the media that often. But a lot of these films were still very entertaining. Specifically in writing The Guilty, we talked a lot about Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle. How that film describes New York City through his POV was something we were inspired by for our main character and [informed] how we introduced the surrounding world through his eyes and ears. There is a little homage [to it], when [Asger] takes the painkiller thing in the water. And the camera zooms in on him. That is like a shot-by-shot homage to Taxi Driver.
Also we were quite inspired by Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, which I feel is great because [of] this stressful, real-time feeling. You really feel you are there and you really feel the stress and the panic in the acting. That is something I wanted to provoke in how we shot the film, which was directly influenced by Dog Day Afternoon. We shot the whole film in chronological order using three cameras and really long takes; between 5- and 35-minute-long takes to get this feeling in the acting. That real-time, stressed-out feeling.
How did you first conceive the idea of a film like this, set in the single location of an emergency call center?
I developed the idea with my producer and co-writer. The original seed of this film was that I stumbled upon a real 911 call online, a kidnapped woman sitting in a car next to her abductor calling 911. I was gripped by the suspense of the call. But the main thing for me was the idea of only hearing sound and visualizing what was going on. You know, the feeling of actually seeing this woman, actually seeing this car scene. Then I started talking with my co-writer and my producer and they had listened to the same call, but they were seeing different things.
So, the original premise was to make a film that would play out in a unique way for everyone. We felt we had a unique premise, but we didn’t really have a story. So what we did was my co-writer [and I] went out to a dispatch center in Denmark. That’s where we realized there were actually police officers sitting by the phones. From there, we started doing research, talking to police officers (without giving spoilers) that have been in similar situations as the main character in The Guilty. And from there we started developing characters and then the plot.
Did you look at other single-location films, like Locke, for instance?
I looked at all the other phone films. Buried is another example. Phone Booth is like a classic in the genre — lone man on the phone. Locke is a particularly great film, but we tried to see what we [could] bring that’s new to this mini-genre and what we can do that hasn’t been done before. And the main thing was the sound design of the film, because a lot of these other films are very dialogue-driven. We [also wanted] to add a layer of sound [as] a major player in the film — all of these landscapes and audio stories that weren’t relying on dialogue: the sound of windshield wipers, or the cop cars going down the highway, or police officers looking through an abandoned [vehicle].
There are stunning voice performances throughout the film. What was your writing process with your co-writer, to build all the characters we won’t get to see on camera in a way we can believe in?
That was very important for us actually, because we felt that we are very much relying on this one performance from the guy on the phone. It is a crime story, but we wanted it to be more than that. And it was very important to us that none of the supporting characters were like vehicles in the plot. We took it very seriously. So a big part of it was research and trying to develop them into full characters. And that’s actually what created a lot of the situations in the film — us starting out with a more simple approach and then developing and developing and developing the character, when we would add a new layer that would come out at the twist in the film. It’s actually the result of efficient character work.
When I went back and watched the film again, I noticed that the twist is not really a traditional twist if you are paying attention to all the moving pieces. You can maybe guess a little bit that there’s something else underneath those layers. So it makes a lot of sense that it came to you organically through character building.
For me personally, when it comes to twists in films, I don’t really like it because nine times out of ten, I feel cheated. I feel like I have invested something emotionally that is taken away from me because nothing was the way I thought it was, you know? So for us, it was important that you should be able to watch the film two times and think that it all made sense watching from start.
I generally feel the same way as you do about twists. In this case, I didn’t feel cheated but realized my own preconceived assumptions.
That was definitely something that we discussed. On a general level, we tried to work with some archetypes. The film starts out using a lot of archetype characters and then throughout the film, they become more and more complex and realistic. That is how we shot the whole film. We wanted the film to start out as a thriller and then kind of deconstruct the whole thriller. It becomes something much more real and human.
Do you sit with the audience to watch the film, just to kind of witness their reaction when things start taking their final shape in the story?
I saw the audience reaction in Sundance and I went to the Danish premiere and [other] couple of times with the audience. But now I don’t do that anymore. Because I just tense up when I sit there with the audience watching the film. The first-time screening was at Sundance and no one had really seen it. It was so cool to get the audience reaction and you could really [feel the tension] in the room. And then also talking with the audience afterwards, and going back to the whole reveal that would get a unique reaction from [different] audience members … Then we won the audience award on top of that, which was the most beautiful confirmation.
Jakob Cedergren gives a really remarkable performance walking us through his character’s emotional arc, pulling us into his headspace.
I have been a huge fan of his for a long time. I knew that he could accomplish this. I almost wanted to give him the chance to really own the film, if you could say that. Jakob was very involved in the project from an early stage. [We] would discuss every single word in the script; go through every intention of the character, so that he would feel totally fine with it. He also went out and did some similar research in dispatch centers, talking to police officers that [have been in a] similar situation. They were basically trying to make him understand the tradition. Then shooting the film was quite easy. Because we had done all the groundwork, [we] shot the whole thing in 13 days.
A lot of people agree that Hollywood might want to remake this movie one day. Would you be open to something like that?
I am open to a new take on it. I think it would actually be interesting to see it from all over the world. I think it would be interesting to see [what] a Chinese version would look like, [or] an Indian version. But there is a lot of interest and we will see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.