Interview: Let the Right One In Director Tomas Alfredson
by Alex Billington
October 24, 2008
There's an incredible little indie horror movie that hits theaters this weekend - Let the Right One In. I've talked about it plenty of times before and featured a few trailers but now I've got a special treat to share with all of you. A few weeks back I had the honor of meeting Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who directed this amazing movie. It was a very interesting experience and very revealing interview and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with someone who is outside of the North American filmmaking realm. And if you've already seen or are even remotely interested in Let the Right One In, then you need to read this.
Let the Right One In is essentially a vampire film but is so much more about love and humanity than horror. It is actually based on a book written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also adapted the screenplay for Alfredson to direct. I'm sure almost everyone has seen every great review that has popped up for this film, but if anyone needs a refresher you can read my own review or head over to Rotten Tomatoes (where this currently has an impressive 95% rating). Don't forget to actually see Let the Right One In in theaters as soon as hits your area. A full list of cities and theaters can be found right here.
How did you first come across this story and what interested you in it specifically?
Tomas Alfredson: It was the love story that is so unsentimental, this story about the bullied boy. I guess I had some periods when I grew up, when I was bullied, and I think that was the thing that struck me the hardest or hit me the hardest. I read the book three years ago, a friend of mine gave it to me, which I usually hate when people stick books into your hands. That's kind of private -- to choose your own reading or viewing or music. But this one was an exception. And the vampire part of it was, well, it came with the other things. I'm not a horror director at all, so I've been mostly been doing drama and comedy before, so this is my first horrifying project.
Did you help with the script at all? Or did the writer just give you a finished script? How did that work?
Alfredson: Well, it was a process. It was the same author that wrote the book and made the screenplay, so that was a kind of dialogue because -- have you read the book?
No, I haven't.
Alfredson: It's 360 pages so it has a lot of other subplots and other themes that are left out, so we did this decision to concentrate on the love story. So the book is richer and has more to it, as books often have. When you are going to do an adaptation you have to choose one track or one line.
And how is the filmmaking industry in Sweden, how does it differ from here in America? What is the atmosphere like on set when you're shooting there?
Alfredson: Well, the Swedish film industry is having a tough time now because of the illegal downloading business. We are the most computerized country in the world so everybody has broadband and the fastest computer so everybody is stealing your work nowadays, so that's quite a new and tough situation for filmmakers to deal with because suddenly the business has stopped. And Swedish filmmaking has very old traditions. We started very early making films and have the legacy of the old silent movie makers, Bergman and everything, you know, but now it's a little mixed up. And we don't have so big -- in comparison with other international budgets, we have small budgets to work with. But this one was sort of a big budget in Sweden, but yet it was tight because it contains a lot of special effects.
And where did you shoot?
Alfredson: It's set in a suburb outside Stockholm, and it's very, very typical late 1950s suburb. The suburbs of Stockholm were built because Sweden wasn't involved in the second World War, so we were very wealthy in the 1950s and the 1960s, so there were a lot of very special suburbs built around Stockholm with a special look. But we did need to have the cold and the snow, and Stockholm isn't so cold as people might think it could be, but every five or every six years, there is a proper winter. But we had to have to have the cold and snow so we shot it partially in the very north of Sweden, in a town called Luleå -- all the exteriors, or nearly all the exteriors.
Obviously the location plays a very important part in this and I was impressed by how vivid it all was. One question I had regarding the actual story is if you felt the film is at all a metaphor for the idea that we need someone else to survive, in relation to the Rubik's Cube and how Oskar couldn't solve it until he gave it to Eli; or how she relied on her father to live and so on.
Alfredson: I think Eli and Oskar are the same character -- they are two sides of the same character, so she is the mirror of him, all the things that he needs to be or wants to be. And the film also suggests that she is a fantasy in the end, when she leaves. I don't know if that's your interpretation, but it suggests maybe she wasn't there at all. When he walks around her empty apartment, maybe she was just a fantasy.
But then she comes back in the end, but I think that if you are bullied, the most common -- if you see other films about bullied children, they are very sad and they are very Jesus-like. But in this story what is different is that all the violence he is confronted with, it becomes violence inside of him. And I would think that Eli is, she is all that violence that is inside of him that needs to come out. He can't fight back because he's too weak or he's too scared so she becomes that, all the violence inside of him, I think.
That's a very interesting explanation. And both of those actors were phenomenal -- how did you find them, was it just a casting process in Sweden?
Alfredson: Yes, it was a long casting process, over a year it took. And we went all over Sweden to find those two. And, as I told you, I thought that they were the same character, so thinking about them as two sides of the same coin, so that was not just finding one boy and one girl, it was to find the perfect match. So, yeah, it was a long process.
I understand you have two kids, right?
Has that experience at all brought anything to this film or the filmmaking process?
Alfredson: I don't think so, but I have been working a lot with children's actors through the years so I'm quite experienced with that. But really, I am, myself, I grew up with my father is a film director, and I was a lot on his sets and he was always talking about his work and his work was a very big thing in our home and my aim is not to be bringing my work into my home and to my children and they hate to come to the sets and they get bored in two minutes. So I don't think they have influenced me at all or been participating at all in this process.
Were there any vampire films that you were referencing or influenced by--
So you went in completely blank?
And if I must say, I think that's actually what made this so unique.
Alfredson: Yeah, maybe, yeah.
Because a lot of people, in addition to myself, think that this is a very fresh take on the vampire genre and I guess that could only happen when you haven't had those past films in your history to reference.
Alfredson: Yeah. But that's a silly thing, really, because, you get this job to do, this comedy about dogs and then you watch every dog comedy in the world, and that's a silly thing to do. You should do the opposite; you should do something else to inspire yourself. So everybody is doing that nowadays to watch other things that are similar instead of clinging to-- I listen to a lot of music when I work and I find a certain music piece that I listen to repeatedly to influence me.
And speaking of the music in this film, was the composer [Johan Söderqvist] someone you have worked with previously on your films?
Alfredson: No. He was new to me. He's one of the most experienced composers in Sweden, and he's very good, and he had made some work in the United States too with -- do you know Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker?
I think so, yeah.
Alfredson: They have been working a lot together and I really wanted something very beautiful. Very, very analogue, too.
I loved the music. I mean, I loved every last aspect of the film… And speaking of influences again, this is just a question I love asking, but what are your five favorite films?
Alfredson: No, I really cannot tell, because they differ from day to day.
I know, I feel the same way.
Alfredson: Yeah? They change, they change, and it's all so very, it's not so very hard with films but with music, I never tell what music I listen to because it's too-- it's very private. It's a very private thing to tell other people what you like the most and it would maybe give people the wrong ideas about yourself.
Then in that case -- I was also going to ask what you really love about filmmaking, what's your favorite part, if you have one?
Alfredson: There's a lot of things that I like about making films, but, when you have an image inside your head when you read the script the first time, you see this view of four trees, they have snow on them, there's a pink car in the background, the light comes from there, an old man is standing in the foreground, you hear the sound of a dog barking, blah-blah-blah… And two years later, maybe, you could see that image on a screen. It happens once every 100 images, this happens because all the other 99, they will be modified in some way, but this one, when it comes back, that's really the essence of the work, to materialize fantasies. It's fantastic, really.
I also wanted to ask what your take on the American remake is and what your feelings about that are?
Alfredson: I'm not so-- I'm not involved in that process at all and, well, the book is very rich and has a lot of angles that I haven't used, so hopefully they will find another angle which is also interesting and relevant. It would be very sad if it came out to be very, what do you say, commercialized or too viewer friendly or too broad, but I don't know what to think.
I guess you probably don't know the answer to this, but are they going all the way back to the book--
--and going from there? I was worried that they were going to try maybe a shot-for-shot remake of your film.
Alfredson: I think they are taking it from the book from the beginning.
So they're rewriting the screenplay from scratch again?
How has your festival experience been so far? What do you take away from the independent nature of Hollywood and how that all works?
Alfredson: Well, it has been the film that has traveled the most in Sweden ever. So it has been around all over the world and that's also a thing that is very intriguing with making pictures, that you could do a film in our little community up in the north, far away, and it looks the same in Singapore as it does in New York or in Australia; that's very nice to think of. And what was your question there?
Just how your experience has been with all these festivals.
Alfredson: It's a strange thing going to festivals because people don't -- colleagues don't see their films, each others' films, and people have small badges with their names, and they just say, "yeah, I haven't seen your film," they say, "is it on Tuesday?" "Yeah, on Tuesday." "On Tuesday I'm occupied," so, yeah, good luck. And they're eating those small sandwiches and drinking sweet champagne or not champagne, so it's a strange world, but yet it's very nice. And people working their asses off for showing films they wouldn't have seen otherwise, so I really respect those people who work with all these festivals and it has been so nicely treated, this film, so it's fantastic.
Thank you to Tomas Alfredson and everyone at Magnet Releasing for arranging this interview! It's a very rare treat to speak with someone like Mr. Alfredson and after seeing Let the Right One In, I am so glad that I had the opportunity to do so. The film hits theaters this weekend and will spread to multiple theaters over the next month - so please go see it!