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Interview: Tomas Alfredson on “Let the Right One In”

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10292008_lettherightonein1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Sweden isn’t particularly known internationally for its horror films (Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf,” notwithstanding), but then again, neither is Tomas Alfredson. Already well respected in his native country, the Swedish filmmaker (“Four Shades of Brown”) is quickly becoming a name to know on these shores by both the Fangoria horror hounds and the Film Comment art snobs, all for a beautifully haunting youth romance with a splatter of blood on its hands. Adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own best-selling novel, “Let the Right One In” (or, as we say in Swedish: “LÃ¥t den rätte komma in”) raises its curtain on a bleak and snowy Stockholm suburb in the ’80s, where 12-year-old introvert Oskar (KÃ¥re Hedebrant) plays in solitude, acting out brutal revenge fantasies on the kids who bully him. Arriving around the same time that a series of deaths start to spring up, an enigmatic little girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) and her caretaker move in next door, but the eccentric relationship that builds between Oskar and Eli is anything but a meet-cute. Perhaps it’s because she might just be a ravenous vampire? In New York to promote his horrific and heartfelt new film, Alfredson signed posters while speaking with me about child actors, how technology has crushed the Swedish film industry, and what makes him feel especially naked.

Genre films easily lend themselves as canvases for bigger ideas, richer themes — and in this film’s case, a great deal of humanity and poetry. So why do you think genre films are still ghettoized, or dismissed as a lower grade of cinema?

I really wouldn’t know because I’m not a horror filmmaker at all. I’m mostly famous for doing comedy and stage work in Sweden, really — I’m totally ignorant about horror films in the world. I just went into this work 100 percent, and tried to do it as sincerely as possible. Nowadays, I don’t look upon films for professional purposes at all. I go to cinemas now and then as just an ordinary guy. I try to [look at] art or listen to music to inspire myself, but I didn’t look at other horror films for this work.

10292008_lettherightonein3.jpgIn an interview this summer, you said that you yourself had some hard times at school. Could you elaborate on that experience, in terms of any details in the film that might have been partly inspired by that time in your life?

When I got this book three years ago, that was what hooked me to try to do this, because of my memories of those things. I suppose the strongest elements of fear are the fantasies of the scary things that could happen. When scary things do happen, you tend not to be so afraid — it’s the fantasy that’s the scariest. Today, I’m not scared of anything other than something happening to my children. I’m not scared of creepy sounds, or going to the basement, or whatever. I have to go back to my own childhood, to my own memories. When I was very young, I experienced my older brother dying in front of my eyes, so I had a lot of creepy fantasies of that when I was older. That was a big source of stress.

Your kids are barely teenagers. Did specific observations of their growing up help inform any parts of these characters?

No, not really. I really try to keep my own children out of my work. It wouldn’t be fair to them if I tried to use them. I’d rather use myself as a child, or question myself about my own childhood, rather than using my own children to get in contact with those feelings and memories.

You’ve directed child actors before. Are there benefits to working with them over adults?

Well, children are very direct. They say to you: “I’m bored. I’m happy. I’m hungry. I want to do this. I want to do that.” That’s a very good thing when you’re making films, I think. I talk to children a lot when the camera is rolling, which the sound editors hate, but I often direct them doing the shoots.

Lina Leandersson is quite compelling as Eli, yet you eventually overdubbed her “too feminine and soft” voice with someone else’s. How far along in the process were you before you realized that?

10292008_lettherightonein2.jpgThat was kind of a late decision, and it was a big decision to make. There was a new casting [call], which lasted for one month — you know, to find the right voice. Lina’s voice is beautiful, but I thought it was too high in pitch because Eli is supposed to be a boy, a castrated boy. So I was looking for a more boyish sound to her voice. It was hard work to make that work, but I think it was the right decision.

Why was it important for you to keep the setting in an early ’80s suburb?

To me, it tends to be easier to sell such super-real actions in the past tense, for some reason. I don’t know why, but it’s easier to make it work. Also, this was a period when Sweden was, in many ways, another kind of society. It was much more silent than it is now, because of television and radio and sounds coming out everywhere. That was also a strong reason for doing it in the past tense. At the same time, I didn’t want to do a nostalgic film, because that would be really cheap to just put on an old hit record, or a famous TV show, or relating to all those things. So it’s very subtle, and it’s not important for the story to come out.

What’s your take on the state of Swedish cinema today? Are you a part of an active film community?

Yes. It’s really struggling against illegal downloading, so we’re having quite a tough time now in Sweden to survive that. The film economy has collapsed because of illegal downloading. Sweden is the most computerized country in the world, and everybody has a broadband connection and the latest, fastest computers. People steal what you do, and the business side doesn’t work. It’s very hard to keep it rolling. We produce about 20 features a year, but it’s quite tough.

This is terrible news. How long ago did this collapse happen, and is anything being done to avert it?

It started seven or eight years ago, when people began to download music illegally. The broadband connections are getting more sophisticated — you can download a feature film in half an hour if you have a fast connection. The people who are making the laws are much slower than the speed of the Internet.

10292008_lettherightonein4.jpgAnd it must be difficult to enforce. Once a law goes into place, will that actually help?

A lot of people in the business try to find out new things to get around this, but I think it’s impossible to see today what to do, really. In ten years, we will say: “Oh, this and that were happening.” I suppose it’s the same way when cinema came, or television, or sound came to the cinemas, or color came to the screen. It’s a big thing when it happens, and people don’t know where to go and what to find out. It’s going to take five years to know that. But right now, it’s very hard to find enthusiasm and optimism in this situation.

You’ve mentioned music a couple times, which reminds me of something you said when asked about your inspirations: “Music gives me shivers like no other art form and [makes] the strongest images.” What the hell are you listening to?

Well, I usually don’t say that because it’s a very private thing. It almost feels like taking my clothes off to tell what music I listen to.

You didn’t want to shoot any behind-the-scenes material for the eventual DVD. Do you really believe behind-the-scenes content ruins the fairytale?

A good magician doesn’t show how the rabbit disappears. If I were to decide it, I wouldn’t want to go into detail how certain things are made in this film. I’m really happy with that decision.

[Photos: Lina Leandersson as Eli; KÃ¥re Hedebrant as Oskar; vampire victim; director Tomas Alfredson – “Let The Right One In,” Magnet Releasing, 2008]

“Let the Right One In” is now open in limited release.

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