The story in Gustav Möller's feature debut 'The Guilty' follows alarm dispatcher and former police officer Asger Holm, played by Jakob Cedergren, who races against time to save a kidnapped woman whose calls he answers. The taut 85-minute film plays out in real time at the emergency services call centre.
The idea for the film started when Möller, 29, stumbled across a YouTube clip of an American woman, kidnapped in a car, talking to a 911 dispatcher. He was "gripped by the suspense of it" and later reflected about how vivid the images in his mind had been. That idea of the audience using their imagination to fill in the gaps of the journey of a kidnapped woman "became the starting point for the film."
Möller says, "I was fascinated by the possibility of making a film that, while having a strong, linear plot, would still play out in a unique way for every single audience member."
Branching out from that initial idea, he and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen observed several night shifts at an emergency call centre as they wrote the script. They also interviewed police officers who have been removed from duty, as their main character Asger has.
Several themes came to the forefront – including a story of redemption for Asger – as well as the concept of empathy. Möller explains, "At the start of the film, Asger is very judgmental and then some kind of empathy awakes in him. We're also playing with the audience's expectations and prejudices – we're are all quick to create images of who someone is."
A Collective Spirit
Möller was born in Göteborg, Sweden, and growing up he was inspired by films ranging from Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Reservoir Dogs' to Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' and Sidney Lumet's 'Dog Day Afternoon.'
At age 20, he moved to Denmark, where he later attended the National Film School of Denmark, where he met key collaborators such as producer Lina Flint and writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen.
While collaborating on two short films together at the school – including their 2015 awardwinning graduation film 'In Darkness,' Flint, Möller and Nygaard Albertsen realised they had a similar sensibility.
Möller says, "We had a common lust to experimenting with form and working creatively with boundaries. We all enjoyed boundaries, not seeing them as obstacles but as opportunities."
After graduation, Flint and Nygaard Albertsen founded Nordisk Film Spring, the new talent hub backed by Nordisk. 'The Guilty' is the first feature film produced by Spring, which has also recently produced the TV show 'Joe Tech.'
Spring is a collective for creative collaborations. As Flint says, "We're sitting together almost in one room where we work, it's a close relationship."
Genre Film with Challenges
'The Guilty' reflects the kinds of new approaches that Spring wants to take. "We want to entertain an audience," Flint says. "We want to do genre films that surprise and challenge the audience."
Flint was part time on maternity leave while Möller and Nygaard Albertsen were writing most of the script for 'The Guilty,' but she spent a lot of time developing the story with them. All three knew they were working on a story that had to fit constraints of the limited budget – all of it financed from the Danish Film Institute's talent programme New Danish Screen.
"It was very much back and forth on the story and the production side of it," Flint says. "It was important that we were on the same page all the way through. It's a challenge to do a film that we wanted to be a huge genre film on a small budget. We wanted to spend our energy and our budget on the right places."
The actors were excited for the unusual approach – including Cedergren who was "intrigued by the challenge to carry every frame of the film." He was cast early in the process and collaborated with notes as the script was being written.
Sound Plays a Huge Part
Jessica Dinnage plays the kidnapped woman, appearing only by her voice. Möller made sure he cast "like a blind audition," only listening to audio files of auditions without seeing faces.
Dinnage, who is just out of theatre school, had a "pain in her voice, a very specific voice," Möller says.
The film was shot chronologically over a 13-day shoot, with three cameras rolling on every scene. The call centre was based on real ones the team visited but built in an abandoned office building.
Long takes were important for the director – from 5 to 35 minutes. "We used this style to get a real-time feel in the acting, especially towards the second half of the film," he explains. "These long takes would push Jakob and make him as exhausted as Asger would have been. We wanted to get the little mistakes you get when you are stressed."
Sound was "a huge part" of the film, Möller adds. That includes the kidnapped woman's phone calls, or atmospheric sounds that were recorded on a highway with a police car.
Created with the Audience
Concentrating on the sound didn't mean the images were neglected, of course.
"What me and my DoP Jasper Spanning talked about was to refrain from getting pretentious in our visual style, and to work on more of a POV – so we experience everything from Asger's eye level and keep the audience engaged with him. It was about getting as close as possible to the main character."
The team is understandably excited for the film's premiere in Sundance's international competition, not least because they will finally be able to discuss the film without revealing spoilers, and will finally take an audience on a ride with 'The Guilty.'
As Möller says, "It's a mystery film in so many ways. It's so hard to talk about it with people who haven't seen it ... The whole concept with this film is that it's created with the audience, so I'm excited to be there with them".