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How Serial inspired The Guilty, one of this year's best thrillers

Director Gustav Moller reveals how he turned confinement into deadly suspense in this gripping thriller that takes place in a single room.

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The Guilty is easily one of the best thrillers of the year -- and it all takes place in just one room.

In select theatres in the US and UK now, the award-winning Danish thriller stars Jakob Cedergren as a suspended cop stuck answering emergency calls in the dispatch centre. Hiding guilty secrets of his own, he's electrified by a call from a woman hinting she's been kidnapped. The cop must hunt her down, with just one problem: He's stuck in the cramped dispatch center with just his phone and computer. And we're stuck there with him.

This might seem like a limitation. But in the hands of director Gustav Moller, who co-wrote the film with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, The Guilty's confinement becomes its biggest strength. It's a master class in tension and suspense, keeping you on the edge of your seat as it shrewdly reveals ever more nerve-racking twists through cunning writing and immersive sound. Inspired by hit podcast Serial, as well as Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon, think of it as Locke with a badge, The Searchers with a cell phone.

I sat down with Moller at this year's London Film Festival to find out how this precision-engineered detective story was created.

Q: What's the key ingredient in telling a story that's so confined?
Moller: If I could only mention one thing, I would say the whole idea was that you shouldn't have that feeling when you watch the film. Physically you're in one space but this detective is hunting all over Denmark through the phone and through the sound design, so the idea was to try to create these landscapes of sound -- little stories in sound. The conversation he has, the whole idea was to bring the audience out of this room using their imagination, to create your own images.

That was actually the original premise to me, because l got the idea when l studied a real 911 call. It felt like I saw this woman, and I saw the car that she was being abducted in. And you and me listening to the same call would see a different woman in a different car. I thought that was fascinating. 

How did you shoot the film? Was your star, Jacob Cedergren, really hearing those voices in his phone headset?
Moller: The voice actors would actually call him. It was all done live -- they were further down the hall with me. They would act out the scenes on the phone, and we would record the sound. We basically built this little theatre stage so If they were walking around in an abandoned house we kind of drew that up. We had a mock car they were sitting in. And we shot the whole film in 13 days, in chronological order from the first call on the first day to the last call on the last day.

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Jacob Cedergren is all ears in the gripping thriller The Guilty.

Nikolaj Moeller

The film starts in the brightly lit dispatcher's office, but when the main character makes an important decision he goes into a side room and switches off the light. How did you show the character's emotional journey through the visuals?
Moller: Even though it's set in one location, me and the director of photography wanted a cinematic journey in the way it's shot and the way it's lit. I saw it as a man falling deeper and deeper into his own darkness as the film gets darker and darker. I think it also helps the audience evoke stronger and stronger images, going back to the original premise of trying to make the audience create these images as the film gets more violent and more vivid. Making it darker and darker also was an attempt to kind of remove the police station around him. At the start of the film you have a lot of the dispatch center, but towards the end it's basically only a character and darkness around him, and I think that helps the audience paint their own images.

What other influences inspired you?
Moller: One of our main influences writing the film was actually not a film -- it was this podcast Serial, which is a true crime story told week by week. What I felt listening to Serial was for every episode of that show my images of these people and locations will change, because I'll get new information about the suspect and the victim. That is something we deliberately tried to work with in the film.

Al Pacino and John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon

John Cazale and Al Pacino in 1975 drama Dog Day Afternoon, another masterpiece of confined tension.

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With more cinematic references I would say that for me -- in general, but also specifically with this film -- we were very inspired by American '70s cinema. Taxi Driver is a film we talked a lot about. In that film, the view of New York and the city feels very much that it comes from the main character's perspective. We try to make the same thing in The Guilty, but his worldview is being presented through what's audible.

And then I would say Dog Day Afternoon by Sidney Lumet was a big reference for me in the way we shot the film. We started very long takes ranging from 5 to 35 minutes to put the actors in a real-time situation. We also worked with three cameras simultaneously. That was directly inspired by Dog Day Afternoon because I think that's probably the most tense real-time feeling and acting I've ever seen. You feel the stress of the characters. You feel the sweat.

The film is precisely structured -- there are some big twists and reveals right at the midpoint of the movie, for example. When you were writing it, how did you map out the structure?
Moller: Both me and my co-writer really like structure, and I think when you're making a film that's in some ways so experimental and challenging you kind of owe the audience to be inviting as well. So, while writing we were trying to challenge the audience and give them the experience of something they haven't seen before, but also in a story that is very well-known, the cop going against the rules to try and save a person. I love structure because I think there's a reason that three-act structure works. When you lay your script close to a structure, people have expectations, so if you break that structure, it will have a pretty great effect.

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