Let The Right One In Interview with director Thomas Alfredson

Go behind the scenes of cult Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In

One of the biggest hits at this years Jameson Dublin International Film Festival was Swedish Vampire movie ‘Let The Right One In’. It was popular with both horror and non-horror fans, telling the tale of a young Swedish boy who encounters a vampire of a similar age living next door. The bleak, snowy surroundings of Sweden make a unique setting for a vampire movie. Below the director takes us behind the scenes of this very special film.

Q: Have you always been a fan of horror films?

TA: No. This is the first time I’ve made a film in this kind of genre, and to be honest I’ve never been so interested in things that are very fantastic or very unreal. But this book had an interesting mixture between the social-realistic style and the vampire stuff. I really had to learn a lot, to get to know everything about vampires and so on, because that was all quite new to me.

Q: What attracted you to the book, if you’re not a genre fan?

I had some rough times when I was a kid, when I was Oskar’s age, so I had some strong feelings when I read it. It’s also very interesting when you’re at that age – if you are bullied you really don’t know where to go with all your feelings, because a lot of anger grows inside of you, and this anger cannot come out, because you are too weak, or too shy. So I suppose, if you like, this vampire girl that Oskar meets could be the embodiment of his anger. And that was my way into the story.

Q: Is the setting the same as the one in the book?

Yes. This is a very special environment. After the last war, because Sweden was not in the war, we were the richest country in the world, so the Social-Democratic government really wanted to experiment with society. And one thing they did was to build a lot of suburbs around Stockholm, which are very distinctive in style and architecture. First they started building a subway system, all around Stockholm, and after they built that they built the suburbs around it, so it was very Swedish/German planning. The intentions were good, but when people moved in it became something else. So in the beginning, in 1958/59, this housing project Blackeberg, where the book is set and where we shot, was ready, it was a very cute place, but in the late 70s, early 80s, when the film takes place, it was a nightmare. But it was very beneficial for a filmmaker, because everything looks the same. It has the same colour palette. And you have a town in miniature, with this square in the middle and the houses all around it. You get a miniature landscape there.

Q: So it was a bad area?

Yes. In those days, over 20 years ago, there was a lot of drugs and social problems there. When I was young it was considered a dangerous place. The best way to see the difference between Sweden then and Sweden now is to look at old pictures of that town square. There used to be a pharmacy, a liquor store, the social security office, a library and a Co-op. Today, there’s a solarium, a tattooist and a video porn shop! Which paints a very revealing picture of what has happened to Sweden in those 20 years. Because, really, we were living halfway behind the Iron Curtain then.

Q: How did you cast the children?

It was almost impossible. They get old in six months, so you can’t judge by looking at their headshots, as you do with adults. We had to hold open castings. We spent a year trying to find them and we went all over Sweden to look for those two. The most complicated thing, I thought, was that it wasn’t just about finding the right Oskar and the right Eli. Because I consider them to be the same character – they’re two sides of the same character – so they had to be their own mirrors, not just in terms of looks but also personality. It was really tough to make that choice.

Q:What did you tell them? Did they understand the film?

I told them what this film was about, briefly. But you can’t give children the responsibility of making a complete portrait, from A to Z. It’s too much to carry. To a grown-up actor you can say, “This is a neurotic mother who becomes blah blah blah in the end,” and the actor can take responsibility for that – they can create a portrait with different stages and turning points. But you can’t do that with a child. I didn’t want them to read the script because I thought it would give them a lot of mental images that would be impossible to get rid of, especially if they were wrong. So I told them the story, very briefly, and then they got the script each day from me, reading it out loud. So they learned by ear, not by eye. That was a good method, I thought. Kids age very quickly on a movie set, so I really didn’t want them to turn into young adults too soon. We also kept them out of the publicity around the film, so they have not given any interviews.

Q: Why not?

They’re kids. They should stay kids, I think.

Q: The film suggests at certain points that Eli may not be real. Is that a possible reading?

Yes, that’s a possible reading. You could even read it that Oskar dies in the swimming pool at the end, and that the train scene at the very end is him going to heaven, or something. I have a more romantic view on it. I think Oskar also becomes a vampire and that they work together. (Laughs) These things are open in the book, too.

Q: How do you see the vampirism in this movie? Is it a metaphor?

In this story, it’s a symbol for Oskar’s anger. Because, most often, bullied children are portrayed as very sad people, but I think they’re very angry, and this anger can’t come out. I would think that bullied children have the potential to be really dangerous; those are the ones that shoot people in school later on, and do crazy things with their anger. I also think the vampire represents the animal part of ourselves, because we do have certain instincts and we very rarely use them. The few instincts that we still have to obey are eating, sleeping and sex, really. Otherwise we’re like walking heads. The vampire myth has also been a symbol for the sexual act, with the beast conquering the beauty, but I didn’t want it to be sexualised in our story. That’s also the beauty of it: the innocence of this story. It’s romantic in a non-sexual way.

Q: Why do you say that?

Oskar doesn’t mind that Eli’s not a girl, or a boy, or anything. She’s just androgynous. In the book there is a flashback, where Eli is castrated, 200 years before, and it was a nightmare to figure out how to do that, visually. I didn’t want to bring in people with wigs and 18th century clothes. I didn’t even want to put in a flashback, because that’s a big thing to do, storytelling-wise. But it’s a very important matter that she – or he – asks Oskar, “Would you love me if I wasn’t a girl?”

Q: A lot of the violence is implied rather than seen. Was that always your intention?

I would say that the strongest images of violence are the ones you make yourself, in your head. If you were to try to film a scene with a small kid tearing someone’s head or arm off, with a limited budget, it would be rather impossible, I think.

Q: It’s also been a critical hit in the US, where vampire movies are suddenly in vogue. Have you seen Twilight yet?

I’ve only heard about it. Suddenly, it seems everybody wants to tell a vampire story. It’s really strange; we started this process four years ago, and nobody was talking about vampirism then. It’s the mystery of synchronicity, I suppose. I really couldn’t give you any other explanation!

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is at cinemas Now