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‘The Guilty:’ A One-Room, Real-Time Thriller

"The feeling should be persistent and focused. I especially wanted the cinematography to create a pressure on the main character."

Filmed entirely within an emergency call center, Danish director Gustav Möller’s The Guilty (Den skyldige) is a claustrophobic thriller that finds fascinating ways to spiritually transcend its confines,” explains Bilge Ebiri.

“Pretty much the whole film consists of phone exchanges between Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), a police officer who has been temporarily demoted to working the phones, and others out in the field as he struggles to save a woman who is being abducted by her ex-husband.

“Möller handles that solid premise with artful suspense: Asger initially has to keep the tearful, terrified victim, Iben, on the phone as long as he can, telling her to pretend she’s speaking to her young daughter on the other line. Meanwhile, he’s barking orders to emergency dispatch, to the highway police, even to his old partner, who appears to be drunk and off-duty.” To read the full article, click here.

“Granted, we never get to see any of this mounting unpleasantness,” notes Michael Rechtshaffen. “The cleverness of the film’s construction restricts the evidence to voices and sounds, like those of hushed cries or windshield wipers, while the visual element is conveyed solely by Holm’s eyes, with cinematographer Jasper Spanning’s penetrating camera seldom leaving his face.” To read the full article, click here.

“Making good use of close-ups, including twitchy eyes, headsets, computer screens, and tools of an emergency dispatcher—notably a red light that turns on when he takes a call—the film could have very easily been a play, radio drama, or narrative podcast,” says John Fink Instead Cedergren and Möller focus on story and nuance. The action is just as vivid, even if wholly psychological, as any race against time action thriller.”

“Personally, I need a challenge,” Möller tells Taylor Antrim. “That’s a great driving force for me to make something. I feel it makes everyone better. Every time someone would say, ‘Oh, that sounds boring, a guy on the phone for 90 minutes’—I would think that’s an incentive to work harder. And a film that is so simple in its premise has to be perfect: the photography, the writing, the editing. You can’t rely on simple tricks to keep the audience involved. It was what made the film, that challenge.”

“The film is confined to a single room and a story told in real time, so the visual limitations of that were also the strength and an opportunity to make something very distinct and precise,” Spanning tells Filmmaker magazine. “There is a lot of action and drama that takes place on the other end of the main character’s phone; a whole side of the movie that you never get to see, characters and locations that the audience has to picture themselves.

“Almost the entirety of The Guilty revolves around one individual, on the phone, trying to work through a problem—a scenario that doesn’t really lend itself to captivating cinema,” says Jacob Knight. “Yet Möller’s direction allows us to truly feel Asger’s desperation, via tight close ups that linger just a second or two too long, as Cedergren visibly grinds the cop’s gears and sells the character’s driving panic. 

“Jasper Spanning’s cinematography is comprised of a chilly combination of blues, grays and blacks, the office painted as little more than a waystation where employees watch the clock, impatiently waiting for their shifts to be up. Möller discovers the cinematic in the static, extracts pathos from simplistic formal decisions, and observes with Frankenheimer-esque precision as Cedergren’s nuanced turn performs the rest of the heavy lifting.” To read the full article, click here.

“So the idea was to give room for that process and an overly suggestive visual style would have been a distraction from that,” Spanning continues. “The feeling should be persistent and focused. I especially wanted the cinematography to create a pressure on the main character. There is no easy way out for him, he has to keep going in his search for the truth and he ultimately has to deal with his own past. I wanted the camera to be fixated on him and slowly bring him into the darkness he has to face.” To read the full interview, click here.

“The lighting should feel real and not stylized,” Spanning says. “Gustav wanted the set to be very close to reality and resemble the dead end that the main character finds him trapped in. I was fortunate to spend a day at an alarm dispatch listening in on real calls. It was so intense and dramatic listening to all these different people’s stories, but the place itself is a very ordinary office with very unforgiving light. Tubes in the ceiling, practicals and computer screens played a big part in designing the lighting. The key was to find the visual development in the story.

“As the story becomes darker, we let the main character shut off more and more light, and as he starts to question his own judgment and past, the lighting becomes more suggestive and enhanced.” To read the full article, click here.

“It was all done live,” Moller explains to Antrim. “We shot the whole film chronologically over 13 days. Jakob would actually call or receive calls from voice actors. They were further down the hall in a dark room with me and the monitors. I wanted that sense of realness and authenticity. We did no rehearsals whatsoever. 

“The first time he speaks to someone on the phone in the film, I wanted that to be on camera. I wanted him to sweat for real. He’s a character under heavy pressure, and I wanted the way we shot the film to emulate that. It was very important for me to create this intense experience. Even if we had more, we wouldn’t have used them. We actually went home early a few days because everyone was exhausted, and we couldn’t get any more of out of them.” To read the full interview, click here.

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