‘The Guilty’ Offers a Recipe for an Unconventional Thriller: One Location and Lots of Imagination

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “It’s always hard to make suspense work,” says director Gustav Möller of his film that rachets up the tension while never stepping outside a single room

Gustav Moller The Guilty
Photo by Nikolaj Moller

This story on “The Guilty” first appeared in the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Director Gustav Möller’s first feature film, “The Guilty,” is a thriller that takes place entirely in one room, as a police dispatcher tries to deal with a panicked call from a kidnapped woman while never leaving his desk.

The film is Norway’s entry in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, and this is one of a series of interviews with directors of the foreign contenders.

You’d just come out of film school, you were making your first feature and you chose an idea where the concept gave you big limitations as a filmmaker. Was there any sense that maybe you should have started with something simpler?
I don’t think I would want to spend two or three years on something simpler. Then I would get bored. I like a film to be a challenge or an unanswered question. And with this film the question was, “Can we pull this off? Will this work?”

Suspense is the main tool in this film. And I think it’s always hard to make suspense work for a full 90 minutes. Looking at it from the outside, it’s clearer that a one-location film poses that difficulty, but I think it’s always a challenge.

The film was inspired by a real 911 call, wasn’t it?
The call was a clip I found on YouTube. In a way, it was similar to the one in the film: a kidnapped woman calling 911, sitting next to her abductor and speaking in code to the operator. It was a 20-minute call, and I was hooked. It was fascinating to me that a phone call could be that exciting. And after I listened to the call, I really had a sensation of having seen this woman and the car she was riding in.

And the big kicker was the fact that you and me, listening to this call, would see two different women in two different cars on two different highways. That was the starting point, to make a film that would play out in a different way for everyone watching it.

If you’re restricted to a single location for the entire film, how do you keep things interesting visually?
We shot the whole film in chronological order, ranging from 5-to-35-minute takes. And we shot the whole thing with three cameras, because I wanted a real-time sense in the acting. If we had a good five minutes of acting, I wanted to be covered.

And from there, me and my DP broke down the script into eight parts, so we would shoot the film in eight takes. And we would look at where the main character was mentally. At the start of the film, he was more distant and in control, so we shot it with long lenses, a static camera. And as he gets more involved we start using Steadicam, we start using hand-held. It was always important for us to have the main character’s psychology determine how we should shoot the film.

To read more of theWrap’s Foreign Language issue, click here.

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Photo by Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap