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Interview: Frida Kempff and Cecilia Milocco Talk ‘Knocking’

Cecilia Milocco appears in Knocking by Frida Kempff, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Hannes Krantz.

Premiering a few short days ago in the Midnight section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Knocking might not be on your radar yet, but it absolutely should be. A Swedish horror/thriller about a woman named Molly living alone in her apartment who starts to hear a knocking from the floor above her, the film is a nerve-racking portrayal of what it’s like to question your own experience, especially when you’re being dismissed by those around you. 

The film marks the feature narrative debut of director Frida Kempff, an award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 for her short film Micky Bader. I spoke with Frida and the film’s star Cecilia Milocco, who gives a tremendous performance as Molly, about their movie’s place in the post #MeToo era, how female filmmakers are changing the game in this genre, and so much more. It was a great conversation, with the two opening up about how the movie tapped into their own experiences, and how they supported each other through the making of an emotional film. 

Check out our very positive review for Knocking here, and read our interview with director Frida Kempff and star Cecilia Milocco below: 

Frida, you’ve been working in shorts and documentaries for a while now, but Knocking is your first feature narrative. What was it about this project that made you want it to be your debut? 

Frida Kempff (director)I come from documentary filmmaking, and I thought that I was going to do that for the rest of my life, but a couple of years ago I felt that I was missing something in that genre. I had all of these elements in my head that I wanted to get into a story, so when I read this short novel I realized that I could combine those ideas into a genre movie. I was focused on two questions. 1. What happens when no one believes in you?, and 2. Who owns the truth? 

We’ve seen movies in this vein before, like Repulsion and Robert Altman’s Images, but watching Knocking in a post #MeToo era gives it a different feeling than its predecessors. It makes the audience wonder less about whether or not the main character, Molly, is losing her mind, and more about why everyone around her is so dismissive of her. Could you talk about how this movie speaks to our current era and the growing advocacy we’ve seen towards believing women? 

Frida: The short novel was written in 2016, a little bit before the #MeToo movement started, but I read it after, when you saw all of these women coming out with their testimonies regarding their truth, and it made the topic feel so urgent. There’s one scene in particular where I was watching Cecilia’s performance that made me think about the #MeToo movement, where she’s screaming, “Why don’t you believe me?”, and the whole camera is shaking. I almost started to cry because I felt all of these women who never get their chance to speak the truth. In a way the apartment building that the film takes place in is a metaphor for our society. 

That scene you’re speaking of was so intense to watch. We see Molly going from room to room in the building pleading for help, and it’s shot in one long take with the camera at this low angle right underneath Cecilia’s face, so it’s just holding on her expression the entire time. Cecilia, what was that like for you to shoot? 

Cecilia Milocco (Molly): It was really nice hearing you talk about #MeToo because we haven’t talked about that in a while now. That statement “Me Too” is so striking because you really feel the anger with it. That scene had a little bit of improvisation, and I know at one point I shouted, “What is wrong with you?”, and it emphasized the *you* there. Not, “what is wrong with me?”, but “what is wrong with *you*?”, and it was like that anger was coming out of me. Shooting the scene was funny because I had this like camera backpack on, with the camera in the front so I could film myself for it because it was so close. I had never done it before, and it was very funny and very heavy. 

Frida: I felt so bad for Cecilia because she had the acting and the filming responsibilities, and I also think you had to do the sound as well because no one else could. 

Cecilia: Yeah, that’s right! 

Frida: You did everything! 

Cecilia had to do a lot of heavy lifting in the movie even beyond that scene. While most movies so centered on one character use a lot of voiceover narration or exposition to explain what’s going on in the character’s head, Knocking doesn’t use any of those tricks and instead relies more on Cecilia’s performance to convey Molly’s experience. The two of you had worked together before on one of Frida’s short films (2016’s Dear Kid). Did it help having that preexisting relationship together? 

Frida: For sure. That short film was shot in 3 days and the topic was in the same area as Knocking, questioning when you interfere in another person’s private life, and if it’s okay to cross that line. I’m allergic to those kind of voiceover and exposition techniques, and in both the short film and this it was all about the camera watching Cecilia’s performance and everything coming from inside of her. Cecilia has such a good face. You can read a lot in her face, and not everyone has that. 

Cecilia: I felt like I was never alone while making this. We had 18 days together while shooting this, and we were talking every morning, you know? We were supposed to go through the scene, but we ended up talking about life and the things that get stuck in your head and follow you through the days. That becomes your now, where you’re caught living in those memories or those situations that you live through every day. 

Frida: We talked so much about the character and our own life and experience. I think if you want to have something bold and fearless with your actor then you have to be vulnerable and show yourself as a director, and I think we had those moments where we built that trust. I had to say, “throw yourself, and I promise to catch you”. 

Historically the horror/thriller genre has often been used to exploit and degrade women. We see a lot of images of women being threatened, and not having their own agency. In recent years we’ve seen a surge of movies from female filmmakers in the genre, like The Babadook (Jennifer Kent) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour), that subvert those tropes and push away from those old portrayals of women. Have you been feeling that energy shift as women are starting to be the ones creating more of these projects? 

Frida: You can feel who’s behind the camera. Men have made so many movies about women, and I usually can’t identify with those characters. It’s time for us women to tell our stories, and I think we can do it best because we know our experience. I was so tired of watching movies where you’re exploiting the female body as the victim, and all of these fantasies about how they can be killed. I never looked at this film as a horror or a thriller. I just did a movie about a woman and her struggle, her journey, her reality. I think just being a woman is a danger, unfortunately, so we are the ones who are supposed to tell our stories, and I think the end result shows that it’s a better piece. 

Cecilia: I was actually thinking about that yesterday, this classic horror movie idea where you’re always afraid that it will happen to the main character. This isn’t like that though, this is based on compassion from a person, it’s like her will to help someone, like her… how do you say… (speaks in Swedish) 

Frida: Her force, her driving force. 

Cecilia: Yeah! And that is the reality that is wobbling for her. 

When you express your experience and it’s dismissed, you start to doubt yourself. We see that in Molly, when people aren’t believing her she starts to question whether what she’s experiencing is real or all in her head. Cecilia, could you talk about what it was like to convey that aspect of the character? 

Cecilia: Frida and I talked a lot about this, because we recognize this feeling where you don’t get the support for your inner experience, and Molly doesn’t have anyone supporting her. That’s the real horror movie, what’s happening inside of her. I can think of so many examples from my life where I’ve been able to say, “Oh yes, it’s true! He saw it or she saw it too!”, and I need a witness to confirm my experience. For Molly she doesn’t have that, and as an actress it was fun to play that dialogue within myself, but it’s very scary feeling that truth slipping away when no one says you’re right. 

It’s tough to give yourself validation when no one else is giving it. 

Cecilia: No, no one! And in Molly’s case the only one she had in her life has gone away. 

I wanted to ask, was the movie shot before the COVID pandemic? 

Frida: Yeah. 

Basically the entire movie takes place inside of the apartment building, and I know that watching it by myself when I’ve been alone in my home for the last year heightened the experience in an effective way. Did your feelings on the movie change a little bit when the pandemic started happening, and you knew that you had this movie that was all taking place inside of one apartment building? 

Frida: Yeah, I think for sure it became more updated. In Sweden we didn’t have the real lockdown, so we can still go outside, but I know a lot of people in the U.S. say what you did, that you start to feel like you’re going insane just watching these four walls. In that sense we were a bit lucky with the timing, but we could have probably shot it during the pandemic too. 

Cecilia: A pandemic friendly shoot! (laughing) 

Yeah, this is one of the few movies playing at Sundance that might actually work better for people to see it at home rather than in a theater with a big crowd. 

Frida: Yeah, for sure, although we did do a really good sound mix for the cinema! (laughing) 

Knocking premiered in the Midnight section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is awaiting release. 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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