The Danish Director Expounds on his Debut Film Finale and How Horror Movies Stir Audiences ‘Big Time’
“Bold. Bloody. Theatrical.” “A menacing surveillance thriller.” Danish producer and filmmaker Søren Juul Petersen’s directorial debut, Finale, has already made waves in Europe, frightening audiences from Denmark to Scotland’s Frightfest Glasgow, and garnering impressive reviews. Now, Finale is slated for its US premiere at New York’s iconic Lincoln Center where it will close out the 12th edition of the Scary Movie Festival — New York City’s top horror festival.
For Petersen, a long-time producer who founded the famed Zeitgeist Films in 1997, horror occupies a relevant and important role in the contemporary imagination, channelling our ability to confront our fears and face life challenges.
Denmark in New York caught up with Søren Juul Petersen to dive into his fascination of fright and horror, explore his perspective of the dark side of the human mind, and gauge the impact he expects Finale to have on US audiences.
Denmark In New York: Your latest feature Finale has been described as a “cat and mouse thriller” that offers “interesting insight into themes of voyeurism and violence.” How would you describe your film to those who haven’t yet seen it?
Søren Juul Petersen: Finale is — to be quite honest — not a film for everyone. It is a tough film, no doubt. But if you are into the thriller and horror genre that, beside the thrills and horror, gives you something to think about, there is a chance Finale might be something for you.
Without spoiling too much, you can say that Finale deals with ’mankind’s need for entertainment.’ Even though the boundaries for good entertainment have always been in line with the moral compass of the time, the desire to satisfy an innermost morbid curiosity has always been one of humanity’s favourite shows. The dark internet ‘(The Dark Web’) has made it easier to satisfy our extreme desires. It is a lawless, criminal world ordinary people usually do not want to take part in. But it exists, and it removes all barriers, so man can get access to his dubious desires which –more or less- is what constitutes the premise of Finale.
The film is based on a novel written by Steen Langstrup. What inspired you to transform this book into a move?
Søren Juul Petersen: Finale is actually my debut as a director. I have been producing for about 20 years mainly with my own Company Zeitgeist Films, which was an autonomous film production company under the umbrella of Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa in Copenhagen.
About 5 years ago, I started directing smaller projects like commercials and films for websites. Soon after I began to think about directing a feature film. From my solid producing background (and as a film nerd), I knew that smart horror films always have an audience and that production can be made rather inexpensively: you do not need an expensive cast. Even with a few locations, horror movies can awaken feelings big time. You ‘just’ need the right story. By that time I knew that it would take years to write a good original script so in order to speed up the process I wanted to adapt a novel into my first film.
I met Steen Langstrup 10 years ago, and even though he is quite successful as a Danish Stephen King, Scandinavian producers have not been that interested in his work. So I knew he would be happy to get some of his work on the big screen. I got hold of him and we talked about my ideas. He suggested that I read his award-winning novella from 2011 with the slightly awkward title Everything She Wished She Did Not Understand.
I read it the same evening and it was very cinematic. Of course, things had to be redone in order to turn out as good as possible, but the main ingredients were there. I felt I was able to turn the novella into one of my favourite ‘film-dishes’ — “a great piece with an overlay of art and meaning.”
Another important feeling I had when I read the novella was how close it was to Steven Spielberg’s debut film Duel. Steen’s book contains the same ingredients as Spielberg’s film. It is a pretty tight story about a common man’s struggle to survive, the initial reluctance to accept that there is something wrong and the final (right) choice to stand up and face the ‘monster’. It has a strong ending because it is a ‘white tragedy’ — the protagonist survives but he is marked for life. “Just like Finale is going to be,” were my thoughts…
Is there anything in particular about Finale which you are especially excited about showing American audiences and that you think will play out well here?
Søren Juul Petersen: You could say that Finale is not a particularly Danish film. I would say that is an international film produced for the international horror audience. About 50% of the dialogue is actually in English. So, I hope the American audience after having seen the film will think of Finale as a good horror film and not just ‘as an edgy European art film.’ And I think there’s a good chance of that as Finale has already tapped into the international horror festival audience with good success. If you, as an American movie watcher, are into ‘elevated horror,’ then I think you will be entertained and hopefully it will also turn your thoughts about the internet afterwards.
I think Finale will be received in the US just as it has been internationally simply because it is not based in local Danish drama but in the international horror film community. Having said that, I do hope that US audiences, which love thrillers and horror films, can enjoy the ‘European flavor’ Finale does have.
One look at the news is enough to know we live in unsettling times. How does horror speak to the fears we have in our lives today?
Søren Juul Petersen: It has always been ‘unsettling times’ since the dawn of man. In order to understand the world, we have always mirrored our lives and the way we live against told stories — starting out around the campfire. That is a way to cope and understand ourselves. Therefore, drama and horror are still a natural way of dealing with that we experience.
As Stephen King once said: “Horror movies are also a safety valve. It’s like dreaming awake and when a movie about ordinary people living ordinary lives skews off into some blood-soaked nightmare, we’re able to let off the pressure that might otherwise build up until it blows us sky-high like the boiler that explodes and tears apart the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining.’“
On a more personal note, what does it mean to you to have your movie screened at the Scary Movies Festival at Lincoln Center in New York?
Søren Juul Petersen: I am very very excited about it. ‘Film at Lincoln Center’ in New York is just an iconic institution in an iconic location, so it is many a filmmaker’s dream to get your film screened here. I am also very grateful that the submission team choose to include Finale. There are many horror films out there and so much competition, so it is fantastic to get though the eye of that NY horror needle — so I’m also humbled at the same time. I’m really looking forward to presenting the film before the screening and doing Q&As afterwards. So please tell all your horror friends to turn up August 21st!
Lærke Gammelgaard Winther is the Culture & Public Diplomacy Intern at Denmark In New York.