Exclusive Interview: Sundance horror Knocking star Cecilia Milocco & filmmaker Frida Kempff: “I didn’t want to exploit the female body. We’re so used to seeing that & I’m tired of it”

Frida Kempff’s debut narrative feature Knocking (Knackningar), which world premiered at Sundance, is a compelling psychological horror that follows Molly (Cecilia Milocco) in her determination to find the source of the mysterious knocking sounds she can hear from her new apartment, while still grieving the loss of her girlfriend. Read our ★★★★ review of the film.

Ahead of the film’s premiere The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with director Frida Kempff and lead actor Cecilia Milocco about the queer aspect of the narrative, Knocking’s striking visual language, how the film varies from the original source material, and eschewing graphic screen violence.

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.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what does it mean to both of you for Knocking (Knackningar) to have its world premiere at Sundance in the Midnight section?

Frida Kempff: “It means everything for Knocking. I think it’s the best start for the film and Midnight is such an exciting programme to be in. It’s a dream come true, especially as it’s my first narrative feature. It couldn’t be better.”

Cecilia Milocco: “Yes, it’s beautiful! It’s so great to be part of Sundance.”

Frida, the film is based on a novella by Johan Theorin, why did you want to adapt it for the screen?

Frida: “When I read the short novel it reminded me how women are treated in society today, how we can be judged by our appearance, by our looks. I also found the gaslighting element of the story interesting. I think it’s something that we can all identify with; living in an apartment and hearing noises, that’s normal, but then the knocking keeps happening and when you ask your neighbours about it they don’t ever hear it. That’s the crazy thing. She’s not trusted by anyone when she tells them about what she can hear. So that’s what drew me in initially and then of course the whole emotional emotional journey that she goes on and this woman’s life was also intriguing.”

You’ve worked together before on a short film, so I’m guessing it went well the first time?!

Frida: “No, it was just awful!”

Cecilia: “Yes, just terrible wasn’t it?!”

Cecilia, so much of the film focuses on your character Molly, which I imagine was exciting but perhaps a little daunting. Why did you want to take on the role?

Cecilia: “First of all, I think that Frida is a very intuitive and smart woman, so the idea of working with her on exploring Molly’s mind was beautiful to me. Also it’s not so common to find a person who really wants to help someone in the way that Molly does. Molly tries to help no matter what, she never veers from that mission, and I loved the way that she doesn’t ever leave that track throughout the film.”

Frida, does Molly have a girlfriend in the book or is that something that was brought to the film? Tell us about the queer narrative aspect of Knocking.

Frida: “In the short book it was her best friend and the only person in her life who has just died. It was a long time when I read it, but I think it starts with the funeral. That person had been everything for Molly. Although it doesn’t explicitly say that it was her girlfriend in the book, that’s the way that I read because I thought it must have been the case. For me, it was a love relationship, it was Molly’s big love, so that’s how we developed the story with Emma Broström the screenwriter. I liked that we didn’t make a big thing of out it. The relationship is just there and that’s the future of film I hope. Just because it happens to be a same sex relationship it doesn’t have to be the topic of the film. This happens to be a gay couple and it’s just love.”

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 Ida Zimmerman.

There’s such a distinctive visual language to the film, how does the cinematography and production design reflect what Molly is going through?

Frida: “I like films that are really specific. I like a good story, but I’m also fascinated with how to tell a story, that’s so important. It was like being a kid in a candy store when I started working with my DOP Hannes Krantz, thinking about how we present the film. The first rule was that it’s always from Molly’s perspective, we never leave Molly. I said to Hannes, ‘You have to be Molly, the camera is Molly. We will follow her journey and the camera will follow the same emotions.’ At the beginning the camera is kind of steady, a “healthy camera”, and in the end it is a “paranoia camera”. That was something that we were really clear about and then we also came up with a colour system, both for Cecilia as an actor and for Hannes as a cinematographer. Green was for the start of the film when she was feeling alright, then it was red. So that helped when we were setting up each scene and Hannes could ask me, ‘What colour is it now?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s yellow now’, and with Cecilia we’d do the same with her, that help helped a lot.”

In one extended sequence Ceclia you had a camera attached to you, what was that like?

Cecilia: “It was really big and heavy, but it was fun! It was like being super pregnant!”

Molly is struggling with her mental health but the film doesn’t demonise that in any way, which isn’t always true of horror movies. How did you approach playing the character?

Cecilia: “We talked about mental illness when we first started work on the movie, but then we came to talk more about human issues more generally. Her girlfriend Judith is the only person that means something to her, the only human being who knows her, and the only person she can rely on. Then she disappears from Molly’s life. How does one deal with that grief? In our world, you have to go to a doctor and get some medicine. Maybe you can be sad for half a year and then you have to get back up on your horse again. So all those talks I had with Frida were really fascinating. Yes, Molly has a psychosis, but why do we have to label it as that? There are issues in life that pop up and it’s all about your childhood and grieving and everything. She’s just a human being with a story.”

Some of the most impactful scenes in the film involve Molly alone in her apartment, what were those scenes like to be part of creating?

Cecilia: “Sometimes it was just a case of having to get into it and prepare emotionally for the scene, but at other times it was more technical and that was really fun. Hitchcock would choreograph his actors, saying things like ‘Turn you head up that way’, and we also did some work like that but grounded in Molly of course.”

This is a psychological horror, although we do see some bloodstains and hear a woman’s cries, we don’t see any physical harm, which keeps open whether it’s really happening or not, while also allowing the power of our imaginations to build some gruesome images. How conscious a decision was that?

Frida: “Yes, like you said, I think our imaginations can be even worse than images on the screen. In the short novel there are two main characters; it’s Molly the witness and then there’s the victim. From the beginning of the book we have them both. The victim was described as being half naked and she had all this blood on her and was locked up by all these chains, and initially I said to my producer, ‘I can’t do this. I will never do this film.’ And they said, ‘Some parts of it are really good. Why don’t we focus on Molly the witness instead?’ So I agreed, because I didn’t want to exploit the female body. We’re so used to seeing that and I’m so tired of it, to be honest. So to tackle this story only from the witness’ perspective was far more appealing to me.”

Does the Swedish national character play a role in this film in that typically people mind their own business? That’s something that can be nice, allowing one to have some privacy, but if it gets to a point of turning a blind to what might be happening to one of your neighbours then that’s when it turns darker as you explore with Knocking.

Frida: “In Sweden there’s a lot of that. As you said, there is a balance there, you shouldn’t interfere in someone’s private life but sometimes we need to. Molly is not a typically Swedish person, she’s so determined to find the truth and stand up for that. One of the things that the film explores is civil courage and how important that is. We can see that in the whole world, how important it is to raise your voice when you feel that something is wrong. We read articles almost every week about cases of domestic violence against women and when they’re in court their neighbours might be witnesses who say that they’ve heard this going on for many years, but they’ve been more worried about their night shift at work than caring about a woman’s screams. So that was something that I really wanted to deal with in this film.”

Poster image of Knocking by Frida Kempff, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Cecilia: “Yes, that’s what I love about Molly, she never lets go of her mission while other people are looking at her thinking that she’s strange or that she’s overreacting, Molly remains determined and she just doesn’t let it go. Maybe she’s a bit too much at times, but she’s very thorough and I admire that.”

Something that’s important in all films, but particularly horror, is the sound design and the music. Frida, what did you want to achieve with those elements in Knocking?

Frida: “I had worked with my sound designer Thomas Jæger before and so I knew that he was the guy for this job. I was a bit worried about how we were going to shoot with mainly just one actor in one apartment, just those four walls, so we had some pre-recorded sound effects playing on set so that Cecilia could hear the knocking which I think helped us. Martin Dirkov is our composer and this is my first time working with music. I realise now that it opens the door to a beautiful world but before this film I’d always been worried that scores can be too much, with the violin coming in, but there’s so much more to it than that and with our film sometimes you don’t know whether it’s music or the sound design, it’s like a bridge between the two. I really love the soundscape when Molly goes into that apartment with the knife, a psychic dance space is created which is amazing. So both elements really lifted some scenes for sure.”

By James Kleinmann

Frida Kempff’s Knocking (Knackningar) received its world premiere at Sundance 2021.

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