'Queen of Hearts': Why You Should Rewrite Your Script in Rehearsal
May el-Toukhy's "Queen of Hearts," which premiered at Sundance this year, is the controversial story of a woman who seduces her stepson.
Anne (Trine Dyrholm) has an enviable life by almost all standards. She's a gorgeous middle-aged woman living in a mansion in the picturesque woods of Denmark. She is enormously successful at her law firm, where she represents disadvantaged youth. Relations with her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), a doctor, are foregrounded by the couple's dogged careerism; nevertheless, they make a happy family, with two young twin girls.
Then Gustav (Gustav Lindh) shows up. He's Peter's teenage son from a previous marriage, and wherever he goes, trouble seems to follow. Anne recognizes his bad-boy misbehavior from that of her clients. She knows just how to handle him. Slowly, insidiously, she gains his favor—and then seduces him. It's a wildly hypocritical, not to mention taboo, move for a woman whose livelihood is predicated on helping children overcome abusive situations. And the secret can't possibly stay safe for long.
Director May el-Toukhy creates a consistent tone of tension and dread in the riveting Queen of Hearts, which asks complex questions about the nature of abuse and the interplay between tenacity, self-assuredness, and manipulation. Under the veneer of the film's sumptuously stunning cinematography lies something darker—a rotting morale, and a visceral critique of the expectations of modern women.
No Film School sat down with el-Toukhy to discuss how she rewrites her script during an extended rehearsal process, how government funding for films in Denmark works, the merits of single takes, and more.
No Film School: This is an extremely intimate film about a controversial relationship. What piqued your interest in the subject matter?
May el-Toukhy: We wanted to explore the making of a family secret. That was one part of the initial spark. The other one was the relationship between the female teacher and the male pupil, and the stepmother and the stepson. That narrative has been presented in the media very differently than the stepfather/stepdaughter and the male teacher/female pupil sexual relationship. That's because we have a tendency to over-romanticize the idea that it's okay if the younger partner is a male.
We wondered: What happens if you reverse that? Are the dynamics of the seduction the same?
NFS: Can you tell me a bit about the writing process? It looks like you co-wrote the film.
el-Toukhy: In the beginning of my process, my writing partner [Maren Louise Käehne] and I talk a lot. We gather a lot of inspirational material and go research a lot. And then initially, she sits down and writes maybe five pages of line and ideas, and then I write on top of that. And so that goes back and forth until we have a document that is ready to base a script on. Then she writes the first draft, and I write on top of that, and I send it back to her. And in the end, the text is so intertwined that we don't know who wrote what. Eventually, we're complementing each other on stuff we did ourselves. I would say, "I really like the way he's acting up in this scene," and she would be like, "I didn't write that. You wrote that," and the other way around.
"Sometimes it's better for the actor to find inspiration themselves than for me to tell them what their backstory should be."
NFS: How did these characters come alive for both of you?
el-Toukhy: I think with Anne (Trine Dyrholm), we wanted her to have the duality of a person who's looked up to—someone who you think is a cool, fierce woman at the beginning of the film. She is doing a lot of good for others. And then at the other hand, we wanted her to have this dark side. So there was this complexity to her. I think it's true that when you grow up under harsh circumstances, as this character did, it enables you to work with people with the same disadvantages. But also, if you don't look at your own stuff, you can keep that vicious cycle going in your close relationships and in your own life.
We talked a lot to a therapist who works with people who both assault and who have assaulted others. What she said was that there's a lot of people who have a profession of caretaking who think that because of their work, they work out their own hurt. But you don't actually work out your own hurt until you're in therapy or really take a look at your own hurt. It's not enough, just working your way through it through others. You have to look inside in order to be free and break the vicious cycle.
NFS: And when you were talking initially to the actress, Trine, what kind of conversations did you have about these complexities of her performance?
el-Toukhy: We pitched Trine the story very early on because we're friends. We did our first movie together. We always know what each other is working on. So I said that I was going to do this story about a woman who seduces her stepson. And you could just immediately see that she was hooked on that. I didn't have to convince her.
Of course, I had to support her along the way. When you're dealing with that complex a character, even though you find that you have an intelligent, complex inner life yourself, sometimes you can struggle to identify with someone behaving like this. So we had to kind of help each other get there, searching the material and searching our own stories in order to find the right inspirations for me to direct and for her to act. Sometimes it's better for the actor to find inspiration themselves—to create images—than for me to tell them what their backstory should be.
So we talked very much about the concrete stuff—what had happened before in the scene, what would this conflict remind her of in her own background. But I wouldn't impose my own story on her because she can't necessarily use that. Again, I have to enable her to promote her own stories in order for her to reproduce and stay true in the scenes and not get exhausted.
"I can give more advanced directions if I don't have to be concerned all the time about the actors looking like they know each other."
NFS: How did you cast the younger actor, Gustav Lindh, who plays the stepson Gustav?
el-Toukhy: We cast Trine first, and then I wanted to cast the boy after that. Then the father. Trine was the center—everyone is circling around her in the movie. So I would do rehearsals with each one of them alone, and then I would do double rehearsals, and then I would do triple rehearsals with the three of them. Each team had its own dynamic and then a third person would enter, and then the dynamic would change.
With Peter and Anne, the two grownups in the film, we would talk a lot about, for example, how did they meet? What was Peter's life before meeting Anne? Because he had a child and a wife prior to Anne. And what were the discussions they had concerning if they should live in Sweden or they should live in Denmark? Because he's Swedish, and she is Danish. What was the attraction for them towards each other?
And then we would bring in the boy. One of the hardest things, I think, when you do movies about relationships, is that sometimes if the actors don't know each other, then they have to act like they know each other. I really wanted them to actually get to know each other. You can go to the next level when you do scenes that way, because you already have that in place, and then on top of that you can build the scenes. I can give more advanced directions if I don't have to be concerned all the time about the actors looking like they know each other really well.
el-Toukhy: So we just spent a lot of time together. Sometimes I would ask them to find three pieces of music that represent their character's music, and then we would talk about that, and they would play the music for each other. Other times they would go aside and talk about a scene, and they would come in and tell me what they found out, or why they were doing something else.
Because I do very intensive rehearsals, we have plenty of time to kind of try out all kinds of things. I have my own methods, but also, within the first two days, I have to find out which kind of rehearsal suits which actor. It's not obvious. Some actors don't like to be thrown to the floor immediately. They want to sit at a table and talk, and they want to look at all my inspirational material or whatever. And some actors, they just want to go out and [act].
"I think that's one of the most important skills a director can have—the ability to go with the flow and dare to be spontaneous and follow your gut."
NFS: Do you rewrite throughout the process of rehearsing?
el-Toukhy: Yes. When we start the rehearsal period, we have a script. It's not a finely-tuned draft, but we have a script. And then my writer comes into the room, and sometimes she sits for a full day. Otherwise, I have an assistant, or I make mental notes on the scenes where I kind of experienced something new, and then I'll rewrite. And then the next day we will rehearse the scene again to see, is this more in the field of what we want?
Eventually, when we are finishing the rehearsals, after maybe four weeks, we'll spend a couple of weeks rewriting the script to finalize it. And that's the final shooting script. And once I'm shooting—once this playground time is over—I stick to the script, pretty much.
NFS: So there's a time for remolding it and reworking the script, but once you're there on the day, people know what to expect.
el-Toukhy: Yeah. But of course you can change the sound of a line, or you can remove a line. You have to be comfortable being spontaneous. I think that's one of the most important skills a director can have—the ability to go with the flow and dare to be spontaneous and follow your gut. But at the same time, because we have this rehearsal period outside of production, I feel that I have so much more time while I'm shooting because I already made a lot of decisions. And so [having done rehearsal] gives me more energy to be creative in the moment instead of trying to solve something that could have been solved a month ago.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about how you worked with your cinematographer? So much of the film is set in the house, so it must have been a challenge to figure out how to cover all the action that way.
el-Toukhy: Yeah. I always try to find a key to the visual side of the film. Sometimes the key is found very early on. In this case, I wanted to showcase the brutality [of the film] through beautiful images. I wanted that contrast because I find it becomes, for me at least, even more brutal because it's beautiful. So we found that key quite early, and then we made the choice to shoot on 35 mm. It was really nice working with film because it forces you to make choices.
"It was really nice working with film because it forces you to make choices."
Me and Jasper [Spanning], the cinematographer, talked a lot about how the script is written in a way where we step away from judging the character. We kind of leave space for the audience to interpret what's going on with her—how is she feeling. So we wanted to [incorporate] that into the visual part of the film. Therefore, there are a lot of single takes. Of course, we have close-ups, but we didn't want to cut to emotion all the time. We wanted to kind of give space for the audience to put their own interpretation into the scenes. Jasper was amazing like that, because he's so inventive, and he's so brave in the choices he's making constantly. He's constantly also challenging me.
NFS: How does he challenge you?
el-Toukhy: He's like, "Let's do this in a one take." And I'm like, "But what if we want to shorten this scene?" And he's like, "So let's spend the time rehearsing the scene so that the timing of the scene seems right for you, and then let's shoot it. And once we've shot it, if you still feel that way, we can do other stuff. But let's be brave."
The editor also loves single-takes. He doesn't necessarily want to cut all the time. He started editing while I was still shooting. He was bold in the choices he made, like going into a scene later, or going out of the scene early, but that's the only thing you can do. And the more we got into the weeks of shooting, of course, you also become more and more bold and brave and start doing even more spontaneous stuff.
NFS: Since he's editing during production, do you ever make changes to your directorial approach on set based on the dailies you've seen?
el-Toukhy: If there is a scene I don't know if I got it right, then he'll cut that and send it to me and I'll watch it in the evening to make sure I got what I needed. I'll do extra shots on that scene if I'm not satisfied. But I don't want to exhaust myself watching the material over and over again. It has to stay fresh, in a way.
NFS: This was funded partially by the Danish Film Institute. In America, we don't have a lot of government funding. What's the process of trying to get your film funded by the DFI?
el-Toukhy: You write a synopsis or a treatment. The challenge with the system is it's based on forms. Then you're invited into a meeting by the consultant. The consultant at the institute is there for four years at a time. And it's typically someone from the industry. It could be an editor. It could be a director. It could be a writer. If you're invited to a meeting, you start the process of discussing the project. What are your ambitions? What have you done and where are you going as a filmmaker? And then slowly you turn in more and more material on the project, and for each time you get a salary out of that. Then you turn in a script, and then you get money for the next draft.
You never really know if the film is going to be made, and you work like that for a long time—two years, maybe more. Eventually, you go into the development, which is a more costly process. You get a little more money to explore the film. Like, how should I cast this film, how should I shoot it. Or if you need to research or whatever, you can do it in that period.
You turn in that material, and that's where either they make you do more development because they don't think you're close enough to go into production, or they turn down the project, or they greenlight the project.
"Once the money is given to you, there's nothing they can do about it."
If they greenlight, they give part of the funding, and then part of the funding comes from a TV station. And then also we sometimes get regional funds. If you move the film to the north of Denmark, there an island called Funen, then you can get some regional funds because the idea is that you create business in that area with the production.
So it's kind of a lengthy process, but I think it is that way all over the world. Only a very few directors are that privileged enough to just be able to say, "I want to do this film."
NFS: I see, and do they give a lot of editorial feedback?
el-Toukhy: No, once they give you the money, you have complete artistic freedom. It's in the auteur tradition. They believe that the director's vision is paramount to the project. But that doesn't mean that they won't give you notes. If they don't like what you did, they will tell you, "I don't like it, and I think you should do this or that," but they don't have the chance to pull out the rug out from under you. Once the money is given to you, there's nothing they can do about it.
NFS: If you were to give advice to an up-and-coming director working on a pretty complex script like yours with a lot of different layers and some physical performances, what advice would you give them from a directorial perspective?
el-Toukhy: For me, it's always really helpful with research. Research can be all kinds of things. It can be reading nonfiction. It can be talking to people with similar experiences. It can be watching documentaries. But for me, it's very important for me to feel that whenever there's a situation where the actor may be finding it hard to identify with the character, I have some knowledge that could move them forward.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.