Sound Becomes the Storyteller in Frida Kempff's 'Knocking'
Knocking balances noise, color, and performance to create a stifling thriller. We speak with director Frida Kempff about the film.
Knocking paints a picture of a woman suffering—fragmented, frayed, seeing and hearing things that perhaps aren't really there, drowning in grief. Her new apartment threatens to entomb her, and that knocking coming from a floor above is driving her over the edge.
The film stars Cecilia Milocco as Molly, a recently bereaved woman just out of a stay in a psychiatric hospital. When she believes someone in her apartment building needs help, no one believes her.
This is the first narrative feature from director Frida Kempff. She has worked previously in documentary and short filmmaking, including an award-winning short film at Cannes with Bathing Micky.
To tell the story of a protagonist falling apart, Kempff relied heavily on a vibrant and distinct color palette, complex sound design, and the performance of the lead actor. She shared her insight with No Film School in a Zoom call ahead of Knocking's premiere.
Editor's note: the below interview has been edited for clarity and length.
No Film School: As this was your first narrative, what challenges did you face, moving from shorts, and how did you overcome them?
Frida Kempff: Well, I started in documentary, and I thought I was going to do documentaries for the whole of my life, but it was something a couple of years ago that I felt that I was missing something. I couldn't really work with all the elements that I wanted to do, because I was working with real stories, with real people. And I had to step toeing, of course, because it was their stories.
For a long time, I think I've been aiming for doing... I did some short dramas, but when I read this story, this short novel [Knackningar], I could see that I could combine a story that matters into a genre movie and really work with the sound and the visuals and the music and all of that that I really like.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit more about why you were so drawn to that novella and why it was important to adapt it?
Kempff: Well, after I read it, there were two questions that came up in my head. And the first one was, "What happens if no one believes in you?" And, "Who owns the truth?" So here we have Molly, the witness, and she's so convinced that a woman is in danger, but no one believes in her. So I wanted to create a film, so the audience could feel how it is to be in her shoes, through the whole way and hopefully feel her emotions, at the same time as she does. So that's how I wanted to adapt that to a feature film.
Cecilia Milocco appears in 'Knocking' by Frida Kempff, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ida Zimmerman
NFS: You mentioned the visuals. I loved how the film looked, and how it kind of demonstrated her inner turmoil throughout. So how did you and your DP create that? What did you do to create that sense of unease in the movie?
Kempff: I came up with this color system. Basically, it was the same color system for every department on set in the crew. But with the DOP, Hannes Krantz, who is so talented and amazing, he's going to be best for sure. But I came up with this color system that—we started the film with the green, and that was a healthy color. And then in the end with the dark, dark red, and that would reflect her paranoia.
So the camera would reflect her temper in the film and her emotions. I adapted that to the lead as well. We talked in colors on set because the film is not shot chronologically. So we could just, "What is this? This is yellow? No, it's still green here." I mean, that worked really well, instead of using all these words that... I mean, you have such different thoughts about that.
NFS: And the colors were so saturated and pretty. So they were definitely noticeable, but not in a distracting way. I think it's something that did build that emotional journey so well. And on that topic, can I ask what the film was shot on?
Kempff: Actually, it's a Sony FS7, and we had these different lenses that would moderate it for what we wanted to have. So we had that camera, and then we had the small camera. She had this rig, the SnorriCam camera rig, and there was another one. And we had the same in a ceiling, in the toilet once. There was a smaller one, less quality, but it worked fine.
NFS: Yeah. I really liked those rigged shots also. In terms of directing Cecilia, how did you help her kind of get to that point of that high emotional intensity for a good portion of the second half of the film?
Kempff:We've worked on a short before. Now it's like six years ago. And in a way, it was still [dealing] with the same issues. Like, when should you interfere in another private life? And that thin line. So I knew that she's going to do it right. You know?
But then we talked a lot, talked a lot. We didn't do rehearsal that much. I didn't want to. I knew that she's really good in the first takes, so I didn't want to use that rehearsal too much, because I want to keep that fire. So we talked a lot, and we talked a lot about how it is to be a woman and our own experience. And I also made her do some research, and she visited a psychiatric ward at one time, and that I know helped a lot for her. It came back to that a lot, that experience. So, yeah, talking.
Cecilia Milocco appears in 'Knocking' by Frida Kempff, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Hannes Krantz
NFS: How do you work to maintain that high emotional intensity and the tension, where you're basically in one location for a good portion of the film?
Kempff: Yeah, I think that was my fear before we started to shoot, or during the shoot, I mean, will people, I mean, are they going to stick to this film? I mean, because it's so ...
I mean, when we did the mood board and the shoot schedule and all that, we really had to be creative in that, because like you said, it's almost only one apartment and a living room. So the DOP, he did his ... I mean, this is low budget. So he was building his own rigs. I mean, I wish I could show you the picture because it was crazy. So there was a lot to how ...
And it's not much dialogue, so everything's going on in her face. So I had to rely on that, and I had to rely on doing good visuals. But also, I knew that we were going to work with the sound design and the music to reflect what she was feeling, so that helped.
When we had done a final cut, we didn't have the sound or music on yet. So I didn't know if this was actually the final cut. But when that cut came on board, I mean, that was perfect.
Frida Kempff, director of 'Knocking,' an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erik Andersson
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about the sound design and that process?
Kempff: Yeah. I've worked with Thomas Jæger before. He's a Danish sound designer, so I knew that he was going to pull it off great. But he had never done this genre before. So we were new to that, and we discussed it a lot. And it was a balance because sometimes you wanted to push it. And it was too early.
It was the same in directing Cecilia, that the thing was to actually hold back, hold back, hold back, hold back every department, until she will explode, and the sound would explode. So to help Cecilia on set, we had prerecorded some sound, and I think that helped her, so like the knockings and some screams. I think that helped.
NFS: I don't want to give away the ending or anything like that, but I do want to ask about the choice you made in the ending, to stay focused on your characters and not break away. Is that something that you took from reading the novella, or was it developed later?
Kempff: No, that was the thing that we were struggling with the ending, because she—I mean, not to say so much, but we had to leave her in a way, in the end. And how do we do that? So that was the challenge.
And in the novella, it was actually two main characters. So it was another person. Not saying too much. So we knew there were two persons in the building. I thought it was more interesting to just be with a witness, to think, "Is it real, or is it not?" So then we came up with this idea to tell the ending with just sound.
NFS: I think it's a really powerful ending, just visually and sound-wise, so I think it really works. You have obviously that other experience with your shorts and your documentaries, but do you have any advice for someone maybe wanting to make that jump into narrative features?
Kempff: I mean, it's easy to say, but I would—because this was my experience—try to be bold. I mean, listen to your inner voice and trust that instinct. Because I felt, I mean, this is a low-budget movie, and I felt that I have nothing to lose.
I mean, if it's not going to be a good film, then people will not remember it. But I mean, I learned something along the way. So I think that's good because sometimes it's such an anxiety. "It has to be so perfect." But I mean, it doesn't have to be perfect, or maybe that's something good. Just release that burden in a way, and have fun. Because when you have fun, you become more creative. So I said to the team that whatever we do, just have fun and be bold.