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How 'The Twin' Filmmakers Taneli Mustonen and Aleksi Hyvärinen Transformed a Simple Idea into a Twisted Horror Story

'The Twin' filmmakers Taneli Mustonen (director/co-writer) and Aleksi Hyvärinen (co-writer) share with Script their personal approach to the story and characters, tapping into their comedy chops, Nordic folklore and combined love and respect for the horror genre.

In The Twin, following the aftermath of a tragic accident that claimed the life of one of their twins, Rachel (Palmer) and husband Anthony (Cree) relocate to the other side of the world with their surviving son in the hopes of building a new life. What begins as a time of healing in the quiet Scandinavian countryside soon takes an ominous turn when Rachel begins to unravel the torturous truth about her son and confronts the malicious forces attempting to take a hold of him.

Nothing feels more displacing and horrifying than taking a deep dive into one's personal psyche and attempting to discern the realities of loss, grief, and loneliness. The Twin filmmakers Taneli Mustonen (director/co-writer) and Aleksi Hyvärinen (co-writer) methodically explore all of that and then some [without giving away too much, but reader be forewarned, there are minimal storyline spoilers] as they tap into their personal approach to the story and characters, tapping into their comedy chops, Nordic folklore and combined love and respect for the horror genre. 

[L-R] Teresa Palmer, Tristan Ruggeri, and Steven Cree in The Twin. Courtesy Shudder.

[L-R] Teresa Palmer, Tristan Ruggeri, and Steven Cree in The Twin. Courtesy Shudder.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What was the impetus for this story idea?

Taneli Mustonen: Well, it's one of those things like right after we finished the first horror film we did, Lake Bodom, we got invited to South Korea to this wonderful festival and they asked us, ‘Guys, do you have another idea?’ [laughs] And we were like, ‘Oh, my God. Should we have another idea?’ Because we're accustomed to Finland, you don't get that many chances to make another one, it’s harder here. And so, we combined our best ideas In Seoul, we were in this film market and suddenly we were pitching this idea, to wonderful investors and buyers, like the biggest Asian genre markets out there. And we ended up winning [laughs] to our surprise, and it was the craziest thing. [laughs]

The downside to that is, of course, that when we arrived back home, we had to write the script. And we had just promised like after Lake Bodom, if you know the film, there's a lot of twists and turns, and so we had decided we would never ever try to write something so difficult again, because it's so hard to surprise the audience and build the whole script. So here we were. And it took us almost two years. And luckily, we had got acquainted with so many awesome filmmakers and financiers, and just people within the industry and of course, horror fans. And we were traveling with the pitch and the various workshops and whatnot. And that's how it came to be.

The original idea, just to cut to the chase, we just started discussing, like we usually do and we've been working on scripts and writing together since film school. And Aleksi actually wrote my first feature. So, we were just spitballing ideas, and we tried to really focus on the idea, what is the scariest thing? And I know, it's a silly idea, but then we were both like, that was the easiest answer, as parents ourselves, we realized of course that would be the worst thing that would happen would be if something harmful would happen to your son. And then we came up with the idea but what if you have identical twins, what would happen to the family dynamics after this kind of a tragic loss? And so, it came to be from there. But it was a really intense year and a half, almost two years from the core idea to transform into a full feature-length script.

Taneli Mustonen and Aleksi Hyvärinen. Photo Don Films.

Taneli Mustonen and Aleksi Hyvärinen. Photo Don Films.

Sadie: In terms of just the writing process, what was that like for you two on this one?

Aleksi Hyvärinen: We’ve actually been working together for about, I would say, about 15 years ever since we met in film school. It's been evolving for a long time, the whole process, and it keeps changing back and forth a bit. And with The Twin, we had that really strong experience from the market and the discussions we had there, and all kinds of ideas that we started putting on paper. And I think we outlined it pretty well. And then Taneli was also working on the script for a while. But I think the basic, kind of a new thing that we found during this process was that we were taking long walks and discussing the story, going a bit further, like five more pages, and then another long walk and we kind of knew where it was heading all the time. And we had the major story beats, but I think we probably had 300 pages of script, before we kind of condensed it. When everything clicked, it was a fast process, like the final two months, we were totally on hyper mode. And we were kind of able to put it together really fast and it evolved a lot during that time. And funnily enough, I think ever since 2019, or something when we kind of finished the script, we've done minimal changes to it, obviously, you know, when production and actors come in, they have their own input and all that kind of normal stuff, but kind of the basic script stayed pretty much the same. With Taneli, sometimes he writes, sometimes I write, then the other one talks and sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry and sometimes we fight.

Taneli: [laughs] Yes.

Aleksi: And I can tell you that when the late evening deadline is approaching, working on a horror movie at a dark office in the darkness of Helsinki, it can be scary. The twisted ideas this guy comes up with Oh, my God. [laughs]

Taneli: [laughs] Yeah, that's so crazy. It’s been such a fruitful 10-15 years that we've been working together and Aleksi, you're too kind, because what happens is that when you write together, it's that element of just sharing your ideas, and I can say, when I read the script, I can say like, ‘What was my line? Where do I start and where do you begin?’ It's such a fluid process. But in a nutshell, I think it was so important for both of us that we knew, because of that experience in South Korea, and that awesome feedback, we just realized, ‘Oh, my God, we have this 10 sentence outline for us, we have to somehow, miraculously get that to a full-length feature.’ And that was sort of our guiding light, you could say.

Aleksi: Yeah, and the reaction from people, when we were pitching it and telling them the twist, which we kind of had figured out by then, we kind of had that as our guiding light throughout the process, which is actually quite exceptional, we kind of had a bit of a preliminary audience reaction. And that kept us on track, I think, personally.

Taneli: Of course, you know, Sadie, it's the hardest thing that you if you have that kind of massive plot point, or twist and turn in the script, it's so hard to write the script that it can be just about waiting for 80 minutes or something for that turning point. And then you go ‘Tah-dah’ It's not going to work out. So we really wanted to emphasize and dive into the northern mythology, and those stories and folklore tales that we grew up with. And it was such a fountain of many, many, many great ideas. And definitely, something like, whatever we do next, it's definitely those stories are the ones that we want to dive into, or somehow incorporate into the next horror script. As a country, we are quite young and Christianity came here quite late. So, we grew up with these amazing stories about these amazing folklore myths about the spirits of the forest and whatnot. And it was such a pleasure to dive into those. And of course, once you've opened that box, you just want to dive into it deeper and those things were really something that surprised us a lot.

[Finding Humor in Humanity with 'Dual' Writer-Director Riley Stearns]

Sadie: It’s so wonderfully layered too. I don't know if this was intentional when you guys were writing it, but I was pulled down the idea lane that the rye is perhaps poisoning these people, the ergot root and witchcraft connection, and then I was totally wrong.

Taneli: [laughs] That's great to hear. Because that was definitely something we worked on. We live in a country basically, where you have to create your year of supply of food within such a short period of time. And so, everything that grows out of the Earth is even in those like old folklore tales, it's holy, but there's also the element of danger and the other side, and it was just like a mishmash of those things as well. We live in total darkness for seven months, and we have a really peculiar taste in music, like it's no surprise black metal comes from the northern hemisphere here. [laughs] And so that's definitely something we deal with a lot.

We grew up in a country that was a bit different to you guys, in a way that like horror films, you couldn't really see them back in the 80s, we're that old basically. [laughs] My family ran a couple of cinemas here \and so I got to see my share of horror films in the 80s. They were so scarce, once in a while you get to see Pet Cemetery or whatnot. And it was a time before the internet, we had this kind of card, where you had to write and send an empty VHS tape, and then you just hope somebody abroad Finland will send some cool films. [laughs] And if you're lucky, you get amazing films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or whatnot. And it was such a like amazing feeling that you could see those films. That was the thing that we grew up with those horror films from the 70s, like, Don't Look Now early 80s, Changeling, and of course, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, just amazing, massive movies. So, when writing the script, we really wanted to make sure that we paid homage to those genres, or those masterpieces of film and give them a nod. Those were the films we grew up with and we love and we hope that the horror community around the world appreciates our Nordic take on it.

Sadie: I think you guys did it, especially the use of the light and darkness because this film is so bright for a horror movie until you go into this dreamscape of is this reality? I'm curious for the two of you also, because you guys are originally comedy guys --

Taneli: Hard to imagine, right? [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Comedy beats and horror beats, I feel like they kind of go hand in hand. And you guys have that leg up of knowing where to get the audience. How do you approach that in terms of finding those beats and how they’re going to land for an audience reaction?

Aleksi: It is true that horror films and comedies are alike in the sense that watching them in a crowd in a cinema, it's kind of a similar experience. It's being scared or laughing but if you kind of do all of that, you feel those emotions, experience those emotions together as an audience, and that's kind of the amazing thing. And it's very a physical thing, you can be scared shitless or laughing with 10 people around you that you don't even know. I think that's something that motivates both of us in these genres. But yeah, even the rhythm, I would say, that's what we discussed often with Taneli as the director, that the rhythm is so important and building the suspense - it's what we often talked about, especially when we're doing a slasher film like Lake Bodom, is that it's not really about the kill, it's about waiting for the knife. And I think that applies to comedy as well. It's the anticipation of the night, it's the anticipation of the joke, basically, that makes it work. And you just have to make sure that often enough, bring that moment of laughter and keep up the rhythm. There's a certain pace.

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Taneli: And if you think about it, well said, Aleksi, it's such a hard demand for filmmakers. People actually pay you hard-earned money to, ‘Make me laugh. Just make me laugh.’ It's the hardest thing. And same goes with horror. And I think it's been strange, and such like a learning curve for us as filmmakers also, there are those similarities when it comes to horror that you really want to surprise like if you think about comedies, it's all about like sudden things happen and you surprise your audience and outcomes the laughter. And same with horror, you need to be in charge. And you really need to understand where is the audience's emotions at certain stages. And that's really tricky, especially when you add, we need to get them going in this direction, and then we're going to pull the rug out from everybody, and hopefully, they will be surprised and find that satisfying. I think, for both of us, we love going to cinemas like a ritual, basically, you go there, and you sit with total strangers in total darkness, watching these shadows and light, and you just feel everything together. I still something that I love, and I need that. And working in cinemas, like from my childhood, it was such an amazing feeling that when you send people in, and then afterward when the movie end credits roll, you open the doors and outcomes totally changed people and it's such a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

Aleksi: Purifying in a way.

Taneli: Yeah, it's wonderful. And so it's for us, I think this is with comedies and horror, they're really tricky and hard. With The Twin, it was, is it scary enough? And when we held the test screenings we were basically opening champagnes afterward [laughs] just being so happy, people were watching our little film going like, 'Whoa, that's scary.'

[Leaning Into Horror Tropes with 'The Cellar' Writer-Director Brendan Muldowney]

Aleksi: And I think it has to be said that it's a harrowing process to try and get it right. It's a learning process, you always have to try your best. And I have a theory that whenever you start thinking that you've got this, you know how to do it, that's when you're in trouble [laughs] and you know you're not going to make it. It's so difficult. It's such a difficult art form and way of entertaining people. Stay humble.

Taneli: In the case with Teresa for instance, she came in so prepared, it blew us away - it was a jaw-dropping moment. For the first time, I've done six features now, and this was the first time when I said ‘Action,’ and suddenly I was basically eating popcorn and watching the movie. [laughs] That was the greatest moment! And I told her, ‘There's really nothing I can give you to do. And that's a surprise, because you know Rachel, your character better than I.’ And it was amazing. She was she's such an amazing actor. And we had these amazing discussions every day. And she really was the center, as you know, in the story, everything was based around her. And we really worked hard on the script just to make it about Rachel. And we decided that we wanted to write the script almost like a drama, like a character study, a study of grief, and basically, she's in every scene. So, it was super important for us that we have that level of actor craftsmanship, and she, oh, boy, did she bring everything to the table from the first take to the last we were blown away. It was crazy.

Aleksi: Yeah. And all of them of course. When we were shooting, we had moments when our focus puller basically forgot to focus because he's just watching the scene. [laughs] And we couldn't be mad.

Taneli: [laughs] It was so funny. What a ride.

Sadie: She’s great in this – and bouncing back and forth, really great. Working with your DP, every shot serves a purpose to the story. I keep thinking that shot on the swing with her and her husband and her reaction and that moment feeling more intense because of the camera placement. What was the collaboration process like with him?

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Taneli: Oh, thank you so much. Daniel Lindholm, the DP, he just had the eye - it's crazy. I've been talking to my colleagues about this, once in a while, you bump into a DP and you can pretty much put them on any set. And suddenly, they just find amazing pictures. And he definitely got the idea. Like he instantly knew what we were doing. But during the pre-production, we wanted to implement him really early on, and we watched so many great films and discussed a lot. Daniel has been shooting all my films pretty much and you just set him free and let him do his work. And he had this amazing touch on this. And I really loved everything and it was such a beautiful collaboration. He definitely has a really unique eye. 

The Twin, from filmmakers Taneli Mustonen and Aleksi Hyvärinen and starring Teresa Palmer and Steven Cree, to be Released in Theaters, On Demand and Digital, and Stream Exclusively on Shudder Friday, May 6th


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