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Director Stephan Rick Stops By to Chat About “The Good Neighbor”

Sunday, July 3, 2022 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

Little did Stephan Rick know that when his debut feature film THE GOOD NEIGHBOR (UNTER NACHBARN) completed a successful festival run back in 2011 that it was really just the thriller’s first act. As years of nagging thoughts and dreamy potential percolated in the back of his mind, the talented German writer and director honed his craft on projects like The Dark Side of the Moon, The Super and The Infestation. Then, in a rare turn of events, the opportunity to revisit and remake THE GOOD NEIGHBOR presented itself. Now, more than 10 years later, Rick is bringing a refreshed and revamped version of his chilling story to North American audiences. 

In spirit, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR is a loving tribute to Hitchcockian thrillers of yesteryear. While following the budding friendship between two new neighbors, Rick explores the odd relationship (and dark potential) with those we find near us by mere chance. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors), Luke Kleintank (Midway), Bruce Davison (X-Men), and Eloise Smyth (Harlots), THE GOOD NEIGHBOR begs the simple question — “How well do you really know your neighbor?”

To celebrate the film’s recent theatrical and VOD release, Rue Morgue called up Rick for a neighborly chat. In our conversation, we discuss what it was like to remake his own work, shaping a good thriller, casting and the film that started it all.   

 

You originally released THE GOOD NEIGHBOR in Germany back in 2011. What inspired you to revisit this story and remake it for a North American audience?

When we finished the movie in 2011, we started to take it on a festival tour. And, it got so much response. I think we visited all the continents. We started out in China at the Shanghai International Film Festival and had the world premiere there. It also went to Montreal and, after a long festival circuit, it was screened at the MoMA in New York. 

That’s where an American producer approached me and said, “This story is fantastic. Have you ever thought about making a remake?” When I heard this I was like, “Huh? Interesting idea.” [Laughs] So, I mulled over that idea over the years. 

Then, I talked to the German producers and they actually gave me back the remake rights. They are friends of mine, so that wasn’t a problem. And then I started to go shopping with it. The script of course evolved over the years. At first, it was basically a rough translation of the German script, but then, we took it further and that’s basically how it came about. 

It’s been 11 years since that original film – your feature directorial debut – was released. Having gained experience and the benefit of hindsight, was there any aspect of the story or the production that you were excited to redo, revise or tweak a little?

Yes, absolutely. There were a bunch of aspects that were really interesting to redo. One of the main things was, because we had such a limited budget on the debut film, the whole cinematic storytelling. We were very limited with the equipment back them. And also, to give this movie a much stronger atmosphere and be able to visualize all that. That was one of the things that really was great to do.

On the other hand, it’s also a challenge to do your own film over again. I didn’t think that before. So I was always thinking that it needs to be something, for me as a director, that makes it fresh and interesting – something apart from the technical aspects or the financial aspects. Something where I think, “Oh, we have more possibilities now.” 

One of these things was really revisiting the characters and changing some of the characters – having a different approach there, especially with the antagonist, Robert. In the original movie, [he] was much more like a toddler that got more and more unhinged. While the Robert in the 2022 version is more like a grown-up who is very calculating in what he’s doing. 

While we’re on the subject of characters, let’s talk about the film’s leads, Luke Kleintank and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. So much of this film rides on the dynamic and the relationship between them and their characters. What was it about these two that made them perfect fits for the roles?

Let’s start maybe with Luke. What I love about Luke Kleintank, who plays David, is that David is a guy you instantly like. You instantly want to have a beer with him. That’s also Luke in real life. When talking to him about the script, or anything really, he’s very relatable and he’s very smart. 

At the same time and the way he approached the character, there’s still a lot of ambiguity in him. I love that. He’s not just a nice guy. So on one hand, you’re rooting for him to get out of this, but on the other, you’re like, “Man. What are you doing?” That’s a fine line. 

I think that is also important because, as an audience, it would be wrong to just be naively connected to him; He’s done too many wrong things. On the other hand, at his core, he knows that what he’s done is wrong, and that’s also his arc in the film. I’m very happy with how Luke approached the arc there. Jonathan was also a great find. He’s one of these actors who’s not afraid to go to his darker side and bring it to life for the character. They both immediately hit it off, too, when they met each other.

Director Stephan Rick

Tell us a bit about the location where you filmed. It’s really stunning.

Oh yes. It was filmed on location in Riga, which is the capital of Latvia, and [in] the surrounding forest and lake areas. A funny thing was, I lived for ten years in Berlin, which is only an hour of flight from Riga, but I never went there until this movie came together. [The film] is an American-European co-production and when we decided to go for Riga, I was really stunned by how beautiful the city is. It has modern architecture, it has those old buildings, the people are super open and there are great restaurants. But it still has this kind of dark, dark atmosphere underlying everything. I really, really love that city. 

The cinematography captures Riga so beautifully and really helps emphasize how alone David is in this new place. On the flip side of that, there’s a real visual intimacy between David and Robert that develops. Tell us a little bit about your goals and approach regarding the cinematography for this film. 

You made a very good observation there. This is an intimate movie; it’s basically a three-person film. So our question was always, “How can we give this a very cinematic feel and cinematic scope while also getting in with the main character, David?” On one hand, our goal was really to give the feeling of this ex-pat who comes to a new town, and everything is exciting. And then at the same time, be close to the characters of David and Robert as well as Vanessa at certain times. She also has her own perspective. 

When using the camera, we always wanted to be observant. The camera style didn’t have too much interacting and doesn’t force the audience to look. [This] gives the audience the chance to discover by themselves. And of course, you still have to do it with the framing and the lighting that gives you the feeling of unease and raises the tension throughout the movie. 

As this is a thriller, that tension and the pacing are both really important, right? Since you were both a writer and director on this project, how did you approach the pacing? How did you make sure you didn’t reveal too much while still keeping the audience engaged?

That is a good question because I think that pacing in a thriller like this is always of crucial importance. I’ve been inspired by the thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s – films like The Vanishing or Single White Female. Those were movies that I loved back then, and they always had a great pacing and a great character buildup. 

That is something you can see in the script, but it is really something that you work so much on in the editing room. It’s always a tight line with those scenes. With this film here, you have Robert and David, and you also have David and Vanessa. The main plot is the friendship of the men, but the subplot with Vanessa is also really important – especially in this 2022 version. It was for me, really important that the female character gets her own, stronger perspective. And that [she] also has more screen time so that we get more into her shoes. That of course means you need to balance out these parts with the thriller parts. That really happens in the editing room, and you do a lot of fine-tuning. 

What I also do are friends and family screenings where I get feedback from other filmmakers, from my mom and from people like that. People who watch the rough cut, sometimes, they can’t articulate what’s bothering them, but then I feel like, “Ah. I see their attention is going down here and there.” Then, that is something you really fine-tune in the editing room. 

I found the score for this film really effective and a great partner in helping sustain the tension. Talk a bit about working with composer, Enis Rotthoff and the music for the film. 

He’s also German actually! He and Stefan, the DP, they both worked on the movie Guns Akimbo. Stefan was the DP there, and Enis was the composer there. I knew Enis from Germany, but he’s also like me and living in LA now. We did a German film together, and then I approached him, and I told him about THE GOOD NEIGHBOR. He was immediately on board with it. 

I didn’t want him to use any of the kind of music that we used in the original film. He basically started completely from scratch with his musical approach. [That] is very unusual nowadays because very often, you use temp tracks to just give a feel. Enis didn’t do that. He really started it from scratch. 

The idea in the musical concept was to mix natural and artificial sounds. The more the [characters] and the story unfold, we lose sight of what’s real and what’s imagined. There’s a lot of things he mixed in with the traditional strings. The natural sounds become more unreal and the electronic sounds become more tangible in the cause of the story. And to have this very strong string theme that we have multiple times in the movie, he came up with that, and it’s something I’m really happy about. 

I think it’s always a fine line with music. A lot of modern films, especially thrillers, have a music that you feel more than you hear. It’s very functional; It’s just there to give you the feeling of suspense or threat or something. And of course, in horror movies, you have the classic jump scare, the mislead, the false jump scare and things like that. 

We wanted to have music that is more kind of based on how music was used in older films – like in a Hitchcock movie where music had its very own right of living. Something that when music came on, it was very clear that there was music, and it was not trying to hide a sound design or anything. 

As we’ve discussed, you’ve worked on a lot of thrillers and clearly have a passion for the genre. Is there maybe another genre you’re curious to explore or a secret passion project you’re dying to tackle?

So I would love to do a sci-fi film. That’s actually how I came to movies. When I was six years old, my father took me to the movies to watch Snow White, the Disney film. We had to wait in line, and from the screening room next to me where we were standing in line, I suddenly hear these big booms and stuff. So I opened the door and snuck into that other screening room. And there on the big screen was The Empire Strikes Back. It was the big fight scene on planet Hoth at the beginning. That really blew my six-year-old mind away. 

After that, we watched Snow White, but I worked for weeks and weeks on my dad to finally take me to The Empire Strikes Back. From then on, I always knew I wanted to make films. That was it. 

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR is currently playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.