Queen of Hearts: From Sundance to the World

January 23, 2020
On the opening of the Sundance Film Festival 2020 we explore the trajectory of one of last year’s category winners.

If it were easy, we’d all be doing it. Making a hit film, that is. But who has the passion, creative imagination, sustained belief, off the charts work ethic, not to mention the sheer stamina it takes to get a story from concept to screen? Just creating and producing a movie can consume two, five, ten years of one’s life, and then you’ve got to get into the marketplace and sell it.

This is where film festivals come in, especially for independent films where getting a chance to have eyes on your movie can elevate its chances for global notice.

FilmInk spoke to May el-Toukhy, director and co-writer of the Danish drama Queen of Hearts, a category winner at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, to find out about the timeline of the film’s conception, its showcase at Sundance and where it sits now on the world stage.

To background Queen of Hearts, the film is tagged as an erotic drama and stars Trine Dyrholm, an award-winning musician and actress whose outstanding resume includes Susanne Bier’s thriller In a Better World (2011), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In Queen of Hearts, Dyrholm plays an older professional woman who engages in a game of sexual power play with her teenage stepson. Gustav Lindh, cast in several Swedish TV series over the past three years, plays the stepson. The result is an edgy, clever drama that throws off moral assumptions to explore primal aspects of human nature.

May el-Toukhny, photo by Søren Rønholt

How was the original idea for Queen of Hearts generated?

My ambition was to do a film about the making of a family secret. And to explore what the needed components are, in order for a family secret, to flourish. At the same time, I was very interested in telling a tale about power, and the responsibilities, and sometimes entitlement, that comes with being in a powerful position.

What was the timeline from conception to final production?

The first time I wrote something down on the story was in 2013. And then I moved on and did another movie called Long Story Short before picking up the idea again in the fall of 2015. In 2016, my writing partner (Maren Louise Kaehne) and I started researching and writing the script. We already knew at that early stage that we wanted Trine Dyrholm to play the lead and we also knew that she wanted to do the film. During 2017, when we were still working on the story and script, my producers started financing the movie. In the fall of 2017, I did a visual test and started to search for the remaining cast members. And in the beginning of the year of 2018, we were into preproduction, and eventually production and shoot in the spring of 2018. We edited and did sound all through summer and the fall of 2018 and finished mixing the film four days before it premiered at Sundance in January 2019 – a world premiere I will remember for the rest of my life!

How was the process for entering, being accepted and winning at Sundance?

At the end of August 2018, when we were still editing in Denmark at Nordisk Film (leading Danish entertainment company), we did a mood promo with clips and scenes from the film that we took to the film festival of Haugesund in Norway to present to international festival programmers and buyers. The day after our presentation at Haugesund, we received an email from Heidi Zwicker, who is a programmer at the Sundance Film Festival. She encouraged us to apply for Sundance when we had a picture-locked film.

We were still in postproduction finishing the film when we got an email announcing that we had got a spot in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Attending Sundance was a unique experience for all of us. After opening at Sundance, we went to Rotterdam in Holland to screen the film at IFFR for the European premiere and after that we attended the film festival in Gothenburg in Sweden to open in Scandinavia.

We were on the road when we got the message that we had won the award at Sundance. It felt so good. Even though we could not make it back to Sundance in time to receive the physical award in person we partied all night until early morning.

Can you sum up the film’s success one year on from Sundance?

Queen of Hearts has been sold to approximately 30 countries around the world and is still premiering in different territories – and travelling festivals. It means a lot to me that the film has found an audience locally and abroad. I am a commercial director in the sense that I want to make films that people want to see. And at the same time, I strive to challenge and spark a dialogue with an audience through the themes I choose to tell stories about. And, having made a film that does both – have an audience and seems to get people talking – is a blessing and something that I am deeply grateful for.

Queen of Hearts also played at the 2019 Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals

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