Director of the hotly buzzed “A Hijacking” (our glowing review here) that has been doing the festival rounds since Venice last year, Tobias Lindholm is, in his own words, about to “close up the circus and start working on the next thing.” But with his two breakthrough film projects “The Hunt,” which he co-wrote with director Thomas Vinterberg, and “A Hijacking” still awaiting U.S. releases (the latter is slated for second-quarter 2013 bow through Magnolia Pictures), it is tempting to cast him as being only "on the cusp" of major international success.
However during our extensive interview at the Göteborg International Film Festival last week, it became clear that Lindholm is very happy, in a grateful and non-complacent way, with the life he has built for himself in Denmark, and with his "day job" — writing for acclaimed Danish political procedural “Borgen,” featuring his ‘Hijacking’ stars Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling (interviewed here).
And so we can expect his recent rhythm to continue: writing for TV and for other directors (we already reported on his next collaboration with Thomas Vinterberg), and then every two years or so taking on a directorial project. We spoke about achieving that balance, the gestation of “The Hunt,” the shooting of “A Hijacking” and the influence of U.S. cinema, among other topics. There may be mild spoilers throughout, but the only major one is signposted.
So do you consider yourself primarily a screenwriter, and a director second?
Yes. I was educated as a screenwriter and my passion is there. I believe the big fights are won just with me and my computer. From there on it becomes a very practical thing. Thing is, I don’t like people that much, it’s a big problem. So I like to just sit with my computer and once in a while, every second year, direct.
Is it hard to switch from one track to the other, though?
Well, when we did [Lindholm’s directorial debut] “R” and “A Hijacking”…it’s a little rock band: same editor, same photographer, same actors, same producer, same crew. We all make our living staging concerts with other, bigger bands — me with Thomas Vinterberg and “Borgen” and everything, and then once in a while we meet up in the garage and jam away. We did that with “R” and with “A Hijacking” and we’re going to do it again with the next one. And we try to make low-budget films so we have complete artistic freedom.
So as a writer, what would you say is your basic ethos?
Vinterberg and I, we always try to not "make up a plot" but just stay with people. The thing is that in a lot of films it seems like the characters are just waiting for a plot to begin. But it’s not like that in real life. It’s more like you’re living your life, and suddenly, say, you’re in love and it disturbs everything! It’s fucking annoying… So you really need to build human beings that are living full lives, and then suddenly this other thing happens and it’s a problem because they were actually doing something else. They have plans and they have friends and they have a life going on.
How did your collaboration with Vinterberg begin, and what then led to “The Hunt”?
I had just come out of film school. And I thought I had nothing to do, I was sort of desperate and my phone rang on my second day out of film school and it was Vinterberg asking if I wanted to write “Submarino” for him. So it changed everything. And during that process we decided to keep on working because we had fun together. And I became a father for the first time and I discovered the paranoia of parenthood, and he had two children already so we talked a lot about that during “Submarino.” And then when we talked about “what to do now” he was very eager to do the anti-'Celebration,’ I mean, that was a story about a guy who had done it, let’s make a story about a guy who hadn’t done it.
So we made a decision that he should be a very likeable guy. And then he cast Mads [Mikkelsen] in it and he’s very likeable, so that was easy. The other thing was that we would know from the beginning that he didn’t do it, we didn’t want a plot twist like “and then in the end… maybe…!” Because it’s a witchhunt story, and that fascinated me. If we had done it in post-Second World War Denmark, it would have been about a guy who was friends with the Germans. Or if we had done it in the U.S. in the '50s it would have been about a guy who was a communist. Right now, it seems like we’re so desperately afraid that something will happen to our children, that we will become animals.
I’m a huge fan of “The Hunt” but some reviewers, especially among U.S. critics I noticed, had issues with the central character’s seeming passivity in the face of the allegations. Did you note a difference in how the film was received by American as opposed to European press?
I don’t read a lot of reviews, but there is some truth to that, and maybe that’s the finger on the spot that I’m very interested in, which is the difference between “A Hijacking” and “The Hunt,” and the big difference between American and European cinema. It seems to be in Europe, as in “The Hunt,” we are very interested in psychology — a human being is first and foremost a psychology. In U.S. [films] a person is a citizen — it’s always a sheriff or a President or, in “A Hijacking,” a sailor and a CEO. You define them by what they do in society, therefore you know them, therefore you can relate to them, therefore you can tell stories about them.
In Europe it’s the other way around. You are one big psychology: you have all these problems you are struggling with, and then maybe you are also a policeman who has to solve a murder case, but that’s not really the story. In the U.S. it’s always the murder case [first], and maybe he’s getting divorced as well. It’s a totally different point of view. And it’s interesting because I realized that “A Hijacking” is more American than “The Hunt” is, and as a writer I’m much more influenced by American than by European cinema. I don’t always understand the obsession with psychology.
But I do think, if someone accused me of this, I wouldn’t run around screaming. I mean, guilty people run around screaming that they’re innocent. The rest of us are a little in doubt — “fuck, did I do something?” — and that’s the way you would react, especially in a small town like that, among friends — how could this happen? It will ease down… And if he had [been more active in his own defense from] the beginning it would have been a lie. Maybe more American, but definitely a lie.
So it's partly to do with his job?
I believe if we made “The Hunt” in the U.S. we wouldn’t have had the guy work in a kindergarten, you would have him do something where he could be closer to violence. [Maybe something where] he would have a gun, violence is his language, and he could turn to that. Lucas is working in a kindergarten — violence is not part of him.
[But when] I wrote “A Hijacking” I stayed with the [characters'] jobs. They also have wives, but you don’t see that too much, because you are in their jobs; the story is all about a job becoming another job.
The “job” of being kidnapped?
Yes, that is a job. You have to fulfil your role as a guy who calls home and says “They want this much” and take care of each other and try to survive. And as a CEO, this guy is educated to make money and bring big boxes around the world on ships and suddenly he is in a negotiation about life and death — he is not educated for that. His job is the same, but so different and that was the focus point of writing that story.
I read that you had considered setting the whole film only on the ship, without the CEO character featuring. Why did you change your mind?
There was no engine in that story — there is no "will power" to the hostages, they could just sit there and wait. It would have needed some sort of escape story, something that would have been a lie. So we needed someone who could actually drive the story, and that started the negotiation room idea.
Søren Malling’s CEO character is himself a fascinating one.
My mother — she’s a good old classic Northern European socialist, she’s totally wonderful — but she raised me up believing that rich people have stolen their money from poor people. I realised that that wasn’t the full picture, but there is a cliché in storytelling that rich people are slightly more corrupt, and evil than poor people. It’s a romantic idea. And I just like to actually feel sympathy for the rich guy. So I tried to tell that story.
Was there a moment where the story fell into place? [SPOILER ALERT]
I didn’t know how to make the story, but then I wrote the scene where [the kidnapped ship’s cook] is calling his wife and they put a gun to his head. And you see the wife go to the CEO and you see the CEO losing the grip on the negotiation and hearing a gunshot, thinking he has killed him, and going back to the wife and saying “everything’s fine.” Then I knew I had a film, because I believe that’s the closest to a perfect middle point I’ve ever written. Everything changes from there. [SPOILER ENDS]
Tell us about shooting on board a ship. It must have been a pretty intense experience.
Yes. We had armed guards with us. We hired some soldiers in Kenya to protect us because we had to sail out from Mombasa and we couldn’t film if the engine was on, and so we just had to drift. And we drifted toward Somalia, just in the area where we could get attacked. But quite fast I started to think, “That’s not gonna happen.”
Then one day I was having a cup of coffee and two of the guards were standing there and they discussed how they would load their weapons and one of them said, “I always put a full metal jacket on top because it can go through steel and glass and under that I have hollowpoints because the Somalis are so small that if you shoot them with a full metal jacket it will just go right through them and they will keep on attacking you. So you need some hollowpoints that will explode their insides.”
And I was there with my coffee [shows his trembling hands] thinking, “Fuck, maybe I just should have done this in a studio.”
And how did you get that level of desperation from the actors?
It was a crazy time — Pilou [Asbæk, who plays the ship's cook] gained 20 kilos for the film and lost it all during the shooting, because he didn’t eat and so of course he became desperate. And I would lock them into a cabin, 2, 3 hours before we started to shoot and then at half-time we’d be like, just stay in here another hour to get sweaty. Then we would open the door and put in like 500 flies and close the door again, and say we're not actually going to start for another 2 hours. So the feeling of wanting to get out of there, they didn’t need to act. It was already in the room, so they could spend their energy doing other stuff.
So you kind of tortured them?
We tried to challenge [ourselves] yes, and I remember when we finished shooting, I had a hard time coming back home. It had been so intense, to come back and just relax and have a cigarette…I felt alienated. It took a while for us to get back home. But one of the reasons that we did it of course was the adventure. I mean, I live in Northern Europe. We have social security and I make more money than I ever thought I would (my mother probably thinks I’m one of the bad guys now,) and I’m living a very privileged life. And I think it’s good to give myself a little kick in the guts and see the world a bit.
As a writer, how did you develop the film’s visual style?
My DP has done a lot of documentary and I always find documentary films more interesting than fiction, because reality has this logic that just works…and he had the same idea. So of course it’s hand-held, it’s a very improvised camera you could say, but we made one rule, that helped us a lot, which was: “The camera cannot leave the man but the man can leave the camera.” Which means that if somebody would get up and leave the room, then the camera is just for two seconds a bit confused, what’s going on? What’s just happened? And that gives that idea that the plot does not exist…we don’t know what is going to happen next.
Then of course, I’m propped on the shoulders of the whole Dogme movement, as well as the Dardennes brothers, Cassavetes, guys like that — that tradition of filmmaking.
So that’s now become your aesthetic?
So far yeah, but then I saw “Moneyball.” And it’s not handheld, or well, maybe it is but you can’t tell, and it’s very realistic. I tried to understand how the fuck they did it, because it’s a small trick, by framing unusually. Like in the first scene where Brad Pitt is talking to a guy, but you don’t see the guy and it seems like well, we just placed the camera here and something happened. And it really attracted my attention, so I want to try to understand that even more and try to explore even more, how can we make realism that is not handheld? We don’t want to plan the shoot, we don’t want to make storyboards, we don’t want to make marks on the floor and say the actor has to go there and there — they can do whatever the fuck they want — but at the same time we need to get away from the immature handheld Dogme thing with the camera like this [imitates ‘shaky cam’] because…
Because it makes me seasick?
Well yes! And then you mistake it for someone actually feeling something about your film! I had the experience of rewriting a script for Søren Kragh-Jacobsen one of the Dogme brothers [the film is “I Lossens Time” again with Søren Malling, discussed here] and what I saw was a director that actually knows the craft of telling a story with a camera and an actor. He’s really, really smart and I realised that what I did was just to throw a camera in there and force some feelings out of it.
I imagine Hollywood’s been calling.
I got some offers but I look at it this way: I live a more privileged life than I could have wished for when I grew up, and I make movies with my friends. I mean, you need to put something very good in front of me for me to exchange that. I’m not desperately going over there, but the idea of getting those casting opportunities, of course is tempting. But I’ve seen too many European friends spending way too much time there and not getting anything done or not getting the film that they dreamt of and I don’t want to do that. I would rather stay here and make the films I want to make from Denmark and travel the world with them afterwards.