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‘A War’ Director Tobias Lindholm and Star Pilou Asbæk on Prevalent Guilt and Letting Reality Reign

'A War' Director Tobias Lindholm and Star Pilou Asbæk on Prevalent Guilt and Letting Reality Reign

Oversimplification is a dangerous practice when speaking
about justice and punishment. Deciding what is right and what is wrong is never
a clear-cut affair whether the situation being judged is a simple offense or a
mortal sin. To come a conclusion on the moral quality of a someone’s actions is
a game ridden with subjectivity and susceptible to biased observations or
assumptions, which becomes terrifyingly dangerous when a person’s fate is on
the line. But to see the world with such a definitive gaze is not something
Danish auteur Tobias Lindholm would ever be accused of. Like in his previous directorial
effort, “A Hijacking,” his latest searing drama, “A War,” explores a story where
a single act is simultaneously considered heroic and barbaric depending on who
you ask. Both are rational interpretations of the same events, but is Tobias
mission to eliminate the idea of a nicely wrapped resolution and focus on the
vast gray space between these two perceptions of the truth.

In “A War,” we meet company commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) first in action as he leads his team’s mission in Afghanistan and then
in a gloomy courtroom, an equally threatening battlefront, where he must face the
consequences of a choice made during an unnerving incident. Freedom will not bring him closure and incarceration will only expand the ripples of pain already
caused. Lindholm leaves his protagonist without a single easy decision while always
cautiously considering their repercussions, thus guilt becomes the prevalent looming
entity that dictates the narrative. It’s such the level of commitment to resembling
reality in Tobias Lindholm’s every
artistic move that it’s nearly impossible not to be riveted by the mere humanity
of its characters.

We sat down with Tobias Lindholm
and lead actor Pilou Asbæk to talk about the extreme steps taken to ensure every ounce of
effort put into “A War” worked towards making an honest film and why the real
world fascinates Lindholm much more than his own imagination.

The film is currently nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

Note: Several of Lindholm and Asbæk’s answers contain spoilers and specific plot details that some readers might want to avoid till after watching the film

Carlos Aguilar: There is a lot of moral ambiguity in “A War,” but the recurrent emotion that seems to torture the protagonist and drive the narrative is guilt. It doesn’t matter what the resolution is, Claus can’t rid himself of that guilt. Why did you feel this needed to be the central concept of the story?

I think that the phase the
world is in right now looking at Afghanistan is a guilty phase. We need to cope with
that and understand what happened and for me to materialize that into a human
being, one single individual’s life, was the whole point. A natural and typical
Scandinavian ending would be sending him off to jail and making it dark. But to
free him and then trap or making him captive inside himself as he watches those
feet getting thrown back knowing, “I will never be able to
forgive myself for what happened,” was a much more nuanced and
interesting  story.

Thinking of it, I believe I learned that from
“The Hunt.” When we wrote that ending, the natural ending for that
film as an Scandinavian movie would be to shoot Mads. That would be the dark and
gritty side of it, but it just wasn’t fulfilling. I was afraid of getting
away with this because there are so many emotional setups in the film. Having them compels an ending with him sitting there coping with all these feelings.
To be honest we shot both endings because I needed that ending in the
editing room. If I hadn’t done my job good enough throughout the film at least I
knew, “I have an ending that people will respond to because they don’t
want this guy, this kids’ father to go to jail.” I knew we could do that, but
the truth is that the real ending is a guy who can’t live with himself
afterwards and is very far away from being freed as he sits in the courtyard.

That guilt became a theme throughout the film in all aspects and I always
thought that the best title for this film was already taken and it’s “The
Goodwill.” I think that’s an extremely interesting human dilemma because
you can’t walk into the sun without drawing a shade and, by drawing
that shade, you will steal the sun from somebody and that makes you feel guilty.
It’s kind of a ground rule in life. You can’t get away from that. That guilt
became, for me, the most important thing to deal with throughout the film;
therefore, she is not allowed to have the Afghan family live in the camp. She feels
guilty about it but there is no way around it. Everything, no matter what you do, there are no easy
choices, and there is always a slice of guilt for you in the big plate of life
for you.

CA: How did you Pilou, as an actor, interpret the guilt your character is feeling? What was your approach to such a complex character whose actions might be justifiable depending on who you ask and what moral standpoint you take?

Pilou Asbæk: The guilt is
always there no matter what you do, especially when you become a father. It
becomes even worse. The script is 120 pages long, I only got 115, so I didn’t
know what this guy was hiding. I didn’t know the ending. I didn’t know if the
character was guilty or not guilty. I knew that we would end up in a courtroom.
I knew I would be prosecuted, but I didn’t know if I was guilty or not guilty.
That was never important to me. We made the very early decision that I had a job to
portray a professional soldier, but is not just a professional soldier, he is a
dad, he is a husband, he is a son. He is all these other things, much more than
just a professional soldier. That was the most important for me. I’ll tell you
something, if this was a real thing that happened and you’d ask me what I would
have done, I would say, “I would have done the same thing.” I think that’s
what’s interesting. I’m defending my character, and while we were shooting it I
would still think that when Maria (Tuva Novotny) was sitting in the car saying, “You PID.
Say it! You might have killed 8 children, but you have three alive at home.” I
would still be in doubt. In the film I’m a military guy and I trained 20 years for this. This is not ethically correct. Life is
not black and white, there is some gray nuance to it.

CA: One of the most thought-provoking lines in the film is when the Afghan man seeking refuge in the Danish camp confronts Claus about how his kids are in a safe place while his might die that night. It’s difficult to judge either of the two men because their worldviews are based on different experiences. 

I enjoy the complexity of
life. I think that during my childhood, growing up in the 80s, for some reason
it became OK to be politically judgmental and to say, “You are a blond man and
not homosexual, so you are privileged.“ That could be right from a political
point of view, but on a personal point of view it’s not necessarily true. It
could be really hard to be that person. At the same, “Oh there is a black woman
in a wheelchair. What a pity. It must be so hard to be her. “ Not necessarily.
From a political point of view yes, but on a human level not necessarily. I
think it’s time to tell all the complexity of being a human being. I do believe
that Klaus is right when he says, “I understand how you feel. I have three
kids,” because he identified with this person.

At the same time, the Afghan man
has a good point saying, “Yeah, well they are back home. You might miss them
but your problem is not as big as mine because my kids are going to die tonight
if you don’t help me,” and that’s true as well. If both things are right, then
we’ve at least proven the complexity of the world. If we defend both voices or
both stances in this film, and in “A Hijacking” as well, if we are able to do
that, we will get pretty close to the truth of what it means to be human
in this world. That’s the whole point of doing that. Not pointing at anybody
saying, “He is a bad” or “He is a good guy.” I do believe that we are all just
human beings and we are caught up in our own world. We try to relate to the rest of the
world and that is a really hard job.

For some reason  right now in our time we have Twitter and Facebook and we try to simplify everything – to communicate. Even our politicians, when they do interviews they know that they need a
punch line in 15 seconds explaining the whole problem of a war or a financial
crisis. They only have 15 seconds because they want to make it to the news.
That’s way too simple because the problem is the world is complex. I do believe
that we have a responsibility as storytellers. We have the audience for two
hours, so let’s admit that it’s complex and try to create a story knowing that.
That was the idea.

CA: In terms of the writing process, how did you tackle a story in which you are juxtaposing two completely distinct settings: a war zone and a courtroom? You did something similar in “A Hijacking,” though in that film it was simultaneous, here you first you expose the incident and then analyze its consequences. How do you balance
these two battlegrounds?

I think, as a writer at the
beginning is a gut feeling. I had to think about, “When have I been long enough in Afghanistan so that I
can allow myself to go home and when have I been home long enough that I want
to go have back and see what happened to the guys down there?” The structure
is challenging in this one because we have two arenas that we go back and forth to
until he is home. Then it all transforms into this courtroom drama and we are in
this cold, gray, room where it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about whether
you can prove what’s right or wrong. The whole coldness of that was challenging. It was a
challenge to go there, but I felt that we had done well and learned a lot in “A
Hijacking.” I thought, “Let’s try to see if, without using flashbacks, we can create scenes
that will recall emotions from early on.” I do believe that the performance of Dar Salim in the courtroom, the soldier who is uniform, is so
important because it calls back emotions to the whole war thing. Butcher is
important because he is a game-changer in the courtroom, but the guy that
actually puts the war there and reminds me of the war is Dar Salim, particularly when
he says, “You have no idea what’s like to be out there.” When I saw that during
editing I was like, “Yes! We got it,” because I could feel my brain would start
to remember images from what had happened in the war and that made it work.

CA: Pilou, what was different about portraying a character like Claus and the one you play in Tobias’ previous film “A Hijacking”? They are both caught up in a situation bigger than themselves but one has clearly more power and options than the other when facing these extraordinary circumstances.

Pilou Asbæk: One is a very external character and one is a very internal character.
I do it in a collaboration with the director, which in this case is also the
writer. Thank God, because when something didn’t work he could rewrite new
scenes or new lines for me. I don’t think any character is the same, so I don’t
think the approach to any character is the same. With “A Hijacking” I didn’t
talked to anyone who had been hijacked, but with “A War” I talked to as many
soldiers as possible trying to understand how is it in Afghanistan. Things like, “Are you
going around being constantly stressed because you are in a war zone or you
forget about it and talk about women? How do you communicate? How are you a leader
for your soldiers?” In “A Hijacking” the characters are low status people. That
character was a pawn, I’m the king now in this film [Laughs]. That was a
complete new way of approaching the character that Tobias created because I’m
not a natural king and that’s one of the reasons why he brought in professional
soldiers, guys who have served in Afghanistan or served in Iraq. He knew that if I
could create the character he would create environments that would protect my

Ca: But being the king is more difficult right? What sort of discussions would you have with Tobias about the character and how did this affect the way you became Klaus?

Pilou Asbæk: You know what they say, at the top of the hill the view is the best. It’s
lonely up there, but the view is the best. You have to make decisions. We
would discuss this. Every single day I would go and have a discussion with
Tobias saying,  “Is this the right
decision?” and he would be like, “Let’s see. Do the scene.” I’d ask, “Should I
call a medic? Should I call the chopper? Should I call the bomb,” he’d answer,
“We gotta do the scene.Let’s see.” That constantly frustrating communication
between me as an actor and the director transformed into the character Claus.
We were discussing the level of stress in that scene. “Is he screaming into the
microphone or is he not screaming? What level of stress could a good leader
handle?” When we shot the scene I didn’t knot when the explosions were coming and I
didn’t know when people would be shooting at us. He created this whole circus
and he put us all in it so we would navigate it naturally. It’s the funnest job
I’ve ever had.

CA: Tobias, why did you feel it was important for you as
a director to create this artificial sense of reality and bring this element of
surprise for the actors? In a sense they are as lost as the characters themselves not knowing what comes next or what the protagonist fate will be.

Tobias Lindholm: Because life surprises us and I don’t like
the actors to act. I like them to react to the environment around them That’s
what we do in real life. Adding those elements of surprise and of real life
gives us an edge because everybody needs to be alert all the time and nobody is
just waiting for their time to say their line. Everybody needs to listen to
what’s going on because things can change around you. Pilou
wouldn’t get the lines that the Afghan characters would say, he would only get
his own lines. Sometimes they weren’t even lines, I would read the scenes and
we would talk about motivation but when talking to the Afghan locals Pilou
didn’t know what they were going to say. He just waited for the interpreter
to translate it and then react to it. You can feel that because he needs to
listen, so his emotions are not something he had decided two weeks before like, “I’m
going to react emotionally like this.” It’s all in the moment, “I need to be
here right now.” It’s like free jazz, once in a while you do a recording of two
hours and it’s really bad and once in a while you do five minutes of magic. We
shoot digitally so we can keep on shooting [Laughs].

Pilou Asbæk: That’s scene is 100% written in the script, but when we did the scene Tobias would say, “Is this interesting? We have a whole day. We could shoot this
scene the whole day.” Then he went to the Afghan family and I didn’t know shit
because I was sitting all alone because that’s the actor I am. I want to
concentrate. I want to give it everything. He would say to the Afghan cast, which I found out
afterwards, “You don’t want to leave the camp. You are not going to leave the
camp. When you enter that door, you, your wife, and your two little children
are going to stay. So whatever happens none of you is going to leave the camp.”
Then I’m sitting there and Tobias came to me and said, “They can’t stay. Right now
I don’t know what’s going to happen in that scene, but I want you to get them out.”
To have the director doing this is crazy, but what he was asking was my job. I’m the voice of
reason, “We cannot have these people here because this is not a refugee camp.”
Then suddenly I had to try to persuade them you, to try to communicate, then you try to
get them out physically, all these different things and that’s what I love. That’s
why I love working with him.

CA: One of the standout supporting characters in the film is prosecutor Lisbeth Danning. She is brutally unemotional and fiercely resolute about punishing Klaus and making an example out of him. She is not in the film for very long, but she definitely makes an impact.

Tobias Lindholm: I wrote it for Charlotte Munck, I had wanted
to work with her for a long time. I think she is extremely brilliant. I think that
for some reason, and I don’t get it, she is not working enough. Maybe it’s
because she is picky and doesn’t want to do just anything. She is doing a lot
of theater and she is extremely good. I felt so confident in her knowing that
she would deliver. We didn’t see her before in the story and suddenly she is there. She is so important in the end, but normally I would follow the rules and say, “ I
will not introduce any new characters after the middle of the film because
we need to have seen everything before climax,” but in this case we are in a
whole new world for the ending. She was just really honest and precise. I would
have the real military prosecutor in Denmark beside her throughout the whole shoot. Whenever
she was in doubt I wouldn’t direct her, he would, which gave her that
documentary feeling of not seeking emotional expression with me. She was just a
tool in the box going for it and that became so clean. There was no fat on that
bone. That made it work for me. She decisively avoided any emotion.

At some I really disliked her and felt angry towards her relentlessness. When she was questioning Claus my first instinct was to think, “You don’t know what he
went through. You weren’t there!” But at the same time I knew why he was there.

[Laughs] That’s the moral compass going all sorts of ways because 14
civilians did die after all.

CA: On that same note, the judge was another character that added much more to the films nuanced ethical dilemmas despite being on screen for a very small time. When the verdict was read, something in me told me that she knew the truth and still made that decision.

When you work like we do there are a lot of obstacles and problems, but
one of the gifts is that the audience reads these characters as real human
beings. You are invested in them. You try to read them, which is why you are
looking for signs. I didn’t talk to her about that. It’s not part of my
direction and it’s not part of my intention, but it happens because she is
human. She is a real judge and she’s controlled courtrooms before, so she knows what
she was doing. I believe that people will read a lot of stuff into
that because we are not trying to push feelings and emotions down your throat.
We opened up for you to invest in them and by doing that you’ll find truth in these
people. In this case, she knew that he was going to be freed from the

Pilou Asbæk: She did? I didn’t know that because I didn’t have those pages.

She knew because I needed her to justify it from a legal perspective. I needed to know if
could do this or not. She helped me build the whole thing. In real life we are
experts in walking around this world reading people, that’s what we do. We
enter rooms with strangers and rapidly adapt to what happens there. That’s not something
we leave outside a movie theater. We bring it in. If we allow the audience to
be invested like that in a movie, they’ll will find truth in what happens no matter
what happens. 

Pilou Asbæk: It’s interesting because, the way we shot some o the war scenes in
Afghanistan was the same way we shot some of the scenes in the courtroom. We
would do it as realistic as possible. People wouldn’t be chitchatting. This
is a real life courtroom and they treat it with respect. We filmed it chronologically.
We had to because we didn’t know the ending. The judge would have all the prosecutor’s
arguments, the defense’s arguments, and some days I was sitting there in the
courtroom thinking, “She fucking got me,” because I didn’t know my character’s
fate. I would look at Søren Malling, who played my defense lawyer, and he would say, “Yeah, this
is not good,” but the following day was his turn to defend me. It was surreal.
When you shoot that way you make it possible for reality to happen. Just like with
the kids, and I don’t want to blow our own horn, but I’ve never seen kids be as realistic
in a film.

The key for
that was not to write any lines for the kids. I just let them be kids.

CA: I’m going to assume that you’ve never been to
Afghanistan, that you’ve never been to war, and that you’ve never been tried.
So where did the inspiration come from to create this character and represent this experience so realistically? Did you have extensive conversations with soldiers and people involved? What obstacles did face in your quest to bring as much realism as possible to the screen? 

Tobias Lindholm: Exactly.
I talked to soldiers, I talked to soldiers’ wives, I talked to Afghan
refugees that escaped the war, I talked to Taliban warriors, I talked to
defense lawyers, I talked to prosecutors, I talked to judges, kids whose
parents have been to war, and in this whole research process I was trying to
cope with, from a human standpoint, what is the logic of this story. We went to an
Afghan refugee camp in Turkey and cast these locals that were from Helmand,
Afghanistan, which is where the Danish soldiers that were part of the film were. After casting them one of the
guys told me, “I used to fight for the Taliban.” Suddenly I felt bad. It was a
dilemma. I thought, “What is the right choice? What do I do?” So I asked Rene Ezra,
my producer, in Danish, so nobody
else understood, “Could you please just fake a phone call, tell me that is
really important and say that I have to step outside so that we have a chance to
talk about this?” So he said, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, there is a phone call
for him and we have to go?” I had
a tear in my eye and I was choking. I felt that I had gotten so close to
reality and I didn’t know what to do with it.

Then I called one of the
soldiers who helped build the whole thing, he was kind of responsible for
finding the fright guys for me to cast, and I said to him, “What do I do?” He
said, “Do what you do all the time. Be honest. Let’s gather all the guys and
tell them.” We came home and I sat with all these real soldiers and I said,
“I’ve cast this guy. I’m not sure if he is going to be in the film but we are
going to work with him because he knows a lot of stuff, but he is former Taliban.
He may have been in a firefight with you and he may have even killed one of
your friends. How do you feel about that?” Surprisingly the answer was, “Let’s
meet him. “

We went back down to Turkey, we met him and we had tea at his house
and it ended up being a beautiful conversation where former enemies sat down
and actually, on a professional level, had a discussion. They’d ask, “How did you do that?
How did you dig those tunnels so you could put in that ID?” and he would
answer. Then one of the Danes turned to me and said, “Don’t be nervous. I
understand him better than I understand you. He fought the war. You just stayed
home and had fun.” I was like, “OK, got it,” and we started working. He helped
us throughout the process making sure that point of view was defended as well, that we didn’t lie about their methods, and that we didn’t tell something that wasn’t
true about the way that they would fight. That, of course, gave our Dane
soldiers a lot of realty to channel in their acting.

Pilou Asbæk: I remember Tobias having this meeting with this refugee who had been
fighting for the Taliban. He called me at night when I was Copenhagen and he
said, “Pilou, would you mind acting in a film where we have real ex-Taliban and
real life Danish soldiers?” I said, “I don’t know what do you think?,” and Tobias
goes, “I’m not sure, but I can tell you one thing, even if the film sucks, the behind the scenes
is going to be great!”

CA: There numerous films about the American experience in Afghanistan, “A War” is clearly a story of that same war from a Danish perspective. Although it might be from a specific cultural point of view the universal qualities embedded in these characters and the drama are undeniably compelling regardless of what is our personal idea of a war like this. 

  I think the
only thing we can contribute in this world is honesty. For me trying to have an American point of view in a film would be
impossible, but I do believe that the reason that a film like this can
translate and can be seen all over the world is the fact that it’s really
honest and bound to a local identity because then one can relate to that. Had we
tried to change the Danish reality so that it looked a little more like an
American reality we wouldn’t have gained this honesty and we would have kept
the audience from connecting to the characters. I don’t like my own
imagination. I’m not entertained by it. I think it’s pretty boring to sit there
and make stuff up, but I love the world around me. The world that I can access
is a Danish world, I’m from there, so it makes so much sense to just go in a portray
that. Of course, we are proud and happy that it’s now traveling and we are
fortunate enough to travel with it, show it, and meet people that have seen it
and have these conversations. It makes it all worth it. We don’t have careers, we have lives and they have to make sense. It definitely makes sense to sit here and talk with you and then show an
audience our little Danish film.

“A War” will opens today in LA the Sundance Cinemas and Laemmle Royal and in NYC at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and AMC Empire 25

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