In a nice note of symmetry to our 2013, one of our first interviews of the year at the Goteborg Film Festival in Sweden, was with the Danish director of “A Hijacking,” Tobias Lindholm, and today we found ourselves in December in Marrakech getting to speak with him again. Lindholm is here as part of the Marrakech Film Festival’s tribute to Scandinavian cinema, which also boasts Tomas Alfredson, Noomi Rapace, Alicia Vikander, Nicolas Winding Refn and Mads Mikkelsen in its starry lineup. But it’s not just his nationality that brings him back; last year “A Hijacking” his sophomore directorial feature, was awarded the Jury Prize at this very festival. It’s always a pleasure to talk to anyone as engaging as Lindholm, but the year has proven busier than he had anticipated back at its start, and among other tidbits, he gave us an in depth look at his next directorial project, “The War” which is clearly on his mind in an evolving form right now, as even here at the festival, he is putting in four or five-hour days purely on script work.
Back in January you were planning to take a couple of years off before mounting your next directorial project. Things have clearly accelerated during the year.
The thing is, a year and a half ago when we showed “A Hijacking” in Venice, it kind of dictated the year following, with a lot of traveling a lot of talking about that film. Luckily we’re proud of it and extremely happy with it, but it also made me wanna move on. You can drag it out for a long time but at some point you need to do something new and I sooner than I expected felt I needed to move on to a new project, not to get stuck in the past. And then the idea for “The War” just came, and the logic of it and the structure came quite fast so I started to work and we’re going to shoot in September next year.
And it turns out that Thomas [Vinterberg, Lindholm’s close friend and collaborator] is now writing his next film. When I did my first film, “R,” we wrote it at the same time as we wrote “Submarino” [which Vinterberg directed] and we shot them at roughly the same time. We did exactly the same with “The Hunt” and “A Hijacking” writing at the same time, shooting at the same time. And because he’s chosen to make “Far From The Madding Crowd” in England, it’s gonna turn out the same again, so he’s gonna be making “The Commune” [which Lindholm co-wrote] when I’m making “The War.” So we’re in kind of a rhythm.
You likened your directorial process to “getting the band back together” each time. Will you continue with largely the same crew and key personnel on “The War”?
Definitely. Exactly the same crew. And Pilou [Asbaek who has starred in both Lindholm’s previous films] is again the main character, more alone this time than he was in “A Hijacking,” it’s gonna be following one guy. I mean we’re gonna tell a story about his wife and kids at home while he is away at war, but he is gonna be the engine.
In many ways writing it now I realize it’s a mixture of “A Hijacking” and “R.” “R” is very anthropological—you’re just inside a jail and looking around and finding the logic of a jail in Denmark. “A Hijacking” has an engine, you know it’s gonna be over when the hijacking is over and the negotiations dictate the pace of the film. This time I’m very interested in how humans survive out there and maintain their humanity. It might as well be on the moon, it’s just a desert somewhere, you’re very far away from home so how do you maintain yourself as a person? And that view reminds me of “R” but at the same time you have an engine, with this guy going through six months out there.
I believe that for me, [Kathryn] Bigelow has shown a way to tell this type of story. I’m very much inspired by both “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” But this is a Danish reality so it’s not even close to an American military action—we haven’t that story. This is the first war that Denmark is actually in for years, we have Danish soldiers dying out there. I believe that Denmark as a nation is, just on a small scale, where the U.S. was post -Vietnam. We kind of know have to accept that we ask these young guys to do this and now we have to find a way to get them back. And I think it’s time now to reveal some of the terrible, inhuman, violent dilemmas they are in out there and not expect them to be over-human. We judge them very hard on whatever they do out there and I just wanna go and describe the reality they’re in, because maybe we can find an understanding of how things can go so terribly wrong.
So it’s not politics that motivates you to make the movie?
No, it’s a very humanistic movie. I believe it’s very political to go and judge the soldiers; I feel I need to describe them as human beings. That’s the responsibility I feel, just as I did with the CEO [in “A Hijacking”], instead of making him a bad guy.
So where is the film drawn from?
I’ve never been a soldier. In Denmark at 18 as a male you go in a draw and if they pick you, you go and serve for a year. I didn’t. I knew the doctor there so he kind of said “….ok, isn’t there … something wrong with your back?” and I was like, “Yes, yes my back is hurting a lot!” So I was lucky. But my father was a soldier. He was a frogman in the special forces in Denmark before I was born and always the reality of that inspired me. My mom is very left-wing, classic socialist and she always talked about the solders as almost crazy, violent, sick people, and I want to confront that because its very judgmental and I’m not sure it’s true.
I feel that [2010 documentary] “Restrepo” is the best war movie I’ve ever seen. It’s very honest and a terrible story but it brings me so close because for once I can actually see a soldier break down in the middle of a battle because he lost a friend. That’s a very human expression that we sometimes get cheated of in war movies because they have a political agenda. So instead of a political movie, let’s have a humanist movie.
So is the comparison to Vietnam because you feel that Afghanistan has become something of a crisis of national conscience for Denmark?
Yes. You know, I read an article about a Danish officer who had ordered the bombing of a compound—he thought he saw guys digging down IEDs, later they found out that it wasn’t that at all, it was kitchen waste or a dead dog or something. But he hadn’t slept for two weeks, that’s the reality of war. He was prosecuted when he got back to Denmark. That reality interests me a lot.
An example: our main character has persuaded a young soldier who’s afraid after a couple of months and wants to go home, he’s persuaded him to stay, and he takes him out on a patrol and this young guy gets shot in the neck. And our main character has to save him but the medivac helicopter can’t land until they’ve quieted down [the turmoil]. So he orders the bombing of a compound. Now, he saves the guy and we’re all happy and 20 minutes later he’s gonna be picked up by the military police and be prosecuted at home. And now suddenly in the courtroom, listening to the orders he gave on the radio, he sounds very racist, very violent, not human at all. I suspect, [even though I was] cheering for it when I saw it 20 minutes ago, now suddenly I’m confronted with my own [reaction] and I’m thinking, did I cheer for that? Didn’t that woman die? Did those kids die? That what I hope to achieve: a picture that can twist and turn the sympathy for this guy, until you’re so confused that you don’t know what the fuck to think!
It’s set in Afghanistan. Will you shoot on location?
I’m not allowed. My producer is with me and they said after the Indian Ocean, we’re done with that, and we need to get insurance, and we can’t get that in Afghanistan. So we’re looking in Morocco, Turkey to find the perfect spot for it. We wanna recreate a reality out there, so I don’t want to make a patchwork… Build the simple base that they’re living in and some of the compound. We want to build that stage and stay there. Because that’s the reality: they build this place and stay there for six months.
Are you going to torture your cast as much as in “A Hijacking”?
Yes, of course. [shrugs and laughs] It’s Pilou.
Pilou featured in our feature on top 2013 performances that deserve more awards season love than they’ll get. Aside from being good friends, what it is about him that makes you go back to working with him each time?
There’s two things. One is a joke but it’s a little true as well. He once said that very good actors need to be a little bit dumb, or at least make themselves not think too much. And he’s brilliant at being dumb. Not when we’re not shooting but when we are shooting, he’s extremely good at just reacting to the situation he’s in, not trying to analyze it. And he’s not afraid to look stupid. He works hard and you know he’s all-in when he’s on a project. Half a year ago we had a meeting and he said “I’m gonna do that. I’m going to take a whole half a year off to prepare my body, just tell me exactly what I have to do.”
And as an actor he’s not judgmental of the story. He’s not interested in the plot—he says the plot and the story is the director’s and the writer’s responsibility, he just has to make the situation work, because life is a long list of situations. And hopefully that will all make sense if we have controlled those situations right. And then there are his eyes! I mean, he’s not a beautiful guy in real life. He’s no Mads Mikkelsen…
So he’s ugly and dumb?
Ugly and dumb…[laughs] until you turn on the camera! I can even take my phone and you know I look at him without it and he’s not very interesting to look at, I mean, he’s my friend so he’s fine, but when I put the camera there, wow, his eyes! Something happens, something you only see through a camera. And that is a quality you can’t learn. He just has that presence. He’s not Mads Mikkelsen, who is a great, great actor and has that other quality. In real life Pilou is not all that, but as soon as the camera is on him, he looks amazing and he’s so interesting you want to look at him.
The U.S. release of “A Hijacking” meant it seemed at the vanguard of a glut of survival stories that came out thereafter: what are your thoughts, especially on ‘Captain Phillips,’ where the kinship looks even stronger?
I saw “Captain Phillips.” I’m a big Greengrass fan and this Danish TV show asked me to talk about it, and I said yeah, just because I just wanted to see it before everyone else. And I love the film. In many ways of course I’m happy that we got out before that, we could easily have been the “cheap Danish version” of something. So it didn’t hurt “Captain Phillips,” from my perspective because it’s a whole different film, but it helped us.
But I’m a big fan and Tom Hanks is amazing. In many ways I was confused at the 75% mark when the Navy SEALS guys were looking for three greens… and I was like, “Where is this going?” and then Tom Hanks just takes over those last five minutes, with him blindfolded down there. I was so moved by his performance there, it felt like his force right there took the whole film and made it real. I was very impressed.
How far along is “The Commune,” your next Vinterberg collaboration, and do you have any input with him after the script stage?
We’re gonna finish writing it in December/January … We talk a lot and we work on the screenplay right up to the first shooting day. Of course it seems that at the beginning of a project I’m working the hardest, probably I’m in front of it in the beginning and slowly it turns into Tom’s film. Because he’s a great writer as well, its natural that he takes control of it. And I will write and I’ll get some notes from him and we’ll talk about, but when we get closer to shooting time, he will be writing and sending things to me asking what I think. Like maybe he’s found one of the actors and… like when Mads decided to do “The Hunt,” of course we were thrilled but suddenly we had a beautiful guy to play this role. And that gave us a lot, because there was now some envy involved, just because it’s him. And there’s a lot of sympathy there already, so we could take a lot of scenes out because we didn’t need to create sympathy for this guy, you already have it. So it has consequences when you’re finding actors, and locations all that. He will rewrite it and he’ll send it to me and we’ll discuss it.
You mentioned in January that Hollywood held no massive allure for you. Has that changed during the year?
Well, I’m talking to them and my agent out there is working with them and there’s a lot of great projects out there. But I’m a filmmaker, I want to make films. I don’t want to sit in a hotel room waiting to make films, and I can control my thing in Denmark, I can make the film I want to make… of course I have to write a good script, all that, but if I do my job, it will happen. It’s not like that in the U.S. So I don’t want to bet all my money on that horse and just sit there and wait, and end up making a film I didn’t want to make, just to make one.
But you’re not closing the door entirely?
Definitely not—I mean, the casting possibilities over there alone! For me, I am secretly in love with… I’m so bad with names, the guy with the eyes,..lead in “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Jason Clarke! Thank you. Yes, he’s Australian I believe.
In fact he’s not unlike Pilou Asbaek in appearance.
Yeah he’s got something similar … maybe I just want to replace Pilou. But yes, the possibilities of working with actors like that, with a bigger budget is of course interesting, but I don’t want to do it as a fata morgana, just walking out into the desert until I die. I wanna make films and if it suddenly works out that I could do that then of course I’d be open to it. But it’s not my dream. My dream is that my kids grow up into nice people, that’s my dream. But let’s see how “The War” does. That’s an international story—maybe we can get halfway there doing our own stuff?