Danish director and classically trained screenwriter Tobias Lindholm is up for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his third directorial feature “A War.” This meticulously constructed armed conflict procedural jumps into the morally ambivalent battle lines between Denmark and Afghanistan, where commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is stationed with his company.
The film deftly juggles tough scenes of battle in the Middle East with the lives of his wife and children back in Denmark, where they’re eking out a grievous living while making sense of life without him. The tone shifts dramatically to high-stakes court drama after Claus makes a split-second decision that results in the death of a dozen Afghan children, putting his military status and family life at risk when he’s brought back to Denmark on war crime charges.
Lindholm’s detail-obsessed direction brings to mind Kathryn Bigelow, a champion of the film who advised him during the script-writing stages. Next, Lindholm, who wrote Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated “The Hunt” (2013), will team with director Paul Greengrass, whose 2013 “Captain Phillips” tells the story of a Somali pirate high-seas overtaking similar to Lindholm’s “a Hijacking” released the same year. Greengrass will shoot Lindholm’s Berlin Wall drama script “The Tunnels” — for FilmNation and The Mark Gordon Company — based on a true story of West Germans ferrying their loved ones out of the East.
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“A War” (Magnolia Pictures, February 12) had strong showings on the fest circuit, starting at Venice last year. Our Q&A below:
This is a very smart film about war. While it’s obviously about a specific armed conflict — the war in Afghanistan — the title suggests anonymity. Were you trying to say this could be anywhere?
The idea was to tell a story specifically about the challenges of soldiers in Afghanistan but in a way that it could relate to any conflict zone in the world. I do believe that both Klaus is someone who wants to do good but ends up betraying his own self-image. That is a product of any war. That was thematically what I tried to map out so, yes, I didn’t want to put up any signs saying “Afghanistan.” I wanted to make a general story.
Along with Pilou, you were working with actual Afghan refugees and Danish soldiers who were on the ground. How do you approach them differently than trained actors?
I knew right away that I wanted to make a very realistic portrayal of war, and I thought the only way I could do that was to get a collection of witnesses of war, and I basically decided to get that from both sides. If I were to direct 12 actors to act like real soldiers, it would be impossible. It would’ve been my imagination of a soldier. Instead, I found these guys, and one of them nicknamed “The Wolf” helped me develop the script. I could call him any time of day to ask how the mechanism works in Afghanistan and slowly he would drag along some of his friends that he served with. Finally I had this group of eight to 12 professional soldiers and witnesses from Afghanistan that could give us all the details, and reactions, a professional approach to how you move, how you hold a gun. I never directed them really. I had them to direct me. I didn’t want them to act; I wanted them to react.
How did you direct them in scenes of combat?
I would never tell them when an explosion would go off. They weren’t prepared, so they could react instead of waiting for something to happen and reacting. Soldiers rehearse and train so much to do the same thing over and over again, and that’s all we do on a film set, creating the same situation again and again. They were familiar with that. It was part of their toolbox already. We found the refugees in a camp in Turkey. This was a community of refugees from Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where the Danish soldiers were.
These people escaped the war that our soldiers were fighting and you can imagine that bringing all these people to a set was a challenge until everybody got to know each other. They all had fear and expectations but basically ended up as people working together and understanding and learning about each other’s situations.
And the Afghans?
With the Afghans, I would only cast them as themselves. The family you see is a real family, a husband and a wife with two kids. I gave them lines, but I would never tell Pilou the Afghan lines. A translator would give them to him word by word [in real time] and he would have to react. That gave a crispness and a reality.
You’re also working with children in some very tough scenes, not only in Afghanistan but also back in Denmark, where Klaus’ three kids are without their father. How do you prepare them?
The thing is, I never wrote a line for the kids. We decided to just create a home where they could just be kids. They could turn on the TV if they wanted to or go to the fridge. I wrote more lines for the two big ones, things I needed them to say. I needed the middle son to say, “Are you going to tuck me in tomorrow?” I needed the little girl to ask whether he killed civilians or children or not. But the rest is more or less improvised; kids being kids. Andreas, the youngest, would cry every morning for one-and-a-half minutes when his father left the set, like my kids do when I take them to kindergarten. We asked the father to stay on set until we were ready to shoot, and then he would leave right away and Andreas would cry, saying “Where’s my daddy?” It was an extremely good line. I didn’t ask him to say that. That was pretty perfect. I have three kids myself and I just try to make them have a nice time every day, all the time, and let them be kids. I don’t think they were aware they were shooting a serious story.
I can tell you have children because you write them so sensitively, as you did in “The Hunt.”
People say it’s so hard to work with animals and kids, but after this film I realized it’s only difficult to work with animals and kids if you want them to be someone else. The kids all have siblings so they all know how a family works. I have three boys that age. We tried to create a normal life that they could just inhabit.
You’re teaming with Paul Greengrass, a striking collaboration because in the same year “A Hijacking” was released “Captain Phillips” also came out. How did you two become acquainted?
I’ve been a huge fan. I could never have done “A Hijacking” without watching “United 93.” The way that he structured that film helped me a lot in developing “A Hijacking.” We became aware of each other around the time of “A Hijacking.” Of course we were always asked about the other guy’s film, so when they decided to do “The Tunnels” I think they felt it was a natural choice for me to write for Paul. I was looking for a writing assignment. I don’t want to direct anything I haven’t written. I come from screenwriting, from Danish film school, and that’s where I feel the biggest battles of moviemaking happen. I thought it could be fun to leave Denmark as a writer, and become a better one, and I jumped on this opportunity right away. Paul Greengrass is a director I can learn a lot from.
You didn’t feel stepped on when “Captain Phillips” came out?
Not at all. In writing “A Hijacking,” I by coincidence came upon something about him and Tom Hanks doing “Captain Phillips” and I knew about that story because it was a Danish-owned ship that he was on. I ran to my producer and said “forget about financing the last million, let’s just go because we don’t want to be the cheap Danish version of this. We want to come out first.” So we did. I was aware of him but never felt stepped on. Of course it’s fun to talk about which one you like most but, for me, these are two different stories of the same subject. You have so many Vietnam War films from the same years and they’re still all great, with different approaches. I think it helped “A Hijacking,” which had a second wave when “Captain Phillips” came out. We were talked about again.
This is a morally ambivalent film, where you ask the audience to do some work.
With this film, I wanted to do something complex and nuanced and I believe that in our world right now, one of the biggest problems we have is that we try to find the truth in very short sentences to put on Twitter and Facebook. The problem is that the world is way too complex for that. It’s impossible, but everybody tries it every day anyway. I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fiber of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathize with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy?