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How Thomas Vinterberg Overcame the Greatest Tragedy of His Life to Make ‘Another Round’

Vinterberg's life took a harrowing turn when his daughter died in 2019. But as the filmmaker and star Mads Mikkelsen explain, they knew they had to go on.

Another Round

“Another Round”

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

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In early 2019, more than 20 years after launching the Dogme ’95 movement with “The Celebration,” Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg was on the verge of making his most personal movie. It ended up at the center of his greatest tragedy.

Another Round” would reunite him with Mads Mikkelsen, following their acclaimed collaboration on “The Hunt,” and serve as the debut performance of Vinterberg’s daughter, Ida. Mikkelsen was playing a disillusioned high school history teacher who confronts a midlife crisis through day drinking, and Ida Vinterberg would play his concerned teen. Vinterberg planned to shoot the movie at Ida’s high school and populate the ensemble with her friends, envisioning a unique seriocomic generational conflict grounded in the naturalism of its backdrop. Ida was on a trip to Africa when he sent her the script. “She shared her unconditional love of this project,” Vinterberg recalled in a recent interview over Zoom. “She felt seen by it.”

Production started in early May of that year, before Ida’s return. Four days into the shoot, Vinterberg received a call from Belgium. His ex-wife, Maria Walbom, had been driving Ida to Paris to rendezvous with some friends and there had been an accident. Another driver, distracted by his phone, slammed into them on the highway. Maria would recover from her injuries; Ida died instantly. She was 19.

The production went on immediate hiatus. “My life was destroyed,” Vinterberg said, in a careful, matter-of-fact tone. “We were very close. She always told me the honest truth.” In the midst of the trauma, he said, he imagined how she would feel about the impact of her death on the project. “It did not make sense to continue, but it did not make sense not to continue,” he said. “She would’ve hated that. So we decided to make the movie for her. That was the only way we could do this.”

After Ida’s funeral, Vinterberg clawed his way back to the movie in fits and starts, with his co-writer, Tobias Lindholm, handling the shoot on days when Vinterberg felt overcome by grief. The result is a touching black comedy about navigating life’s messiest curveballs by matching its tempo and stumbling through the darkness.

Mikkelsen delivers one of his most satisfying performances in years as Martin, who joins forces with his equally downtrodden old pals to enliven their daytime routines with booze, as they suffer a range of personal and professional consequences. Despite some of its bleak turns, the movie stands out as Vinterberg’s gentlest work, and offers a warm and poignant window into resilience in hard times. The movie scored a slot in the Official 2020 Cannes Selection and became the Danish Oscar submission, and stands a good shot at a nomination; Mikkelsen could even be a dark horse in the Best Actor race. In the final version, the actor’s character has two sons, but Ida’s legacy hangs over it. Vinterberg included a dedication to her in the credits.

Jury's President, Thomas Vinterberg and his daughters attend the screening of " Inside Llewyn Davis " directed by Ethan & Joel Coen at the Palais of Festivals during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, FRANCE-19/05/13. /PDN_1065.NIV/Credit:PDN/VILLARD/SIPA/1305192232

Thomas Vinterberg with his daughters, Ida and Nanna, in 2013

PDN/VILLARD/SIPA

“She is all over this movie for me,” Vinterberg said. “She’s in every minute.” But even after Vinterberg decided to resume the shoot, Mikkelsen said, the entire endeavor was left in a state of uncertainty. “The actors had a meeting and talked about how to proceed or react,” he said in a separate interview by phone. “Sometimes people laugh. Was it inappropriate if somebody laughed?” They concluded that they would become their director’s support system. “We decided we would just try to do it exactly the way he wanted to do it,” Mikkelsen said. “That’s what he needed.”

Some of the more playful sequences in the movie find the men joshing around as they gradually become more intoxicated. Despite the underlying sadness driving these scenes, they maintain a playful quality that lightened up the mood on set. “If you ever laugh at these four guys in the movie,” Vinterberg said, “it’s because they tried so hard everyday to make their director laugh.”

For Mikkelsen, the unprecedented circumstances took “Another Round” to new heights. “It was always a film about embracing life, but because of this tragedy, it became a film about embracing life on a magnitude we did not anticipate,” he said. “As tragic as it is, the film has become much more beautiful as a result. Nobody wants to pay that price ever again, but that’s what happened.”

The characters in “Another Round” are inspired by an obscure scientist’s research suggesting that a small intake of alcohol during the day can enhance productivity. The lively editing style inhabits their high-stakes gamble, flashing to famous drinkers from Winston Churchill to Angela Merkel as the characters revel in their intoxication, then slowing down the tempo as reality crashes in.

With their families furious and their jobs endangered, the men venture even deeper into their drinking habits, as “Another Round” refuses to pass judgement. “To begin with, we wanted to celebrate alcohol,” Vinterberg said. “But the same thing that can actually elevate conversation, art, politicians also destroys families and relationships. So we wanted to look into the mental balance of liquor.”

Despite the fundamental absurdity of the setup, Vinterberg was initially wary of the movie’s comedic detours, tamping down on extended scenes of drunken antics. “I made several versions without the slapstick,” he said. “I figured, let’s call this drama. But it lost life — it lost what we love about drinking — so the core of the movie became a sense of togetherness between these guys. We realized that by taming it, we were killing it.”

So the inebriated mayhem stayed in. Vinterberg banned drinking onset for practical reasons that his actors appreciated. “You can’t keep that up for 12 to 14 hours,” Mikkelsen said. But it was a different situation when they workshopped scenes for about a week, getting tipsy along the way. “Up until about 0.8 percent, it’s like normal acting,” Vinterberg said. “You hide what you should show. You pretend you’re not drunk. But after that, it becomes this tragic ballet that can easily be overacted. So we rehearsed and rehearsed.” They also studied Russian videos on YouTube of marathon drinking sessions. Mikkelsen was in awe. “It is insane how drunk they get,” he said. “That was super-inspiring. We just kept an eye on each other. You have to do it just right.”

04 October 2020, North Rhine-Westphalia, Cologne: The actor Mads Mikkelsen (l) and director Thomas Vinterberg (r) comes to the screening of the film " ANOTHER ROUND " at the Film Festival Cologne Photo by: Horst Galuschka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Vinterberg attend a screening of “Another Round” in Switzerland

Horst Galuschka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The most delicate moment arrived with the movie’s grand climax, which finds a sloshed Mikkelsen engaged in a boozy seaside dance as nearly the entire ensemble cheers him on. It’s both rousing and sad, capturing the unique paradox at the heart of the movie. Mikkelsen was terrified by it. “We were not exactly on the same page when it came to the dancing,” the actor said. “I was worried it could come across as a little pretentious. Look at me, dancing!”

He suggested they stage the sequence as a fantasy and kick up the production values to help justify the display. Vinterberg wouldn’t budge. “It was important to me that this didn’t become a Bollywood scene,” Vinterberg said. “It had to look real.” Mikkelsen did all the moves himself, dovetailing in and out of pre-choreographed maneuvers, as the camera followed him in a documentary-like approach. “He’s in a trance,” Vinterberg said. “We’ve seen so many movies about how alcohol kills people. But there’s a reason a lot of people drink. It can make you fly. I wanted to convey this sense of catharsis, to make him weightless. It just took a little bit of persuasion.”

The decision brought Vinterberg back to the ethos of the Dogme ’95 manifesto, which prohibited artifice like unnatural lighting and special effects from invading on the reality of the scene. Vinterberg still embraces the resonance of that movement in his reputation today. “I’m proud of what we did with Dogme ’95,” he said. “Everyone called when we announced it and said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re committing professional suicide!’” He laughed. “That was the whole point — there was a risk, we were exploring something, it was new. I loved that.”

Then it got popular, with Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, and American compatriot Harmony Korine celebrated at festivals worldwide for their contributions. “Suddenly, what was meant to be a purification of movies, an undressing of them, became fashionable,” he said. “I had to look for the purity and nakedness in other ways.”

Even before the profound loss behind the scenes of “Another Round,” Vinterberg had been eager to return to his home turf. The past decade found him making two detours from Denmark — the Searchlight-produced 2015 adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” and the 2018 English-language submarine thriller “The Command” — neither of which left him satisfied. “It seems that when I dip my hands into my own backyard, it becomes universal,” he said. “When I reach out for the universal, the opposite happens. That’s what has confused me over the years. So I was delighted to go back.”

The final day of the shoot returned them to Ida’s classroom. “It was a beautiful sunny day,” Vinterberg said, his voice finally wavering as the memory flowed in. He cleared his throat. “A lot of students and the whole film crew was there,” he said. “I felt a combination of indescribable pain and love.” When he watches the movie now, the emotion remains. “All my friends carried me through. I guess that radiates on the screen,” he said. “We felt that it was very important to make a life-affirming film.”

“Another Round” is now in theaters from Samuel Goldwyn Films. It is available on digital platforms starting on Friday, December 18.

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