Above all else, Tobias Lindholm prizes real reactions, so he never wrote any dialogue for the young children he cast as the kids of Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a soldier who returns home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan in his latest film “A War.” Instead, the writer/director would just let them behave as they regularly would during their typical day, except when he needed a key scene of Claus’ young son missing his father.
Knowing how his own children reacted when he’d have to go on a shoot, Lindholm observed how the young actor would start crying a minute after his real father left, so he asked the father to stay for the one day he needed the boy to cry and when the scene started, the filmmaker was ruthless, telling the father to leave so that when in the film the child asks tearfully, “Where’s my father?” it seems as though he’s asking for Claus, when in reality, he was pleading for his real dad.
These kind of touches are not only indicative of the authenticity that Lindholm strives for – he did after all insist on shooting in a real prison for his feature debut “R.” and a ship that really had been taken over by pirates for his second, “A Hijacking,” but the intuition that has come with fatherhood for the filmmaker, who after promising his wife that she wouldn’t be alone raising their twins born just after “A Hijacking” became a sensation at film fests around the world, planned the shoot for “A War” the week after they turned two.
As his children have grown, so has the scope of Lindholm’s films, with conflicts steadily growing in global scale while always returning to the moral complexity of just a few people trying to do the right thing, at least one played by his regular leading man Asbæk. In “A War,” that involves a Danish army officer who makes a gut call during the height of battle, only to have it follow him home when he is called in to be tried at a war tribunal for his actions. Like Lindholm’s previous films, it is gripping in no small part because of its attention to detail, but in watching Claus’ constantly weigh his responsibility to the unit he commands and his family back at home, it finds a compelling human drama that’s hard to shake well after it’s over.
Recently nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, Lindholm and Asbæk were in Los Angeles to talk about how a commitment to realism defined the shoot, restoring humanity to soldiers often depicted as dehumanized in films, and expanding one’s worldview.
Tobias Lindholm: As a filmmaker, I have enjoyed so many war films, especially the American post-Vietnam films that have been out. They meant a lot to me in my development as a filmmaker, understanding how you could dehumanize a human being through these films. There were so many good ones — from “Deer Hunter” or “Platoon” to “Apocalypse Now,” and even Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” meant a lot to me. I knew that I wanted to do a film in this genre, but I couldn’t find the story. Then in 2012, Denmark was involved with the war — after 9/11, they went into Afghanistan and Iraq right away with the U.S. — and I read this article, and I didn’t want to do the story I just described [of how war can become] dehumanizing. I wanted to do something else, but I really couldn’t find the subject. When I read this interview of an officer saying, “I’m not afraid of getting killed. I’m afraid of getting prosecuted when I get back home,” then, right away I was like, “I haven’t seen that before. Let’s go into that dilemma.” But it did start with me looking for a war film to do.
Pilou, as a regular collaborator of Tobias, does he just give you a call and you say yes?
Pilou Asbæk: This guy can call me 24/7 and he can say, “I have an idea,” and I’ll just say, “Yes.” I don’t need to hear the idea because we’ve done three films and he’s written a fourth — a TV show — all within seven years, and I know this is a bank of the best material possible, so I would be an idiot if I didn’t say yes.
Is it ever intimidating, though, knowing how Tobias likes using professionals in whatever scenario he’s created, whether it’s a war with soldiers as it is here or “A Hijacking” where real hostage negotiators and weapons were used?
Pilou Asbæk: As an actor, you always seek the truth, and when Tobias creates the environment, it is super realistic, so [it helps because] the true character is a good, realistic character that you as an artist can relate to. We used a real prison in “R,” we used the real ship that had been hijacked with the crew members that were hijacked in “A Hijacking” and we used real-life soldiers who had been serving in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, so when you take these people and you surround me and two other actors with them, it’s a gift to us. [Tobias] knows that if he makes this universe where everybody knows what to do because they’ve done it for 20 years, I can sit back and I can just deliver his lines because if you have to be the king, you should never have to be the king but [because of] the surroundings, you are the king.
Were there were any preconceptions that you had about either military procedure or just the way things would occur in war that may have been upended that made you take the story in a different direction?
Tobias Lindholm: I was mostly surprised by the openness of the soldiers and that they were willing to participate and talk about this. We wanted to make a story where you could relate to the soldiers instead of feeling bad about them. I didn’t want to justify their actions, but I wanted to look at them from a human perspective, which gave me an angle that would show me the war in a way that I have never thought about it before. [The soldiers] would open it up to a world where we’re down to practical [details like] what do you do when you get out in the moment? How do you walk? How do you talk? How do you call your radio? How do you build your camp? Getting into all these details, I started to obtain the logic of the military world and that became necessary for me to [tell this story] at a human level and not to romanticize it. That was the whole point of doing this. I didn’t want it to be a political film. I wanted it to be a human film.
Pilou Asbæk: That’s so true because when we were discussing Claus – yes, he’s a professional soldier, but he’s also a dad, a husband, and a father — all these elements you need to portray in the character. When people only want to play one color, it’s not true and that’s why I loved all the domestic stuff in this because it’s explains a lot about Claus.
In “A Hijacking,” the hostage negotiations were conducted in real time. Is that an approach you used here? I’m thinking specifically about the scene where Lasse, an injured soldier speaks to his fellow soldiers from a hospital on a video – were the reactions to that video real?
Tobias Lindholm: It was. I don’t add elements in post-production. I only use what we already have, so [for phone conversations] we would just tap the lines of the radios on the phones, and I would do a secret shoot with Lasse [played by Dulfi Al-Jabouri] on a DVD before we went down to Afghanistan, so nobody had seen that before and I would just play it in the scene. It’s actually happening [in the moment] and it gives the opportunity for everybody to not imagine what it would be like, but to actually be in a situation and react as human beings. In that search of honesty, we need to not be too artificial, so we try to be as real as possible in the situations we portray.
Pilou Asbæk: I hadn’t seen the video with Lasse where he says what he says with the signs, so when we shot that part of it, we start with my reaction, because that’s instantly how a guy would react. [For the film’s ending, Tobias] didn’t give me the last five pages of the script. I don’t know if I was guilty or not guilty, and I’d always go like, “I need to know where we end up.” Fuck that shit — you don’t know where we end up. You can go out there and get hit by a bus or meet a woman or whatever.
Tobias Lindholm: Life is so funny. Think about it this way – even though I have a wife and three kids now, eight months from today, I could be married to another woman, live in another house and have another kid, because that happens. I don’t wish that, but you don’t know where life’s taking you, so we don’t want actors orhe audience to know where the film is taking us. We just need to jump on and go along with it. Hopefully, it will end in a fulfilling way.
Pilou Asbæk: We have the script, but I don’t know what to say, so when we shoot the scenes, let’s take for example the scene with Lasse where he gets shot in the throat [early in the film] – I didn’t know when there would be an explosion. All the soldiers were trained, so they’ve done it thousands of times and they know exactly how to react because the one thing Tobias hates is acting. When I start to act, he’s like, “We’re going down a wrong path, we have to be present.” That’s what I love with this collaboration. He keeps on throwing things out there that you need to react to.
Pilou Asbæk: That became important to me because I didn’t want to look an idiot. Since I’m standing with professional soldiers, I don’t want to be the only one who cannot move in a compound or fumbling with his gun. I don’t want to sound like a Danish actor who does not know what he’s doing because I do take this job seriously, but more importantly, I respect soldiers who gave their heart into this project because those are the ones we did this for as well. I did as much of the [the training] as was physically possible for so many months with these guys so when we were shooting I wasn’t thinking, “Do I look right?” I’ve got 20 other soldiers looking at me and if I didn’t do it right, they would tell me.
Tobias Lindholm: Somebody would let you know, but it didn’t happen. That’s the gift of Pilou. He’s extremely good at adapting and then transforming himself. If we look at all the takes, we would be able to identify which of the guys is he moving like right now and you would take something from the way he’s holding a gun that you could relate to. If he’s carrying his equipment like this, he’s walking like that, or he’s talking like that, it’s bits and pieces from all the people we met through our research. We tried to liberate people from any responsibility on set. You just need to react and [as the director,] I will decide what’s good and what’s not by [looking at] the monitor. That opens up for the possibility for you actually to do what you’re best and just go all in and have trust in everybody else doing their job.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Pilou Asbæk: It was very crazy. For me, it was the day we shot the Afghan family comes to the camp asking to stay there overnight.
Tobias Lindholm: Those were really Afghan refugees that escaped the war. We cast them from the refugee camp in Afghanistan and they knew the situation, so to see that family go back to what they’d been through… The translator is a real translator [too], so when she can’t cope anymore [in that scene], she was like, “Can we please just check them in?” Her emotions are real and that day, it became magical. We were able to write a scene, but filmed with so many real elements that it became a reality and everybody felt humbled and very sad. When we got back to the hotel that night, we were looking at each other and everybody was a little depressed. We were like, “What’s up?” The thing is, we just did a scene that nobody could really deal with emotionally. That day was for me where our method proved itself in all aspects.
Pilou Asbæk: I had my lines, but I didn’t know what the family would say.
Tobias Lindholm: We just translated live, right? [Asbæk nods] There are a lot of refugees coming from Syria and Afghanistan walking through Europe trying to find a better life. We lost contact with that family just after we shot the film, but they called us not that long ago telling us where they were. They said they are now in safe, great place, and I thought, “Wow!” It all merges together into this emotional thing.
It’s interesting you mention that since it seems like with each film you make, the world gets a little bit bigger and you seem to add a new layer of perspective onto the situation. Has that actually been a conscious decision?
Tobias Lindholm: It has. We did one arena in “R,” two in “Hijacking” and three in “A War” and the thing is I’ve almost been the same age [as the characters]. When I wrote “R,” I didn’t have any kids, so the character didn’t have any kids. In “Hijacking,” I had one kid, so Pilou had one kid in the film. Now, I have three kids and in this film, [Pilou] has three kids, so it’s finding a way to relate [when you have] that feeling when you’re going into unknown ground, what’s going to happen here? As a writer, I need that.
Also, the same team has done all three of these films – the cinematographer, the editor, everyone — so we are very aware [of what we’ve done before] and we talk a lot about constantly challenging what we did the last time. I learned on “R” about people that are captured and confined in small rooms, so as I went onto “A Hijacking,” I thought let’s try to do it again but in a new way, and during “A Hijacking,” I felt that we missed an opportunity to tell the story of a wife and kids and what actually happens in the dynamics of a family in situations like this, so I thought let’s do that in “A War.” So it’s been a very organic, natural process and I guess 10 years from now, we’ll be able to deal with seven arenas and 18 kids. [laughs]
Pilou Asbæk: [laughs] Wait, wait, wait…
Tobias, you recently signed on to write a drama called “The Walls,” set at the Berlin Wall, for Paul Greengrass Have you’ve gotten to debate yet who had the better hijacking movie?
Tobias Lindholm: [laughs] I totally get that question and for me, it’s like asking if you like “Platoon” or Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” I’m a huge fan of Greengrass and I’m glad [“A Hijacking”] came before [“Captain Phillips”] so I wasn’t the cheap Danish version. There’s room for both.
“A War” opens on February 12th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and the Sundance Sunset and in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and the Sunshine Cinema 5. It will expand in the weeks to come. A full list of theaters and dates is here.