Waiting for Tobias Lindholm to appear for our interview in The Merrion Hotel, one can’t help but overhear his handlers furiously planning the day’s schedule. He’s in town for a screening of his solo-directorial debut, A Hijacking, being shown that night at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and judging by his itinerary Lindholm is much in demand. “It’s half eleven now, two more interviews, then lunch,” calls the handler to the intern. “Can you order a taxi for 12.20? He has to be done and at the talk with McPherson for two.” That would be Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson to you and me. The talk that afternoon is entitled “Conversations with Leading European Directors.” Tomorrow he’ll have a similar sit down, but focusing on the art of screenwriting with Mark O’Halloran, the writer behind Garage and Adam and Paul.
The fact that Lindholm can ostensibly hold court with one of the country’s most respected contemporary writers and directors one day, and an award winning screenwriter the next attests to the esteem in which this relative newcomer is held internationally (he graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 2007, with A Hijacking having already picked up a number of awards at festivals across Europe). His pedigree is further bolstered when one learns that Lindholm is one third of the writing team behind Borgen, the Danish political TV drama that has been welcomed into living rooms both here and in the UK via BBC 4 (subtitles and all). Watching A Hijacking for the first time, there is no denying that his sparse yet self-assured style is indeed impressive, drawing truly affecting performances from a cast consisting of Borgen castmembers, several non-actors and a number of real life ex-hostages.
The man himself is cheerily self-deprecating about his success: “I’m doing the films with my rock band,” he says, referring to his regular production crew. “We have our free jazz band, you could say. We meet up once in a while and do a film like this, then I play big arenas with Borgen and (Danish director Thomas) Vinterberg and all that.” As jazz combos go, The Lindholm Ensemble put on a show well worth catching, engaging in the kind of challenging performances that can leave audiences either stunned into silence or rapture, but never lounging indifferently at the bar.
A Hijacking is an involving—if not somewhat harrowing—watch, focusing on the plight of Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a cook aboard the Danish freight vessel MV Rozen, as he finds himself and his shipmates taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Søren Malling plays Peter, the CEO of the shipping company desperately trying to negotiate the safe return of his men. As the weeks roll past with agonizing slowness Peter gradually learns that negotiating by distorted satellite phone across oceans with hungry kids wielding AK-47s is a far cry from his familiar exchanges across the boardroom table.
“I liked the idea of building a story of nine phone calls,” says Lindholm, leaning forward in his seat, eager to outline his methodology. “The phone calls in the film are real phone calls. We had our satellite phone with us in Africa shooting on the boat and we would just call Søren Malling who was at home and he wouldn’t know what Pilou was saying. Of course, he’d know the context of a scene, but I’d told them that as soon as we get on set we’re not going to read the script anymore, we’re going to go for the real feeling of the situation, which meant that he didn’t know what kind of phone call would come in.”
This organic approach to the shooting process lends the film a visceral, documentary-like air of authenticity. One can practically feel the stifling heat in the cabin as the crew sit cooped up inside for whole weeks on end, begging their captors to allow them on deck for a few minute’s fresh air. But this is not to suggest that in directing, Lindholm has somehow forsaken his training as a screenwriter in favour of the grit of improvisation. Often, quite the opposite was the case. “In film school I started to watch documentary instead of fiction because I felt that it was closer to reality,” he explains. “I don’t like the logic of screenwriting, I like the logic of reality. In certain scenes you can feel ‘Oh, there is a writer there.’ And in certain scenes you can feel like ‘Shit, this is happening for real.’ Trying to cover up all the plans from the screenplay is the most interesting part of that.”
So although on the surface, things may seems free flowing and organic, there is generally a writerly hand guiding proceedings. The skill is in its hiding. “You need to make people feel something,” he says in a matter of fact tone. “That is a very cynical job.”
Such cynicism perhaps explains why, in a film called A Hijacking, Lindholm pointedly chooses to skip the dramatic action of the hijacking altogether. One moment we witness a crew anxiously anticipating a return home after weeks at sea, the next they are being shoved about the deck of their own ship at gunpoint, their dreams of home put on indefinite hold. It is evidently this personal agony which, for Lindholm, provides a far more fertile dramatic landscape than any which could have been explored through some action packed depiction of a violently forced boarding. His is an investigation of what is, at its very core, a torturously human ordeal, and it is illustrated through the elevation of microscopic snapshots; the proffering of a cigarette; the guttural laugh shared in the stark face of uncertainty. As Lindholm puts it “Storytelling is all small pearls, but it is the combination of them that makes a story.”
When asked of his influences Lindholm unsurprisingly lists off contemporaries like fellow Danes Lars Von Trier and Vinterberg, as well as the monolith that is Ingmar Bergman (but of course), adding that Paul Greengrass’ “United 93 is on my top ten list of best films ever made.” And, though unexpected, it is an influence that can be felt in A Hijacking, specifically in light of Lindholm’s visual style, with the film’s cinematography echoing the handheld camerawork of United 93 as well as Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002).
Coincidentally, Greengrass is set to release his own similarly themed film later on this year. Captain Phillips is to star Tom Hanks as the titular captain of an American ship boarded by Somali hijackers in 2009. Unlike Lindholm’s depiction, however, it looks like Greengrass’ picture, though also based on real-life events, will prove a more high-octane experience, complete with Navy SEAL rescue team and a concrete all-American hero in the form of Hanks’ Captain. Lindholm reveals that he was initially tempted to go down the same route with Mikkel, but changed his mind after several frustrating rewrites.
“In the beginning Mikkel was the captain of the ship but research told me that the guy who’s most harassed by the pirates is the cook because they want him to cook for them.” This eagerness to avoid the cliché—even if it leads to truths less glamorous—is commendably refreshing, and ultimately works in the film’s overall favour, lending a poignant resonance to Pilou Asbæk’s performance. Mikkel, after all, is you and I, the Everyman, trapped in some hideous mess not of his own making. Such choices, according to the director, are “always about taking a mask off a person. Going from professional to personal. A story like this, where you take innocent guys and put them in a situation where they need to change because they never tried it before is a great engine to tell about what’s really interesting, which is human relations.” And in Lindholm’s world, a cook is no less human than the Captain.
With this film then, Tobias Lindholm seems to be adding his name to the roll call of players in a movement that has been touted recently as something of a Scandinavian Renaissance. The likes of Danish directors Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and Von Trier (Antichrist, Melancholia), as well as Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) have all done interesting things on the big screen to International acclaim in the last few years. The added presence of TV shows like Sweden’s Wallander and Denmark’s The Killing and The Bridge over here has further contributed to the hype.
Having played his own quiet part in this tidal wave with Borgen for four years now, and given the current cultural epidemic of ‘series addiction,’ did Lindholm find himself drawn to either TV or Film as the more fulfilling format to write for?
“It’s very different work. Writing for film is always a journey, one character going and changing—or maybe two characters—and you know it’s limited to 99 minutes. A TV show is more liking watching fish in an aquarium and you just keep on watching them from different angles, so you have to keep those characters open. They can’t be determined about anything—they can only be what they are in that episode.”
Does this bode ill for the “TV is the new Film” lobby, then, with the smaller medium providing a longer timeframe, but in many ways a less substantial scope for in-depth character exploration? Lindholm’s view is pragmatic. “When you’re doing TV you have an obligation to entertain and when you’re doing film you don’t; you can make Art. And I believe there is a big difference.”
Although he is returning to screenwriting for now (scripting Thomas Vinterburg’s The Commune) he has his own next feature in the works already, due to start shooting in summer 2014, “when my twins are two years old.” Given the level of commitment he brings to directing, it is no surprise that he wants to take a break for the sake of his young family. “I can be a very good husband and a good father writing, but I cannot be a good husband and a good father directing. I mean, it takes everything. So we have to make sure that my family doesn’t pay the full price.”
That said, with Borgen’s fourth and final series now out of the way and about to air here, and with real proof in the form of A Hijacking that he can “make Art” behind the camera and still have it succeed, Tobias Lindholm looks poised to take a leap from the aquarium and head for open water.
A Hijacking opens today in the IFI on Eustace Street in Temple Bar and in Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield.