“The Script Had to be Drunk — Drunk Alongside the Characters”: Director Thomas Vinterberg on Balancing Humor and Sadness In His Unexpectedly Life-Affirming Another Round
A besotted cinematic sub-genre consists of films about drinking — liquor, bars and the imbiber’s life. Whether the lives portrayed are rowdy and boisterous ones, or, as is often the case, destructively out-of-control, these films — ranging from Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend to Leaving Las Vegas — usually map their character arcs alongside their characters’ physical and social deterioration; they wind up as cautionary tales. A recent film that took a different approach is the Ross Brothers’s hybrid documentary, Bloody Noses Empty Pockets, which captured the woozy exuberance of one intoxicated day/night while not eliding some of its subjects’ small-scale tragedies. And another is Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, which is both very much about drinking and alcohol while, in the end, being about other things entirely. Indeed, when so many films about excess and addiction wind up feeling entirely programmatic, Vinterberg has made a surprisingly warm, wise and uplifting picture about a quartet of men who spend a significant portion of its running time somewhat shit-faced. I write “somewhat” because it’s for only a few scenes that the characters descend into truly embarassing excess. For the rest of the time the four men — a group anchored by Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a history teacher at a Copenhagen high school disengaged, symbiotically, with his distracted students — teeter on various edges of drunkenness as they “scientifically” attempt to discover the level of blood alcohol that will enable the highest level of creativity and performance. Needless to say, the experiment goes too far, impacting the four men in different ways as well as adding a final note of alienation to Mads’s relationship with his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). But without shying away from any harsh realities, or moments of true sadness, Vinterberg keeps Another Round inviting and light-on-its-feet — literally so in its justly celebrated final scene.
For the Danish writer/director, Another Round is a mid-career success amongst an incredibly varied filmography that includes the West Virginia-set youth crime film Dear Wendy, the sexual abuse and social-hysteria drama, The Hunt, and the ’70s-set comedy about marriage and collectivist living, The Commune. But Filmmaker readers will most remember Vinterberg for 1998’s enormously influential Festen (The Celebration). Also known as Dogme #1, it was the first released film in the Dogme ’95 movement, which for several years in the late ’90s and early aughts, invigorated international cinema with a rules-based manifesto, low-budget ethos and embrace of creative restrictions. Below, alongside talk of Another Round‘s tone, choice of music and the “theory” undergirding its narrative, I talk to Vinterberg about the legacy of Dogme ’95 and whether a similar movement could rise today.
Vinterberg recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director while Another Round is nominated for Best International Film. It’s currently in release from Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Filmmaker: Among the many things to love about your film — the story, direction, performances — the one that stands out to me is the tone. If someone described this film to me, I wouldn’t imagine it to have the tone that it has. But tone is not something amorphous — it’s something specific that you create. So I’m interested in your conception of the film’s tone going into the production. Is it one that you anticipated, tried to create, or something you found and crafted during post?
Vinterberg: Well, tone is, I guess, a combination of things. What I realized writing the script with Tobias Lindholm is that this film had to be a conglomerate of different film styles. Normally in writing a script, you have to civilize and tame it, repeat things with smaller alternations in order to develop it. But in the case of this script, we needed the codfish scene, which is sort of a slapstick scene, and we needed the tender scene with Mads [Mikkelsen] crying. And to some extent, [those scenes] are not really in the same genre. But when we tried to civilize [the script], we killed it. So we found out that the movie and the script had to be drunk — drunk alongside the characters.
Now that’s not the tone of the movie, but it’s the beginning of the work with the tone, because what I also realized is that from being a little bit more uncivilized with these matters, a tone of something raw, something bare, came out. And I developed that further, saying, “We don’t want a score — we don’t want to comment on the atmosphere of the scene with an underscore.” You know, we allowed ourselves to use the most famous and powerful songs [as source cues]. They’re not curated with great taste. There’s something naive, or not delicate, about some of the choices. And we wanted the film to be handheld throughout. So the element of honesty or purity became part of the tone from the get-go. And then there’s a sense of love, a declarance to my country and to uncivilized behavior as well, which to some extent is also naive.
All of these things add to the tone. And then there’s this combination of humor, sarcasm and sadness in the movie, which will be the end of my description. I had an interview with a French journalist who told me that the scene that I was inspired by is at the end of Zorba the Greek. There’s a dance scene at the end on a beach, and they call it “a beautiful catastrophe” because something has fallen apart for them, something they have been building all throughout the film, and then they dance. That’s how I sum up everything in this movie: a beautiful catastrophe.
Filmmaker: While editing, and through feedback screenings, what were the sorts of things you were calibrating in terms of the relationship between the humor and the sadness?
Vinterberg: We cut out the codfish sequence for a long time, for months, for good, civilized, reasonable reasons, those reasons that we normally cling to in the editing. And it was just a little bit sad, really. I was like, “Guys, we got to get this back in.” And then we had to work really hard to balance it for it not to tip [the film] over, which I in fact think it may still do, but we somehow forgive it. So it’s been cut down to a balance where we forgive it, at least.
Filmmaker: So often in post when you cut things they don’t come back. The scene is gone and people forget about it. I love that you remembered it, that the scene created an absence that you felt.
Vinterberg: [The scene] is a bit silly, and I love it for being silly. It adds to the naive sense of the movie, somehow.
Filmmaker: And your choice of handheld was about giving the film a sense of authenticity?
Vinterberg: Well, it has to do with many things. Authenticity, yes, but that’s probably too simple. The cinematographer who did this film, Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen], he’s super sensitive in his handheld, and I wanted to use that. We decided that when they’re sober in the beginning, we wanted to show the awkward clumsiness of life, like a conversation with someone that you meet for the first time. Maybe it’s a date and it doesn’t go well, and you knock your foreheads together instead of dancing, you know? And then when they start drinking, we wanted it to be smooth and pleasant. And then of course, when they start drinking too much and the scenes become complicated in a different way, the camera reacts to that.
Filmmaker: Let me ask you about Finn Skårderud. There’s not as much in the English-language press about him, but I understand that he had this concept about alcohol use that you sort of riffed on for the movie. How much is his a real concept or theory versus something that you playfully riffed on?
Vinterberg: We bravely elevated it into an academic experiment — some would probably call it a pseudo-academic experiment. Finn loves the movie and is promoting it in Norway. He’s a real academic and a psychiatrist. And in his academic world, you cannot call this a theory. That would be too much. It’s just something he said in the foreword of a book. But we call it a theory. [laughs]. And we’ve put an experiment behind it. So we’re playing with his words basically.
Filmmaker: At what point did he then become involved? Did you reach out to him and say, “We’d like to do the script around your words about drinking?”
Vinterberg: I heard about his theory, and I needed an engine for the story, and I found the engine in that [theory]. I had already agreed that [the drinking] was going to be an experiment [by the characters], and [his words] sort of specified the experiment and got this script going, really. Then I was writing for a while, and I thought we might have to contact this guy, and couldn’t it be fun to hear him talk about this? We invited him to read the script and invited him for lunch in Denmark. And, luckily he really loved the script. He particularly talked about the fact that we didn’t moralize or sell anything, but we investigated. It was sort of a survey, and he could see that. And to that extent it has similarities with how you approach things in the academic world. There’s a thesis and antithesis — stuff like that. And then he told us more stuff, so much that we couldn’t get it into the film, but one thing that struck me was when he asked me, “Thomas, how many married couples do you know that met each other sober?” I couldn’t really find any. He just had some great examples of how much alcohol is embedded in our core culture.
Filmmaker: Was this engine always an experiment about alcohol? Had you thought of something else, possibly?
Vinterberg: Actually I wrote a play eight or nine years ago with the same title for four women. It was for the biggest theater in Vienna, and I couldn’t find the story. I just wanted to celebrate alcohol, but I couldn’t find the drama. And then when I turned it into a film and sat down with Tobias, we still couldn’t find the story. But then when we turned it into an experiment and placed it at a school, things start to wheel forward.
Filmmaker: I only asked that last question because in America, and I’m sure in Europe as well, there has been conversation recently around psychedelics and microdosing. People take very, very small doses of LSD or mushrooms.
Vinterberg: Are you talking about the ‘70s or now?
Filmmaker: Right now. There are people doing it with the same kind of experimentation, figuring out just the right dose.
Vinterberg: We always wanted it to be alcohol because there’s something historic and traditional about alcohol, and it’s socially accepted. But this sounds really interesting. I mean, wow. As long as it’s micro.
Filmmaker: It is micro.
Vinterberg: There comes a responsbility when taking on a topic like this. Normally I steer away from moral obligations and this kind of responsibility. But in this case, [alcohol] has destroyed so many people, so many families, so many societies that we have to deal with it delicately. Yes, it started as a solely provocative project, a celebration of alcohol, but I felt that was too untruthful. I guess maybe that would have been the film I did in ’95 being young and vain and arrogant.
Filmmaker: The montage of all the world leaders drunk — there are clips in there that I’ve never seen before. What was the process of finding those clips?
Vinterberg: It was pretty simple. We went to YouTube channel and [searched] “drunken politicians.” But then the difficult part started — chasing the rights. That was a bit of a jungle, and we had to sacrifice some really great drunk politicians.
Filmmaker: What was your favorite clip?
Vinterberg: My favorites are still there. My favorite is Clinton [and Yeltsin] because [Clinton] is so disarmingly charming in the way he just admits that this is a farce. “Dude, he’s drunk!” I love that. I think it’s such a brave, generous thing to do, actually. And then there’s a Brezhnev, who comes right after and is the opposite because he’s so pissed and yet so rock solid. It tells so much about Russia and how openly they lie. It’s part of the culture that a lie doesn’t have to be good. It’s there for a purpose and everyone knows it’s a lie, but it doesn’t have to be very convincing. But the politician [montage] is there, of course, to say, “This is not about our little microcosmos back in Copenhagen. If you look into the history books, so many fantastic and catastrophic things have been decided by people who were drunk.”
Filmmaker: You mentioned earlier that you had written something similar with four women. Another Round is a very male film in that it’s about a group of men on a journey, looking at their relationships and their work. But I very much appreciated how strong a character Anika, the wife, is. Her scene in the restaurant is just devastating. I wanted to ask you about developing that character in the way that you did given that the film is coming from such a male point-of-view.
Vinterberg: Well, the difficulty of the secondary characters in this movie is that there’s not much room for them because we had to deal with four journeys already. I wanted both of the women, but particularly of course, Anika, to not to be the cliche of a wife, to have strength and not to be serving the story but to have her own independency, her own life and her own pride. That’s why we gave her an outside life with possibly a different man. There’s something going on there. And that’s why we have her say, “I don’t mind your drinking. I mind that you’re not here with me.” I didn’t want her to be part of a blame game. I wanted to respect this person as much as possible within the very limited time we had for her. I also wanted her to tell that the origin of this movie is not only about alcohol. As I’ve said in many other interviews, spirit is not only alcohol — inspiration is what this movie is about. It’s a life-affirming film, and what she wants is not for him to be sober necessarily. It’s for him to be alive and with her.
Filmmaker: I want to ask about Dogme ’95, which was so influential to many, including the American independent filmmakers who read our magazine. It shared with the American microbudget movement the idea that are other ways to make films, and also that part of a film’s value, or meaning, even, can be created by an awareness of how those films were made. Could you speak about the legacy of Dogme ’95, what it has meant to you? And do you think a similar movement could be launched today, or has the film world changed too much?
Vinterberg: Well, Dogme was a natural prolongation of how we were taught to make movies. Our mentors and teachers at film school told us that limitations are the greatest inspiration. The more precisely you limit yourself, the more you set your imagination free. And Dogme was sort of a rebellious thing, a riot against the mediocrity of filmmaking. It was an effort to undress filmmaking, admitting that there was a lot of vanity and arrogance and all of that in the whole project. And the thing that happens with with waves like that is that they suddenly become representative of something. They become a style and then are no longer naked. Dogme became a huge success in Cannes in ’98 and became known to the world and celebrated. And people started making Dogme movies to get into festivals. Dogme became sort of a recipe, and when that happened, it lost its element of risk, which was quite big. It lost its sense of rebelliousness and therefore it lost its power. So continuing Dogma would not have made sense. Now, you’re asking if something similar could appear. I love that because Dogme was the most fun thing I’ve tried. It was like playing a really great game, and it was even successful — very successful. We had great fun doing it, and it was so much to the core of what I wanted to do that it left me in big trouble afterwards, when I had to abandon it. So I guess something similar could happen if there was something to react against.
Filmmaker: Let me rephrase the question a little bit: Does the world of cinema need another Dogme ’95? Obviously not the same thing but another rebellious redefinition of the way we are supposed to make movies?
Vinterberg: It does the minute we need something to rebel against, but it’s like everything is possible right now, and things are sort of sliding into a different world. Now, a lot of great people are sliding into the world of television. People are staying home because of the coronavirus. So there’s an uncertainty about where everything is going. And if you make a revolution, you need something solid to fight against. But what we have right now is uncertainty, I guess.
Filmmaker: You make a movie every two or three years. You’re regularly productive. What do you need as a filmmaker to keep that productivity, whether it’s enthusiasm for future projects, or material things, or ways of working?
Vinterberg: Well, when a film is done, we’re sort of out of money, and then I have to do another one. Having a success, for instance, can make you lazy, but if your bank account is empty, you have got to move on. But of course, there’s more to it. My career has been swinging between stuff that I’ve been doing myself, my own scripts, and then my curiosity towards the system that you have in America and in other countries. So there’s the money, and then there’s curiosity. The right idea is very rarely something that pitches really well with a beginning and an end but is something that keeps haunting you, keeps coming back to you. My clever wife has taught me that an idea is something you get, it’s not something you can plan for or buy on the internet. You get an idea, and it comes from somewhere. So my life is very much about being ready for getting. You have to be open. You have to be curious. You have to look around and be sensitive to the world in front of you. And then suddenly there’s this feeling of something that doesn’t want to leave you, and then this dance starts. It’s like when you meet someone and you may or may not have fallen in love. You try to reject the person, and then if you start missing the person, you may call the person again. That’s how I deal with my ideas. I put them away, and then they come back to me and then I put them away. That’s also how I read scripts from my agents. It’s this chemical reaction that has to happen in your mind, and when that happens, then you can go through the trouble of making a film, which is a lot of trouble.