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“I Would Never Do This to a Friend”: Tobias Lindholm on A Hijacking

A Hijacking, Tobias Lindholm’s first feature as a solo director (his first film, 2010’s prison drama R, was co-directed with Michael Noer) begins before its title event, with cargo ship cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) calling home to his wife, and it ends after it’s all over. But the bulk of the film is a two-setting procedural, radiating verisimilitude both on-board and in the corporate offices, where a CEO (Søren Malling) personally conducts negotiations with hijackers. During an interview with Filmmaker, Lindholm spoke about the production in all its preparatory and practical aspects.

Filmmaker: When I heard the sound of the telephone connecting at the start of the film, I thought you had already leapt ahead to the negotiations. It’s a prolonged shot, and you’re obviously interested in duration as a tool. How do you think about how long you want to have things unfold, especially in terms of balancing suspense vs. verisimilitude?

Lindholm: I’m educated as a screenwriter, and we’re always forced to speed up the process and make the plot, the beats fast. I really enjoy, once in a while, taking a pause and just looking at things and inviting people and the audience inside somebody. That’s what we do at the beginning. It’s a guy calling his wife. That scene, when I got that one and the middle point — it’s always hard to do the middle, all the way up to the middle and after the middle is easy, but to actually find a point that fulfills all the needs of the middle…it needs to be a repetition of some kind of the beginning, and needs to make everything change forever. When I had done the beginning of him calling his wife and did the same exact scene as the middle point, just now with a gun to his head, I kind of felt these are the two points I need to move between, that I can do it in a very slow tempo if I need to, because I know where I’m going.

Filmmaker: Here we still use Robert McKee and Syd Field as screenwriting models. What was your screenwriting training like? Were there similar models you were encouraged to follow?

Lindholm: We read everything from over here and then I stopped reading everything. I found there is a problem. The rules of storytelling for me are pretty simple: we have 24 hours every day. That’s kind of how we live our lives, that’s how we see the world. Everybody gets confused when they change time zones because they get jet lagged and they don’t understand anything. So sticking to those rules of repetition — which is part of real life — dictated how we should structure our story. That’s how we live our lives: the sun goes up every day, goes down every night, it’s the same thing all over again. I believe that that rhythm and that way of living dictates the form of the stories. In many ways, I try to as a screenwriter…not to challenge everything, but making these films I like to use the logic of reality instead of the logic of other films and trying to make references to reality instead of references to other films.

A good example of that is in the details. In my first draft I had plasma screens and satellite photos in the negotiation room. When I brought in the real negotiator, he said, “I’m sorry man, but we just have a mobile phone with a piece of red tape on it.” Instead of making reference to American negotiation films and situation room films like that…that invited us into another way of storytelling. In reality, nobody is waiting for a plot to begin. Everybody is living their life, and then suddenly they’re in love and it really is a big problem because they’re doing something else. Nobody’s running about waiting, being accessible for plot, and you need your characters to be living a full life before you can start a story. The small rules like that I’ve tried to learn and go with.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting. I was just wondering because here you’re encouraged quite severely to follow those rules and I was wondering if it’s the same in —

Lindholm: It’s the same in Denmark, and then we have a guy called Mogens Rukov, who is one of the inventors of Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier and those guys. He always helps them structure, and he has his own ideas of this. And if you’re in film school he will every Monday, for five hours, talk to you about it. So he has a big influence. Everybody’s reading McKee all over the world, every producer and every producer’s assistant in the world are sitting in on script meetings because they’ve read that. That at times can be a problem because everybody has a point.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Gary Skojldmose Porter, who plays the hostage negotiator. He has a quality that I figured had to be the real thing, even before I knew who he was. When you bring a guy like that in, how do you direct him? It would seem like he would be directing how a scene played out, just by his presence.

Lindholm: To begin somewhere else, but to get back to it: the beauty of shooting digitally instead of from film is that you can take takes for two hours, you can just keep on shooting. So for him, the first couple of days, he’s a real negotiator. I never wrote any lines for him. I just wrote lines for the actors, and then he would react as if he was on the job and he would know the logic of this. Of course I discussed this with him many times, discussing the scene, so I’d know where it was going, but I never dictated it to him or forced him to say something specific. He always just handled this as any other job where a phone would ring at some point and some pirate would call him and say, “I need $8 million,” and then he would take it from there. So he would dictate, and the great thing about it was that the actors had a lot of questions. And after doing the scene a couple of times, I would loosen up everything and just allow them to ask anything they wanted. We found out that that worked out pretty well because a lot of the audience has the same questions as these actors have at the time, so the questions I didn’t answer in the screenplay would be answered by Gary during these improvised shootings.

He contacted me after we put out our press release years ago, that we wanted to do this film, and I met up with him, and he said he could help us and told us a story. I asked him to come in later that night and pretend that we had a ship hijacked and just take us through the drill, and we filmed it. When I got back that night, I watched it the material and I called him right away at five o’clock in the morning and said, “Listen, can you please act in this film?” And he said “No, I can react and do my thing, but you’re not gonna make me say any lines,” and we made that deal.

Filmmaker: Have you seen United 93?

Lindholm: Oh yeah. For me that is — I love United 93. And the funny thing is, I love it so much that when I heard [Paul] Greengrass was making Captain Phillips [an upcoming biopic about an American cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009] we kind of hurried up this film not to be the cheap Danish version. United 93 is totally fantastic, and I probably am on the shoulders of that film in this one.

Filmmaker: It has the actual FAA coordinator and a bunch of people reacting to each other.

Lindholm: Yeah, and you have two arenas, you have the flight and you have the tower. In many ways, I learned a lot from watching that. It gives itself so much time, and I really enjoyed that. And I found out with that film that time doesn’t equal boring. Sometimes time equals tension and I believe I learned that from United 93.

Filmmaker: Was there a particular first film you saw that struck you as having a quality you responded to in terms of capturing that kind of reality you hadn’t seen before?

Lindholm: That was actually Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. I remember seeing that, I wasn’t that old, and I was horrified about how real it felt. I really felt nervous for the actors many times watching that film. I believe that inspired me to try to search for something that feels true, that you cannot push away while watching. And then, of course, realism… In Europe, we have this tradition of social realism, and I’m really not interested in that, and politics doesn’t interest me. But realism, natural realism, interests me. I really enjoy how life unfolds.

In a film, this interview would happen in a beautiful room, probably, because some photographer finds a beautiful place and you put it there. In reality, it’s always a little worn-down and something’s just standing in the corner. I like that quality of realism and to try to search for that. I started in film school, just watching documentaries for a while, to figure out what it was, how they could tell a story without being able to get the actors to exactly on page 17 say something that will affect your future and all those rules. And I was really interested in that. Then I found out — I was in Los Angeles a year ago for the first time, and I actually always thought that the work of Michael Mann was like a Hollywood romance. And then I came I saw I was right in the middle of a Michael Mann film. It was just, you know, big roads, big trucks, empty parking lots, and that inspired me even more to see how much you can actually do with reality. That interests me.

Lately, the movies of Bigelow, of course, Zero Dark Thirty and even more The Hurt Locker inspired me in that way to be able to tell character drama and genres and still not tell the opposite, just tell a little aside from that. It seems like she’s very very good at focusing on what’s necessary to be said and then tell the minute before and the minute after that. And that really is an interesting way of structuring stories.

Filmmaker: So why not make documentaries?

Lindholm: The thing is that I love to write and I don’t believe that documentary can do the same. I believe that I could as a storyteller or a filmmaker learn a lot from documentary. I still like to be in control. I still like to make the story, I just don’t want to make them up. I like to go out and find elements of realism and put them together into a story.

Filmmaker: How does one come into possession of such a boat?

Lindholm: My producers started to call around to figure out what to do. There was a company in Denmark that had a ship hijacked years ago that helped us out. Through them we got in touch with different small companies around the world and then we found out there were three boats right in the period where we wanted to shoot that weren’t used in Mombasa, Kenya. So we flew down in August — we would shoot in October — and found the Rosen and made the deal like any other customer with the company. A lot of clients rent them to bring oil or coffee or wood from some place to another and we just rented it to bring a film crew around. So it was the exact same deal as any other company.

The special thing about the Rosen was that it had been hijacked and the crew working there had been hijacked, so we knew everything about this. And that made us decide on that one, even though we needed to go out into the Indian Ocean. It became a pretty complex production doing that but it gained from the reality of it.

The shipping company is the company that had actually had a ship hijacked, and Gary had worked at that company as a negotiator, so he would put up with our production designer the office space as an exact copy of how their situation room looked at the time. It gives the actors an opportunity not to act but just to react, to be in a room. And then, shooting digitally, we can just keep on going. And at some point, they will get tired, they will lose control, and that always brings some gifts. Like suddenly someone knocks over a cup of coffee and you couldn’t plan for that, but there’s some logical thing about that that makes it a scene interesting to me and to try to search for that moment.

We worked very hard on the script and we rehearse a lot and we’re very strict about the script and in preparing. And as soon we get on set nobody’s allowed to look at the script again. We need to reinvent it. Knowing it so well, that’s possible. Then we just go for it. After two or three takes, when I’m happy with the scene and I feel we’re covered, we’ll go on for hours, but the actors will take over and be allowed to improvise and I’ll just sit by the monitor and watch the film. When it’s good, I’m happy.

Filmmaker: The pirates aren’t subtitled. Did you ever consider giving us access to what they were saying?

Lindholm: I was writing a third perspective seen from the pirate’s point of view, but it felt too clever. I felt ignorant doing it because I’m a fairly well-fed Danish guy. I’ve never been so hungry that I wanted to kill for food. So it became a cliche every time I tried to write it as a pirate. I couldn’t find that realism in it. They’re really hard to call. It’s not like you can pick up the phone book and call a pirate, so I tried to talk to guys in Denmark that have cousins that know pirates in Somalia, and it just didn’t work out. So we decided to lock in on the two POV’s and make this film about two guys caught in the same situation in two different places in the world.

That means that for me, deciding that, it became very scary that the pirates were walking around, talking their language and you didn’t understand, and you didn’t know what to expect next. That’s always a good trick to increase tension, but the thing is I don’t speak Somali, so I didn’t know what they were talking about while we were shooting. I was just hoping that they weren’t talking about how the director was an idiot or revealing the ending of the story or something like that. Until we got back home and I could get everything translated, and they actually did act. I made one deal with them, I said, “Don’t talk about being a pirate. Only talk about that you’re hungry, or that you want to go to the toilet, or who has a cigarette, everyday life stuff like that.” And they did. They were pretty cool. We found them in Mombasa; they’re really good guys.

Filmmaker: Did you go to Somalia?

Lindholm: No. We went just outside, to the waters of. We never went inside. We didn’t get sand under our boots there.

Filmmaker: The Somali pirate hijackings are a story that are much better known to Western Europeans than Americans. Do you expect Danish viewers to be better prepared and familiarized when they see the story?

Tobias: No, not that much. For me it’s a local story. Denmark is a small country but we have a huge commercial fleet. Maersk is a huge company and every family, historically, has one or two sailors. So everybody is very interested and fascinated and scared by the whole thing of Somali pirates. And it’s all in the news, because you have so many Danish ships taken, because there are many Danish ships. I never thought that people should know about this. And you know, it’s not just about piracy. It’s also about a rich guy and one of his employees. I don’t think you need to know too much about this to watch the film.

Filmmaker: Did you keep the actors in the offices and on the ship separate or did you allow them to meet before shooting?

Lindholm: I never allowed them to meet while shooting. The two main actors, they know each other, so I guess they met without me knowing. And they called me and said, “Can we please have one scene together when he gets back, just one meeting?” And I said “No, it makes no sense.” So they never met. On the phone, they did. We would do the phone calls live, so we brought a satellite phone and we’d call Søren who was in Denmark and we’d just tap the line instead of making it in post-production. And that gave them the opportunity to actually act together and figure out how this phone call with delays and echoes and all that would work out, and they used that as a tool in their acting. But I didn’t allow them to meet up and hang out, there was no point to it.

I was afraid that they would start to be too clever about the story. So whenever we would call Søren in Denmark, I would tell them to say another story other than the one in the script just to surprise him, to shake him a little. And the other way around, I would ask Søren to say another number than they expected. In that way, they never really knew what to expect from the scene. They just needed to react to whatever came towards them, of course in the area of what we had rehearsed over the phones. I constantly stopped them. They must hate me by now. I constantly cut them off, asked them to do something different, but we will build the picture on set and we will shoot everything, because we can.

Filmmaker: It seems like being an actor working for you could be difficult. There’s a certain amount of psychological pressure you’re putting on them to get them to react how you want. That doesn’t seem to intimidate you.

Lindholm: That’s true. We tried to build a machine where I don’t need to take care of them, we have other people around them to make sure they’re OK and I just need to focus on getting the most of them. Of course, we spent a lot of time before starting to shoot preparing each other on what to expect. We’d get to a certain point where we’d make this deal, that I would go all in and they would go all in and we will survive it and we will not be friends while shooting. Pilou was a very close friend of mine, and we totally deleted our friendship while shooting. I will not talk with him about problems with his wife, whatever, I will just demand what I need. The same with him: I won’t come to him and tell him about my problems. Afterwards, we’ll meet up again and continue our friendship.

The problem is that I would never do this to a friend. It’s not only me. The actors, especially Pilou, put it on themselves. He decided to gain 20 kilos. He decided to lose them all while shooting, so he stopped eating when we got to Africa. So that’s not on me, I never demanded that of him, but he really wanted to search out an area where he wasn’t in total control. Not eating, just drinking water and a little cucumber for four weeks there and losing 16 kilos in four weeks was madness, but he survived and he’s pleased with it now.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked for television and for other people. Do you feel like you’ve had the luxury of largely working on projects that interest you?

Lindholm: So far, yeah. Just the process of writing interests me, so I really would like to write everything or anything. But I’ve been very blessed. The first guy I worked with was Thomas Vinterberg, we did Submarino and The Hunt afterwards. Just out of school, I started to write this Danish TV show called Borgen about Danish politics. And it gave me the opportunity to write 20 hours of TV drama just out of film school. To have that much collaboration with actors that early taught me a lot. It really gave me a lot from it. Now I’m the father of three kids, so I cannot work both day and night. I would write Borgen at night and shoot my first feature in the daytime, and I can’t do that anymore. I need to have just one job at a time, so I structured a way to write seven or eight hours a day, and then that’s it. I cannot do that much, so I try to be more picky now. I’m writing Thomas Vinterberg’s next film, and then I’m starting to research and write my own next thing later this spring.

Filmmaker: For someone who says that they’re not very interested in politics, you’ve made a lot of films that involve institutions and politics.

Lindholm: Well it depends on the way that you look at the character. If you look at them as human beings and just try to portray them in a profession, then you don’t need to be interested in politics, you can be interested in them as human beings or as citizens. What I mean about not being interested in politics is that the morality of social realism doesn’t interest me. The idea of everything being born by the way we distribute our money, I don’t believe that. It doesn’t interest me. I’m from a generation where Denmark was full of cliched socialists. I don’t have any problem with socialism, I just have a problem with everybody using money as the reason for everything. It doesn’t make any sense to me, so I’m trying not to get into that, trying not to educate too much. Social realism is trying to tell you a romance about a certain class having certain problems, and I don’t recognize that in my world in Europe right now.

And then at the same time, in Europe we seem very obsessed with psychology, and it’s always the character is one big psychology running around like an animal, and then maybe they’re a police officer as well, somewhere down there. In America, you’re much more likely to present people in their job — as a sheriff, as a president, as a police officer — and inviting the audience inside a world doing that. And that interests me.

Filmmaker: Does writing in English make you write differently? Is it a pain for you?

Lindholm: Not in this case, because I didn’t write for Gary. He’s the only Englishman who actually speaks good English. The rest of them, we made a point of making it not that good English. The way that [Somali pirate translator] Omar speaks English is pretty good, but that’s because [actor] Abdihakin [Asgar] was raised in Canada, but the rest of them in English are the actors. When they speak English, it sounds like a young schoolboy speaking English, and I like that charm. But I find it difficult, it’s not my language. I always write the lines in Danish first, and then we’ll translate them afterwards.

Filmmaker: You made a decision to not show the actual hijacking. Why?

Tobias: I was really bored about it, that action sequence, and I knew that on our budget we could never compete with what you could compose on a large budget from over here. Then I wrote the scene with the CEO just listening to the recording of this, and I was much more interested in that. We could put him in a small room three hours after this happening and not being able to do anything about it, and the tension and desperation increasing in that room inspired me a lot more than actually showing it. I knew that I wanted the pirates to get on board the ship. It’s called A Hijacking, they’re there, let’s take it from there.

Filmmaker:When you’re doing research and there are the details which are true but they look false on screen, where do you draw the line?

Lindholm: I just won’t put them in the film then. I’ll put something else in that can tell something like it. Because I green light every element in the film by experts before shooting, we will eliminate those areas. The ones that are true and that don’t work out, my editor will eliminate those when we get back. Let’s see, what’s an example from the film…? The fact that the press isn’t involved in the story is true, as it is in Denmark, but it’s really hard for the audience to believe sometimes. “Why doesn’t any journalist take on this story?” blah blah blah. To pull that off, we needed the CEO to at some point talk about it, because it seemed like a lie that the press wouldn’t put pressure on the company. That was one thing where we needed to fix a problem where reality gave us.

In Denmark, the press was not writing that much about cases going on. They were always writing about them afterwards, and that was because the pirates used it as a tool in the negotiation. We have had incidents where people have almost been freed, and then the newspapers write about it, and the pirates say, “Now we increase the money,” because now they know the pressure is back on the company. They won’t write that much about it when it goes on, only when it’s done. That was hard for me to believe.

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