Tobias Lindholm Talks A HIGHJACKING, Including Real-Life Former Hostages in the Film, Avoiding Clichés, the Scandinavian New Wave, and More

     June 21, 2013

A Hijacking is Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm’s second feature film but his first as a solo director.  The tense, gripping thriller chronicles what happens when a cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and its crew is taken hostage in a cynical game of life and death.  With the demand for a ransom of millions of dollar, a psychological drama unfolds between the CEO of the shipping company (Søren Malling) and the Somali pirates.  Opening June 21st in select cities, the film also stars Pilou Asbæk, Dar Salim, Roland Møller, Gary Skjoldmose Porter and Abdihakin Asgar.

In an exclusive interview, Lindholm talked about how he found the angle for writing in an arena he’d long been interested in, why he sees this film as a local story, how he assembled an unusual cast that included real-life former hostages and a hostage negotiator, how he achieved the film’s gritty realism and authentic tone in collaboration with his actors and creative team, why he deliberately avoided action movie clichés, and how his experience on the Danish TV series, Borgen, informed his approach.  He also discussed the Scandinavian new wave, the influence of Lars von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn, his untitled new feature film that’s in the works, and scripting The Commune with Thomas Vinterberg.  Hit the jump to read the full interview.

tobias-lindholmQuestion: What was it about Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean that inspired you to write and direct this?  What made you say I’ve got to make this film?

Tobias Lindholm:  Denmark is a country built on a commercial fleet.  That’s basically what we have been doing.  We’re just a small country of islands, and every family has a sailor.  So, in many ways, my father was a sailor before I was born.  Every family has an uncle, a father, a brother, somebody in there who’s out there, and that is basically part of the Danish sovereign standing.  In the beginning, for me, it was a very local story.  In 2007 and 2008, the first two Danish ships were hijacked.  I started to research it.  I’ve had the idea of writing in this arena for a long time, but I could never find the angle of what kind of story.  It always turned into some stupid horror idea of guys caught in the elements with big waves or something.  When I discovered this problem, and it actually was inflicted on the Danish society, I started to do research on it.  In the beginning, of course, we heard about it on the news, but it was in the distance.  It was something happening down there like any other issue in the world.  We’re pretty secure up in Scandinavia.  To discover the things that were going on down there inspired me, of course, to start to do research on it.  So we did, and we sent out a press release that I was interested and that I wanted to do this film mainly to attract people who wanted to talk to us.  A guy called me who was a hostage negotiator (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) and had been on the two Danish cases.  He wanted to open up and talk about these matters.  When he came in, it was clear that we could do a film, and he ended up playing the part of Connor Julian in the film.  He’s a real hostage negotiator, and having him along was not only to read about reality but to actually put it in the film.  It made it easier for the actors to adjust and the story to go in the right pace.  Instead of trying to overdramatize some of the stuff, we could actually find where the drama was in reality and build a story on those conflicts.

How does the finished film compare to what you originally envisioned?

Lindholm:  For me, it’s very close.  What was added in shooting from the screenplay was time.  It’s pretty hard.  You can use signs, and that in a screenplay will give you the idea of time going on.  When you’re actually out there, you need the actors to look like they’ve been there for that many days.  That was added, and that’s because the actors, especially Pilou Asbaek, went all in.  He gained 20 kilos for the part.  As soon as we got to Africa, he stopped eating to lose all the weight again.  So he was desperate to get back home.  It’s a film structured, in the screenplay anyway, on twelve phone calls, and to make that come alive, we would do the phone calls live.  We had a satellite phone on the ship, and we would call Søren Malling who plays the CEO in Denmark.  He wouldn’t know exactly what scene we were going to do, so he needed to respond to it as he would in [real life].  He was surprised and he was a little confused.  It was one take.  We never edited in the phone calls.  We would just tap the line and then have that.  The mistakes and errors, like the small echoes there are if you make a long distance call, were there, and the actors needed to use that and adjust to the reality of the phone call.  That, for me, gave the film a more realistic tone than it had in the screenplay.

Was there any special research that you did for this?

Lindholm:  Sometimes it seems like if you open up the door to reality and invite it in, it will just come flowing.  At a point, we had talked to a CEO who had been in this situation in Denmark, and he had allowed us to do the film in his office space in the exact room where they did the negotiations.  They rebuilt the negotiation room exactly as it was.  In the first draft, we had plasma screens on the walls and satellite photos, and then Gary came along, and I said, “How would a room like this look?”  And he said, “I’m sorry.  It’s just foam with a piece of tape on it.  There are no plasma screens.  It’s pretty basic.”  Per Gustav, who was the CEO of the company that had a ship hijacked, helped us a lot.  I mean, the actors would stay with him for weeks and follow his work to try to adjust to the right body language and understand the world of commercial fleets.  At the same time, we would have a chair for him by the monitor when we were shooting in the office space.  He would come every now and then and say, “It’s great, but in reality we waited 15 minutes longer.”  I would just add that as we went along.  We went to Mombasa, Kenya to rent the boat (cargo ship MV Rozen).  The Rozen was down there and we rented her because she had the perfect size and we could use her.  We would just sail out into the Indian Ocean and go towards Somalia, so we would be in the exact right waters.  We brought on the security guards who were making a living out of protecting these ships.  They would tell us stories.  But probably the greatest gift we got from opening up to reality was that MV Rozen had been hijacked just before.  We didn’t know that at the time.  Some of the sailors working there had been real hostages.  So they were there on set.  They were the crew that was kept down below in the film.  That’s the real crew that was real hostages in real life.  They wouldn’t know anything about the general picture of the situation, but they would know specifics about life as a hostage on that ship.  Where would they put us?  How would it look?  I would just rewrite the whole script two days before production.  The production team wasn’t that keen about it, but we needed to get all those beautiful small details that they had in the story.  I traveled around the world to meet CEOs who have been in these situations before, and in that way we felt very close to reality and well researched when we started shooting.

How did you assemble such a convincing cast?  I know some of them were from the Borgen TV series while others were not professional actors.  How did that work?

Lindholm:  I am so grateful for those guys.  I worked together with Søren and Pilou on Borgen for several years writing that.  I worked with Pilou before on my first feature called R, a Danish prison film, and that was his first main character.  We started out together so I knew I wanted to write for those guys.  I called them before I started to write the script and said, “Do you want to be part of this?”  I knew I was writing for them specifically.  The rest of them came along.  Dar Salim, who’s a Danish actor, plays Lars Vestergaard, the right hand of the CEO.  He’s in Borgen as well.  He was actually in Game of Thrones.  He’s a good friend from Copenhagen.  I love to work with friends.  But, at that time, we didn’t really have any other actors.  They were all amateurs.  The wife of Mikkel, who was crying there, is a good friend of my wife.  Her husband is a musician and he travels the world.  I’ve many times witnessed the phone calls she has with him and the way they talk about their kids, and I’ve always thought of her as the perfect sailor’s wife.  I just called her and said, “Do you want to be part of this?”  And she tried out and did well.  The biggest surprise of all was Abdihakin Asgar who plays Omar, the negotiator on the pirates’ side.  He’s never done anything before.  I just saw him on the streets of Copenhagen and I jumped out of a cab.  He was the fattest Somali guy I ever saw.  He looks great for the part.  So I said, “Can I cast you?”  He came out to my office the next day, and we filmed him for an hour.  I got him to take off all his clothes and threaten to kill me.  I thought if he can pull that off, then we’re good.  It turned out he’s lived in asylum, in a political refugee camp, and he lived in Canada for two years.  He couldn’t go to school at the time, and he was around thirteen, so he would watch a lot of films.  After he had watched the few DVDs available there, he would start looking at the behind the scenes.  When I started to talk to him about this, he would make his own references, like saying, “Oh, that’s what Michael Mann said to this guy in that film.”  He would kind of build his own like he’d educated himself.  He was a stroke of luck.  The pirates we found are basically from the streets of Mombasa.  We just went around in a minibus looking in the Somali community and finally went out to talk to the clan leaders to get their permission to use the young guys.  Basically, that’s it.  The rest of the guys, the extras in the office spaces, are all people working in office spaces like this.  I just needed guys that could wear a tie and sit by a computer and look professional enough. 

You’ve worked in both film and TV.  Are you drawn to one format more than the other or do you enjoy working in both?  Are there advantages to working in one medium versus the other?

tobias-lindholm-2Lindholm:  I enjoy both very much, especially as a writer.  In Denmark, when you’re doing a show like Borgen, we have five million people, and we have a share of up to 30 percent of that public watching that show.  So, of course, you need to be much more aware of your segment and creating a show through the audience.  Doing a film like A Hijacking, I’m not creating it for the audience.  I’m creating it as we want it to be, and hopefully it will find its audience.  It’s two different ways.  In my situation actually, the third aspect of it is that I have become a family father, so now I cannot work 24 hours a day.  After film school, I would write 8 hours a day on film and 8 hours a night on TV, and then sleep once and a while.  After getting the kids there, I needed to make a choice.  After finishing two seasons of Borgen, I decided to go and make A Hijacking.  Right now, I’m finding I definitely want to go back to TV at a point as a writer.  It’s a really, really fun job, and it allows you to tell very huge stories that are impossible to tell in a feature film.  I’ve directed my second feature, this one, and to approach directing is very inspiring right now. 

What is your personal creative process when you’re writing something that you’re planning to direct?  How do you approach that?

Lindholm:  I spend a lot of timing warming up you could say.  I’m thinking about it a lot, not writing anything.  It seems like as soon as you have written something, it dictates a story.  So I need to be careful.  While I’m writing for other directors, I will start to just think.  I always start to structure the story to figure out what it could be.  I know that the way we do it is, I will structure the story.  I will make a character.  I will know in which direction he will go.  And then, from there, I need to research to fill out pages.  I know that it’s going to be a guy who’s on the sea and he misses his family, but exactly how the story will evolve from there, I will need to research to find out.  That’s basically it.  And then, as soon as I know the middle point of the story, I know I have a story.  Everybody can write a beginning and an ending, but to actually define that middle point where everything will go from professional to person, where everything will change, is always the hardest part, because it can very easily be too constructed, too artificial.  It needs to be logical and still dramatic enough to actually be a middle point.  As soon as I know I have that middle point, I will start to write.  Right now, I’m in the process of the next one where I just have the middle point, so I’m going to start to write very soon.  And then, the research starts and that will change everything, but at least I will know in which direction to look when I start researching.

One thing that impressed me was the economical way in which you told the story and structured it around a series of phone calls.  You also chose not to show certain things, such as how the pirates board the ship.  Can you talk a little about that approach?

Lindholm:  I never thought about writing the part where the pirates get on board the ship.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I’m not an action director.  I’m sure that other guys could do it a lot better.  I couldn’t put my heart into it.  But when I wrote the scene where the CEO is listening to the attack over a computer three hours too late, I felt devastated.  I was so desperate together with him in that situation that I was pretty sure that was exactly where we wanted to be with the camera at the time.  At the same time, I was focusing on making him a main character as well.  Had he been a spectator to something that I already knew had happened, then it would be hard to put him in a main character position.  He would be a spectator to the story going on instead of a guy in there.  That’s what we did.  We did the film quite fast for just around two million.  From TV, writing Borgen, I learned how to write for the money.  I had a pretty good idea of when I was going over budget, so I wouldn’t allow myself to do that.  It would only drag out the process of financing.  It was much easier from the beginning to be economical in the writing. 

How did you collaborate with your DP and the rest of your creative team in terms of the look and tone of the film?  Can you talk about their contributions?

Lindholm:  The thing is that I’m here and that is the most easy that I would be here, but we do define our work as a rock band.  I am the lead singer in a situation like this, but everybody has a very important part to play.  I’m not an educated director.  At that point, I didn’t know that much technical stuff.  So I would put a lot of responsibility on my DP, Magnus Jønck , who I’ve worked with on Borgen and R, the first film I did.  He has done a lot of documentaries, and he’s a very smart guy who knows as well as I to build the concept around the money available.  We sat down and did some basics.  We saw All the President’s Men and we saw different films that happen in office spaces where there are a lot of people talking around a table and films like that to get inspired.  And then, we made one decision to make sure that we would never be in front of the story.  We would make one rule that was:  the camera cannot leave the man, but the man can leave the camera.  It’s in the style of documentary where you make an agreement between a camera and a man and say, “I’m going to film you now.”  The camera will stay with this guy.  It will not start to tell stuff that’s happening over here.  It will stay with the guy.  But if the man suddenly leaves the camera, for two seconds the camera will be a little confused.  What’s going on?  That confusion can actually [work to the benefit of the film].  Our point was to leave that confusion with the audience.  Now where are we going from here?  To just be slightly behind the story so that we wouldn’t be where there’s always a problem with characters being ready for a plot.  We definitely wanted to fight that.  I mean, in real life, we’re not walking around waiting for something to happen.  We live our lives, and then suddenly we fall in love with somebody, and it’s a big mess because you have a wife already, and it’s going to destroy your life.  And, at the same time, it’s beautiful.  Often, in films, it’s not like that.  It seems like the characters are walking around waiting for something to happen.  We wanted to make sure that that wasn’t the case, so that’s why we did it like that.  And then, the editor, Adam Nielsen, was a big part of this.  I will develop my screenplays with him.  I mean, he’s going to rewrite them anyway in the end, in the editing room, so I might as well drag him in and take these discussions from the beginning.  Together with Morten Green who’s the sound guy, those guys add so much from the beginning and throughout the whole process.  It’s not hired guns that will come in at the end.  It’s like everybody goes out and aims for the same goal from the beginning.  I will get them in a room like this.  I will pitch the new story for a new film we want to do.  If they don’t want to do it, I need to come up with something else.  It’s basically that we want to stick together and do that, and that makes sense because we can challenge ourselves in a way that you can only do among friends and among guys who know each other very well.

How do you feel about the positive reaction this film has received from audiences and critics around the world?  Do you think this will make it easier to get financing for future projects?

Lindholm:  I feel extremely proud that people are watching the film.  It’s funny.  A year ago I didn’t have a film.  We’d just finished editing.  We opened up in Venice and suddenly the world discovered this, and we’ve been traveling, or the movie has been travelling ever since, and it’s a strange situation because that wasn’t the aim.  It’s so cheap that we basically know that we’re going to do well and we’re going to break even with the film.  Everybody is going to make their money.  We were never nervous about that, but that it appealed.  For me, in the beginning, as I told you, it was a very local story.  I can understand that it appeals to the world because of the theme and that we are out there and everything.  But basically, I’m just humble and very proud that a small film like that, that works, that everybody in the rock band did, appeals to so many people.  No doubt it will be easier to finance the next project.  We’re trying, especially in Denmark, not to think too much about it because it can make you a little lazy.  I still want to write for the money.  If I can do the next film for two million as well, I definitely will, because it’s better business if we sell tickets.  Basically, I want to make sure that everybody that invested in this film gets their money back and it turns out happy.  I’m not going to spend ten times that amount of money, even if it was possible.  I don’t see the point.  At a point, coming over here to do something would probably be that, but that’s recent because the whole business is opening.  The market is much bigger.  I mean, we’re five million people in Denmark.  I am making the film for the local market.  And then, if we’re lucky, it will travel the world.  So we need to keep the cost down and we’re trying to be disciplined about it.

Do you see yourself as part of a Scandinavian renaissance that includes filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn, Lars von Trier and Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, among others?  Do you consider yourself part of that movement of filmmakers?

Lindholm:  No doubt there is a Scandinavian wave.  I guess everybody is just surfing their wave until it breaks and hoping it won’t be too soon.  I am proudly on the shoulders of the Dogme brothers:  Thomas Vinterberg, who did The Celebration and Festen, and Lars von Trier.  Those guys taught us to think in production and not only in writing.  Probably in ten years, it will be easier to see.  Right now, in the middle of it, it seems great that everything is… you know, Borgen is traveling the world.  The Killing has been remade over here.  We’ve seen a lot of greats – Nikolaj Arcel and A Royal Affair nominated for an Oscar, Susanne Bier won one a couple of years ago (for In a Better World).  That affects the environment of Denmark, of course.  I mean, it’s a small, small community of filmmakers.  Everybody knows one other.  And if they can make it, you feel like anything is possible.  Why not go for it?  Why not think larger than just Denmark?  Why not try on a small scale to conquer the world or just parts of it with your film?  Basically, I will point everything back to a guy like Lars von Trier who is an artistic genius.  He could be in any country.  Luckily, for the rest of us, he’s in Denmark.  He has raised the bar a lot for what can actually happen.  He has attracted a lot of attention to the country.  He has professionalized the whole society of film workers.  They are a lot better now.  I do believe that that’s what’s paying off right now, that you can see the influence of a guy like him, where you know that he will premiere his film in competition in Cannes.  For a small country, we’re five million people speaking this language.  Nobody else in the world speaks this language.  To be part of that and be inspired by that means a lot.  It means a whole lot.  And then, for me, especially Nicolas Winding Refn, who did Drive, has done his own thing from the beginning.  He never even went to film school and that has been inspiring as well.  He’s also, from my point of view, on the shoulders of Lars von Trier definitely.

What are you working on next?

Lindholm:  I’m going to write the next feature and shoot it in August.  I’m writing it right now.  I can’t say too much about it.  We’re kind of in a political issue right now that hopefully will help the project.  I can tell you that it’s going to be in the same environment about men caught in a violent situation.  It’s a drama, and Pilou is again one of the main characters.  It doesn’t have a title yet, but it will concern Denmark as it suddenly became a war faring nation during Afghanistan, so somewhat in that genre.  I will start to look at it.  I’ve always loved the American war film genre.  I think there are so many great movies from that, but we never had the stories to tell in Denmark.  And suddenly, we see ourselves now as a post war faring nation, looking at what actually happened, looking at the wounds, and looking at the people coming back from the war.  That is a basically interesting story because that is exactly like A Hijacking or R, the first one I did.  It’s about human beings going into a situation that will change them forever.  I’m also writing for Thomas Vinterberg at the same time.  I’ve written his last couple films (Submarino and The Hunt) and I’m writing the next one now, The Commune.

A Highjacking opens in select cities, including New York, Orange County, and Los Angeles, on June 21st.  Click here to find out when it’s playing near you.

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