Ask the Director, Tobias Lindholm: For “A War,” How Did You Create a Realistic Portrayal of War?


Tobias Lindholm’s A War (2015), Denmark’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, tells the story of Claus Pedersen, a Danish soldier in Afghanistan who is charged with war crimes after he makes a tough decision in the battlefield. A War is a stripped-down piece of realism, much like Lindholm’s last feature, A Hijacking (2012), which explored two sides of the hijacking of a ship by pirates. In addition to his directing words, Lindholm co-wrote Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated The Hunt (2013) and Vinterberg’s upcoming film, The Commune (2016).

ScreenPrism sat down with Lindholm to discuss A War.

ScreenPrism: How did this project come about?

Tobias Lindholm: Basically it started out before I did A Hijacking, and just after 9/11 when Danish troops went in Iraq and Afghanistan together with the UK and US. I knew there would be a story there to tell, so I started to search for it, and I couldn’t really find my way in. Then I did A Hijacking, and when I finished that, in 2012, I read an interview with a Danish solider going on his third tour to Afghanistan and he basically said in that interview that he wasn’t afraid of been killed down there, he was afraid of being prosecuted when he got back home, and the complexity of that statement just stuck with me. Then I started research on it, and I knew that there was a story there so that became a starting point in 2012 with a story. Then I met up with a bunch of soldiers, and they would start to share stories of Afghanistan with me and experiences down there. Slowly, I would start to understand the logic of their lives down there, not the logic of the conflict because I couldn’t find that but the logic of the lives that the soldiers had had, and I found that very interesting, and then I would meet wives and kids and soldiers of families realizing that their story at home was equally intense and interesting and that kind of gave the structure for the film.

SP: How did you come into contact with these soldiers that you interviewed and that you worked with?

TL: Well it was a coincidence. Great things can happen when you’re drunk, and I was at a wedding and in the bar getting a drink and beside me stood this guy my age and I started to talk to him and he was a veteran. He’s been twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan, and he knew a lot about it, and we ended up having a long conversation and a conversation that continued the following Monday in my office. He became the first guy on, Martin Thom Andersen, who helped me, and he would put me in contact with other people, and then I would contact the Danish military to get them to help me to reach out to relatives, and they did. I found some on my own, and then I would get in contact with the military prosecutors and defense lawyers who have been working these cases and to try to get the logic of it all, but there was this drink at a wedding that opened up the world.

SP: That’s kind of hilarious.

TL: But it’s always like that. You just have to just go out your door and start looking for something and stuff will happen.

SP: And the soldiers were just very willing to talk to you? Where there any barriers that you had to break down?

TL: I think that Martin said, you know, kind of approved so everybody felt comfortable with him. He had been on so many tours so everybody felt safe if he felt safe. And then I kind of promised them to be honest all the way and that my ambition was to make a very realistic portrayal of the lives they had out there. I never ask questions, I always just sit down and listen because if I start to ask questions it’s all about my agenda, stuff that I know, I want to know, and often the interesting stuff is the stuff you don’t know you want to know so I’m basically just listening a lot, and they opened up and gave me a lot of stories, and I owe them a lot. They were brave. They shared with me what they probably haven’t shared with anybody, so it’s been a joy to be able to call them that we are Oscar nominated. I mean that is a crazy journey for these guys.

SP: How did they react when you told them?

TL: They’re all coming over and staying over here during the Oscars, and after the show is done, I’m definitely jumping into a car and finding them in a bar to celebrate. No matter what.

SP: You mentioned earlier that they are afraid of being prosecuted, and you mentioned last night that there’s a dehumanization that happens in typical American war films while in the battlefield. But it seems as if that happens in your film in the courtroom, not in the battlefield. Do you find that’s frequently the case in Denmark or elsewhere?

TL: I find the most inhumane place I’ve ever been is the courtrooms, and it’s a contradiction, but it’s interesting that courtrooms are there to protect us and to make sure that we all follow the law and nobody gets hurt financially or physically, but when you’re in there it’s not about human beings, it’s questions that can only be answered yes or no. It’s very “unnuanced” – it’s facts and it’s cold and it’s extremely far away from emotions which fill us up every day, every minute of every second. It’s far away from that. It’s all about whether you can prove something or not, whether you are asking or answering the right question or not. It’s not even about if you’re guilty or not. It’s about if you can prove if you’re guilty or not. And for me, that was extremely interesting. It felt like a natural way too because nobody can protect you in the courtroom. I mean when you’re questioned, you’re questioned. Being attached to your own emotions or being in contact with them, you will react at some point emotionally, and if there’s something that you shouldn’t do in a courtroom, it’s react emotionally. You should be very, very cold and precise in what you say in a courtroom, and that is interesting so we’ve seen these things happen, and the interesting thing is that the rules of engagement are changing and we talked to soldiers, and I’m not out to defend a war crime, of course I could not support the killing of civilians and of course I would never support actions like that, nevertheless I think that to be able to be judgmental towards it, we need to understand the complexity of it, and that is basically what I felt. I mean the soldiers talked about the rules of engagement, or at least the commander talked about how the rules of engagement often would stand in the way of them doing their jobs of securing the safety of their men. And the rules of engagement changed in the campaign of Afghanistan, and we expect these people to follow them, but at the same time, their job is to be in situations where they’re full of adrenaline and people are shooting at you in very, very threatening situations, and I’m not sure that anybody, no matter how much you can train, are able to control every fiber in your body when your life is threatened. You really want to get out of there, and you want to come home safe and save your friends. And we are training soldiers to never leave a guy behind. We are training them to save each other, and that’s basically what the commander in this film does and what Butcher does in the court room and what everybody does, and even though I don’t celebrate it, I understand it and that’s the point.

SP: What about these rules of engagement do you feel should be changed? What do you think they should be changed to?

TL: I’m not sure they should be changed. I’m just saying that if we want to be judgmental, and if we want to hold them up to the standard, we at least need to be able to understand the complexity of the situation they’re in because it’s way too easy to be home in an office in safe Copenhagen or on my couch watching the news and be judgmental. It’s extremely easy to say, “Oh he’s a violent crazy guy – he killed 14 civilians.” I haven’t been in his situation. Now bringing the audience into the boots of the soldiers, bringing them down to the ground of Afghanistan with bullets flying over your head, hopefully we will be able to nuance that and understand the complexity of it and not accept it but at least understand why it could happen.

SP: As you yourself sat in on some of these trials, did you find yourself judging?

TL: All the time, we do that all the time. It’s easy. Right now, there’s a wave of these documentary series about real crime, and there is the investigation of it. We saw with The Jinx and we saw it with Making a Murderer, and they’re all great and they’re all about this and it’s impossible not to be judgmental and it’s impossible not to make up your mind, and the great thing about a series is that often one episode can bring you to one conclusion and then the next episode can challenge that conclusion, and you can say that we try to do the same here. And I felt the same way every time I’ve been to a court room that I went home with the answers that I got that day and thought that I had figured it out and the next day you realize that’s probably not what happened. When you listen to podcasts like Serial – I’m a big fan of these two seasons and listening eagerly to the second season now – it’s interesting how you think you understand it all and then this detail comes in and suddenly that changes the whole picture, and that’s life, that is the complexity of life and that’s it – we try to squeeze down to a feature.

SP: Which film school did you study at?

TL: The Danish Film School.

SP: How did your education there inform your work on A War and A Hijacking?

TL: I’m educated as a screenwriter, so I became a director by coincidence. I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like to be around too many people, I didn’t at the time anyway, so I thought I was good being in an office just writing, and then I ended up doing my first feature, a prison film, and that kind of evolved into these three films now. I feel that the biggest battles that I have are still on the screenwriting process, making the concept, understanding what the film is, understanding why the scenes are there, building the whole foundation of the film, definitely I learned that there. We had a great teacher, he sadly died recently, but our big mentor, Mogens Rukov, who wrote The Celebration for Thomas Vinterberg, or with him, and who has influenced every Danish filmmaker that you can mention. He taught me a lot of stuff and he told me to see film and understand film in a very certain way that I connect to him. Not a day passes by without me thinking about him and stuff he said, and one of the things he said which you can see in A War and A Hijacking as well is that you have to repeat the opening and the middle point. In this case in A War, it opens with a guy stepping on an IED and bleeding to death on the ground and his men trying to help him, and the middle point of the film is the same situation; now it’s Lasse who’s shot in the neck and bleeding to death, and they need to get out of there, and you do that to make sure that the audience understands things have changed, so we need to feel at home in someway. In the first scene, Claus is not out there, but in the second scene, he’s out there and doing it all and that changed his perspective and changed the audience’s perspective and stuff like that that I’ve spent hours talking to Mogens Rukov at the Danish film school about. That’s something that I use every day.

SP: You have an amazing adherence to realism in your films, A Hijacking and in particular A War. How did you develop the realism sensibility?

TL: I’m not amused by my own imagination. I really find it boring. It’s not just something I say is a joke. It’s true! When I sit and just make stuff up, I get bored after a couple of hours and I’m like, “I don’t want to do this.” I love to go out and research and do stuff, understand the logic of places and situations I don’t know and that we needed to implement in the way that we filmed this and the way that I directed it, and I talked a lot to my cinematographer about it how we could ensure that the audience felt pressure and the claustrophobia of the soldiers. So, basically what we did was to look at documentaries because when you look at a film like Restrepo, the cinematographer and the photographer in that is in there in the field with the soldiers so he cannot look up – he will get shot so he needs to stay down. And in a lot of war films we will see that we’re trying to communicate to the audience that we are in a dangerous situation, so our camera can move up and around and see the full picture of it, and that’s kind of admitting that it’s not dangerous and if we can bring that up there then nobody’s really shooting at you and that became the logic. Let’s try to just pretend that this is real and by doing that that defined a lot of choices and made a lot of choices easy because there’s a lot of stuff that you can’t do. So that’s one of the things we did here. We worked with the camera three different ways into three arenas for the film. In the war, we are constantly hectic and alert and ready no matter what happens. We are never just relaxing, and if we are relaxing, you’re going to make sure something’s going to happen that’s going to move the camera pretty soon. At home we have a handheld camera but its at the eye heights of children, so it’s seen from a little down and it’s not as hectic but it gets hectic because we are down here and we are not just seeing it from above like grown-ups. Then in the courtroom, it’s just ice cold and steady. The courtroom is just looking at facts so we are just looking at guys, and for me that became the emotional expression of each arena that would make sense in a realistic way.

SP: The battle scenes are reminiscent of the work of Kathryn Bigelow, who I saw I was thanked in the credits. What was her involvement?

TL: Kathryn reached out to me after watching A Hijacking, and she’s been a great supporter ever since. We talked and, I went to lunch with her and I pitched her A War and the story. I talked to her about it, and she told me about how she did The Hurt Locker (2008) and helped me with insights about how they did the special effects and explosions and so on, so in many ways she’s been extremely helpful. Since Point Break (1991), she’s been one of my heroes, and I can just be very honored that she’s supporting us.

SP: How did your vision for A War change from when you started in 2012 to when you finished editing?

TL: The good and the bad thing about going into the world and meeting people is that the world is more complex than you thought. And I had a more simple version of this film on my mind in 2012 and suddenly realizing the complexity of the world destroyed that idea, and I had to go back and find a way, but I knew that the conflict that I was looking for was to place the audience and make them identify with a soldier and put them in a situation where there’s an impossible choice to be made so that we would identify with a war criminal because that’s the complexity of the world. You can understand these guys. It doesn’t mean that we should accept their actions, but it definitely means that we need to understand, and me starting to understand this process that they’re going through of course changed my perspective as well. I was not as judgmental as I was before. I thought that the world was simpler and that I could be more political, and I realize this is not a political thing. It’s basically a human thing with human beings trying to survive under crazy circumstances.

SP: How did you get the necessary emotions out of the non-actors?

TL: Well, Pilou Asbæk is an actor, and I’ve been working with him. So, I use him to transfer the emotions throughout the film. The soldiers have been in the situation so it wasn’t that hard for them. I didn’t ask them to do anything. They just went back. I never asked them to act. I just asked them to react to the situations they were in, and the difference between actors and non-actors is that actors can pretend and can re-create situations and can do it over and over and over again and still make it believable. Non-trained actors don’t have that skill set but they have, in this case, professional soldiers, so they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’ve been in the situations, so for them, it’s like being back where they were a couple of years ago, and that wasn’t too hard.

SP: Did you have a limited number of takes that you could do with the soldiers due to the emotionally taxing nature of the material?

TL: They just went along with it. I’m extremely nice when we’re not shooting, and as soon as we are shooting, I don’t really care about the emotions and how everybody’s doing. I want it to be good. So, it’s somebody else’s job to make sure that everybody’s fine. I’m not thinking about it for a second when we’re shooting, that’s part of my honesty talking to them when we are doing it. I am watching the monitor and making sure that the film is as good as we can get it. If I need another take, I’m going to ask for it, and hopefully everybody can cope with it. And we have of course producers and people around that will step in and stop me or comfort whoever needs to be comforted. These guys have been to war together so they’ve tried worse than being on a film set. They have had friends dying, they have killed other people, they have had nights and nights and nights where they haven’t slept because they were afraid of getting attacked, so to be on a film set and to have an ice cold cola or good cup of coffee and then take another one seems out of proportion that it should be hard for them.

SP: The scenes between the kids and mother at home were very naturalistic. Were those scenes improvised?

TL: The mother’s is dialogue is written, and I have made suggestions for what the kids could say, but I never showed that to the kids. I just let them be kids. I hoped that the situation would be so natural so they would just live in it and understand it and they totally did. And I was told in film school don’t work with kids or animals, it’s too hard, and the fact is it’s only hard if you want the kids to not be kids. Kids can be kids, a dog can be a dog and can lay and sleep in a corner because it’s a dog. It’s hard if you want the dog to speak or jump and pick up a phone or whatever, then you have a problem, but a child can be a child and we just let them be that. They could turn on the TV when they wanted to, my sound designer hated me for that because that would make mix into all the scenes, but nevertheless I needed it to make sure that the kids could be natural, and it paid off. They are wonderful naturally and unaffected by what’s happening, and they’re just being the kids that they have to be. And that was me and Tuva, the actress, we did a lot of work to make sure that we had a very small crew in that house. I did not want lights, we pre-lit everything so there would be no adjustments, so it would become as natural at home as possible with a camera running around and with me sitting in a room with a monitor, but basically, we tried to keep it as low-key, as homelike as possible.