A cargo ship is overrun by Somali pirates. The crew, notably the boat’s cook (Pilou Asbæk), awaits word as to when they will be released. Back in Copenhagen, the CEO (Søren Malling) tries to use his business-school skills to negotiate their ransom. If you’ve been lucky enough to have seen some of Tobias Lindholm’s previous work—notably the stark prison thriller he codirected, R (2009), or Denmark’s primo political TV drama Borgen, a cult hit on these shores that Lindholm wrote—then you know this Danish filmmaker has a knack for creating complex characters and confounding genre expectations. That still won’t prepare you for the nail-biter he’s concocted with A Hijacking, an extraordinary hostage procedural in which two men, separated by thousand of miles yet both caught in the mechanism of geopolitical terrorism, struggle to retain what’s left of their dignity, self-respect and sanity. TONY talked to the 36-year-old writer-director when he was in town last spring to show his latest project at the “New Directors/New Films” festival. Read our review here.
Time Out New York: You’ve mentioned before that this project was a particularly personal one for you. How so?
Tobias Lindholm: My father was a sailor, long before I was born…so yes, it’s personal in an indirect way. Everyone in Denmark has at least two or three sailors in their family; sea travel is part of the DNA of our nation, and because of that, I’d always wanted to tell a story aboard a ship. But every time I’d try to write a script that used a ship as a locale, it always ended up devolving into some sort of horror-film idea: A disease spreads among the crew and they turn into zombies, something like that. I’d always get to the point where I would think, I’ve seen this before. Why am I writing this? It’s boring.
Then, around 2005 to 2006, the first Danish ships were hijacked in the Indian Ocean. There was a sort of Robin Hood myth about these Somali pirates—how they were these poor fishermen that had their waters emptied by the greedy French and Korean fishing industries. But the more I started to research these incidents, the more I realized that this wasn’t the whole truth; it’s a much more organized world of crime they operate in, and that I found incredibly fascinating. I suddenly saw how I could tell what would be, in a way, a very local Danish story and look at something that was slowly becoming a global phenomenon at the same time.
Time Out New York: Originally, the film was supposed to take place entirely on the boat and only center on the hostages, right?
Tobias Lindholm: It started out as just being about Pilou’s character, the cook who’s trapped on this boat. But I kept getting stuck, because the character really couldn’t do anything; I wasn’t going to make a movie about hostages who escape, because that would be a lie. That doesn’t usually happen.
While I was doing research and cobbling together funding, I got this phone call out of the blue. The caller wouldn’t tell me his name; all he would say is, “This film you’re talking about making, I think I can help you with it.” So I met him, and it was Gary Skjoldmose Porter, a real-life hostage negotiator who ended up playing a part in the film. Gary had seen R, so he knew I’d want to go for something that felt very you-are-there; he’d also been in situations like this and started tell me how complex these things get when you’re trying to secure the release of prisoners on these ships. After that, I set up a meeting with him, myself and Søren Malling, turned on a camera and told Gary, “Okay, just walk us through the drill.” He gave us a four-hour lecture that was a virtual situation room on hostage negotiation, covering everything from insurance clauses to legal issues. It was really compelling. I was tempted to just release an edited version of that.
Time Out New York: We’ll keep an eye out for that in the DVD extras.
Tobias Lindholm: [Laughs] After I cast Gary as the mentor to Søren’s character, I didn’t even need to write lines for him. I’d write dialogue for the other actors, and he’d simply respond as he would in real life. It gave the film a whole other level of authenticity.
Time Out New York: When you first meet the company’s CEO, Peter, you think, Oh, I know this guy, he’s a corporate bigwig…
Tobias Lindholm: …who’s going to fuck everything up and get everybody on that boat killed. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s an archetype, right? The white-collar asshole. My mom is the embodiment of the Scandinavian socialist, so I was brought up to think rich people are evil.
Tobias Lindholm: I work with Søren on Borgen, and if you’ve seen the show, you know he can be very funny, very quick-witted. When I called him about the film, I told him, “I’m writing this part for you, I only ask one thing: Don’t be funny. You have to be deadly serious about this guy.” That was the only rule I gave him. Oddly, the moment that his character does become sympathetic is when he fucks up the most: He takes on the responsibility of the negotiation simply because he doesn’t want someone else doing it. The CEO wants to be in charge, and then feels guilty when he almost messes up everything. It was the moment that Soren and I realized that this guy isn’t an archetype; he’s a human being.
Time Out New York: Right. And then [Spoiler alert] you have him lie to the cook’s wife!
Tobias Lindholm: When I sat down to write that scene, I thought, What would Jesus not do? [Laughs] Jesus would not lie to this man’s spouse, especially given what he thinks he’s just heard. I mean, there’s no turning back after that. You want to stay with this guy, if for no other reason than to see how the fuck this guy gets out of this lie he’s just told!
I can’t remember who said this, but I remember at one point during the filming that someone said that this film is really about two hostages: the cook and the CEO. And I thought, That’s absolutely right. The stakes are different, to be sure, but you have this guy who’s under this enormous pressure, who’s dealing with the lives of his workers and who’s lost control of a situation that business school has not prepared him for. He does not hold the cards; the pirates do. He can’t leave that conference room until he secures the freedom of his men. He’s just as much a prisoner as the sailors are.
Time Out New York: You present this incident from the point of view of the hostage and the negotiator; had it ever crossed your mind to present it from the perspective of the person on the other end of that gun as well?
Tobias Lindholm: I did try an early draft that incorporated one of the pirate’s points of view as a third storyline, yeah. It just didn’t work. I’ve never been so hungry that I wanted to kill. I could not get into that mind-set and write a character that didn’t feel one-dimensional. It always turned into this cliché of “Oh, he’s just a poor guy, he’s trying to feed his family back home, his child is sick.” Everything read like some middle-class European man trying to pretend he was a Somali pirate. So that got scrapped quickly.
Time Out New York: Did you also decide early on that you weren’t going to show the actual hijacking, and simply go from point A to point D?
Tobias Lindholm: It’s funny, I had started writing the sequence where the pirates come up on the ship and they board, all the shouting and the gun-waving, and right in the middle of it, I thought, What if we can’t afford to do this? [Laughs] You know, what would I do? Well, I’d cut right to the phone call, which originally would have happened right in the middle of this violent spectacle. What if, instead, we just cut to an hour after that, where the CEO is finding out about this in his office? You can’t change the incident; it’s already happened!
Time Out New York: To not show the hijacking in a movie called A Hijacking…
Tobias Lindholm: You should always do at least one thing that’s unexpected, I think.
Time Out New York: The ship you shot on was involved in an actual hijacking, correct?
Tobias Lindholm: The MV Rosen, yeah; it had been hijacked by Somali pirates in 2007. When we shot the scenes on the boat actually out at sea, the sailors that worked on the boat were the same ones that had been onboard during the hijacking. They gave us all these little details, like separating the white crew members from the black crew members—since the white crew members were apparently worth more money when you negotiate a ransom. The phone calls from the ship to Denmark? We actually called the office in Denmark where Soren was. The weapons we used were real pirate weapons seized by police. Several of the men below deck had actually gone through that situation. It was very intense. You don’t get acting; you get reacting.
Time Out New York: I’ve heard that shooting on a ship in open water can be hellish. How was the experience?
Tobias Lindholm: When you’re out there filming in open waters for four weeks on end…it’s a bit much, yeah. The good thing is that there are things you can’t change, because it’s not a set; it’s a real working ship. So you have to adjust to what you’re working with, and usually you get a much more creative solution to something than if you had the world at your fingertips. Complete freedom is terrible. If you can just do anything, then you’re fucked. [Pause] We did bend that a little with the flies, though.
Time Out New York: The flies?
Tobias Lindholm: We had a jar of flies, and to get actors into the mood for a scene below deck, we’d close the doors and shut off the fans. It would get incredibly uncomfortable and hot. Then we’d release a jar of flies into the room and not tell the actors when we’d started to roll the cameras.
Time Out New York: Wow.
Tobias Lindholm: Yeah, that…may have been a little mean.
Time Out New York: You’ve cast the actor Pilou Asbæk as a convict who’s psychologically coming apart in R and as a hostage who’s psychologically coming apart in A Hijacking. When you call to offer him a part now, does he just hang up on you?
Tobias Lindholm: He doesn’t, but his wife does. [Laughs] I think she’s a bit angry with me because of the hell these roles put him through. We’ve known each other since college; he was a performer in the theater troupe and I was in the film-school program. I really didn’t like him when I first met him, he was just such an actor—always talking about himself, always going on about this or that role he wanted to play.
When we ended up casting him in R, I thought, Great, now I have to deal with this guy for months on end. We just threw him into this prison set with real prisoners, and they were not making it easy on him. After the first week of shooting, he just started to crack; I could tell he was about to lose it, so I took him aside and we shared a pack of cigarettes. He cried for an hour, and I told him “Don’t worry, we’re all in this together.” After that, we became really, really close friends.
Later, he joined the cast of Borgen, so we saw a lot of each other. But we’d both wanted to work together on another film. We were watching a soccer game at his house one day and I said, “I think you’d be good for the role of the cook.” His reply was, “I’d better go gain some weight.” “Why?” I asked. He said, “Remember that time you said you wanted to eat at that restaurant because the chef was fat, which meant the food was good? That’s who this guy is.” He immediately gained 40 pounds before we started shooting. Then, when we got to Africa, he refused to eat because his character was starving at that point—and he immediately lost 40 pounds. That’s who Pilou is. He goes all in all the time.
Time Out New York: Is there a third collaboration in the future?
Tobias Lindholm: I’m writing it now. I can say this: It will put viewers in the shoes of something a lot of viewers haven’t experienced firsthand but know a lot about. And it’ll be very similar to how the last two films were done, in a documentary-like style.
Time Out New York: What is it about that vérité style that appeals to you so much?
Tobias Lindholm: I studied screenwriting at film school, and was constantly learning how to construct three-act dramas. After years of watching narrative movies to see how the stories were put together and reading scripts to understand the craft of screenwriting, I found myself going, Okay, I need a break. I’m going to watch nothing but documentaries for the next six months. And that’s what I did. It was a huge learning experience: In real life, nobody is waiting for the plot to begin. They’re just living their lives, and suddenly they’re lives are disrupted. I became fascinated by the way real people reacted to situations in such unexpected ways, and I thought, This is what I want to capture. I don’t want to write lines where characters tell me exactly how they feel; I want to see people talk about anything but their feelings, like they do in real life. Fuck fiction; I want to try and figure this out! So that's what I'm doing: I'm still trying to figure it out.
A Hijacking opens June 21.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear