Interview: Tobias Lindholm on A Hijacking and the influence of Paul Greengrass on him as a filmmaker



Editor’s Notes: A Hijacking opens in Toronto on Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Read our review here.

It’s a good time to be a Dane with a camera. The small country of five million people has punched above its weight, producing a string of top-drawer films in the last few years. While not commercial extravaganzas, dramas like A Royal Affair and The Hunt rack up awards and ride a wave of prestige into select North American cities.

Mads Mikkelsen (lead in A Royal Affair, The Hunt, and probably 50% of other Danish films you have heard of) is becoming something of an international fixture, starring on an American TV show Hannibal about the origins of the famed serial killer Dr. Lecter. Also setting up camp in the Anglosphere is Nicolas Winding Refn, in the midst of a creative partnership with Ryan Gosling that began with Drive (2009) and is continuing, albeit with less box office returns, in Only God Forgives (2013).

The Danish wave continues. On August 16, Toronto audiences will be able to see Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking. The story and filmmaking is as minimal as the title suggests: the Danish crew of a cargo ship is boarded by pirates off the Somali coast. Lindholm cross-cuts between Mikkel, the ship’s cook, grappling with deteriorating living conditions; and Peter, the company’s CEO trying to negotiate a release from Copenhagen.

A Hijacking gets its thrills out of small details, and long, drawn out sequences – it’s as much a thriller as a character study. Lindholm, co-writer of Thomas Vinterberg’s Cannes hit The Hunt, is obsessively interested in how people cope with crisis.  In The Hunt, a tight knit community goes beserk when a child falsely accuses her father’s best friend of molesting her. In A Hijacking the threat is real, not imagined, but the moral test remains: can Peter and his corporation pull together to take care of their own?

Next Projection phoned Lindholm in Denmark to discuss his first feature.

Alex Griffith: You like stories where equilibrium is violently disturbed, and characters go through extreme moral tests. What draws you to this subject matter?


Tobias Lindholm: You know, it really is just what interests me. I don’t feel smart enough to write comedies. I’m not interested in plot points and great ideas that fool the audience. I’m more interested in identification than fascination, in many ways. I’m not really sure why that is.

The Hunt came from me becoming a father when making Submarino [dir. Thomas Vinterberg, co-written by Lindholm]. I had just discovered the paranoia of parenthood in my own life. I wouldn’t even let my brother, who is a father of two children, hold my son the first couple of years. I was afraid he would drop him even though he was more trained at this than I was. It was a character-changing experience to become a father. I discussed it with Thomas and we decided that instead of portraying a guy becoming a father and all that, we wanted to portray a whole town getting infected by this paranoia.

My father was a sailor before I was born and I was always looking for stories on a ship, just because I find it the perfect arena for drama: you’ve got seven – eight – ten guys coping with the elements out there. And the only thing I could come up with was something stupid like an alien coming from underneath and eating everybody…but then I read about hijackings around the coast of Somalia, and Danish ships getting hijacked in 2007 and 2008. I just felt like I received a big gift, because now I could tell the story I had been looking for in a more realistic way.

AG: For North American audiences the setting on the ship is fresh and unfamiliar – but I imagine in Denmark there is more of a connection to the sea.

TL: We’re basically a nation of seafarers. Because of that, it felt like a local story; I thought it was a story for a Danish audience. I actually never thought that the subject could appeal to the rest of the world, and that of course has been a great surprise. In Denmark we’ve had a few hostages, it upsets everybody, and it’s on the news all the time. That was one of the driving forces for me. In the news you just see numbers, they would talk about 1200 sailors captured last year and a ransom around this and that, and it’s all numbers and you don’t feel it. I thought about making a movie on a ship and make people feel how awful the situation is.

And I was a little provoked. You couldn’t imagine an airplane of 1200 passengers just sitting there and no one doing anything. For some reason there’s a tradition of rescue missions on airplanes, but not with sailors. [On a cargo ship], it’s a bit complicated. It’s a Danish ship with a Panama flag, so the Danish government can’t get involved, but nevertheless I felt like “excuse me, these are fathers who were just doing their jobs and they’ve been hostages for a year,” and no one’s doing anything about it.

AG: It seems like Mikkel and Peter share father figure qualities, but on the opposite sides of the situation: Mikkel wants to return to his family, and Peter wants to in a sense ensure the return of his family.

TL: My mom was a classic Scandinavian socialist believing that rich people have stolen their money from poor people. I was around the age of 11 when I realized that probably wasn’t the whole truth. We wanted to portray a businessman, not as an evil man, but as a man trying to live up to the responsibility in the way he can – it’s not the right way, but he’s definitely trying.

Writing the story, I was always thinking of Peter as the father of Mikkel.

AG: In the negotiation scenes Peter comforts Mikkel, tells him everything is going to be OK.

TL: Exactly. When the kids are crying, there is no room for the parent to cry as well! The parent has to bottle it up, take control of the situation. That defines Peter’s actions very much. By nature of being CEO of his company, he is the father of the family, and he cannot allow himself to make any mistakes. That’s how he feels about it.

AG: With The Hunt coming out in North America this summer, do you feel a certain pride in how well Danish films are faring internationally?

TL: It’s a very small community in Copenhagen, everybody knows everybody. Talking to Nikolaj Arcel, director of A Royal Affair, and the adventures they had…it’s been a pretty good few years for Danish TV and film. I believe that my generation was inspired by the Dogme brothers, no doubt about it. If you look at it, I discovered that it was possible for me to do films during the years of the Dogme wave. Now I’m in my 30s, making films, travelling the world and I do believe it’s all about the momentum that Vinterberg and Lars von Trier created in the mid-90s. They gave a new generation courage. So we’re just riding the wave and hope it doesn’t break too soon.

AG: In past interviews you’ve mentioned how you like to draw sequences out through a realistic depiction of time passing. Is it challenging finding the right pacing between keeping the audience on the edge of their seat, so to speak, and doing justice to the authenticity of the situation?

TL: That is the big challenge. The big difference between American cinema and European cinema is that in European cinema we are obsessed with psychology. We look at our characters as one big psychology of problems in childhood and all that – and maybe after that they’re a police officer or a president. In American movies it’s the other way around, it’s always a police officer, a president, and after that, maybe, the psychology of going through a divorce. One of my favorite scripts of all time is Sea of Love; I think it’s so brilliantly told. It’s about a guy going through a divorce, and it’s also told through the same guy solving a murder case.

I believe I’m not that interested in psychology, but in situations, and how they can make the story move forward. If you create a very simple presentation of a character…in Mikkel’s case in A Hijacking, he’s a father who’s going home. He is that, all through the film. The hope that he will go home changes, but he is still that [father]. And you can identify with that.

From then on you know you’re on his side, you know what to expect from him. He’s a cook. He’s not suddenly going to find a gun, he’s not going to learn karate, it’s not in his toolbox. In his toolbox he can cook and he can talk to his wife. In the same way with Peter, we know he’s good at being a boss and at negotiation, and that’s what he does. This, for me, is a big inspiration from American films – I do believe that [the backstory minimalism]combined with the more dark art house tradition we have in Europe might have helped me in A Hijacking.

When the film starts, you know something is going to get hijacked, and you probably know how it will end: either they will die, or they will survive. So you have taken the audience by hand, and they know what they can expect. I believe that helps keep everyone interested, without trying to outthink the audience by some clever plot point. I’m not a big fan of those. It makes sense to keep looking at the characters from different angles throughout the film. We need to invite audiences inside the story instead of telling it to them.

AG: Could you have made this film without United 93, Paul Greengrass’s docudrama cutting between air traffic controllers and a hijacked airplane on 9/11?

TL: I’m so glad you asked me now that he’s bringing out Captain Phillips. Greengrass has been a huge influence on me. I saw United 93 in film school – while writing A Hijacking I re-watched it and understood some of the logic of how to jump from one arena to another. The gift, and the big problem of United 93 is that you know what is going to happen, so the question is, how is it going to happen?

I’m very much looking forward to Captain Phillips, I remember following that story when it happened in real life.

AG: That said, how do you see your approach on this subject being different – perhaps coming from a more Danish or European influence – than how Greengrass will tackle it in Captain Phillips?

TL: No doubt it’s going to have a more American approach – I don’t say that as a negative thing. But when I saw the second trailer, there were a lot of things I recognized from our shoot – the look of the crew and the ship. No doubt the screenplay is more inspired by and filled with fascination. And the pace will be faster. We tend to drag out the action.

AG: Are you drawn to crisis scenarios because it reveals the rawest – and sometimes the most compassionate – sides of human nature?

TL: I live a very secure life here in Copenhagen, Denmark. I live in a great big apartment with my three kids and my beautiful wife. It’s all good. That is not a picture of who I am as a human being. When my kids or sick or my wife is sad or a friend needs help of whatever, those are the days where you see who I am as a human being.

That’s where you can he disappointed or happily surprised in a man. You do not express who you are eating a good dinner. Me and my crew – the “rock band” as I call them – we do not express who we are in a studio in Copenhagen, having lunch at the same time and then going home. We needed to go out there and actually go to the Indian Ocean and get on boats and film out there, to kick ourselves in the guts. We tried to make everybody feel the reality that we were trying to portray.


About Author

Alex is a recent University of Toronto graduate. He is studying Mandarin, going to film festivals, and prepping on his film lore like QT in the 80s. If you're in Beijing over the next few years and do film journalism, get in touch!