Tobias Lindholm has written several episodes for the Danish TV series Sommer (2008) and the BAFTA-winning Borgen and was co-writer, together with Thomas Vinterberg, on Vinterberg’s films Submarino (2010) and The Hunt. The prison drama R (2010) was a writer-director collaboration between Lindholm and Michael Noer and marked their debut as feature film directors. A Hijacking (2012) is Lindholm’s second feature film.
A Hijacking features the cargo ship MV Rozen, which is heading for harbour when it is boarded and hijacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the men onboard are the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) and the chief engineer Jan (Roland Møller), who along with the rest of the seamen, are taken hostage in a cynical game of life and death.
With the demand for a ransom of millions of dollars a psychological drama unfolds between the CEO of the shipping company, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) and the Somali pirates.
Steven Galvin sat down with writer/director Tobias Lindholm to find out more about this tense hostage thriller.
What was it that brought you to making this film?
My father was a Special Forces frogman and sailor before I was born. He never talked that much to me about it but I always thought that the area on a ship would make a great dramatic arena – guys in a small space; caught in the elements out there, nowhere. I just never had a proper angle on it. Then in 2007 the first Danish ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. I followed that in the press and became very connected to it. I had done a prisoner film [R] before A Hijacking and I liked dealing with characters caught in a situation from which they cannot leave.
Then I started to do a lot of research and the project really started taking shape after meeting Gary Porter, who plays Connor Julian, the negotiator in the film. He’s a real negotiator – a hostage negotiator in real life – so with him on board I had an angle.
How did you meet him – was that set up?
No. What happened was we put out a press release saying that I was making A Hijacking. He read it and contacted me saying he would like to get involved. I immediately fell in love with the guy – he was so professional and very specific in details. So I asked him to come out to Nordisk Film, our production company, and that we’d pretend that we were a shipping company having a ship hijacked. We asked him to brief us on what to do. He did that for 4 hours. We were filming it – my DoP was there. Afterwards, when I watched it back, I called him right away and asked him to be a part of the film. In fact I wanted to build the film around him.
He introduced me to a Danish CEO who’d had a ship hijacked. He opened up and told us everything they had experienced – from the hijacking itself to the negotiations they’d had with pirates. That gave me the idea of the CEO and so I introduced him as a main character as well.
The CEO is a very interesting character – he sets out to try to negotiate the smallest ransom for the release of his ship and crew, but develops beyond mere calculation into something much more human.
My brother brought me up with the idea of rich people being evil, that they stole money from poor people. Of course I realized by the age of 12 that wasn’t the whole truth. So I always wanted to tell a story about a wealthy guy who is also just a human being. The easy part would be to make him corrupt and evil. I didn’t want to do that – so meeting the real McCoy, who’d had a ship hijacked, who was negotiating with pirates at the time, really opened up that part of the story.
And the ship you used in the film, the MV Rozen, was the ship that had actually been involved in a hijacking by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2007.
Yes. The most beautiful thing was that when we rented the MV Rozen we didn’t know that the crew members who are actually part of the film were the same crew that had been taken hostage 2 years before that, so they knew everything about it. The ship had been part of the story that we were retelling and now we had the crew also. They gave us details of the hijacking – not general ones but specific everyday life details of that ship and being hostage on it. That made me change a lot of stuff in the script because they knew the reality of it.
So the film’s evolving into a kind of docudrama as it’s becoming more and more authentic through the people involved and the ship itself – all adding to the reality of the situation.
For me reality rules. I don’t find myself interesting; I find the world around me interesting. I like the logic of reality, which is different to the logic of screenwriting. I want to make what’s on the screen feel real.
As an audience we bring our experience of reality to every situation. I don’t think that’s something you put away when you go into the cinema; you can actually use that in storytelling. That’s the idea behind reality rules. It means that instead of going for the obvious turning points, the clichés, we need to go around them and find the realistic situation.
For the film for example, we spent 2 or 3 hours in the negotiating room to get what we wanted. These things made the film more real.
So you’re pushing to re-create that reality rather than create it.
For sure. The film is a story that’s structured around 9 phone calls. All the phone calls in the film are real. When we are calling back home from the ship we are actually calling Copenhagen. Pilou calls and Søren doesn’t know what Pilou’s going to say. So I may have prepped them saying a phone call was coming but a lot of the times I lied to him saying Pilou is going to call you and say this and this. Then Pilou would call him and say something totally different. So the surprise in his voice, the echoes, the delay, the emotion, the sound pollution on the line, all of it adding to the realistic atmosphere. From that we get a good story.
It’s a re-acting rather than acting method of direction.
Shooting on the ship I would put Roland, Pilau and the ship’s captain in a room but I wouldn’t tell them when we would start to shoot. So they’re sitting there in 50 degrees and once in a while we would open the door and throw a swarm of flies into the room. I’d tell them we’re not starting yet and slam the door shut leaving them with a 100 flies in there! When we eventually started to shoot they didn’t need to act that they wanted to leave the room; they didn’t need to act they were hot, they didn’t need to act that they wanted to go home – that was already there.
Also we were sailing the ship toward Somalia shooting so the waters looked right and the actors felt the right atmosphere. We had armed guards with us – so the whole ship was afraid during the shooting.
Similarly with the meeting room of the shipping company– we definitely didn’t want to shoot it in a studio, so we made a deal with the company that we could shoot in their space; in the actual room where they’d had the negotiations, with their own employees. So we went out there. I felt that was necessary to get a sense of what really happens.
How do the roles of writer and director differ for you?
Directing is much more demanding for me. I can be a good father and a good husband and a good writer at the same time – but I can’t be a good father and a good husband and a good director at the same time. Directing takes everything from me so I can’t direct that often. With writing it’s more like I’m a drummer in Vinterburg’s band. I keep the rhythm and he’s in front with Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt. I feel safer.
You can give away your writing but directing is all you.
Yes. Screenplay is not a piece of art; it’s words on a paper. Someone else makes it art.
Which I suppose begs the question what made you want to direct this film?
In the early stage I knew it was story that I couldn’t give away. I have that with my next project and I had that with R, the prison film, which was very personal to me because a childhood friend of mine spent 8 years in jail and I got to know the Danish prison system through that experience. I needed to make a film about that and I wanted to tell that truth. The only way I could do it was to do it myself so I needed to learn how to direct. I’d never been on a film set before that.
I felt the same with A Hijacking.
But it all starts with the story.
No matter what, the story is made with the screenwriter. You cannot go shooting with a bad screenplay and expect a great film from it. You really need to do your homework. Filmmaking is the practical art. Screenwriting is where you’re king – where you can kill everyone, do what you want – and that is where the total freedom is. But of course it’s fun to have the idea and bring it all the way through to the editing room, through the sound to the premiere. Like you’ve given birth to that film. It’s yours. That’s very satisfying in another way, but it’s also a lot of hard work. For me it’s not something I can do without feeling it’s completely necessary.
Getting back to the film, you obviously made a decision to omit the more emotional aspects of the drama and focus more on the chilling reality of the hostage situation. For example, there’re no scenes of families crying…
I don’t like melodramas. For me the characters are not supposed to cry; the audience is. I don’t like the easy emotional points in films – I find them boring. In my work I try to find the obvious way to tell things and then move a little to the left, a little to the right,and in that way tell the same story but in a way the audience didn’t expect or hasn’t seen before.
You’re directing the film and not directing the audience, which is the case in so much modern film.
Yes. If you’re feeding people exactly what they expect, they’ll get bored. Obviously in some way you do guide the audience. But I don’t want to take responsibility for the audience’s feelings. I take responsibility for the story. That allows us to have real life in the film, real feelings from the audience; instead of manipulating feelings. For me that’s the goal.
The film’s very much pinned down by Pilou and Peters’ situations, which mirror each other – both of them reaching points of desperation and meltdown.
The idea was to take 2 guys and put them in the same situation. One is a hostage in a small room in a ship and the other is a hostage in a small room in a company. Both cannot leave the situation until it is over. When it is, they cannot become the same person they were before.
These are the ones who are going to live with the trauma and are inextricably linked for the rest of their lives because of what’s happened to them.
That was the idea. As people before the events, they have nothing in common – culturally, financially, family-wise – nothing in common at all, and suddenly they have everything in common and are probably the closest to each other on the planet despite not seeing each other at any point in the film.
A Hijacking is in cinemas now