Interview: Director Tobias Lindholm On Creating Realism In 'A Hijacking'
Danish director Tobias Lindholm has made quite a name for himself as a filmmaker with a knack for bold realism. Whether is hard hitting prison life in "R" or political drama in the TV show "Borgen," Lindholm is one of the modern masters of putting the audience right in the mix. His latest film "A Hijacking" (out June 21 from Magnolia Pictures) is no different – a brutal and harrowing look at life both at sea and in the boardroom when Somali pirates decide to hijack a cargo ship at gunpoint for ransom. The film continues the streak of memorable films from Lindholm and keeps the tension high by not pulling any cinematic punches. We got a chance to chat one-on-one with the very talented Lindholm who talked about creating a realistic hostage world, the pros and cons of shooting on a real life ship and the difficulty in shooting such a tense story subject. A modern film master is in the house – please welcome...
Where did the genesis for "A Hijacking" come from?
Tobias Lindholm: Denmark, a population of about five million, is a nation of sailors. We have a huge commercial fleet and the whole economy in Denmark was built on that. So every family has a sailor. In the beginning for me it was a very local story and in 2007-2008 the first hijackings happened against Danish ships and it was all numbers. It was like that many days, that much money, this many men and you never really got deeper into it. So I decided to start to research and tell the story and that’s one of the beautiful things about fiction – you can actually bring the audience inside these situations. It would be impossible with a journalist or documentary crew because it would be controlled by the pirates. So the only way we could sell the story was fiction and I felt obligated to research it as much as possible.
I love the obvious parallels between negotiations in the boardroom vs. negotiating with pirates for people’s lives – was that a comparison by design?
TL: Definitely. I presented Mikkel the cook as a family father on his way home and he is that throughout the whole film. That is who he is – nothing more. And the same thing with Peter. For me he was a very good negotiator and I needed to show that. So I needed to have a negotiation where he could go in and be the man and solve the problem, so that I would believe as an audience that he could also then negotiate with the pirates.
The conditions of the whole hijacking looked, felt and even seemed to smell incredibly authentic – how much research did you do in this area?
TL: We didn’t design anything. We actually just went to Mombasa, Kenya, rented a boat, sailed out into the Indian Ocean and filmed it all there. When we rented the Rosen we found out afterwards that she had been hijacked a couple years before. And some of the crewmembers had been hostages on that boat, so they knew everything about life specifically on that boat as hostages. So I would re-write parts of the script afterwards and my production team didn’t like it too much. I tried not to change that much, but I needed all the creative detail from their experience. But we pre-lit the whole ship so we could go and film anywhere and at any time, which meant of course big freedom. And on the Danish side we would film in an office from the Danish company Clipper Group that also had a ship hijacked. They invited us in and we filmed the whole negotiation in their negotiation room exactly as they had it. In my draft there were plasma screens on the wall and then I talked to a real hostage negotiator and he said to me, ‘We don’t have plasma screens, we just have a phone with a piece of red tape on it.’ I thought wow, reality – let’s do that.
What were some of the pros and cons of shooting on a ship out to sea?
TL: Pros of course are all the authenticity and small gifts from sunlight and stuff you cannot get if you start to plan reality. But there were so many problems. We thought the Monsoon season would be over – it wasn’t. So we went out the first week and it was just crazy with big waves and everybody was seasick and puking all over the place. At one point we had fourteen guys just standing there with their heads over the railing they would run in to do the scenes and run back out again.
What were those scenes aboard the hijacked ship really like to shoot?
TL: We had so much fun. The actors knew what kind of brutal film we were doing, but everybody was laughing and having fun. Fishing and playing soccer down below and then just going in and acting. The pirates were just guys we found on the streets of Somalia and they’d never acted before, so they had a great time standing around. The only guys who didn’t find it fun were the actors. We would lock them up, Pilou and Roland and the Captain, for hours before we would start to shoot. So they were always sweaty, hungry, thirsty and had to go to the toilet and all that because they didn’t know when we were going to start to shoot. So they didn’t need to act that tension – it was already there.
The two men who are affected most by the whole ordeal are Mikkel and Peter – how important was it for you for that they appear to be two sides of the same coin?
TL: I’m a big fan of Michael Mann and both "Heat" and "The Insider" does that. I do believe that I’ve been very inspired by that; I’ve just never really found a story to do in that manner before this one. Suddenly in the research realizing that the CEO is as much of a hostage as the sailors in this situation - it was a discovery that would dictate the script from then on. We knew we needed to jump back and forth.
A couple of rumors I heard about the film – wanted to know if they were true. First one you already cleared up about the ship having once been hijacked for real. But the second was did you really film the phone scenes as conference calls where both parties were actually taking for authenticity?
TL: That’s true. Basically I knew when I did the script it was structured around thirteen phone calls. A couple never made it to the film, but I knew that every phone call needed to be very authentic and have that crisp reality so we could believe it. So what we did was really easy. We brought a satellite phone to the ship and we would call Soren in an office in Denmark. I would tap the line, so I didn’t need a production team with him up there because I had his voice. And all the echoes and the delays and everything were there and the actors needed to adjust to that. Soren slowly, because we shot in everything in sequence, learned to control the echo. At the beginning he’s talking and talking and there’s a lot of noise there. By the end he speaks three words and then waits for the echo – I really liked that detail.
What’s next for you?
TL: We’re looking into it right now. I’ve been travelling with "A Hijacking" for a year since Venice last year, so I’ve started to write a little. We know we want to shoot with the same crew and we want to shoot in August of next year. But it’s definitely, again, about the role of brutality and violence and people caught in the middle of it somewhere.
"A HIJACKING" OPENS IN SELECT CITIES INCLUDING NEW YORK, LOS ANGELES, IRVINE AND SAN FRANCISCO ON JUNE 21 FROM MAGNOLIA PICTURES – LINK TO PLAYDATES BELOW: