a long talk

The Unspeakable Personal Tragedy That Inspired Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round

“If you’re ever laughing in this movie,” the filmmaker explains, “it’s because the actors are not just trying to be funny, they’re trying really, really hard to make their good friend and director laugh at a time in my life when I couldn’t.” Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Thomas Vinterberg has made many movies, but every so often he comes out with one that reminds us he’s one of the greatest directors alive. In 1998, the staggering The Celebration proved to be the high point of the relatively short-lived but influential Dogme 95 cinematic austerity movement (co-founded with fellow Dane Lars von Trier.) In 2012, Vinterberg made The Hunt, a striking thriller starring Mads Mikkelsen as an innocent man accused of a shocking crime. Now comes Another Round, also starring Mikkelsen, in which a group of middle-age teachers decide to test out a theory that humans perform better when they maintain a blood-alcohol concentration level of .5. It is not, believe it or not, a searing drama about addiction, but rather an endearingly funny and human picture about coming to terms with life. It’s also a film marked by unspeakable personal tragedy for Vinterberg, who says Another Round became more life-affirming because, in many ways, he and his cast needed it to be.

It’s rare to see a movie about people getting drunk that doesn’t feel like a cautionary tale.
Quite a few years back, I looked at world history and how many huge accomplishments and world-changing decisions have been made by drunk people. I thought that was interesting, because it contrasts with the very chaste conversation that we have about alcohol normally. But as I dug into it, I realized that it was even more interesting — this thing that could elevate conversations and change world history can also kill people and destroy families. And still it’s widely socially accepted and has been here for thousands of years.

These were just thoughts. The whole thing got kind of kick-started when I had an American visitor in Denmark, a very intelligent, very open Hollywood writer. She meets my daughter and says, “So, what are you going to do today?” And Nanna says, “Oh, I’m going to run the lake run.” And this writer says, “What’s that?” Nanna says, “Oh, we have to run around this lake and empty a box of beer.” And then this American looks at me, the father, like, “When are you going to interfere? This kid is 17 years old.” And I’m just giggling because I’m used to drunk kids in the streets. She says, “But aren’t you going to get sick, Nanna?” And then Nanna goes, “Well, if we vomit, time will be deducted.” The screenwriter starts to get agitated and says, “What about the police?” And Nanna says, “Oh, but the teachers are there!” I suddenly realized that was a mirror in front my society. I had to look into this.

So is this .5 blood-alcohol thing a real theory?
No, it’s not. Well, the academic who actually came up with the theory for the movie [Finn Skårderud] says, “This is not a theory. That’s only you guys in the film business calling it a theory. In our world of academia, it doesn’t come up to a theory. It’s just something I said.” But he loves the movie and he supports it and introduces it all over Norway.

Have you tested the theory out yourself?
I haven’t. But some have. The French distributor did actually have a full day where they measured every hour, but I didn’t.

When you say “the French distributor,” you mean, like, the people in the distribution company tested it out themselves?
Right, right, right. They were so excited about the movie that they felt they had to test it.

What did they find out?
You’ll have to ask them. Honestly, cinemas closed down right after. We got squeezed by reality. But of course, this movie is not only about drinking. At the beginning of the process, it was solely a celebration of alcohol. Now it’s more: We kill someone; and we reveal someone; someone’s flying; someone is dying. We can let the audience itself interpret what movie this is. In Denmark, it set a massive box-office record here. All the youngsters with a bag of beer under their arm every Friday night, they come to see it four times and then go out and drink. But next to them, you have the anonymous alcoholics who feel it’s a movie about them.

But this was meant to be a life-affirming film. That’s what was important to me — that the love from these people came through to the audience in a life-affirming way. Because my life went into a catastrophe at that time. My daughter [Ida] died four days into shooting this film. It was about her school. It takes place in her classroom. She was in the movie. Everything was destroyed in my life when it happened. A couple months before shooting this movie, she had read the script, while she was in Africa. And she was very, very honest with me. She’d been tough on my scripts if she didn’t like them. When she read this script, she sent me a letter declaring unlimited love, to the project and to me as an artist. I think she felt seen by this, as a youngster at that school.

How were you able to continue making the film, given what had happened?
When she died, I was surrounded by psychiatrists and shrinks and they said to me, “If you can eat and if you can shower, and if you can look people in the eye without crying then maybe you should probably get back to work.” And I said, “I can’t.” Because I cried all the time, and I still do. Then I talked to Mads Mikkelsen, and I talked to the editor, and we said, “How can we make a film about four drunk people when this happened?” But we couldn’t turn it down because we knew that Ida, my daughter, would hate that we quit the movie because of her. Then it became so important for us that this film became life-affirming, that it became about more than just drinking. We ended up making it to honor her memory. I don’t think I’ll regret that.

The film seems to be ultimately about accepting life as it is, and reconciling oneself between the life you want and the life you have. 
Can you see this thing behind me? [Points to the wall behind him.] Can you see this black coat? My wife is a priest. Actually, a vicar, because we’re Lutheran. She’s also in the movie. She’s the one getting pissed on, in the bed. She’s both a priest and an actor. She is more clever than I am, and she tells me what the movie is about. She says “Thomas, this movie is about the uncontrollable.” And I’m saying, “Well, what is that? Give me examples.” She’s saying, “Well, falling in love. It says that you ‘fall,’ it’s even in the narrative of the sentence. It’s beyond your control. You can’t order it on the internet. You can’t decide who to fall in love with, or when it happens.” So this movie is in every aspect about the uncontrollable, because obviously, losing my daughter was the ultimate loss of control. For me, that has become a key thing about this movie. You just said it yourself in your own words: It’s about accepting life as it is.

We also live in a time when everything is really measured. I’m guessing you would be one of the journalists who are being informed the number of clicks that you get on your article. Then you’ll take your iPhone and walk around, and it will measure how many steps you take. If you have children, you will have to map out the plans for their education at a really early stage. So there’s no room left for the uncontrollable. And yet still the world is out of control somehow.

Are you a religious man? 
I’m really trying to be. I don’t find it easy. I was raised by aggressively atheistic academics. Faith and doubt is a constant battle in my mind. But obviously, being married to a priest, I’ve been entering this world, which I find super rich, and makes everything not make sense. I’ve met all these people who can actually talk about life and death in a way that has now become very necessary in my life after this loss that I’ve suffered. So I’m trying my best. I guess I’m at the stage where I’m hoping.

To those of us who are outside religion, it can often seem like religion is about control. But when you meet truly devout people, it’s clear that for them, it’s actually about understanding that you don’t have control.
Oh, of course. They have a lot of phrases about accepting the unexplainable. “Don’t be controlled by your own rationality,” which I think is very rich and beautiful. I’m trying to become religious. I think, for the remainder of my life, it’ll be a thing that I will pursue. But also, for the remainder of my life, there’ll be days where I really fail. And where I remember all my academic fathers from the hippie commune. They used to say, “Thomas, there’s less between heaven and earth than you think.” That became embedded in my system as a child. So it’s a battle. Maybe it’s the most important battle of my life.

I know you were raised in a commune. I’ve seen your film The Commune, but I can’t remember if it was supposed to be semi-autobiographical.
I don’t really know myself, because I got lost in it. The story is not autobiographical — because, you know, the plot. And yet still, some of it is from my previous marriage. The honest truth about that movie is that I got lost in it — in what was memory and what’s the movie. It was meant to be declaration of love to my childhood, but then the plot became really sinister and sort of the opposite happened.

What was the commune that you grew up in like? 
Well, it was a little bit like Dogme 95. [Laughs] Here was a bunch of young people. They’re academics so they don’t have that much money. They destroyed the family pattern of how you live together by moving into a house, like they were at the frontiers of different living. It was still super sexy because they could move into a very expensive house. On my road, there were like 50 huge posh houses in the most expensive neighborhood in Copenhagen, and suddenly, 11 of those houses were communes. They could break off all the expensive oak floors and burn them in the garden and make a campfire. They could feel very naughty together. And in my house they didn’t shag each other, they shagged people in other houses, but it was reasonably civilized. And there was no drugs. It was just beer. Not even that much weed. A lot of beer.

In the beginning of the ’70s, there was a very, very strong sense of togetherness, and generosity, and love. In the ‘80s, it was a different house. It was suddenly three families enjoying a garden, having a cleaner. And there were fights. Some people moved in and some people moved out. Times changed, and time changed in my house. Those who stopped drinking went from super-interesting, funny, generous persons to super-greedy, nasty motherfuckers who had to get the fuck out of the house.

How did you leave? Is the house still there? 
I left when I was 19. My parents left before me, when I was 16 or 17. My mother would prefer I say 17. They got divorced, and they tried to live together for a while even though they were divorced. They didn’t manage and they left, and they wanted me to come with them. But I wanted to stay in the house. I loved the house and the house loved me. So [the other occupants] said, “We can have Thomas here for free, he doesn’t have to pay.” And that’s how I left home — which was my parents leaving home. Then, some years later, my dad, who is the most cultivated humble, wonderful person — he was not one of the alpha males, he was one of the loving characters in that place — ended up with the house by accident.

What were the alpha males like in that house?
Well, I have to remind you that there were a lot of alpha females, too. It was the ’70s, and it was in Scandinavia. You had pipe-smoking women who ran the house basically. And then you had a lot of guys who would say stuff like “I am 80 percent woman!” And everyone would love it. Then, you would have my dad, who actually listens to people, and who actually understands women, and who was then loved by women.

But then there were some brutes shouting, who wanted to decide things. They kind of ran the house. I remember one guy — I loved him, actually — who was a very noisy alpha male. Very intelligent, he was a philosopher. And he said, “You have to pay rent per income.” Meaning that his own rent went up three times, because he was the one making the most money. Which was kind of beautiful. But of course, everything comes with a price. So when there was a house meeting — there were always house meetings, endless meetings — his vote would be very strong, because it had the backing of a high rent.

It sounds like basically your commune became a microcosm of society in general.
It was, but what I loved about it was it was so celebratory. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, dinner would turn into a ball. People would come from all the other communes. They would bring guitars. Everyone would play, and all the kids would run around, and people would get drunk until seven in the morning. Then the next morning, no grown-ups would be around until one o’clock. So we had the whole place for ourselves. It was beautiful. It was orange. It was warm. It was full of love.

You mentioned that for Another Round, you had a breakthrough when you decided to make the characters teachers. How so? 
First, it creates a mirror between the weightlessness of youth and middle age, which I thought was interesting. And then it opens doors into the world of history, the world of sports, music, and psychology. And then of course, it’s an arena. Those guys meet each other every day, and they can test their little experiment. Also, I find that teachers are very heroic. It’s a very vulnerable position. You’re shark meat. You stand there in front of aggressive, ambitious, fearful young people. Every little weakness will be punished. I find it heartbreaking sometimes to hear stories from my daughters about that. And I remember my own time at school. Also, there’s a thing about being a teacher that’s built-in: the sense of repetitiousness, which this film is very much about. As a teacher, you’re often saying the same things every year. You can’t really reinvent yourself every day. And, I guess, being repetitious reminds you that you have to die. They have lost the element of risk. They’ve lost the element of exploration. And they’ve lost the element of inspiration. The word spirit is embedded in the word inspiration. That’s what they’re pursuing.

The decision to make them teachers at a school also reflects something that I think runs through so many of your films, which is this notion of community. Nobody shoots a crowd better than you — communities, communes, big families — whether it’s The Commune, or The Celebration, or The Hunt, or Far From the Madding Crowd, or even the way you film the sailors in Kursk [released in the U.S. as The Command]. You’re really good at depicting the way a group can have a mind of its own, and the connections that happen within it. 
Behind that, there’s a lot of work. Because it’s not just a crowd, it’s a bunch of individuals. And they’re all casted individually, and put together very carefully. Also, I grew up in a crowd of people and had to navigate this war zone of grown-up naked academics. So I’m kind of used to it. But I’m glad you appreciate it, because it does require a lot of work.

Let’s talk about that final dance scene in Another Round. I know Mads Mikkelsen has a dance background. I thought that was a wonderful way to end the film. And especially given how you direct crowds, I thought, Thomas Vinterberg should maybe make a musical one day.
Do you know the actor Jamie Bell? I worked with him on Dear Wendy, ages ago. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any dancing in the movie, but between every take I had him dance. I really enjoy watching people dance. So I could do a musical. Obviously, my Dogme 95 brother Lars von Trier did it already [with Dancer in the Dark]. Which prevents me a little bit. But I’m open to it.

For this scene, we were very much in doubt all the way through writing, that it would become unreal. Mads was like, “How does this not become about Mads Mikkelsen but about Martin?” How do we avoid this being ridiculous? If you look at the scene, it very much describes that process because he’s to-ing and fro-ing a lot. He’s very cautiously dancing a little bit, then retreating and dancing a little bit, and then finally he’s surrendering.

I think every scene in this movie is to some extent about my daughter, for everyone who made it. But maybe particularly that scene, because when Ida died, we all just surrendered to life, no barriers, everything. This whole positioning of yourself in front of the world disappeared. Mads was very close to her. If you’re ever laughing in this movie, it’s because the actors are not just trying to be funny, they’re trying really, really hard to make their good friend and director laugh at a time in my life when I couldn’t. And the final scene, in which her name appears, there was no hesitation from Mads. When we finally came to shooting, he just danced his ass off and did everything, all the stunts.

This film is actually a remarkable demonstration of his range. But you do something here that you did in The Hunt, too. Mads is such a striking looking person that I think a lot of people don’t realize what a great Everyman he is.
He’s annoyingly striking. I’m trying to give him glasses, and bad hairdos and shit. It doesn’t really help. He’s such a dear friend of mine. He’s so humorous and brilliant. I can ask him so much, and he’ll do it, and I do ask him a lot. I asked him to do this enormous range of things, and to do it while playing drunk wasn’t easy. It’s very easily overdone. But Mads is the most fine-tuned instrument you can get. This is maybe the most challenging thing I’ve ever asked any actor. To have all this enormous emotional baggage, and all these quiet moments without dialogue that have to explain a lot of things, and be drunk, and be funny, and dance.

What’s the biggest disagreement you’ve had with Mads? 
I don’t think we’ve had any disagreements. He’s quite stubborn sometimes but not as stubborn as me. I would say the dance scene is the one biggest doubt he had. In The Hunt, we had a disagreement whether he should die or not at the end. I did shoot him actually [in The Hunt]. I have material where he dies — and he dies beautifully. But I thought it was too heavy, I thought it was too low for the end. We went very far with The Hunt, so he had faith in what I said and I have complete faith in what he’s doing. All that material is great. All the shit I cut out was great. He’s just really good.

I rewatched The Celebration again the other day. It holds up really well, but it is fascinating to see it now. Back then, Dogme 95 seemed like such a hyper-realistic movement; today, it feels so stylized.  
You’re saying exactly what I keep saying about Dogme. We made a revolt against mediocre conservative filmmaking. Also — Lars would never agree — against the mediocrity in ourselves. We wanted to “undress” the movie. We wanted to purify movie-making. And then the producers came in and said, “We can’t finance it on film, you have to shoot digitally.” So it became, by accident, a digital movement. That was naked; it was a risk. People called and said, “You’re committing career suicide.” Then suddenly, what was naked became fancy dress in Cannes, in 1998. Suddenly, doing a Dogme movie was a ticket to every festival in the world. I thought about making Another Round as a Dogme movie, but I realized it would be nowhere near pure and honest. It would be uniform.

Despite the fact that it didn’t last that long, Dogme became incredibly influential. 
It was an enlightened moment of our lives, and it was amazing. It did influence a lot of people, and what more can you ask for? It’s like I have a rich and famous son who travels the world and occasionally sends me a bit of money. But it took some years to get over it — very difficult actually.

How does a movement like Dogme 95 start — like, literally, start? Are you and Lars von Trier sitting around having the beers one day? Does somebody put everyone on a conference call? How does it happen? 
I’m trying not to serve him beer, to start with. Well, we haven’t seen each other much. When we do see each other, there’s great warmth between us, and a very powerful memory of what we’ve done. But I had to break free of Lars von Trier after having done Dear Wendy. That was sort of the ultimate get-together for us. He was writing, I was directing.

The way we met back then was interesting. I was at film school, and I had to do a movie. I wanted to do it handheld, but nobody was supposed to know because it wasn’t legal, it didn’t exist. So I found a guy from my year who did cinematography and who could hold the camera really still. And I did a handheld film, and that’s what Lars von Trier saw. He asked me, “Should we make this movement together?” That was about the time when Homicide: Life on the Street came out, and was shaking a little bit. It was all boiling at the same time.

I feel like The Celebration is the film that wound up redeeming the movement in many people’s eyes — the high-point of Dogme 95.  
Well, I’ll let you say that. I’m humbled. But I guess you’re right. I’m still being stopped in the street because that movie did influence a lot of people. I talked to Alfonso Cuaron the other day, and he said when he did Y tu mama tambien, he was thinking about [The Celebration]. I can’t see that, but I love his movie.

It was very difficult to come after. I’d gone as far as I could in one direction. And when I turned around, the world was open, and suddenly full of offers and confusion. Success is difficult. I had a phone call with Ingmar Bergman at about that time. He asked me, “So what are you going to do now, Thomas?” And I said, “I don’t know, I’m considering this offer and that offer.” And he said, “Oh, you’re fucked.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Thomas, two things can happen when you open a movie. One is you fail and you’re paralyzed and you become strategic about what to do. But the worst thing is you have a success — then you’re really fucked. Always decide your next movie before the opening night.” I said, “Well, but at that point you don’t have time, you’re in editing, or you’re in the mix.” And he said, “Exactly. You don’t have time. So there’s a shorter distance from the heart to the hand. You just make a decision like that.” That was the best advice I’ve ever had in terms of career.

It was during that time that you made It’s All About Love, which is a hugely ambitious, globe-hopping science-fiction drama with Joaquin Phoenix and Clare Danes and Sean Penn, and it bombed. I rewatched it the other day. It’s still a crazy movie. 
I was lost. And what I tried to do to avoid being lost was to reverse the idea of Dogme. Instead of less of everything, more of everything. It has to be not about Denmark here and now, it has to be about the whole world at any time. There has to be a lot of music and makeup and it has to be in the future. I remember writing a scene heading saying, “INTERIOR. EXTERIOR. WORLD. DAY. NIGHT.” And everybody was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” That was impossible to control. It became a dramatically dysfunctional film.

Was there a point during the making of it either in editing or shooting where you were worried it wasn’t working?
There’s this thing about knowing but not admitting to yourself. But my body was falling apart, for some reason. I really enjoyed shooting it. I think Joaquin Phoenix is, besides being one of the best actors on this planet, such a wonderful man. That was really embarrassing that I couldn’t create a miracle with him. So I enjoyed shooting it, but in the editing, problems started. I started grinding my teeth and they cracked and I started getting allergies and stuff. I guess those were all signs that this is going the wrong way. But still, there’s some prophecy and some poetic moments in it that make me love it dearly.

It’s a pandemic movie, for starters. 
It is. It’s a lot of things. It may be one or two things too many. But, I guess it’s like being a boxer. When you’re knocked out, it’s sort of an ultimate humiliation and you get fearful and your boxing becomes defensive. Everyone was expecting a miracle from me, because they’d seen Celebration. It was a massive public humiliation. And that took some time to get over.
But I want to emphasize that to some degree I’m super proud of that movie. It appears to be my troubled child in a sense. Maybe it’s the one child I love most, but it behaves really bad socially. A lot of people don’t get it. There’s a very exclusive club of people who love it, though.

The Unspeakable Personal Tragedy That Inspired Another Round