Even in a world as volatile as the film industry, Thomas Vinterberg has had some serious ups and downs. After becoming the toast of Cannes in 1998 with his Dogme film Festen, the Danish director fell sharply from grace with the follow-up It’s All About Love and endured several commercial flops before returning to favor with his provocative 2012 Oscar nominee The Hunt. His latest, the drinking drama Another Round, could have set him back to square one—as shooting began, his teenage daughter died in a car crash, and its Cannes premiere was scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic—but somehow it prevailed, sweeping festival prizes across the globe and bringing Vinterberg back to the Oscar conversation.
Thomas Vinterberg On A Rare Oscar Double Play And How Personal Tragedy Moved Him To Finish ‘Another Round’ In His Daughter’s Memory – Behind The Lens
DEADLINE: What do the Oscars mean to you?
THOMAS VINTERBERG: Since my childhood it has been a dream, like a kind of phantom. I’ve been catching myself doing Oscar speeches—like, when I’m in the bathroom. Throughout my childhood, it was a thing I dreamt of. And then when I went there with The Hunt it became real, and I suddenly met all these cineastes—people who have a true fascination for film. There was a lot of camaraderie, so it became more like a family, a family of people who all share the same interests. But, as a kid and as a youngster, it was a filmmaker’s nirvana, I guess.
DEADLINE: What do you remember of that time you were there with The Hunt?
VINTERBERG: Meeting all these great people and all the other nominees. I remember the show—which was fantastic—and the disappointment of not winning. Which was OK, actually. You know, I really like Paulo Sorrentino, who stole the Oscar from us that night [with The Great Beauty]. He’s a nice guy, and I enjoyed that he was winning. That was bearable, definitely. I hate when assholes win. But he’s really nice, so that was good. It was good evening, actually. I remember going to a restaurant and a lot of people talked about Brad Pitt—he was supposed to be sitting in the next room. I never saw him, though. And I remember getting drunk with my friends, and with my beautiful wife. I had a lovely night. It’s going to be difficult… Not difficult, different this year.
DEADLINE: With the pandemic, the film could very easily have gone a different way. What were you doing when lockdown started—were you still working on the film?
VINTERBERG: No. There’s been a guardian angel somewhere with this movie. We’ve been incredibly lucky. The cinemas opened during a certain timeslot in Denmark, we put the film out there, and it filled every cinema in Denmark throughout that timeslot. And then it finished its run, they locked down again. Similarly, the film was in final mix when the whole pandemic thing broke out, so it never affected the film back home. Then, of course, there’s been all the festivals, that we haven’t been able to attend, which has been a shame. But that can also be turned into an advantage, I have to say.
DEADLINE: In what way?
VINTERBERG: If a film is successful, which this one has been, you very easily find yourself doing a year of traveling and celebrating yourself. And it’s not necessarily very healthy. A lot of this stuff can be dealt with on Zoom, which means I can go to the office and work on my next thing.
DEADLINE: When did you first realize Another Round was gathering momentum?
VINTERBERG: We felt it already with Denmark—there were some really strong reactions here. We could actually sit in a cinema full of people, watching the film, and that was sensational. The international success of the film became real to me in Rome, and in Lyon, and in Paris, during a trip that I went on [in October 2020].
DEADLINE: What was so specific about the reaction in Denmark?
VINTERBERG: There was a lot of laughing, a lot of cheering, and a lot of tears. A lot of everything, basically—all ages, primarily women. A lot of youngsters used the film as a kickstart on a Friday night. And at the same time, in the same cinema, you had ex-alcoholics who felt that this movie was about them, and felt seen by it, and enjoyed the fact that someone was finally talking about why it’s so great to drink. The film made sense to a lot of different people of a lot of different ages and a lot of different social levels, so it was a proper blockbuster. It has sold more tickets than I’ve ever tried in my life. In Denmark, it was 800,000 people, which, out of 5 million, is a lot.
DEADLINE: What would be the Hollywood equivalent?
VINTERBERG: A Hollywood movie would never get those kinds of numbers. If you really want to get high numbers in Denmark, it has to be a Danish film. It’s very rare that a film sells that much.
DEADLINE: You first began talking about Another Round while you were promoting Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015. Is it the film you thought you’d end up making or has it changed?
VINTERBERG: At that time, it was still only a pitch. And, as I remember, back then it was more like a celebration of alcohol. And then maybe in 2015, we figured out that if we wanted to make a movie about alcohol, we had to talk about the whole spectrum of it, and also talk about the fact that it kills people and destroys families. We’ve had very close relationships with people who’ve lost either their life or their dignity to alcohol. But the story—the story of doing this experiment—I feel came a bit later than that. We were looking for it for a while, and then when we ran into [Norwegian psychiatrist] Finn Skårderud’s theory [that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05 per cent too low], things started to take shape. When we then decided to make them teachers, it really took shape.
DEADLINE: How real is the theory?
VINTERBERG: Well, it’s real in the sense that a Norwegian psychiatrist said it and wrote it! But in the world of academics, it takes more than just saying something to qualify as a theory. It’s only in the movie business where you can have theories about everything. So, it’s basically just something someone said; I guess polemically. He read the script and helped us with it—he’s very supportive and likes it a lot. But, from an academic view, I don’t think it makes sense. We tried to elevate it into an academic experiment, of course.
DEADLINE: Have you tried it?
VINTERBERG: No. I haven’t tried it because I’m nervous about the outcome. I’m nervous that I’m too far from reality. But the French distributor tried it, so I’ll ask them how it went.
DEADLINE: How difficult it is to film drunk scenes?
VINTERBERG: It’s really difficult. For this film, they didn’t only have to be drunk, they had to be very tender, they had to be fun, they had to be very refined, they had to be great teachers, they had to dance… I put a lot on their plate. The drunken part of it just had to work, so we had a full week of rehearsals. Eight hours a day, for five days, which included filming the actors under different levels of influence of alcohol. We watched a lot of material involving drunks—for some reason, particularly Russian videos [laughs]. It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work. The eyes were a big giveaway constantly, especially at a high level of alcohol intake, so we had to keep calling the makeup department. We also saw on the videos that when people fall over when they’re drunk, they don’t protect themselves, they just fall on their heads, so we needed the stunt department to come in. There were a lot of practicalities that we had to work on, basically.
DEADLINE: What is it about the eyes?
VINTERBERG: They go blurry. It’s the difference between control and lack of control, so if you act like your body is out of control, but people can see that your eyes are navigating, it’s a giveaway. So, when they become blurry and watery and reddish, it helps. It actually helps them act with their eyes—they let go of all that scanning around. But there’s a difference to how drunk you are, of course. I mean, when you’re below 1.0, it’s a bit like normal acting, where you hide everything. Acting is a lot about hiding—I guess you know that. If you’re a drunk, it’s about pretending that you’re not drunk. Like if you’re a character in a Hitchcock movie and you’ve just killed someone, it’s about pretending that you’re on top of things, that you’re happy and fresh. It’s all about that dualism. It’s the same thing with playing drunk—up until you get crazy drunk, and that’s where it becomes really difficult.
DEADLINE: Did you have any rehearsals for “crazy drunk”?
VINTERBERG: No, because that wouldn’t have worked out. They wouldn’t be able to remember what happened. So, they drank, but they didn’t drink crazy.
DEADLINE: Obviously you’ve worked with Mads before, so you knew he’d been a professional dancer. Had you wanted to have him dance in a movie before?
VINTERBERG: I’ve always wanted to, but there’s never been an opportunity. Like in The Hunt, the audience would have been sure that he was guilty if he started dancing [laughs] In Nicolas Winding Refn’s movies, it would have been even more fun—can you see it in Valhalla Rising? The jazz hands? It would have been beautiful!
I always wanted it, but there wasn’t really the opportunity, until this project came about. Mads was very nervous about it, and so was Tobias Lindholm, my co-writer. They’re both “reality rules” kind of guys, and they felt it was a bit of a stretch, to have a school teacher ending up in a musical-like scene at the end. I felt that too, but I had this urge to see him dance. And also, I felt it really made sense, in a movie about drinking.
You know the film Zorba the Greek? I love it, particularly the end scene, where they dance on the beach. I always was mesmerized by that, because everything fell apart in that movie, everything was destroyed. They call it “a beautiful catastrophe”. I felt that was mesmerizing, and I kind of went for it. The end of this movie is a beautiful catastrophe as well.
DEADLINE: But it works for Mads’s character, because you get the sense that he’s someone who has fallen into teaching and is in a rut…
VINTERBERG: Right. But that’s the shorthand of Tobias Lindholm saying, “OK, if you want him to dance at the end, we have to prepare this—we have to build the urge in the audience to see this happen.” So, we worked hard on that, and it wasn’t easy. You can see that reluctance, even in the dance. We kind of built that into the choreography—he’s dancing a little bit, then he’s retreating, then he’s dancing a little bit more, then he’s retreating, and finally he lets go of control. Which I suppose, for me, is the main theme of the movie: letting go of control, allowing yourself to fail. It’s not about drinking. It’s about allowing yourself to enter a room where anything can happen. Things that are not part of your performance culture, your life of measurements. Life just happens to you.
DEADLINE: And then you released this film in the middle of an uncontrollable pandemic…
VINTERBERG: Oh yeah. But it’s given this film some extra energy. Of course, I would love people to see this film in screening rooms. I miss the element of… what do you call it? Collectivity? Community? That you can actually all feel the same thing, at the same time, is an enormous and almost forgotten thing. But, having said that, the film is landing in an environment where people are yearning for this, I think.
DEADLINE: You mentioned “allowing yourself to fail”. You’ve had success and failure in roughly equal measure. Is failure a part of what makes a good artist?
VINTERBERG: It’s a double-edged sword. Through failure, you learn to enjoy success, and it gives you courage somehow to know that, OK, it can’t get any worse than this. But then again… I remember talking to a boxer once, and he said, “If you have experienced a knockout, it’s the ultimate humiliation. The problem is you become cautious. You become less daring.” I think the whole idea is to try to not get too carried away, either when we fail or when we have success. I’ve said this before, but the best advice I’ve ever had, was from Ingmar Bergman in that regard. He said to me, “Always decide your next movie prior to the premiere, prior to the opening night.”
DEADLINE: What did he mean by that?
VINTERBERG: He said, “Two things can happen on an opening night. One is that you fail, and you get paralyzed, and you start becoming strategic in trying to save your career. But even worse, you might have a success, and you become even more strategic and self-aware.” I said, “But I’ll be busy at that time.” And he said, “Exactly. When you’re busy, there’s a shorter distance from the heart to the hand. When you’re in the middle of things, you just get an idea—boom!—and you take it and just do it.” He had all these mechanisms for not getting carried away by these things. And that’s what I’m trying to aim for. I’m not very good at it [laughs].
DEADLINE: You said you were going to do Another Round after Far from the Madding Crowd. You had The Commune already wrapped by then, but you ended up doing Kursk instead. What guides you? Is there a kind of continuity in the films you make?
VINTERBERG: I feel that there’s a continuity in my own movies—those I write myself—and when I go abroad to do other people’s scripts, it’s a complete breach of my continuity, but it serves a purpose somehow. It excites me to meet new people, new genres, new workshops. With Kursk, it excited me to enter a room with a lot of water, and technicians, and 200 people doing things I didn’t understand. I really enjoyed that. And, of course, at the core of Kursk, there was a story of togetherness, which has been a theme throughout my career, I guess.
DEADLINE: To talk about about your career highs, it does seem that you, Mads and Tobias are something of a dream team when you work together. Is there something special that comes out of working with those two in particular?
VINTERBERG: Oh yeah. Those guys are brilliant and, yes, we’ve done it once before. Obviously, they were not around when I did Festen. But, yes. It’s a beautiful match of really, really intelligent, great, brilliant workers. Mads is such a specifically, precise and clever guy, and it’s the same thing with Tobias.
DEADLINE: Tobias’s background is in very gritty material and yours isn’t. What do you think makes you work together so well?
VINTERBERG: We like each other. We like each other’s company—we’re friends. Our kids know each other, our wives know each other, and we enjoy each other’s company. And I think when Tobias started moviemaking, he was inspired by my early work—Festen in particular. The idea of creating a closed, confined space with people, and then dropping conflicts into that. His early prison film R had some of that same element. And I’m inspired by him, I admire him, so, I guess there’s an element of mutual admiration. He’s the guy cleaning up things and structuring things, and I’m the guy messing up a lot, you know?
DEADLINE: You’ve been directing for 30 years now. Do you still remember why you wanted to be a director and is it still the case now?
VINTERBERG: Well, to begin with, I just wanted to be famous, basically. I started when I was 16 and I was very shy. I played guitar, but I didn’t have the courage to leave school to play in a band, which my friends did. And then, when I actually was able to put a film together, I was immediately attracted to the group effort: the fact that a lot of people went through so much, and spent so much time and money and effort, to pursue a little bit of vulnerability in a human being, and make sure that we can share it with the world, was just so exciting to me.
I was, and still am, an insecure person. I really enjoyed turning it into a profession. Pursuing those vulnerable moments in human beings, and even have a lot of people around me doing it. I have to remind you, I grew up in a commune, so the element of togetherness was natural for me. I guess I was 16 or 17 when I shot my first film with my friends and I was hooked. What I did not know was how much crazy hard work, how many humiliations I would suffer, and how life-consuming it would end up being. Luckily, I didn’t know, because then I would have turned around.
DEADLINE: What’s your next project?
VINTERBERG: It’s not fully set up yet, but it’s almost fully set up. I’m writing a TV series, Families Like Ours, which I’m very much enjoying. It’s not going to be with Tobias this time, as he’s becoming increasingly rich and famous as a director, so I’m working with [Bo Hr. Hansen], my old collaborator from my graduate film, which was called Last Round and was actually nominated for a student Oscar back in the day, and even had the same actor—Thomas Bo Larsen—as Another Round. It’s a TV series, so there’s a lot of pages, a lot of minutes. But it’s been a joyful experience so far.