Welcome to the Directors UK Podcast!
Spirits are high in this episode, as the freshly Oscar-nominated director Thomas Vinterberg discusses his latest film, Another Round, with Paolo Sorrentino.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Paolo probes Thomas on the subjects of ageing, dancing, writing, camerawork and – of course – drinking.
We hope you enjoy this discussion between two masters of European cinema!
Paolo Sorrentino: I found that this movie was about the difficulty that people of our age have keeping their ambitions from when they were young. Is this also your feeling about this movie?
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, first of all Paolo I have to thank you. I remember meeting you and your ensemble of Italians in 2013 (during awards season), and I thought, “I want to party with these people. I want to be around these people.” You all had a very humble and excited approach, and I enjoyed your film so much and I still do. It’s a great honour for me to sit here with you, Paolo, really. You probably have a deeper understanding of my movie than I have, you know how it is. It’s an exploration, right? And then you figure out what the movie is about while making it and while talking to people.
But yes, of course, turning 50 and losing curiosity and losing the element of risk and being caught up with the sense of repetition, and feeling death coming closer, and all of these things — as I sense were there in the 65th birthday in the La Grande Bellezza as well — are themes that were in my head while doing this. And I surrounded my main character, Mads Mikkelsen, with youth, with youngsters who in the beginning are like sharks. They smell his insecurity and they want to kill him, they want to fire him and at the end, he becomes part of them and he becomes weightless. So this mirror between youth, weightlessness and age, and being a man who only exists but doesn’t really live, are definitely themes we were trying to deal with in this movie. And we used the alcohol to create the element of risk to put these men on thin ice, and also to create an element of love and togetherness. I like to ask people how many married couples they know who met each other sober. I don’t know how it is in Italy and in your life Paolo, but I believe it’s not that many. So, it’s also about being lonely and finding each other again. Yes, these are some of the themes in the movie.
Paolo Sorrentino: Do you agree that happiness is the moment in which a person decides to be free — and in order to be free, they decide to dance?
Thomas Vinterberg: Of course, because it’s the ultimate loss of vanity and control, and the ultimate physical freedom — and I also think happiness is very closely related to forgetting yourself. When you have your eyes on something you might be happy, but when you have your eyes on yourself you will look forever and only find wrong things. And in the moment of dancing, if you dance freely, it can be a moment of self-forgetfulness and a moment of complete togetherness with others. For me, it takes alcohol to get to that point of dancing. Well no, I dance with my children actually quite often, but you’re right that in Mads’ case he has lost everything and in that situation, you’re closer to the possibility of catharsis.
But you know Paolo, it took some convincing to get Mads to do this, and even my co-writer Tobias Lindholm, because they’re both “reality rules”. They’re like, ‘Dude, this is a school teacher, how can he dance?’ And I was like, ‘Well, you can dance. He’s a school teacher that went to jazz ballet classes.’ ‘Well, it’s a bit of a stretch.’ So, my clever co-writer said to me, ‘Well if you want that ending, we have to begin in the elbow to make the hand work.’ We have to start setting it up from the beginning. We have to build this expectation and this need in the audience to see him dance at the end. And so we did, they ask him to dance all throughout the film, ‘When are you going to dance for us?’ And everyone else dances, but he doesn’t.
Paolo Sorrentino: Do you also get that feeling that there is a moment when you drink not too much, and not too little, where everything is possible in your life and that life could be perfect?
Thomas Vinterberg: Of course, I have that and I sometimes wish that those 20 minutes could be extended to a day or at least an hour — and I guess that’s what they’re trying. The theory that they embark on is exactly trying to find that place where you’re not drunk, but you’re not sober, and where you lose your self-control and you become creative, and as you say problems disappear or become small, and everyone becomes beautiful and you see love all around you. And I think some people have lived in a constant pursuit of those 20 minutes, with ups and downs because I don’t think you can keep it for a whole day, but you can have a sleep at midday and then get back. I wonder if Churchill was one of these people.
Paolo Sorrentino: I think a lot of criminals also live in that moment, otherwise, they would not be able to do what they do, no?
Thomas Vinterberg: Right, but Paolo, when you write your scripts, do you drink when you write?
Paolo Sorrentino: No never.
Thomas Vinterberg: You come to a certain zone without drinking. My question is, can you come to what you feel in those 20 minutes without drinking?
Paolo Sorrentino: Yes, when I write I listen to dance music on the radio.
Thomas Vinterberg: Is it the kind of music you have in the opening of La Grande Bellezza?
Paolo Sorrentino: Yes, something like that.
Thomas Vinterberg: Perfect. In those 20 minutes, I believe that very, very, very important things in world history have happened. Decisions have been made by people who have been in exactly that zone that you talk about. I don’t know because I wasn’t there with them, but Tobias and I spoke a lot about the decision that Churchill made when he sent hundreds of thousands of civilians into war. Did he have his champagne at that time, and if he did not have his champagne what would have happened? I think it has changed history in certain instances, because in those 20 minutes there’s a very short distance from your heart to your hand. Making a decision like that is almost a reflex, and very often a very precise decision. I remember I talking to the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and he said to me, ‘Never decide.’ Well, he said, ‘Always decide your next movie before your opening night, before the premiere of the film.’
Paolo Sorrentino: Always decide?
Thomas Vinterberg: Always decide before the opening. And I said, ‘Why?’ Well he said, ‘At the opening two things can happen: you fail and you get paralysed and start thinking, ‘What kind of director am I, what should I do next?’ Even worse you can have a success, and you become strategic and want more, and you start playing cards and start calling people in Los Angeles — or they start calling you.’ And I said, ‘Well, but if I make the decision before I will be very busy, I’ll be in the middle of mix or-.’ He said, ‘Exactly.’ You must make a decision that is very short from the heart to the hand. It has a little bit of the same thing.
Paolo Sorrentino: Wise advice. Thank you, because I am in the mix now, so after this meeting I will decide what movie to do next.
Thomas Vinterberg: You’ve already decided, haven’t you?
Paolo Sorrentino: No, I didn’t! No, I was waiting for the opening of the movie but now that you’ve told me that thing that Bergman said, I will follow your advice.
Thomas Vinterberg: You know the conversation you can have with yourself for months about what kind of director am I, what kind of movie does the world want...it’s a waste of time, right?
Paolo Sorrentino: I agree. What’s the precise moment in your head when you say to yourself, ‘I will do this movie instead of another movie’?
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, Paolo, to be honest, I’m weak on decisions. I think decisions are not something you take, decisions are something that comes to you if you’re ready. I know not everyone can wait, and I have to follow the advice of Ingmar Bergman, so I hire people and I tell them about the idea so that there’s no return. And then there are many times through making the project where I become in doubt. I don’t know if you ever become in doubt, but I do quite often — and I was in doubt about Another Round too, because it was such a wild story to write. It was not as I normally write a script. It wanted to go in so many directions, and when I tried to tame it and curate it and discipline it, it was a castration. So all the disciplines I normally use when I write didn’t work. It was like the script had to be drunk somehow. And that made me very fearful sometimes.
Paolo Sorrentino: Many times when I see movies I don’t understand the choice of using a handheld camera, but in your movie I thought it was the only possible choice. In my view the camera is just as drunk as the characters of the movie, is that correct?
Thomas Vinterberg: Correct, the whole movie is handheld, and the main reason is because I had a cinematographer who was very, very good at this. He’s very sensitive, so he can really dance with the actors — and of course when you bring something to the screen like this it’s very important to look for something real and bare and raw. So, the element of authenticity was important — but what you’re saying is on target in the sense that we wanted the camera to show how awkward sober life is, to begin with. It’s like a dance with two people who knock their heads together you know? That was how we wanted the camera to be, and also the sound. When someone was about to say something important the coffee machine starts... that’s sober life. And then, when they start drinking, everything becomes smooth... we like to think about a big heavy aeroplane taking off into the sunset.
But Paolo, I was always nervous about all the equipment you know. You use them amazingly, but already at film school before dogma back in the ‘90s many years ago, I wanted to do handheld films, because I did not have time for the dolly and the tracks, and I was interested in the actors but it was not really legal. No one said, ‘You cannot do a handheld movie. It has never been done.’ So I found a guy who could do Tai Chi, and I thought he could hold the camera very still and no one will notice. But Lars von Trier noticed and then we started a dogma. So I have a long history with handheld!
Paolo Sorrentino: Have you read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana on that moment between sober and drunk?
Thomas Vinterberg: I have not, but I will. I have read a lot: I have all these Hemingway books here. I’ve read a lot of Hemingway when I’ve been reading about drinking. I think he’s an expert in describing what to drink. He’d use a full page to describe one drink, and I was very inspired by that for the movie. I wanted to have a scene where they tell you everything they put inside the drink. I even think we could have used more time doing that, because being very specific about what people eat or drink on film makes it alive somehow. But I will now read Our Man in Havana, I haven’t read it yet.
Paolo Sorrentino: Another question from Anke Lueddecke, ‘To what extent did Thomas want to paint the picture of a male friendship, and how did his co-writer and the cast shape the portrayal of middle-aged male relationships with each other?’
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, this film is all about male friendship, and it’s also about four men who miss male friendship. I think they’ve lost it because they’ve lost interest in the world, and they find each other through this experiment. Paolo, I grew up in a commune, you know, a house full of hippies. I was a little boy, and there was a lot of genitals and academics and alcohol, and it was great I loved it... and those people they did something that was not done before. They moved into a big, big expensive house because they could afford it, they mixed up the family relations, and they did what their parents told them not to do. And they felt really good about it. And it created a sense of solidarity, and this film is about the same thing. It’s about four men doing something which is dangerous, it’s an experiment. They jump off a cliff together, but they hold hands while they do it — and that creates the ultimate sense of solidarity.
Paolo Sorrentino: I feel like the movie is also saying that if all of us are ready to accept failure, and to tolerate the failure of other people, everything could be better. And at the end, the fact that Martin and Anika come back together, maybe that’s also because they are ready to accept failure before joining again. Is that correct?
Thomas Vinterberg: It’s a huge theme. I think that we live in a world where it’s very, very difficult to accept failure. We live in a world that is very controlled and measured. You live in your own artistic pocket, Paolo, so you can do whatever you want. But if you’re a young student you have to map out your plans for your future very early. If you’re a journalist you will be told how many clicks you have per article you sell. When you walk around in the streets your steps are being counted, and your performance is constantly measured. You have to appear on social media and you have to appear great. It’s a story you have to tell about yourself constantly. Now here’s a film about losing control of that, it’s about the uncontrollable. My wife, she’s more clever than I am, she told me what the uncontrollable is. She says, ‘Well it’s like falling in love: you fall but you meet something big, something you cannot buy on the internet, something you cannot prepare for at school — but you find it by accident.’ A lot of life is by accident, and it includes failure, and an idea is something you get — it’s not something you ask for. You get it from somewhere. So this film, for me and Tobias Lindholm is a declaration of love to the uncontrollable. End of story.
Paolo Sorrentino: I have another question (from a Directors UK member). Did you plan and discuss with Mads how you wanted it to look whenever he was drinking in a scene? It always looked so cathartic.
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, we worked on how to play drunk. We spent a full week of rehearsals only around playing drunk, because I thought the film would be absolutely pathetic if the drunkenness was not convincing. So it was a combination of a lot of hard work and some great fun, and they had alcohol and we filmed it. So we filmed Mads Mikkelsen teaching sober and then on 0.1% (blood alcohol) and then 1.2% and so on. He did not feel there was a difference until he saw the material — then he could see there was a great difference. So we studied how to play drunk, and it was always very difficult with the eyes: the eyes give away the actor, because the eyes show that they’re in control while they try to be out of control. As you know Paolo, to begin with, it’s about hiding. It’s about pretending you’re not drunk, like when you play that you’re in love. But after 1.0, when you start falling around, it becomes really difficult. So we discussed that a lot. I discussed this for hours, actually for a whole week with Mads Mikkelsen.
Paolo Sorrentino: So the actors never drank during the shoot?
Thomas Vinterberg: Not that I know of. I don’t know what happened in the trailers Paolo, but the idea was that they had to act and not be drunk, because they had to work for 12 hours. They may have to drive a car or be with some children right after so they had to have control. And you know I challenged them: they had to be very tender, cry, they had to be fun, they had to be drunk, they had to dance. I kept them busy. Paolo, would you have served alcohol?
Paolo Sorrentino: No, I would be scared to give alcohol to the actors. It just looked so realistic I thought they drank during the scenes.
Thomas Vinterberg: They took the smell of vodka sometimes but the odd drink? I don’t know.
Paolo Sorrentino: Here is another question: ‘You mentioned some of the books you have read. Did the film continue to change from those influences as you progressed, or were you clear on the direction from the beginning?’
Thomas Vinterberg: I was never clear of the direction of this movie and I’m still not. It was an untameable beast. As I said earlier in our conversation, the script had to be drunk. So you have a script where in one scene they go to the supermarket and it’s really silly and they have to get a codfish in the harbour, silly comedy. And then you have another scene where he’s in a physical fight with his family and it’s very tragic... and it’s in the same movie. But I felt by mixing these things it became honest. It became naïve, which I like in a movie. When I cannot see the intention of the film-maker, I’m happy. So of course we had a direction, Tobias Lindholm is a great writer and he’s very precise. We decided a pattern to frame the chaos, of course, and we worked on this for a long time. I started in ‘13 I think.
Paolo Sorrentino: Where did this idea come from?
Thomas Vinterberg: To begin with we just looked at world history and thought of how many great things had been done by people who were drunk, and we wanted to make a celebration of alcohol, but we had no story. And then we realised if we make a celebration of alcohol we also have to remember how many people die from it, and how many families are destroyed, and people who are handicapped by this - which we also found fascinating, but actually I also felt an obligation morally, which I normally tend to steer away from. But in this case, I felt an obligation. I know people who died from this.
Paolo Sorrentino: Are you surprised by the success of this movie, at this moment where political correctness is very present?
Thomas Vinterberg: Yes, I was nervous about this, because of course the world right now is having a lot of very intense moral debates, and the climate is almost aggressive sometimes. And then on top of that the pandemic came, which also adds structure and confinement and all of these things. So I was nervous that this film would seem completely irrelevant, but the opposite seemed to happen. There seemed to be a need to see a movie with people sharing a bottle, which almost felt illegal. The four men who insist on living and living inspiredly is something that people understand right now, apparently. But yes, I was nervous about it of course, and I was surprised by the enormous love that the film received from everyone.
Paolo Sorrentino: When you consider a new movie, are you afraid of the problem of being politically correct, or are you able to be free in your thinking?
Thomas Vinterberg: How do you feel about this Paolo? I’m very interested to hear that.
Paolo Sorrentino: I am not free in my mind. I think something and soon after I wonder if this is the right thing... but I am angry with myself, because I don’t want to think in this way. But I surprise myself that I’m thinking this way.
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, I feel exactly the same. I’m nervous about this whole thing, because I have never thought inspiration could come from a political agenda. It can come from curiosity — again it’s like falling in love, it’s something that happens that keeps you awake that you have to come back to, that makes you curious. And that does not come from what has been agreed by society. It comes from somewhere else, and it has to come from somewhere else or it’s not art anymore. Then it’s a consensus. But I have that debate constantly, of course, because that’s how the world is right now. There is this constant debate, so it does make me nervous.
Paolo Sorrentino: As soon as I have this problem I will call you, as soon as possible.
Thomas Vinterberg: Would love to talk to you again!