Oscar Nominee Tobias Lindholm on the Complex Conflicts of ‘A War’

And why does the Danish writer-director want to see Pilou Asbaek killed off in 'Game of Thrones?'

Oscar Nominee Tobias Lindholm on the Complex Conflicts of 'A War'
Courtesy of Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Back in 2014, Tobias Lindholm got to share in some Oscar celebrations, as Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” — which Lindholm co-wrote with the Danish auteur — nabbed a best foreign language film nomination. Two years on, the glory is all his, as “A War,” the 38-year-old’s third film as writer-director, scooped a nod in the same category. Deservedly so, too: A rigorous, sensitive study of an upstanding army commander (superbly played by “Game of Thrones” star Pilou Asbaek) tried for war crimes on his return from Afghanistan, the film deftly balances military and legal politics with equally complex conflicts in the domestic sphere.

“A War” boasts the same blend of procedural detail and human nuance that distinguished Lindholm’s remarkable previous film “A Hijacking” — the nerve-shredding Somali pirate thriller that beat “Captain Phillips” to the punch in 2012. With writing credits on two seasons of international TV sensation “Borgen” and an ongoing creative collaboration with Vinterberg, he’s among the busiest talents on the Danish scene. We caught up with him on the Oscar campaign trail.

We’ve seen a lot of Afghanistan war dramas, but the Danish perspective is a fresh one. What did you set out to do differently?

The style of war films, and especially the American war films made in the 1970s, meant a lot to me when I was in film school. So with Denmark going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew there was a story there to tell. I just couldn’t find my way in until I read an interview with a Danish officer who was going on his third tour to Afghanistan, and said he wasn’t afraid of being killed down there — he was afraid of being prosecuted when he got back home.

Indeed, the war at home — not just the legal case, but the domestic tension that awaits returning soldiers — is evenly balanced with the combat drama.

Often in war films, we see the dehumanization of a soldier: A young man joins the military, is sent to war and is bloated as a human being. So I decided to humanize him instead. Instead of it just being a soldier in uniform, I wanted to make him a full human being: somebody’s husband and somebody’s father. And that became my emotional window: I have not been a soldier, I’ve never been to war, but I am a father of three small children. I know the complexity and the drama in that. So it’s not only about the soldiers, but the families that need to live without their fathers and mothers for months. So many people whose lives are changing because of the decision to go to war. I felt it was right to, instead of just doing a plain soldiers-at-war film, to try and take society’s perspective. A lot of human beings have three sides: You’re a professional, a private person and a citizen. You are part of a democracy. Those three arenas became the three arenas of the film.

While we see the damage done to multiple parties by the conflict, I wouldn’t simply call it an “anti-war film.” Is that fair?

My point was to make a film where, instead of choosing between good and evil, we could prove the complexity of war. If you accept that life is complex, there is no easy way out. It’s way too easy to have the discussion of whether you’re for or against war. That’s pointless. The war is over. There’s not that many soldiers there now. Let’s have a conversation about what has actually happened down there and what can we learn from it. Hopefully a film like this can help remind us there is no black and white, only all the colors between.

Your research ended up affecting your casting process. Can you explain?

The first guy I met ended up acting in the film as well: a guy my own age who had been on four tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Just listening to the stories he told I knew that there was a lot of stuff that hadn’t been told. I decided to work very closely with him and the friends that he had served with. Suddenly I had a small soccer team of soldiers, each with their own experience and point of view, to help me understand what a life in war means. Then I decided to use them in the film as actors instead of casting professionals in those roles; they knew what their characters were feeling and talking about.

Though for your leading man, of course, you reunited with a regular collaborator, Pilou Asbaek. Was that even a discussion?

I knew from the beginning that I was writing for Pilou. When I got the idea I called him immediately and asked if he’d be free to shoot two years later. We’ve been working together for almost 10 years, and it’s become a friendship where we are now sharing lives, privately and professionally, which is a joy. On set, we don’t even have to speak that much anymore — we just instinctively know what we’re looking for in a scene. For me, he’s the best European actor of his generation; I guess I’m the only one who’s cheering for him to get killed in “Game of Thrones,” so I can get him back.

The presence of Asbaek in the lead is one of several aspects “A War” has in common with “A Hijacking” — even the titles reflect each other. Did you intend for it to be a companion piece of sorts?

I did. With “A Hijacking,” we started to move toward the atmosphere and honesty in a film that I was looking for. But I didn’t feel that we took it all the way. So, with the cinematographer and the editor, we tried to find places where we could elevate our film language. The point was for the two films would be related; our hope that we could take all the best stuff from “A Hijacking,” and just tell the rest a little better.

You mentioned the U.S. war cinema of the 1970s as an influence. Were there any particular titles you referred back to in the creative process?

The closest one would be “The Deer Hunter,” which describes the lives before, during and after the war. I learned a lot from watching that. How can we identify with these soldiers? How can we humanize them? How can we give them something that’s more than just being a soldier? And it’s not from the ’70s, but “The Hurt Locker” meant a lot to me as well. It’s such a strong, honest film. And then there’s the American documentary “Restrepo,” which helped with the logic of where to put the camera and how we could stay close to the soldiers.

Kathryn Bigelow has been a prominent champion of “A War,” hasn’t she?

Kathryn reached out to me after watching “A Hijacking” and started a conversation — just as filmmakers, talking about how we did stuff. And that was incredible. I mean, she did “Point Break,” for Christ’s sake! That was a favorite film of mine when I was a kid. So I was extremely honored. At our first meeting, when we talked about “A Hijacking,” I was already writing “A War.” So I pitched her the story then, and we had a long conversation about it. And then I screened the film for her as soon as it was finished. She’s been supporting me so much.

If you look at the Oscars alone, “A War” is the country’s fifth nominee in a decade. That’s a superficial metric, but Danish cinema seems in pretty rude health at the moment. Does it feel that way from the inside?

When “Babette’s Feast” and “Pelle the Conqueror” won the Oscars in the 1980s, and when Lars von Trier started to do his films — we’re a very small country, so when certain individuals go out and make extraordinary things, it kind of makes you believe that you can do it. And everybody there is watching each other’s films. The community is strong. And I do believe what we’re seeing now is a generation that was brought up with Dogma 95. We’re doing something very different, but we’re on the shoulders of that movement: We know that the story needs to come first, and that we’re unable to compete with others on budget anyway.

“The Commune,” your latest writing collaboration with Vinterberg, has just premiered at Berlin. What’s next on the slate?

I’m writing a new film with Thomas right now called “Bunch,” in which we kind of want to celebrate alcohol, to celebrate drinking and the conversations that, when you’re just a little drunk, go into something bigger than ordinary life. Thomas is in his 40s, and I’ll soon be there, and now we’re both family men, we look at our lives and wish, sometimes, for a return to the place where you could live like Hemingway. So we’re writing a story about five friends who, because they feel a bit stuck, decide to get very, very drunk in a period and see if they can defrost their lives, so to speak. I can’t wait to write it. The research, at least, is a lot of fun.