“As a screenwriter I hate fantasy,” says Tobias Lindholm. “Fantasy is something that comes from inside oneself and I don’t find myself nearly as interesting as other people.”
Keeping things real was a high priority for the 37-year-old Dane when he embarked on A Hijacking, his hair-trigger thriller about a Danish freighter over-run by Somali pirates. Lindholm wrote his screenplay after the hijackings of the Danica White and Cec Future, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and says he was moved by the fate of hostages around the world.
We meet at the Gothenburg International Film Festival, where A Hijacking is about to scoop the audience award for best Nordic film after a whirl through the international festival circuit since its launch at Venice last year. At 6ft 3in, Lindholm has something of a tracksuited DW Griffith about him with his slicked-back hair and aquiline nose. Talking excitedly about his film, he confesses that the subject was also close to his heart because his father had served as a seaman and then as a frogman in the Danish military.
“He never liked to talk about what he got up to at sea,” says Lindholm, who was 27 when his father died. “Doing this story I felt a need to be as loyal to the spirit of what might have happened as possible.”
Already established as one of Denmark’s most sought-after screenwriters for television (Borgen) and cinema – he co-wrote Thomas Vinterberg’s intense drama The Hunt (2012), as well as the tragedic Submarino (2010) – Lindholm also co-directed (with Michael Noer) the chilling prison drama R in 2010. With A Hijacking, made on a bare-boned budget of £1.7m, he decided to direct on his own for the first time. He spent six weeks shooting aboard the MV Rozen – a freighter that had been hijacked by Somali pirates several years earlier – in the Indian Ocean, a few miles off the large Kenyan port of Mombasa. Despite the frequently harsh conditions, he relished the experience.
“I think it’s a very romantic lifestyle,” he says. “Obviously I don’t know how it would feel after a year away from my family [he is married with three children] but it definitely appealed to me. It’s a very simple life and uncomplicated: you just work and sleep. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Denmark is a country of seafarers. That’s how that small country became rich.”
Several of the Rozen’s crew were professional sailors (some from Kenya, others from Sri Lanka) whom Lindholm had chosen to act in his film because they could draw on their own experiences of being taken hostage and of the long negotiations that led to their release.
This mixing of non-professional actors with hands-on experience of a particular milieu and professional actors – in this case Borgen stars Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling, among others – is a feature of Lindholm’s search for realism. In R it is noticeable how ex-con Roland Møller – who also plays the ship’s mechanic in A Hijacking – gives his role as a prison bully-boy a depth and sense of menace. Møller became Lindholm’s “ambassador of crime”, always ready to provide insider knowledge about how a convict would behave. A similar opportunity arose on A Hijacking when Lindholm was contacted via Facebook by a real-life hostage negotiator, Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who ended up playing a version of himself.
“We asked [Porter] to pretend that Nordisk Film (Denmark’s oldest film studio) was a shipping company that had had a ship hijacked and for him to come up and brief us and take us through the drill,” says Lindholm. “It took three hours and we filmed everything. He was brilliant so I asked him if he wanted to be a part of the film.
“He didn’t have a political agenda,” he adds. “But he didn’t want us to make a Robin Hood-type story about these poor Somali guys. His agenda of course was to tell the reality of the other side of the table. Lucky for us that was our agenda as well.”
Similarly, in A Hijacking the millionaire head of the Danish shipping company that has one of its vessels seized is not a clichéd money-grabbing villain. Lindholm saw the complexities of the situation when he spoke to the chief executive of the Clipper shipping company, who had been through a drawn-out negotiation process.
“What I realised was that this guy had so much money he could have just paid the pirates straight away and that’s what he wanted to do but he couldn’t because as soon as the pirates smell money they immediately up the ante.”
Lindholm was raised by his mother, “a good old classic northern European socialist”, in the town of Næstved, about 80km from Copenhagen. It was not the most privileged of upbringings. “Denmark is such a small country and in the 1970s Copenhagen exported a lot of social cases to smaller towns like Næstved,” he says. “Big housing projects were built there and a lot of damaged families, alcoholics and drug addicts ended up out there.”
Instead of finding somewhere more salubrious, Lindholm’s mother held fast. “She used to cut everybody’s hair so all these people would come into our kitchen,” says Lindholm. “A mother would talk about how one of her babies died two weeks ago or another how her husband had beaten her up. Some of these stories found their way into Submarino.”
From the same local sources came the inspiration for R, when a friend was sent down for five years on drugs charges. Lindholm credits his mother with keeping him and his brother out of prison. As soon as he was old enough, he moved to Copenhagen and did a series of odd jobs, “working as little as possible and partying the rest of the time”. Then, 10 years ago, an unpublished novel of his was seen by a screenwriter who suggested he apply to Denmark’s National Film School, which had nurtured the talents of the Dogme 95 leading lights Lars Von Trier and Vinterberg.
Success has followed fast, especially with international acclaim for Borgen. A Hijacking continues to gather plaudits: at the Robert Awards in Denmark last month it picked up awards for best film, actor and screenplay. With another collaboration with Vinterberg in prospect – they are working on their third project, The Commune – Lindholm has begun to shun advances from Hollywood and Britain. But he likes the rhythm of alternating independent films with more mainstream work in television.
“I don’t feel limited by working in Denmark,” he says. “I am making more money than I thought I would ever do when I grew up. If you asked my mum, she would probably tell you that I’m one of the ‘in’ guys she’s always talking about.”
‘A Hijacking’ opens in the UK on May 10