A Hijacking from a great Dane

Danish drama is on a roll, – and on a screen near you. Tobias Lindholm, director of new thriller ‘A Hijacking’, discusses its unstoppable rise


It’s all about Denmark these days. Posh dinner parties buzz with conversations about that lady’s jumper in The Killing and all those political shenanigans in Borgen . Mads Mikkelsen is doing what he does in A Royal Affair and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt . Lars Von Trier lurks in the undergrowth waiting to spring his next outrage. Did you enjoy Love is All You Need with Pierce Brosnan? It was directed by a Danish woman, you know.

Tobias Lindholm is not as well-known as Von Trier or Vinterberg. But he remains a key figure in the current Danish renaissance. Still in his mid-30s, he had a hit on domestic television with Sommer in 2008. Two years later, Borgen , his knotty political drama, also registered with Danish viewers before going on to become an international cult smash. He also wrote Submarino and the tremendous The Hunt for Vinterberg.

“I am not sure what happened,” he says. “There was a creative force at the film school. Then we had a director like Lars Von Trier, who could have been from anywhere, but happened to make films in Denmark. Those are things you need in a small country. And there is commercial funding. You set up a machine and this is what it delivers.”

The latest product of the machine is a superb thriller named A Hijacking .
Lindholm’s second film as director concerns a Danish cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in open water. The film does find time to develop characters, but it is most notable for the apparent authenticity of its procedural details. The shipping company bring in an English negotiator, played by Gary Porter, who urges all involved to settle in for a long wait.

“My collaborators and I are like a rock band and we have a rule: reality rules,” he says. “You need to confront yourself with reality. When we were researching, we got this message that this guy might be able to help us. Gary was a real hostage negotiator. So we had him in for a few sessions and thought, he has to be in the film. We don’t need to write anything for him. We just have to figure out what questions to ask him.”

It’s a fascinating process. What really strikes the viewer is how long it takes. Days and weeks crawl by without any apparent progress. Porter makes sure to keep channels open. The authorities occasionally improvise and pay the price. Further days and weeks pass.

“Well, as Gary’s character says in the film, time is a western concept,” Lindholm explains. “The pirates can stand in the desert with nothing to eat or drink or they can wait for the money at sea. That’s a really good negotiating tool. In contrast, time is absolutely everything for us. We live by it.”

The film is packed with this sort of anthropologically worrying detail (you wouldn’t want to fling these facts at a Somali acquaintance without some further checking). Yet one fact that you don’t get from the picture is just how common such incidents are. A few days after hiring a ship named the Rosen , Lindholm and his team discovered that the vessel had, itself, been hijacked two years previously.

“The black sailors had been separated because they were not seen to be worth any money and were not guarded so well,” he explains. “Rather than having a general image of a hijacking, these guys had a very specific image. So we used them in the film too.”

It makes for a gripping combination of artfully sustained suspense and deeply researched verité . Much of the more populist Danish film and TV of the last decade follows that formula. A working-class boy from the “projects of Copenhagen”, Lindholm had already gathered wads of useful experience before he eventual launched into scriptwriting. He remembers realising that he might have the knack for writing while composing postcards during a lengthy period backpacking about Europe. One evening, he made fun of a girl for writing poetry.

“I said: ‘That’s not hard. That’s easy,’” he says slightly shame-facedly. “So the next morning I woke up and decided to see if that was true. I decided to write 10 pages a day.”

He eventually wrote a novel and secured a contract with a publisher. The publisher then went bust and, following conversations with colleagues, he decided to make his way to film school. Within days of graduation, the Danish state broadcaster was on the phone. Thomas Vinterberg, director of the hugely influential Festen , also made contact.

“I still really can’t believe it,” he says with a wag of the head.

He admits that the international success of Borgen caused him even greater astonishment. Whereas The Killing surfed the wave of enthusiasm for Scandinavian crime fiction, Borgen was in an entirely different genre (or, perhaps, no genre at all).

Following the travails of a politician who, much to everyone’s surprise, becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister, the TV series demanded studious attention from its indulgent audience.

Once again, Lindholm and his team researched rigorously.

“We had created a platform that allowed everybody to speak,” he says slightly gnomically. “The media all wanted to comment on it. So it allowed anybody who wanted to speak on a political issue to speak. We met with a lot of politicians. We made a simple deal: we will tell their stories as long as their names are changed. So maybe they were using it as a platform as well.”

All of which is very interesting to Danish political insiders. How on earth did it break through on the other side of the North Sea?

“It was amazing, for sure,” he says. “Stephen King announced it was the best show of the year. The Guardian loved it. The Killing opened doors, but, as you say, we are not in the same genre. So it was a delight that people went back to the BBC after The Killing and were not disappointed.”

There’s clearly some sort of magic in that north European outcrop. How do we tap it?

“I don’t know. I can’t say.”

Yeah, keep it to yourself, Tobias.

yyy A Hijacking opens on May 17th

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