‘A War’ Director Talks Shooting Combat on Battlefield and in Courtroom

TheWrap Screening Series: Tobias Lindholm discusses cheating his actors of the last five pages of the script to preserve the surprise

A War Director Tobias Lindholm

Tobias Lindholm, writer-director of “A War,” the Danish nominee for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, refused to make an antiwar film about Afghanistan. “The conversation has been trapped in whether you’re for or against the war,” said Lindholm told TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond Tuesday at Los Angeles’ Ipic Theater for TheWrap’s Screening Series. “We don’t need to be screaming at each other about some political opinion, we have to confront what we’re part of and learn from that.”

To lend realism to his fictional war-crime story, Lindholm spent a year interviewing a dozen Danish veterans of the Afghan war, and also Afghans in the region where the Danes fought and died.

“I had the structure of the story — a commander making a decision to save his men and risking lives of civilians — and we started to fill out that canvas with anecdotes I got from the soldiers.”

He didn’t want to focus on one soldier’s story. “I would feel like a parasite diving down into someone’s nightmare like that.” Instead, he dramatized the moral crisis of a fictional commander (Pilou Asbaek) who calls in an air strike that kills innocent children but saves a wounded Danish soldier, and wove real stories into the narrative. “It’s all bits and pieces,” said Lindholm.

When he interviewed a Taliban member, Lindholm dreaded telling the veterans he’d recruited their erstwhile enemy for “A War.” “I had loyal troops in Denmark helping me make that film. I didn’t know how to make that phone call. How do you tell them you’re working with a guy you were fighting against a couple years earlier, a guy who possibly killed their friends? They all agreed to meet with him. We went to Turkey and had tea with him. One of the Danes said, ‘Don’t worry, I understand this guy better than you, because he actually fought there, you stayed home.’ It’s a complex situation, and my responsibility was to drag that complexity inside the camera.”

To ramp up the realism of the war scenes filmed in Turkey, where the Syrian war had recently erupted and Turk authorities blocked delivery of any ammunition for the battle scenes for the first five days of shooting, Lindholm used a handheld camera, creating a highly convincing, utterly immersive cinematic experience.

“We used three versions of the handheld camera,” said Lindholm, “a hectic camera in the war scenes, a kid’s-POV camera [for scenes of the commander’s children at home in Denmark], a little lower — a more naive camera, you could say — and in the courtroom scenes we wouldn’t move the cameras at all. The courtroom is cold, it’s an ice world.”

For the judge in the court scenes, Lindholm cast an actual jurist. “She was a real judge, retired two weeks before. I was just the director’s assistant for these scenes, she was pretty strict.” To keep the actors spontaneous on the battlefield, he did not warn them where or when explosions would occur.

To attain a like explosiveness in courtroom scenes, he kept the trial’s outcome secret from the cast. “I never gave the actors the last five pages of the script.” They discover the commander’s fate on camera. “The expression on their faces is so real — we manipulated it,” said Lindholm. “The logic was that when I wanted the emotions to be inside the character, we would just not move the camera that much. Hopefully the eyes and the faces of these people would tell us whatever’s going on.”

Viewers respond to the tension Lindholm orchestrates, alternating scenes of the battle, the trial and the commander’s traumatized wife and children back home. Lindholm recalled that at the Venice world premiere, after a scene where a soldier nicknamed The Butcher does something dramatic to save a buddy, 500 people applauded, yelling “Bravo Butcher!”

The soldier’s name is intentionally misleading: He’s not a violent man, as we would expect in a war movie, he simply grew up in a butcher shop. And yet, the soldier (and the audience) are effectively applauding war criminals. “The scene where The Butcher offers comfort to another soldier was taken directly from ‘Restrepo’ [the 2011 Oscar nominated documentary about the Afghan war],” said Lindholm. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a human reaction in combat — I’d only had references to war films.” Lindholm wanted “A War” to be true to such small moments with huge moral impact. “We wanted the real deal,” said Lindholm.

“My mother is a classic Scandinavian socialist,” he added. “I thought, if I could make her sympathetic to war criminals, then I would have done my job.” And did he succeed in making his mom root for the bad/good guys, as so many viewers do? “She’s torn,” he said, smiling. “She wants to be proud [of the film], but at the same time, she won’t admit it.”