His own life, "only more dramatic." That's how the Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking") described how he came up with some of the home life scenes in his latest film "A War." The film follows a soldier, Claus Pedersen, stationed in Afghanistan (played by Pilou Asbæk, who I will dub "the Danish Joshua Jackson") and his wife, Maria, who is taking care of three young children back home.
Claus commands a group of soldiers who go on patrol in Afghanistan and seem to simultaneously terrify and reassure the locals. In one particular scene, with bullets flying and chaos in the air, Claus makes a split-second decision that will come to haunt him later.
At a recent Los Angeles Times Envelope screening of "A War" Lindholm described the origins of the story. He had read an article about a soldier who had been on multiple tours of duty and who said he wasn't afraid of being killed; he was afraid of being prosecuted once he got back home, because of the strict rules of engagement and a growing public sentiment that demanded someone be held responsible for the bad things that happen in war zones. I've often said newspapers and magazines are a treasure trove of story ideas for screenwriters. This is a great example of that. Lindholm didn't write a story about that real soldier, but rather he wrote a story about a fictional soldier with that real soldier's fear in mind.
In the home scenes, in which Maria juggles three young children, each processing and dealing with their father's prolonged absence in their own way. (Variety calls the film "impeccably sensitive.") One of the children gets in trouble at school and another child's mishap prompts a run to the emergency room, with Maria forced to drag the other two along. Lindholm told the audience those home scenes were inspired by his own life, only more dramatic. That's an important point: "only more dramatic." Lindholm, father of three, had himself made a run to the ER for one of the children, with the other two in tow while his wife was out. His own experience wasn't as dramatic as in the film. But he mined his own experiences and then heightened them. All writers have events in their own lives that can be mined for ideas and then made more dramatic.
Lindholm, who described casting real former soldiers and casting real Afghan refugees as villagers, excels at character and authenticity, which go hand in hand. To capture the most authentic reaction, he did not give his lead actor the last five pages of the script. In the Afghanistan-set scenes, his lead actor had to wait for the translators to speak and really listen to what they were saying.
Lindholm's previous film "A Hijacking," which also starred Pilou Asbæk, is about what happens when Somali pirates overtake a Danish cargo ship. It's a character drama mixed with thriller elements. If I were in the business of inventing genres, I'd call it a "character thriller." Asbæk plays the ship's cook, who is used as a conduit, or pawn really, in the pirates' negotiations with the shipping company's increasingly frustrated CEO back in Denmark.
The cook is at the bottom of the proverbial corporate food chain; the CEO is at the top. One is a physical hostage and the other a metaphorical hostage, and how each deals with the situation and the decisions each make have great impact on the other. It's a great study in character, in a setting that would otherwise be considered prime action territory. Both "A Hijacking" and "A War" are excellent studies in character development and authenticity. "A War" premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures in the U.S. in April. It is Denmark's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.