CS: What was your main inspiration behind making a film about war?
TL: There are two things – war films have always fascinated me. I don’t think there is a better arena to tell stories about human beings under extreme pressure and what it is to be a human being and what it does to human life. The whole American post-Vietnam war films have inspired me a lot. I remember watching Path of Glory – it was one of my favourite films by Kubrick in film school. Basically I’ve been looking for a story to tell that’s set in a war ever since I got out of film school. I saw an article about a Danish officer who was going to serve his second term in Afghanistan and he talked about how he wasn’t afraid of getting killed in war but he was afraid of being prosecuted because of the complexity of the rules of engagement. Right away I knew it was a great story to tell. The world is extremely complex. In many ways it’s totally absurd that we are in an office in Denmark making rules of engagement so far away. Actually thinking that these can be implanted and followed when you have bullets whistling over your head. Our main message was to try to show how complex reality is and the idea of good or bad doesn’t exist
CS: With various wars around the world at the moment and in recent history, why did you want to set the film in Afghanistan?
TL: It’s the first war that Denmark fought in since the Second World War. We went in right away with the UK and the US and right away it changed our society. It’s a decision made that influenced my generation the most. Never before have we had 15,000 soldiers with wives and kids, mothers and fathers, and it’s a whole new situation to be like that. It’s a whole new self understanding as a country. I think that the whole of Denmark being the happiest people on earth gets confronted when at the same time you have war going on.
CS: And do you see this as an ongoing issue in Denmark?
TL: I think that we talk too little about it. For some reason we like to talk about what happened in the Second World War, but in Afghanistan right now it’s hard for us to get the discussion out. I think the whole thing is that the Danish discussion about what happened has been hijacked by a conversation on whether or not you are for or against the war. But that doesn’t matter anymore because the war is over. What we should do is look at each other and talk about what actually happened. That is why I used real soldiers and real Afghan refugees in the film. I wanted to get as close to the witnesses of war and have them tell their stories so the rest of us can try to understand what we as a nation have been part of.
CS: I read that you used ex-Taliban members as extras in the film. Did they have a large impact on the story?
TL: They were part of the refugees that eventually escaped. They helped with a knowledge about their way of life. I’m a tall, blonde male from Scandinavia. I probably couldn’t be more privileged in the world. For me to tell a story about Afghan life during the war would be arrogant. I needed them to give me the details and give me the rhythm of life and what problems the war created for them. They were the witnesses of what happened in Afghanistan being an Afghan and that helped a lot to not just tell a story about brave, young Danish men but also to tell a story about the brutal truth of war on both sides.
CS: You’ve written a number of films about contemporary Danish society. Why do you think it is important to show it on the screen?
TL: It’s a god feeling – I can feel my heart beating as soon as I get close to these subjects. When I write other stuff I don’t feel the same. So I guess it’s the connection to the world that’s around me. In many ways I feel this is where I live so this is what I tell. I’m not a big fan of my own imagination – I think it’s boring. I think the world around me is very fascinating. Fiction can offer something that documentary or journalism cannot offer which is a controlled story that confronts a problem. As soon as you make a documentary you as a filmmaker will go out and plan the camera and that will change the reality you are showing anyway. But in fiction we can actually control and decide what story to tell. In that way you can get closer to a truthful expression in the storytelling.
CS: Your films tend to almost look like a documentary. Why do you choose to go with such a realistic view?
TL: When you are a soldier on the ground in Afghanistan you don’t have the opportunity to go out and see it all from above. You don’t see it as a big action sequence. You are hiding from the bullets flying over your head. Basically we felt that the camera couldn’t see more than what the soldiers could see. And through that we could put the audience in the boots of the soldiers. Had I done a romantic version of war celebrating the huge explosions – I had left the whole idea which was to show the brutality, simplicity and complexity of war. The thing is that we need to plan a whole lot to do huge action sequences because everything needs to be together. Reality is not like that – reality is a messy thing.
CS: When writing and directing films, how much attention do you pay to the international audiences?
TL: We are a small country of five million people, but there is a lot of movies being made here. We get money from the government. In Denmark there aren’t many filmmakers, and we don’t have that much money for each production. All Danish films are low budget compared to international films. With low budgets films you need a very strong story. You cannot hide anything through special effects. It’s pretty cheap to sit down and write so that’s what we do and I do believe that means a lot. We have also been blessed to be a nation that is blessed with Lars von Trier. So there is a light that’s bright among the darkness here in the north! We kind of get inspired by that. There is Mogens Rukov who wrote The Celebration with Thomas Vinterberg. He educated the whole film school in storytelling. He is not necessarily the most bright screenwriter but I do believe he is the best teacher of storytelling in the world. And his influence in Danish films cannot be spoken too much about. He is amazing.
CS: You have The Commune coming out in February. What can you tell us about that?
TL: I think you should be looking forward to an extremely well directed film. I was very happy with the screenplay but what Thomas and the actors did – it’s a great story. It’s built on Vinterberg’s experiences as a child growing up in a commune. At the same time I think it’s a story that represents that as soon as you are a parent the fact that who’s life is most important – the kids or the parents? Also, it’s the best performances from the lead actors I’ve seen!