One month ago, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences announced the nominations for this year’s delayed, pandemic-era Oscars. If there was one true surprise on the list read by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas, it was in the historically competitive Best Director race. There, among expected names like David Fincher and newly minted Directors Guild Of America Award winner Chloé Zhao, was someone more unexpected: the veteran Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who joins the relatively small (but thankfully growing!) list of filmmakers to score a nomination in this category for helming a foreign-language film. Almost none of the Oscar bloggers and award-season prognosticators saw it coming.
Maybe they should have. After all, Vinterberg is nominated for one of last year’s most acclaimed movies in any language: Another Round, his playful but sincere drama about a group of middle-aged teachers who pull themselves out of a rut by embarking on a radical social experiment—namely, a plan to stay mildly intoxicated all day every day, rediscovering their lust for life via a perpetual buzz. The film, which reunites Vinterberg with Mads Mikkelsen (star of his previously nominated The Hunt), is also competing for Best International Feature, an award it seems likely to win. The Best Director nod is evidence, if nothing else, that this eclectic artist has made one of his most universally resonant works: a film whose insights into the joys, frustrations, and primary social lubricants of modern life transcend any language barriers.
If the nomination comes as a surprise, perhaps that has more to do with the strange, winding path of the filmmaker’s career—and with how often it’s broken from trends in global cinema, perhaps especially Hollywood’s. Along with countryman and one-time collaborator Lars von Trier, Vinterberg coauthored Dogme 95, an artistic manifesto that offered a list of “commandments”—no non-diegetic music, no “superficial” plot elements—designed to reestablish the medium’s focus on authenticity and reality. (The director’s own Dogme film, The Celebration, launched the movement, while also making a name for him on the international stage.) In the decades since, Vinterberg has followed his muse all over the stylistic map, making everything from over-the-top science fiction to didactic allegory to prestige literary adaptation. But the whole way, his work has maintained a driving interest in the pursuit of truth.
Vinterberg, who turns 52 next month, hopped on a Zoom call with The A.V. Club last week to discuss Another Round (which is currently streaming on Hulu), youth, aging, the benefits and pitfalls of alcohol, the key to acting drunk without being drunk, the genius of Mads Mikkelsen, and his own Dogme roots. Out of respect for his privacy, we don’t broach the topic of the tragedy that befell his family right before filming began, a shattering loss he alludes to only once during our conversation. Throughout, Vinterberg is passionate but good-humored—and, to quote one of the besotted instructors around which his Oscar contender pivots, “fired up and laidback at the same time.” Fair warning: We touch upon the ending of Another Round, too.
The A.V. Club: First of all, congratulations on the Academy Award nominations.
Thomas Vinterberg: Thank you so much. That was very encouraging.
AVC: There was a time in your career when it would be difficult to imagine your films getting Oscar nominations—not because of their quality or anything, but just because you were at the forefront of a movement that rejected what Hollywood was all about.
TV: Are you talking about the Dogme movie?
TV: Well, it wasn’t necessarily rejecting what Hollywood was all about. It was rejecting what we were about as well. We took away music, makeup, props. That’s not just Hollywood movies! We were rioting against the whole establishment of moviemaking. And the mediocrity of moviemaking. And also the mediocrity of our own moviemaking. I think [The Celebration] was shown to Oscar voters. But it was too grainy! You have the biggest cinema in the world in Los Angeles, and all they could see was pixels.
AVC: I rewatched The Celebration recently and was struck with how much it resonates with the reckoning that’s happened in the film industry over the past few years. We’re watching a character who’s finally decided to tell the world about the abuse he’s suffered and he’s not going to shut up about it no matter how much they try to silence him.
TV: So you’re putting it in context of #MeToo? Right, so here’s a person who’s been muted by his dad and oppressed throughout his life. I can see that parallel, definitely. I obviously didn’t see it back then, when I made the movie, but I’ve always wanted to point at injustice and point at the elephant in the room, so to speak. Actually, when I was still in kindergarten, I got beaten up for that!
AVC: Oh yeah?
TV: Yeah, I was on a public bus with my dad, who didn’t have a driver’s license. And a huge drunk guy comes on the bus and tosses my sister off her chair. I think I was 4. And I grabbed his shoulder and said, “You’re an asshole.” And he stood up and knocked me out! [Laughs.]
AVC: He punched you? A child?
TV: The police came and he was arrested. So I started early. [Laughs.]
AVC: Even after you moved on from Dogme, confronting truth remained a regular subject of your work.
TV: Right, but when I was younger, it was a bit more confrontational. Though not necessarily much younger. Even The Commune, my last Danish film, is kind of confrontational. Another Round is more… round. It’s less provocative.
AVC: It’s one of your gentlest films in some respects. The subject matter is serious, but you approach it with a lightness of step I don’t see in a lot of your other work.
TV: I guess you’re right about that. I didn’t have the urge to provoke. The idea in the beginning was for it to be a celebration of alcohol. But I felt an obligation to tell as much as possible, and also to tell a story that everyone who’s seen their families destroyed by alcohol could relate to. So I wanted to capture as much of the whole truth about it as I could. But obviously, I also wanted to make a movie about more than just drinking. Spirit means more than alcohol. We wanted to make a movie about living, as opposed to just existing.
We didn’t know that when we wrote the film. When you start writing, you just start and it comes from somewhere. It’s like when you fall in love with someone. It’s not easy to explain. But looking back, I think we were reacting against things in our society. We live in a performance culture, where everything is measured. My life is measured by box office numbers and how many awards I win. Your article will be counted. How many clicks did you get? And how long will they stay per click? And for a young person, it’s much worse. You’re being graded all the time. And you have to appear on social media 40 times a day, and that will be graded. So there’s a feeling of being restrained and self-aware as performers. This film is a battle against that. It’s a battle for the uncontrollable, for things you cannot buy, for things you cannot prepare for. Such as falling in love or being inspired or getting an idea.
AVC: The film has an admirable ambivalence about drinking. Movies tend to take one extreme stance on alcohol or another: Either you’re attending a nonstop party with no consequences or you’re being lectured about the dangers of drinking. Another Round threads the needle, acknowledging how it can screw up your life but also how it can be fun and enlightening.
TV: That’s what we wanted to show. We did not want to sell alcohol. But also we did not want to be moralistic. We had to admit, as one of my friends said, that after a couple of glasses of rosé, I’m better at taking care of my kids. [Laughs.] I’m a better father! Which is a bit worrying to say. But we all know how conversation can grow after the first couple glasses. And then it declines again, because people stop listening. The doctor of psychiatry who came up with the idea of the film asked me, “Thomas, how many married couples do you know who found each other sober?” It’s not that many. So it serves many purposes, this socially accepted liquor. But it also kills many people.
AVC: When the film premiered last fall, a relevant quote from The Simpsons began making the rounds on social media, and I hope it’s okay to compare your movie to The Simpsons—
TV: No, it’s brilliant, please.
AVC: It’s from the episode where prohibition comes to Springfield. It ends with Homer giving a toast: “To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”
TV: Exactly. Well, there’s a bit more to it, but yes. [Laughs.] Problems seem to become lesser when you drink. I think it’s about self-forgetting. There was a clever man, some philosopher, who said that he had never met a happy person who didn’t have their eyes focused on something or someone other than themselves. I think there’s a truth to that. And alcohol helps with it. But the alcohol serves a purpose in this movie. It’s the engine for the movie. But it’s not what the movie is about. It’s about being inspired.
AVC: It’s what Baudelaire meant when he wrote, “Be drunk.” He was really talking about a thirst for life.
TV: That’s right. Or what Humphrey Bogart said: “It’s like the rest of the world is a couple drinks behind.”
AVC: Do you drink?
TV: I do drink, but I don’t drink enough. Meaning I don’t drink much. I’m a family man, and I work a lot. You know, alcohol comes in phases. There’s phase one, where you become an elevated, great version of yourself. And then there’s phase two, when you have to drink to become yourself again. You need your white wine at lunch to avoid being grumpy. And then there’s the third phase, where you have to drink for physical reasons. I recommend staying in phase one. If you’re in the slippery slope to phase two, you have to realize [it] and take a long break and then start over. I take a lot of breaks. I don’t drink much.
AVC: There’s a program in the United States called D.A.R.E., where they come to schools and talk to kids about the dangers of drugs. Do they have anything like that in Denmark?
TV: Yes. Not that specifically, but police officers will come to schools.
AVC: Growing up, you end up realizing that some of what they tell you in those programs isn’t true, that they rely on scare tactics. Watching Another Round, I kept thinking that this is a movie that would really benefit a younger audience, because it isn’t a lot of exaggerations. It acknowledges the whole truth about drinking, its dangers and its pleasures.
TV: Right! A lot of youngsters have seen the movie. It’s primarily women who have seen the movie [in Denmark], but it’s divided by age. It’s made for young people. They’re being so oppressed by this performance culture, and now also by the pandemic. They’re living in confinement at a time in their life when they need to be out there in the streets. So I dedicate this movie to the youngsters, and they seem to really respond to it.
AVC: Of course the film is also about midlife crisis, and men who feel that they’ve lost the spark of youth. How much does it reflect your own feelings about getting older?
TV: Up until two years ago—or more specifically, up until May 4, 2019—I had a very happy life. I’m married to a very beautiful and fantastic woman, and she’s in the film, by the way. And I had a great family and I’m doing what I like. So it’s not autobiographical in that sense. But of course I could recognize the repetitiveness of life, and how it must feel to be out of inspiration. I’ve had periods like that. It’s recognizable to me, but it’s not my life.
AVC: I read somewhere that there was no actual alcohol allowed on set. How were you able to get such great drunk performances from your actors? There’s no phony drunk acting in this movie.
TV: It’s because I’m a genius. [Laughs.] No, it’s because they’re genius. It takes four really great actors to start with. And with a good life of experience with drinking. And a rehearsal period of a whole week only dedicated to playing drunk. And to being drunk. I mean, they weren’t necessarily drunk in that rehearsal period. But they had some alcohol. We filmed how they looked at different levels of alcohol. We just had to nail that to make this movie.
AVC: Were they watching the playback like athletes, studying their moves on tape?
TV: Yeah, we did that! We did a lot of that. They were teachers for each other, so that the other three actors would be the students. And they would teach at different levels of intoxication. The beginning was real intoxication. And then they would act at intoxication. And they’d say, “Didn’t buy that one. But I did buy that one.” It was an open space. Like a workshop.
AVC: That must have been very fun to watch.
TV: It is fun to watch. But when it’s bad acting, it’s horrible to watch. Of course I’ve seen a couple of examples of that. It’s like when you see sober eyes in complete control and someone is falling around. It’s like, “Get the fuck out of here.”
AVC: I’ve heard that the trick is to play someone who’s drunk but trying really hard to pretend they’re not.
TV: Yeah, that’s what we normally say. Below 1.0, it’s about hiding. As if you’re in love with someone and you’re pretending you’re not in love. And if you’re drunk, your movements become very straight, and you slow down your way of talking to avoid flaws, and you button up and sit straight. Basically do the opposite [of how you’re feeling]. And then at one point, you agree to drop a little bit [Vinterberg perfectly mimes jerking into a drunken slouch on the webcam] and people then know, “My god, he’s pissed.”
AVC: This is the second film you’ve made with Mads Mikkelsen, after The Hunt. Internationally, he’s built something of a niche for himself playing these regal villains. But you really bring out a warmth in him that a lot of other filmmakers don’t identify or utilize.
TV: Mads has it all. The world just doesn’t see it as often as we do here in Denmark. I know that part of his vocabulary that you’re talking about from other movies. But yeah, we’ve found a path together, some very lovable men, both in The Hunt and here. It’s heartbreaking to me when he plays those characters. He’s very fragile and open and tender.
AVC: Yes, there’s a real vulnerability to both performances.
TV: It’s a character I’ve been writing for him. It’s inspired by him and written by me. It’s something that we’ve created together that I’m very proud of. And Mads is just super, super precise and intelligent and humoristic. What I’m asking him to do more specifically is that there’s a choir of people talking and making jokes around him, and then there’s a dynamic pause with nothing that Mads has to fill out. He’s filling out the silent gaps with thoughts. That’s difficult. What he’s doing there requires an enormous precision. And he has that, because he’s a world-class actor.
AVC: Do you have to talk him into the big dance scene at the end?
TV: Yes, I had to convince him. But by doing so, I tried to convince myself as well. Secretly. [Laughs.] Because it was a bit of a stretch to have a schoolteacher become part of a musical at the end of the movie. It could have been cheeky. It also could have been about Mads Mikkelsen. “Look how he can dance.” So we were very careful about preparing it throughout the film, so that there’s people who want to see him dance. And we were very careful about choreographing the scene so that there was hesitance and then retreat and then finally a complete surrender. And so you have a finale that’s a complete loss of control, which I guess the movie is also about. It’s about letting go of control.
AVC: The ending isn’t purely celebratory.
TV: Of course not, because there’s someone who died. And also people see that [Mads’ character] has started drinking again. To me, the end is what I used to call a “beautiful catastrophe.” That’s not me being brilliant. It’s stolen from the very old film Zorba The Greek, with Anthony Quinn. It’s a fantastic film. So of course the ending is full of sadness. He’s full of sadness. He’s dancing for his friend.
AVC: I don’t think anyone gets hung up on the plot logistics of the ending. It makes sense emotionally.
TV: It does. It’s cathartic. And depending on who you are, you see a different ending. Both Tobias Lindholm, the co-writer, and myself wanted to keep it open. Which can be very annoying. [Laughs.] You want a conclusion. But we couldn’t give a conclusion. What would it be? Who am I to tell people to drink or not to drink? Or how to live their lives? But I can tell them how I see the ending. Some people see him falling. But I see him flying. I see him getting another round. I see him getting another go with his wife. That’s my mathematics.