From the beginning of his career, director Thomas Vinterberg has been creating worlds and scenarios that tread the fine line between humor and seriousness. His latest film, Another Round, is no exception. “There isn’t a recipe, really,” Thomas says. “It’s something I’ve been doing since ’98, or even before that, with my first film that people acknowledged outside of Denmark, The Celebration, or Festen.” 

“I remember finding that movie in New York City, in a DVD store, and they filed it under ‘dark comedy,’” he recalls. And since Thomas wasn’t quite sure how to describe the mood of his films before, he “was relieved to find that shelf in New York. I said, ‘Okay, that’s what I'm doing.’ The humor opens me up, and opens the audience up. It makes us ready to receive things.”

Another Round, Denmark’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar, follows four high-school teachers in a rut as they put psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s unconventional theory to the test: that humans are born with an alcohol deficit and should therefore strive to maintain a 0.05% BAC at all times. The men set up rules for their experiment, and compare notes along the way.

“You cannot make a movie about alcohol without finding the lightness,” Thomas says. “Trying to find the balance between humor and tragedy is what alcohol is. It’s a liquor that elevates people. It helps world leaders make great decisions. And yet, it kills people. It destroys families and destroys whole societies.”

The initial idea for Another Round was to provoke, to celebrate the act of drinking (“Spirit does not just mean alcohol,” Thomas notes), but the further Thomas looked into the subject, the more dishonest he felt not showing the full picture. So he and co-writer Tobias Lindholm dove into both ends of the equation, creating a picture of the measured lives we live and the battles against them.

Photo credit: Henrik Ohsten

“These guys have fallen into a pattern of repetitiousness and control that has taken away all curiosity and element of risk from their lives,” Thomas says. “And then they open this door into what my wife—who’s more clever than me—calls the uncontrollable, which is where inspiration is, and which is where you can find love if you’re lucky.”

To actor Mads Mikkelsen, the film is, above all else, life-affirming. “I often call it the most Italian film that Thomas has done,” he says. “Italian films can be as dark as they want, but you always leave the movie theater with a sense of loving life. I think that is a very special achievement for a Danish director, and I think he pulled it off masterfully.”

Drinking buddies

Thomas’ collaboration with Mads, who plays Martin, a history teacher and one of the four friends conducting this experiment, began during the making of The Hunt, Thomas’ 2012 movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film that year. Since, they’ve become close friends.

“I think the friendship has taken over,” Mads reflects. “We are first and foremost friends; as a close second, we are collaborators. I love the way Thomas works. It’s become a way of working together where we don’t have to use that many words anymore. We don’t have to be afraid of stepping on each other’s toes. We can be very open, saying, ‘It doesn’t work. Okay. Let’s try it again.’”

Both Thomas and Mads came up in Danish film circles in the mid-’90s. They had heard of each other’s work. “Everybody was very young. Everybody wanted to do films that had never been done in Denmark before,” Mads says. “And one of the ways we could define ourselves best was by defining what we didn’t want to do, so little groups were established.”

Thomas co-created the Dogme 95 movement, which set up rules for filmmaking that put story and acting front and center. Some of these “Vows of Chastity” included shooting only on location, using no artificial light and never crediting the director. “We wanted to undress the cinema,” Thomas says. “We wanted to make it as naked and truthful as possible by imposing these rules on ourselves. And it was incredibly inspired and fun.” 

“Dogme placed them on the map like nothing else had ever done. But Thomas had always worked like that. Thomas has always been about the story,” Mads says.

Actor Mads Mikkelsen (left) and director Thomas Vinterberg on the set of 'Another Round.' Photo credit: Henrik Ohsten

In terms of working with actors, Thomas’ philosophy comes down to forging a solid foundation, “even boringly solid,” with them. In this case, his four leads happened to be close friends: Mads, Thomas Bo Larsen (as Tommy), Magnus Millang (as Nikolaj) and Lars Ranthe (as Peter). And oftentimes, Thomas writes with certain actors in mind. “The advantage is that you can write for an actor and take them out of their comfort zone, or put them back in the zone, where they haven’t been for a while. And you can even be inspired by them as private persons.”

That said, Mads bears little resemblance to his character, a man who’s lost his curiosity and interest in life. Until he’s two beers deep, that is. “When Martin drinks two beers, I can recognize him,” Mads says. “Before that, he’s a man whose battery is not charged. I am polar opposite, in the sense that I enjoy every morning that the sun is rising. I am curious about what’s behind that building over there.” Which is to say, liquor can bring out a new side of people, of characters. But with Another Round, that transformation took a lot of work. 

Thomas’ goal with rehearsals is to help his actors “find their East, West, South, North, the four corners of the world for them. Where does this character come from? What happened right before this door opened? What are they aiming for? Which way are they going? More importantly, what do they show to the world, and what do they hide from the world?” 

Photo credit: Henrik Ohsten

When it came time to practice acting drunk—a very specific level of drunk—Thomas organized a “booze bootcamp” for his ensemble. “I knew I was challenging them because I asked them for so much. I asked them to play an emotional journey, I asked them to be funny and to be tragic and to be drunk at very specific levels, and to dance, as well.”

It was equal parts entertaining and hard work. “Playing drunk up until .1% is about pretending you’re sober. Hips straight, you measure your movements, and then move. Suddenly, you fall a little bit,”Thomas says. “But above that, it’s difficult.”

“If you can suddenly see in their eyes that they’re in control of their movements, it looks overacted,” Thomas says. “So we had to work on their eyes, and film them, and we had to call in makeup and put stuff in their eyes. We had to put alcohol around their mouth so they could smell it.” The team took notes from Russian drinking videos, learning how to fall without inhibition. (That’s where stuntmen and mattresses came in.)

With all the humor and levity of the film comes a level of honesty that Thomas says he hasn’t achieved since his earliest work. “My graduate film was so naive. I was so young and so slim in my face, and I didn’t know what I was doing—and that’s what I love about it. That’s probably why I think it’s my best movie, and that’s what I’ve been pursuing ever since. The older you get, the more corrupted you get somehow.”

“I’m always looking at that movie [Last Round] as a mirror, and I’m trying to pursue the nakedness.” Another Round is arguably his closest attempt at it. “This film comes from a very unguarded place, from a very honest place. Our defenses are down,” he says.

A love letter to Denmark

Perhaps the most important contributor to this film isn’t seen onscreen at all. In 2019, four days into shooting, Thomas’ 19-year-old daughter, Ida, died in a tragic car crash. “My life hasn’t been the same since,” Thomas says. The film was shot at her school, in her senior classroom and with her classmates.

“Before she died, she sent me a letter, saying how much she loved the script, and she felt seen by it. It’s also a love declaration to Denmark, and she was in Africa, so she missed Denmark a lot.” Through this letter, Thomas’ daughter became the heartbeat of the film, the source behind the heartbreak and the positivity. The story honors her memory.

The tragedy left the entire cast and crew unguarded. “What was already a very raw project became entirely naked,” Thomas says. “I met such an immense feeling of care and love from everyone, and I guess you can probably see that on the screen.”

Early in the filmmaking process, Thomas had to make the decision of whether or not to continue. “The only thing that made sense was to do this for her. That’s sort of the pact that I made with Mads and the actors. They’re like, ‘Okay, Thomas, let’s do this, but let’s do it for her.’ We all agreed on that.”

“We were all in a bubble, just trying to take a fraction of the burden off his shoulders,” Mads says. He found that the film’s themes were reflected in the time spent on set. “As horrifying, as gruesome as it was, it was also very life-affirming, the entire journey.”

Although both Thomas and Mads have made films outside Denmark, Another Round marks a deeply personal return home. Reflecting on his career, Mads says, “The most important thing I’ve ever done is the thing I’m doing. Let’s put it this way: Another Round is definitely up there, if not the one. It’s going to hold a special place in my heart forever.”

Thomas adds, “It’s interesting because, the more local I go, the more I dig my fingers into my backyard, the more people get interested. There’s something about filmmaking where … if it becomes very specific in its details, there’s a richness that attracts people. And it somehow becomes universal by doing the opposite.”

“This movie is almost a tourist movie for Denmark. Everything about it is very Danish, and it has caught the interest of the whole world,” he says. “Whereas when I reached for the stars and made scripts written by others—I’ve really enjoyed that, and I think I’ll do that again—it becomes a little bit more general.”

Photo credit: Henrik Ohsten

Ultimately, for Thomas, Another Round is an attempt to tap into the childhood ability to be totally uninhibited and unaware, something actors strive for all the time. “We’re fighting against the rationality, the mediocrity, the reasonable behavior, the chastity, all of that which surrounds us,” he says. There’s nothing more indicative of this than the film’s ending, which has Mads’ character dancing to the tune of “What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure. The actor was reluctant “for one sole reason: that it could easily come across as pretentious. ‘Oh, here we go, Mads is going to dance.’” (Before becoming an actor, Mads had a career as a gymnast and dancer.)

Mads conceded to Thomas’ vision—and it worked. In a poetic twist of events, Mads actually knew the lead singer of Scarlet Pleasure. Emil Goll was a childhood friend of Mads’ daughter. “I have twice picked him up at a party with my daughter, and driven him home to his mom where he was absolutely hammered,” says Mads. So goes the theme of the film, and of life. “I knew him when he was graduating without realizing it. It was just a very beautiful circle, not because of the alcohol, but because of the poetry of it.”

So this story of alcohol, and all the humor, beauty and perils that come with it, ends in dance. Why? “I was inspired by an old movie called Zorba the Greek, with Anthony Quinn, where they dance on the beach at the end. Everything has fallen apart, and then they dance on the beach,” Thomas says. “Someone pointed out to me what they call it there is ‘a beautiful catastrophe,’ and I guess that sums up the ending of my film as well.”

By Nadine Zylberberg