Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Vinterberg on the bittersweet 'Another Round' and alcohol boot camp

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Actor Mads Mikkelsen, left, and director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg in 'Another Round,' a bittersweet drama of middle-aged discontent recently nominated for two Academy Awards.
Actor Mads Mikkelsen, left, and director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg confer on-set for "Another Round," a bittersweet drama of middle-aged discontent recently nominated for two Academy Awards. (Henrik Ohsten / Samuel Goldwyn Films)

It’s a genuine idea, put forth by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, that humans naturally have a blood-alcohol level lower than what it should be. In the Danish movie “Another Round,” that theory is interrogated in unexpectedly emotional ways.

Reuniting director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen, who joined forces on the Oscar-nominated "The Hunt," "Another Round" recently won big at the European Film Awards, including best film, actor and director, and is nominated at the Academy Awards for international feature as well as director.

In the bittersweet drama, Mikkelsen plays Martin, a middle-aged schoolteacher who’s felt the spark dim from his marriage, his work and his life. So he and some teacher friends decide to put Skårderud's notion to the test with a drinking regimen. What at first seems a jolly and surprisingly effective idea begins to take on a darker and destructive cast as they continue with their experiment and Martin learns some hard-won lessons about himself.

The movie’s mixture of darkness with light went behind the scenes as well. Four days into shooting, Vinterberg’s 19-year-old daughter Ida, who was set to be in the movie, died in a car accident. After a break, Vinterberg returned to complete the project. “Another Round” is dedicated to her.

Accepting the BAFTA award for film not in the English language, Vinterberg recently said, “Most importantly I want to thank my daughter Ida, who is no longer here. She was more enthusiastic about this project than anyone else had ever been. It made her miss her hometown, Copenhagen, and now we miss her. And we made this movie for her.”

For this interview, recorded for “The Envelope” podcast, the director and actor came together to talk about filmmaking and their collaboration on the project. Vinterberg spoke from Copenhagen and Mikkelsen from London, where he was filming the third “Fantastic Beasts” movie.

Mads Mikkelsen's character drinks from bottle in the midst of a crowd of celebrating students.
Mads Mikkelsen in the soaring final scene of "Another Round." (TIFF)

Mads, how did Thomas present the idea of the movie to you? What did you think when you first heard this theory that people naturally should have a higher blood-alcohol level?

Mikkelsen: I thought, yeah, of course the theory is right. I don't think you have to be a scientist to figure out that that is true. We all know what two glasses of wine can do to a conversation. We know that very few of us would have met our spouses if there wasn't alcohol involved. So it's been around for six, seven thousand years either to forget your miserable life or to become creative or get closer to the spirit. And it can do magnificent things. But there is obviously a very big difference between two glasses of wine and two bottles of wine.

Thomas, how did you and your co-writer, Tobias Lindholm, extrapolate this blood alcohol theory into a story of male middle-aged crisis?

Vinterberg: Well, I've got to remind you that this is an idea that has developed over years. To begin with, we just looked at world history and we saw how many fantastic and great accomplishments have been done by people who were actually drunk. And we wanted to make a celebration of alcohol, and that developed into a more ambitious project of making a film about the whole nature of alcohol, also the dark sides. And then in the process of writing, we again wanted to elevate this to be about more than just drinking. We wanted it to be about life, in all humbleness. We wanted it to be a life-affirming film. The word "spirit" does not only mean alcohol. And making it a movie about four guys who've lost the appetite for their lives, their curiosity, the element of risk, the element of exploration, was something that came to us when we decided to put this at a school amongst schoolteachers. So the combination of that theory and the idea of putting this at a school sort of [got] the ball rolling.

These characters, Mads’ in particular, just feel so stuck in their lives. There's a heartbreaking moment where Mads asks his wife, “Have I become boring?” Mads, what did that scene, that moment, mean to you?

Mikkelsen: It meant that we're dealing with a man who's been walking around like a comfortable numb for long time, and it's starting to dawn on him what kind of a situation he's in. And the peak of that scene is actually a little later when he has this dinner with his friends and, for the first time, realizes he's not happy with his past and he's jealous of the future and he's simply forgotten to live in the present. It's a very bold scene because it takes place within 12 minutes or something. And my character has a small breakdown at a dinner table. Something you would normally place an hour-and-a-half into the film, but Thomas wanted to, instead of knowing the characters too well at this point, he wanted that scene to make the audience get to know us.

Thomas, can you talk a little bit about that dinner party scene?

Vinterberg: It kind of contains the whole process of the movie in one scene. [The scene] was by far the most challenging and most important of them, except from the ending, I guess. As Mads touched upon, it was kind of unusual to have a breakdown of the main character on Page 19. But I enjoyed that because it was like, OK, I hope this would give the audience a sense of what can happen from here if he's already crying, but what he's doing there is that he's losing control. And that's what I've been told that this movie is about, by my clever wife. She's more clever than I am. It's about the uncontrollable, and that's what happens to him. He lets go. Suddenly the tears are just rolling and he's just giving in and he's letting go of his emotions. And it's a miniature version of what's going to happen for the next one-and-a-half hours in the movie

A group of men share a meal in an elegant restaurant.
Schoolteacher friends played by, from left, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Mads Mikkelsen and Magnus Millang in the movie "Another Round." (Henrik Ohsten)

That's a feeling most everyone can recognize, that moment where you're asking, “Who am I? What has my life become? How did I get here?” Mads, for you, was that a feeling that you recognized? Did you understand where this character was at that moment?

Mikkelsen: I fully understood him. And I recognize him to a degree. Maybe not as drastic as the situation he's in. I am in many ways, counter-opposite of this character. I do enjoy that the sun is rising every morning and I am quite curious. I'm always like, What's behind that building? I'll go for a walk and see. Where this guy, he has lost his curiosity completely. But I can identify with it. And, luckily, I don't have to be like my characters. That's the whole trick.

Mads, is acting drunk, performing as drunk, fun or a real challenge? Say the sazerac scene when the four men are having a house party and they're drinking and dancing.

Vinterberg: We like things to be direct in Denmark. Why don't you ask him if he was drunk? That's where we come from.

Mikkelsen: It was fun. I mean, it is intoxicating to stand there with four of your good friends and behave like kids. It catches on, even though we were not drinking in those scenes. Thomas would have a hard time trying to get through to us because we became intoxicated by the scenes. But it's also a challenge. And for that, we had a nice and good boot camp before, where we shot each other on video. We tested out the philosophy about .05, .08, and we noticed that while we were in the situation, it felt kind of normal. We didn't feel there was a lot of things happening. When watching the video later, you could realize that we did behave differently.

And there's a big difference between two glasses and four glasses. All of a sudden your hands are doing stuff that you were not aware of, or you start lisping on certain words. So that was a really good inspiration to do the boot camp. But it is a challenge. You can easily step wrong when you do drunk scenes. And we were there for each other and Thomas was there, and it's nice to be good friends because then you can laugh at each other in a good way and make sure we come back on the right track.

Since Thomas brought this up, just to be clear, were you ever actually drinking?

Mikkelsen: No.

Vinterberg: I did not serve alcohol on set, but we served quite a bit of alcohol in that booze boot camp before. I considered them professionals and treated them as professionals. These are actors. So I'm asking them to act. I asked them to do a refined, detailed, emotional journey. I asked them to be funny. I asked them to be tragic and to be drunk in very specific levels. So I did challenge them a lot, but just giving them a bottle of whisky would be complicated and I guess an element of amateurism.

Mikkelsen: You can do that if it's a complete ballistic rock ’n' roll scene, obviously, and you can get something that's maybe quite interesting as well. But Thomas' job was, in many regards, when we're doing the teaching scenes, you know, we do the take and then he would come in and say, "Listen, let's put the volume up. Let's go up to 0.1 now," and then we would give that a shot and then, "No, let's go back for 0.05." And you will not be able to do that, obviously, if you were just drinking. There would only be one way that the volume button would go. And that will be up, up, up. And I don't think we would have survived in any way if we had to drink for 40 days straight.

A husband and wife sit by a campfire beside a lake.
Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Bonnevie in the movie "Another Round." (Henrik Ohsten)

I don't think I've read a single review or interview or article about the movie that has not mentioned the final dance number. Are the two of you surprised that it's become the signature scene of the movie, that it’s become so popular?

Mikkelsen: Not now, but if you asked me while we were in the midst of shooting, absolutely, I was. And Thomas can elaborate on this, I was quite reluctant. Not that I didn't want to dance in a film, I just had a hard time picturing how we could pull it off without coming across as pretentious. It's a realistic film. So in my world we should heighten it. We should be a drunken man's fantasy, something that was standing out of the film. And Thomas was insisting on no, this man gets up and he starts flying. So we went back and forth quite a few times. And luckily I gave in and he was absolutely a hundred-percent right. But if you asked me a year ago, I didn't see that coming. When I see the film now it all makes perfect sense.

Vinterberg: We’ve always been nervous about this scene. It's a bit of a stretch having a teacher suddenly being a great dancer, but emotionally it just made so much sense to all of us. And I always pursued it, I felt it was so right that he becomes weightless. All these youngsters are weightless. And at this time in life, everyone is yearning for that time, for the weightlessness of youth. Now Tobias is a reality-rules kind of guy — Mads is too, to some extent, and I am too. We really had to work out how to prepare this so it became believable. So if you look at the scene itself and actually the whole story of Mads' dance, it's all about his reluctance, the character's reluctance to dance.

Mads, there's such a sense of catharsis for the character in that dance. Would you say the same was true for you? With your background as a dancer before you were acting, was it meaningful to you to be able to dance in a movie in this way?

Mikkelsen: Those two days of shooting were maybe the most meaningful days of shooting I've ever had. But not because I finally got the chance to dance, because I've never been ambitious about doing that in a film, but because it was such an important ending for a variety of reasons. Obviously for extremely private and personal reasons for Thomas, it became cathartic and, and those two days were extremely beautiful to be part of.

The movie has been a big commercial hit there in Denmark, and has also gotten a lot of awards recognition. Thomas, why do you think audiences are responding so strongly to the movie?

Vinterberg: Well, this movie comes from the heart. There's a great sense of honesty and an element of love on screen amongst those guys. I think it speaks to people's hearts, basically. It also speaks to a world of confinement and a world of death and bankruptcy. And there's an element of riot against that in our movie. There are a lot of people dancing, holding each other, drinking, at odd times, allowing again the element of the uncontrollable to take over their lives. Whereas all over the place we’re living very controlled and confined lives. And then Mads is really good. The actors are really good. And I'm OK. And it all adds up.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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