Alcohol is an integral part of many cultures around the world, but as explored in Thomas Vinterberg’s latest feature Another Round—which has been selected as the Danish Oscar submission—Denmark has a particularly bad drinking problem. In the opening scene, a group of rowdy teenagers take part in a ‘Lake Race’ a common real-life tradition that Vinterberg saw both of his two daughters partake in during high school. The teens challenge each other to race around a lake in groups while downing a case of beer. If one of them vomits, time is added to their score; if they all vomit in unison, time is deducted. But surely the adults are better behaved?
High school teachers Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and Peter (Lars Ranthe) appear to be more mature than their students, but their midlife crises prompt them to embark on a rather juvenile ‘social experiment.’ During a low moment for these middle-aged friends, particularly the exhausted and depressed Martin, they hear of Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s (unsubstantiated) theory that human beings are born with a 0.05% BAC (Blood alcohol concentration) deficiency. Very quickly they decide to test it out: during the day, they maintain a 0.05% BAC (about 1 to 2 glasses of wine), even while teaching, to see if it reinvigorates them. And it does… for a while.
“We wanted this to be a survey and a curious exploration of liquor, which both kills and elevates people,” Vinterberg told us, and he achieves this without ever stooping to moralizing platitudes. Another Round depicts and celebrates the thrilling highs of alcohol, while also exploring how it can be abused when you’re using it to paper over unaddressed mental health problems. Vinterberg is also smart about using his high school setting to show how one generation teaches alcohol abuse to the next: one teacher even encourages his student to drink during an exam to calm his anxiety.
We spoke with Vinterberg over Zoom about avoiding moralizing, drunk acting, and Mads Mikkelsen’s amazing jazz ballet dance number that ends the film, which was inspired by Mikkelsen’s own background in dance.
Note: Interview includes spoilers.
The Film Stage: You said in an interview a few years ago that a lot of your films are an investigation of the individual against the community. Would you say that’s true of Another Round?
Thomas Vinterberg: I guess it’s about the individual and the community in the sense that it’s a movie very much about loneliness. These are four lonely creatures. And even when they’re together, they’re lonely, in the beginning. They find courage from being a group, and they feel weak as individuals. To some extent, it’s a film about people who have lost inspiration. They’ve been caught up with the repetitiousness of midlife and they miss the element of risk and challenge. They get encouraged by each other’s company to jump into this crazy project, which has a parallel to other projects in my life, such as the Dogme movement of the commune I grew up in.
When did you decide to set Another Round in a high school? I love how the setting allows room to explore how the older generation’s alcohol use influences the younger generation.
We came across that idea at a point in the project when we were a little desperate from not really knowing how to convey our idea. [The characters] had all sorts of other jobs: Mads Mikkelsen was an airport controller and he became a great airport controller from drinking, which was fun, but it wasn’t really truthful. When we came across that idea [of setting the film in a high school], everything started to take form. It opened a lot of doors to interesting ideas, like the things that they experiment in: music, history, psychology [which are the subjects the main characters teach]. All these doors were opened on a more academic level. But I also found it very important that there was suddenly this mirror between youth and midlife, which I think is a huge theme in the movie. I’m fascinated with this. I’ve seen my daughters do the Lake Run twice! (laughs) It suddenly became a part of my own life.
The film walks a tricky line between showing both the fun and the danger of alcohol, although it never feels moralizing. Even at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel like you’ve drawn a conclusion about whether alcohol is good or bad. How did you walk that line?
We walked it very carefully. We never wanted to be moralizing. To begin with actually, we solely wanted to celebrate alcohol, but we very quickly found that to be a slightly empty, provocative line of thought which may have belonged better in my 20s. We wanted to tell the whole truth about it and we never wanted to give answers. We wanted this to be a survey and a curious exploration of liquor, which both kills and elevates people. We wanted to raise questions but never give any answers, hence the ending, which is a very open ending. We agreed that one [character] dies and one flies, to share it evenly.
That ending, which features a jazz ballet dance number from Mads Mikkelsen, is so joyful, at least on the surface. When did that fall into place?
We always wanted a joyful ending for Martin, particularly after we killed Tommy. The dancing bit was something I was in love with, because I knew Mads was a dancer. I love the ending of Zorba the Greek, because there’s a huge catastrophe, the project of their lives falls apart, everything’s destroyed… and then they dance. I thought that was beautiful.
I always wanted him [Mikkelsen] to dance, but we were nervous that it would become cliche, or even private, because he’s been a professional dancer. We did a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. You can see that reflected in the choreography. He’s dancing a little bit, and then he’s retreating, and then he’s dancing a little bit more, and then finally he gives in. That was a thing that we massaged and developed and had meetings about all the way through.
We had a dance choreographer for the dance moves, but I, together with Mads, choreographed the to-ing and fro-ing to make it look realistic, not like a music video. It needed to look like a slice of life. Which is also why the dance is beautiful, but it’s not pitch perfect. And it’s Mads doing it himself.
The film is very much about men and masculinity, so the women in the film aren’t on screen a lot, but they feel like full characters. How did you approach portraying the women in these men’s lives?
With respect and curiosity, such as with all the other characters. This film is a film about men in their midlife crisis. End of story. Whereas my previous film, The Commune, was about a woman in her midlife crisis. I wanted to like them, I wanted to respect them, and I wanted to avoid stereotypes of women.
It’s actually my wife [Helene Reingaard Neumann] playing the young wife. I found it important that she liked the project, up until the point that someone’s [her husband in the film] pissing on her! With her character, I also wanted to show life in your 30s where you get caught up on children and practicalities.
Mads’ wife [played by Maria Bonnevie], who has a bit more screen time, was a character we worked a lot on. I felt it was important that she wasn’t offended by the drinking or the madness of these men, but she was offended by living in a relationship with someone who didn’t see her. They were lonely together, and I felt it was important to convey that. There’s this kitchen scene where it’s revealed that there’s someone else in her life that sees her. That scene was very important to us.
I heard you did some rehearsal with the central four actors. Could you tell me a bit about that and how it was helpful?
They had to play drunk, and that’s super difficult. The first thing I did was hire the four best actors I could find. The second thing is I put them on an alcohol bootcamp, which was really fun, where we actually served alcohol and measured different percentages.
Normal acting is a lot about hiding. If you have to play that you’re in love, you pretend that you’re not in love. If you’re drunk, you pretend that you’re not drunk: you’d sit very rigidly on your chair and measure your movements, as you do in real life. But that’s only up until a certain point. When you get really pissed, it’s very difficult [to act that] without it looking ridiculous. We looked at a lot of video material, particularly Russian video clips. We did some falling around, some stunt men came by to put pads on their bodies so they could fall without protecting themselves. Just a lot of practice.
Was your rehearsal mostly just to work on the drunkenness, or were there other aspects to it?
I had another week of working with character, which I always do. Particularly the long scene at the beginning at the restaurant, which was a very difficult scene. That scene very quickly felt long, but it had to be long.
My philosophy of working is that if you give them [the actors] a solid foundation through conversations, rewrites, debates, arguments, rewrites again, rehearsals, improvisations of scenes that are not in the script, then when the camera finally flicks on, we can let go. We can stop being rational and stop the labour and just fly. It’s like when you have to perform a speech: the better you know the speech, the more you can leave the speech.
That restaurant scene is one of many ensemble conversation scenes in this film, which is something you’ve done a lot in your past films. I understand shooting and editing those scenes can be quite complicated.
It’s really, really difficult. That scene alone took one and a half months in editing. It’s a lot of practice. Sometimes it just flies and you can have everyone together in a shot, and there’s a sense of togetherness. But if it doesn’t just fly, then you have to cut it up and you need closeups of everyone so you can separate them. There are all sorts of different ways of approaching it.
What I find most important is that you feel that they have a past. They should all know what past they’re coming from, and they should have tried to improvise that past. They should have been in a room being what they were 10 years ago, so that when they do the performance in the restaurant, they all remember how it was back then, because they’ve improvised it. They grow out of something. The film is about all the stuff you don’t see. It’s about the past, the dreams of the future, what they hide from each other, and all of those things have been mapped out.
I really loved the use of music in the film. Can you talk about choosing what songs to include?
My wife, the actress in the film, is also a vicar, and she’s also into music. (laughs) She found the final song [“What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure] for me. She insisted on that for a very long time—she loves that band dearly. I was chasing some very expensive rights all over the world, and she just kept playing this song for me. Now I feel that this song has become inseparable from the movie. And there’s also all the [patriotic] anthems [sung by the school choir in the film], which of course she knew all about because she’s a vicar. So I used her a lot. It was the same with The Hunt: she found the Van Morrison song at the beginning. So it’s a process that happens on my sofa when I’m talking to my wife.
Why did you choose to both begin and end the film with “What a Life”?
I did have another song, but then she became very famous and became the Bond hit and we couldn’t afford it. So there were practicalities to it.
But I suddenly realised that this song [“What a Life”] has so many things in common with the movie: the aggression, the sense of ecstasy and party, the revolt against control. All those themes I felt could be wrapping the movie up. I was very much in doubt, because I kind of don’t like the idea of having the same thing at the beginning and the end. It’s a little old fashioned. But I kind of fell in love with that song.
Another Round is now playing in theaters and in Virtual Cinemas.