If you’ve heard about Another Round, the Oscar-nominated Danish film starring Mads Mikkelsen, you probably know about the Dance. It happens at the end of writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s tragicomedy about four middle-aged high school teachers who attempt an experiment in magical drinking; entire features and paeans have already been written about it. Sitting on a park bench as his students whoop and holler near a pier, Mikkelsen’s history professor tentatively starts doing a two-step. Then he bursts into the sort of musical dance routine — leaping, twirling, sliding — that would have made the Freed Unit burst into spontaneous applause. It’s a display of amazing grace from the former professional dancer now best known as a Bond villain and a gourmet serial killer. It concludes with him leaping into the water, a portrait of a man who, in Mikkelsen’s own words, “might be drowning … or flying.”
The second collaboration between Mikkelsen and Vinterberg after 2012’s The Hunt, Another Round revolves around the notion that, per a scientific theory, a certain amount of daily inebriation can liberate someone from a respective midlife crises. In the case of this quartet (beautifully rounded out by Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe), results may — and certainly do — vary. But from the moment the camera hovers on Mikkelsen’s face during a colleague’s birthday dinner and we see the beginnings of what could either be an unburdening or ground zero for a nervous breakdown, viewers are strapped into the passenger seat of a journey that winds through liberation, inebriation, epiphanies, backslides, blackouts, and eventually, that moment at the pier set to the band Scarlet Pleasure’s Euro-pop ditty “What a Life.” It’s a testament to both the actor and the filmmaker that by the time we get to that joyous last sequence, the sense of letting go feels intoxicating even if you haven’t been sipping along with these men. (An activity which, given their increasing levels of intake over the course of the story, we do not suggest you try at home.)
And though the movie was co-written by Tobias Lindholm, the Danish director behind A Hijacking (2012) and the HBO series The Investigation, this look at someone grasping for a late-act life spark feels very much in sync with Vinterberg’s past work, whether its the Dogme 95 breakthrough The Celebration (1998) or the underrated look at collective cohabitation The Commune (2016). There’s a purposeful messiness, a sense of curiosity regarding the human condition, and a lack of judgment that turns what could have been a story about the perils of excess (or worse, an advertisement for the joys of getting trashed) into a far more complex, heartfelt look at hitting the reset button. It’s the current favorite to win the Best International Feature Film Oscar, and managed to get Vinterberg a nomination for Best Director as well.
Talking over Zoom — Vinterberg at his home in Denmark; Mikkelsen from a break during filming in Spain — the duo opened up about the origins of the project, how to act “drunk,” and, yes, that euphoric soft-shoe. The conversation has been edited for clarity and an added level of sobriety.
At what point did you start thinking, “OK, four men, they all get very drunk — there’s a movie here”?
Thomas Vinterberg: Well, I had these conversations with Tobias [Lindholm], around 2010 or 2011, that grew out of us having a reaction against a very safe, mediocre, controlled culture that we exist in. And yet we also have this big drinking culture in Denmark that makes it socially acceptable to go crazy. It’s funny, this might be the most Danish film that I’ve done, but it’s probably also the most universal film that I’ve done — or at least the film that works in most countries. Because it seems that everyone can relate to drinking. You know the Norwegian psychiatrist [Finn Skårderud] who is mentioned in the film? I was talking to him about this, and he asked me, “How many married couples do you know who met each other sober?” And honestly? It’s not that many [laughs]. Then, when we looked at world history and saw how many fantastic accomplishments have been done by people like Winston Churchill who were basically drunk a lot of the time, we thought: There’s something to this.
Mads Mikkelsen: You pitched it to me right after we finished up The Hunt; I can’t remember whether you’d finished editing it or we had just finished shooting. The basic concept was originally a story in which alcohol is not a bad thing — or rather, it’s not only a bad thing. We’ve seen a number of films which portray the dangers of drinking. But the idea you gave me was closer to, “What is it about alcohol that lifts up the conversation? What is it that eradicates borders between people, and sometimes can create great art or fantastic situations? When it works, why does it work?”
And I remember that these four guys were working in different places at that point. My character was working in a control tower in an airport, which obviously was a very fine place for a lot of insane incidents if I started going to work drunk.
Vinterberg: Then we changed it to all of them being high school teachers.
Mikkelsen: And for good reasons, too! That allowed these men in the middle of their midlife crises to be constantly reminded that they were not young and immortal anymore.
Vinterberg: Plus, I showed you one of those Russian videos as well …
Mikkelsen: The two men and the lock! It’s two men trying to put a lock on a bicycle. We don’t know why they’re trying to do it, but they’re definitely very focused on it, and it’s not working out. It’s just insane how drunk they are. And I was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
Russian videos of drunk people are like the Citizen Kanes of drunk reality videos.
Mikkelsen: But you notice how there’s always one guy who’s sober enough to be filming it! He’s always right around the corner.
Vinterberg: Someone’s got to hold the camera steady.
What was the rehearsal process like?
Vinterberg: We did a week of proper rehearsals and talking a lot about character: Where do they come from? Where are they going? What are they hiding? What are they showing? Then we primarily focused on the most difficult scene, which was the dinner scene in the beginning. It wasn’t difficult for Mads, but it was tough to get the orchestration of all the ups and downs around the table to work, because it’s a very long scene. And then we spent a full week after that on drinking, trying to be sure that we got the playing drunk thing right.
Which is always more difficult than it sounds, right? It’s never just a matter of stumbling and hiccuping a few times.
Vinterberg: Right. I knew I had the best actors you can get. But still, I was asking them to be tender, fun, aggressive — and on top of that, drunk on specific levels. Oh, and also dance [laughs]. I put a lot on their plates, as well as a full week of what we called “booze boot camp.”
What was very helpful was a police report that we had, which was used for police troops to be able to identify how drunk people were just by looking at them. That became our chart. So it was like, “At 0.5 percent, you’ll act like this. If it’s 0.7, you start singing. At 1.0, you get dizzy — 1.1, you can’t get your clothes off and on.” It was a great guideline for us to have — even when we got to the grocery-store scene.
That is the apex of drunkeness in the movie.
Vinterberg: My direction to the actors for that scene was essentially, “You’re all at 2.0 percent blood-alcohol level. Throw the guideline out the window.” [Laughs.]
Mikkelsen: I mean, I got that the grocery store was always meant to be some kind of moment of comic relief, because we know that this day is ending on a very depressing note for all the characters. But we wanted to have at least one highlight of comic relief there. And when you say that for actors who are already intoxicated by being around each other …
What do you mean?
Mikkelsen: So there’s an experiment that was done with young people, where half of them got alcoholic drinks and the other half got a nonalcoholic placebo. And the ones who didn’t get alcohol were as drunk as the ones who did get it. They behaved that way, at least; they felt they were drunk.
So when you’re doing it together, you feel comfortable with your fellow actors and you’re asked to “be drunk, do funny stuff” … you can imagine that we were all over the place. The cameraman had a hard time trying to get us all in one shot because somebody was hiding in the frozen-foods section, somebody else was bumping into things in the liquor department. He kept saying, “Guys, guys, please try to stay even a little near the camera somehow!” [Laughs.]
Vinterberg: It’s an interesting scene to mention, because it’s the scene that was on the cutting-room floor for four months, which made me very sad.
Vinterberg: Yeah, because defining this movie is very difficult. You have that scene next to a scene where Max is crying or fighting with his family. It’s two different movies to some extent. And what we had to realize, both in the process of writing this and editing it, was that it had to be a cocktail of different reactions. That was how we’d end up getting to some sort of level of honesty. We had to come around to the fact that it was pointing in that many directions.
Mikkelsen: Thomas, you always said that the film in many ways is about the uncontrollable. And for that reason, while you were editing, I feel like it dawned on you that the film itself had to be a little uncontrollable. It couldn’t be as stringent as you planned.
Vinterberg: Exactly! Yeah, exactly! It was a different toolbox that I’m used for this one.
You’ve been quoted as saying that that is really what the film is about — not so much drinking to excess as embracing the uncontrollable. And clearly, you don’t need alcohol for that. But having made this film, do you feel like you have more insight into that idea? Is it easier for you to let go of control now?
Vinterberg: Well … that’s a huge thing. It’s something that philosophers have struggled with; Kierkegaard wrote whole books about allowing yourself to lose control over your life, allowing yourself to fail. And it’s a very difficult thing for people to accept. In my life, I have to figure out what movies to make, what ideas to pursue or not to pursue. And sometimes I get ideas that are crazy, and people around me would say, “Thomas … you can’t do that.” And then by doing that anyway, there’s a purposeful loss of control — which is very joyful and very inspirational [laughs]. I mean, take the dance at the end of the movie. It’s the kind of scene where people are suddenly going, “Wait, now it’s a musical. This high school teacher can dance?” It was slipping into something that put us at risk of being on thin ice with the audience. But we all said, “Let’s do this.” It was our version of losing control — and without using alcohol!
Mikkelsen: I think from an actor’s point of view, the uncontrollable is always what we’re after. It doesn’t really matter what scene it is. Actors always tell that great lie: “Oh, we forgot ourselves when we did the scene.” But it is a lie, because of course we are aware! There is a director asking for something specific, and there is a camera shooting all of it. We try to forget all of that, but we are aware. So it’s that strange combination of being in control and, within the framework of that, losing control. Even with improvisation, it’s impossible to do it unless you have some guidelines saying, “This is where we start, and this is where I would like to see it ending. I don’t care how you get there — surprise me.” It’s in that middle part where you can let go, and that’s where you get the good stuff.
Has making this changed either of your relationships with alcohol or drinking?
Mikkelsen: The simple answer is no. I’ve always been a fan of the theory where two glasses of wine does something magical. And I’ve always known that two bottles does something different. I know that. I just think that we put a little different light on it through the film.
Vinterberg: I’ve always had too many children and too much work to be able to drink enough. I don’t have time to get any proper amount of drinking done [laughs]. And, you know, it’s more difficult to drink when you get above 50. If you don’t want to just get sleepy, that is. There’s a theory about how to drink that I came across while I was researching this film, by a man named [George F.] Koob. In the first phase of drinking, you become an elevated version of yourself. In the second phase of drinking, you have to drink to become yourself again. You know, that’s where the white wine sneaks in at lunchtime because you’ve been grumpy all morning. And then there’s the third period where you have to drink to avoid shaking and physical trouble. What I’m saying is, “Stick to phase one.”
I should confess that after seeing the film for the first time, I found myself going, “What are they trying to say here? What are we supposed to take away from this?” And it wasn’t until the second viewing that I began to appreciate how you managed to tell a story about drinking without being moralistic about it but not necessarily endorsing it either.
Mikkelsen: I believe that it’s because the film is about four guys who feel that they’re in the part of their life when the train has left the platform and they are standing there, watching the train leaving. So it’s a film about regaining your life, finding out that the present and the things that you have right now are not so bad. Don’t be jealous of the future. Don’t hate your past. Try to embrace your present. I think that’s why we pulled it off. If not, it could have been a film about nothing but alcohol, and we would have been craving a moral.
Vinterberg: We wanted to make a survey of what you can accomplish through drinking and could possibly point out what you miss in life. You weren’t the only person annoyed by that open ending, David [laughs]. I’ve been stopped in the gym by men who were like, “What are you trying to tell me? Should I drink or not drink?” And I’m like, “Who are we to tell anyone what to do with their lives?”
We can just do an investigation of these four people under the influence of alcohol — we see what happens to their lives, and then it’s up to you. So the open end is because we want people to interpret it for themselves, but also because what would our answer be?
Mikkelsen: I understand why you would ask that question at the end. There have been people that found the ending frustrating — but there have been a lot of people who’ve told me they found it relieving as well.
Vinterberg: There’s five hundred people in the cinema; I hope they see five hundred different movies.
In regards to the ending: Mads, when you first read the script and got to the part where it says “Martin dances and then jumps into the water,” was your first reaction “How the fuck do we do this?” Or was it more like, “Yeah, finally people will get to see that I am the second coming of Fred Astaire! No more skinheads or Vikings or serial killers!”
Mikkelsen: It was … not the second part, no. It was very much the “How the fuck do we pull this off?!” option you mentioned. First of all, it wasn’t originally placed at the ending. It was going back and forth for a while in terms of where it was going to happen. I believe you had it in the middle of the film for a while, and then you pushed it to the ending after a few weeks of shooting, Thomas?
Mikkelsen: I found it difficult in the sense that this is a realistic film, and I was afraid that we could come across as pretentious, even though my character has been drinking a little. It’s a weird thing to just get up and start dancing. I thought, “OK, well, it’s like we’re letting the audience into this lifted, drunken man’s fantasy somehow. But that also felt a little awkward to me. What Thomas said to me was that he wanted to see a man who wanted to fly. He wanted a man who wanted to feel alive, even if it was just for five minutes. So I finally just gave in and thought, “Fine, he’ll dance in the end if that’s what Thomas wants.” And he was right. When you have all these youngsters who were just drunk on life around him, it’s not that weird. It’s fitting, and it’s now hard to imagine the movie ending any other way. But on paper, yes … that was a little struggle there between us.
Vinterberg: You know, in a normal story structure, it would be more of a middle scene than an end scene: This is where the good times culminate. After that, now the bad times arrive. And the dinner scene, where Mads’ character is crying — that would normally be toward the end, you know. The breakdown of a main character is supposed to happen at the end. But again, we had to find different rules for this film. And I felt that the catharsis this character feels, him being weightless and lifted by the youngsters who wanted to execute him in the beginning … ultimately, I felt that made sense. Although, look, Mads and I can send you several drafts of alternative endings, believe me! [Laughs.]
Mikkelsen: But they were all wrong. I mean, this film has always been a film about embracing life to a fairly large degree. But at the end of the film, when we were wrapping it up, we really wanted to amplify that idea. I now realize that none of the other endings would have been suitable at all. This was the only one.
Who choreographed the dance?
Mikkelsen: This fantastic choreographer, Olivia Anselmo. She came up with some steps that I personalized. I added some little things, like the beer can … but it’s her steps. I just had to hang in there. I have a background in dance, but it turns out that not only have I become a little rusty over 30 years, all these dance steps have changed. I didn’t know any of them! So it was just like starting all over again.
Vinterberg: What I love is that there is this orchestration of Mads being a little bit reluctant, dancing a little bit and retreating, then dancing a little bit more, retreating a little bit more … and then finally surrendering. Which, to some extent, both describes the whole film in one little bit of choreography, but also the entire process we went through in trying to believe this makes sense. We just finally had to surrender to the scene. Mads was a bit more nervous than I was, but we all found this to be a bit risky.
Mikkelsen: I remember Thomas was focused on the camera; he’s in his tent watching what’s happening. I was out there doing the thing, trying to do the exact thing we were talking about earlier: completely letting go, trying to get to the point where’s it’s not about the steps anymore. And then, at one point during a take, I look up and I see [Thomas’] wife’s face, watching us. She was just beaming. I always felt like she gave us the energy to believe in what we were doing.
Vinterberg: That’s right! This was the kind of day where family came in, and my wife … she has always believed in this project since the beginning. For every time I’ve been in doubt myself — and I’m the type of person to have doubts about everything I do in life — she was like, “This is going to be fantastic.” And she was there sending out that great energy. I remember that now.
I know you experienced a family tragedy at the beginning of this production. [A few days into shooting, Vinterberg’s 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. The movie is dedicated to her.] Given that this is a story about embracing life, did making this film help you through the grieving process?
Vinterberg: It might have kept me from insanity. And more importantly, it has created this monument, which is inseparable from her, which we made for her, and which is like one huge beating heart. The shooting of this film was so full of love and grief, and you might see that on the screen. But the afterlife of the film has also been so overwhelming and so full of appreciation and love.
“A beating heart” is a lovely way of describing this.
Vinterberg: That’s how I see this movie now. That’s why I love this movie with no limits whatsoever. That is how we made it. We were completely unguarded, completely disarmed. She had wanted me to make this movie before she died. It’s now become this monument to the memory of her, which makes the film feel even more meaningful to me now.