Sometimes, great art can spring from the depths of despair. Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish director behind Festen and The Hunt, has made the most celebrated film of his career.
Another Round, like several of his past movies, was selected for Cannes last year. While the festival was cancelled owing to the pandemic, the film has continued a year-long journey of critical acclaim, awards nominations and prizes.
That culminated this month in a surprise Oscar nomination for Vinterberg – a first in his 30-year career – for Best Director. Another Round was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, as it was at the Golden Globes and the Baftas. It comes off the back of a hugely successful run in the filmmaker's own country's cinemas where, despite all the social-distancing regulations, it's become the fourth bestselling Danish movie of the past two decades.
"It's overwhelming," says Vinterberg, about people "flocking into the cinema" in "our humble little shire". And yet Another Round – a life-affirming tale of four friends who overcome midlife malaise – will always be tinged by tragedy for Vinterberg.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher named Martin, the film was meant to co-star the director's teenage daughter, Ida, who was cast as Martin's daughter. The story was set in her school, in her classroom even.
Four days into the shoot, Vinterberg received the devastating news no parent would ever want to hear. His ex-wife, Maria, had been driving Ida to Paris to meet friends when their car was hit by a driver, who was using his mobile phone. Maria survived, but Ida was killed instantly.
His life torn apart, Vinterberg eventually found his way to completing the film. “I met an overwhelming amount of love from the actors and from the crew. And I hope – and think – this radiates through the screen.”
The film was finished before global lockdowns ensued, which gave Vinterberg time for some much-needed reflection. "I'm a part of a family in grief right now because I lost my daughter. And we needed the silence. And the isolation was good for us. So that's my perspective."
He feels for those who have lost family members to Covid-19. "And of course, I think a lot about how this film, about liberation and celebration of life, lands in a world of contamination and death. I hope it's going to be a relief for people."
For Vinterberg, as painful as it was, the making of the film was much-needed oxygen at a time when he could barely breathe. He clung to every bit of humour in the film – like the gentle mockery of the fine-dining restaurants that Martin and his bored friends visit.
“I enjoyed all the humorous aspects of the film. It kept me going. They made me laugh. And it was very difficult at that time. The humour of this movie was life-giving. And I think it’s very important for this movie,” he says.
Cooked up by Vinterberg and his regular screenwriter Tobias Lindholm, the central premise has Martin and his friends decide to experiment with drinking alcohol during the day, at work.
“They have run out of curiosity. They’ve run out of inspiration. And they desperately want to regain life.” Gradually, over time, they find their way back.
“We developed an ambition – Tobias Lindholm and myself – of making a story about life. Not just being alive, but a story of living: how difficult it is and how precious it is.”
The idea began to formulate shortly after Vinterberg worked with Mikkelsen on 2012's heavyweight drama The Hunt, in which Mikkelsen played a man wrongly accused of child molestation.
Early on, says the actor, the script for Another Round had more possibilities for "slapstick comedy" – with his character working in an air-traffic control tower and not a teacher. "But then it changed," says Mikkelsen, "and I saw the script. And as I was hoping, the story was not about alcohol.
"There are some issues that are enormous, of course, when people stay at home and start [drinking at] 10 o'clock in the morning, but it's important for us that that's not the theme of the film. It's important for me to say that we didn't make a film about alcohol abuse. We didn't make a moral film: 'Don't drink'. That's not our mission. The film is about capturing life. Don't let it pass by you. Look again. Isn't it great?"
Mikkelsen, who has made huge steps into Hollywood in films such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Doctor Strange, admits he found it tough to relate to Martin's mental state.
"I do tend to wake up in the morning and be very, very pleased that the sun is rising and curious about what the day might bring. And he seems not to care about it at all. So I didn't have anything in common with him, in that perspective. I know the character. I know a lot of people like that. I know the feeling. But I'm not in his situation."
Vinterberg is delighted with his reunion with Mikkelsen, who has been nominated for a Bafta for Best Actor for his startling performance. "I love working with Mads. Or let me put it more simply: I love Mads. He's a world-class actor," he says. "He's a very, very close friend. And he's a collaborator."
It's a bond that is clearly infused into the core of Another Round, a film about the joys of friendship. And it's a bond that helped to steer Vinterberg through this tragic – and yet creative – period of his life.
Another Round is in UAE cinemas now