Writer/Director Thomas Vinterberg on Letting His Alcohol-Inspired ‘Another Round’ Remain Untamable [Interview]

The English translation of Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film, “Another Round,” might disguise the real nature of the imbibing that takes place on the screen. The original Danish title, “Druk,” which translates roughly to “Binge Drinking,” feels like a more fitting way to describe the gloriously choreographed chaos that plays out. Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm put a high-concept spin on the midlife crisis movie as a group of four Danish friends, led by Mads Mikkelsen’s Martin, test a hypothesis that they can improve their humdrum existences by maintaining a consistent 0.5% BAC throughout the day. The results are frequently hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, but always honest.

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Vinterberg makes no secret that his film is undeniably Danish, and his fellow countrymen and women would seem to agree – “Another Round” marks the director’s third selection as Denmark’s official submission for Best International Feature at the Oscars. The film puts Danish attitudes towards alcohol under the microscope and also discovers a larger tension between personal and collective gratification running through a country that routinely ranks among the world’s happiest. But after hurdling “the one-inch-tall barrier,” as Bong Joon-Ho memorably referred to subtitles, there are clear cross-cultural takeaways about substances, society, and satisfaction that resonate beyond the film’s Nordic setting.

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Shortly before the film’s U.S. release on December 4, Vinterberg hopped on Zoom to discuss the challenges of accurately portraying inebriation thematically at the script level and practically when directing the film’s committed performances. The conversation also touched on Vinterberg’s thoughts about the Dogme 95 movement at 25 as well as where he is looking to explore in future projects.

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How did this story evolve from its origin being a celebration of alcohol to explore how alcohol can expand and inhibit us as humans learning how to be alive?
You described it pretty well, that’s more or less what happened. As you know already, we were fascinated by what you can accomplish with alcohol’s right usage. Looking at world history, we were excited about that idea. But, very quickly, we found out that there was a certain responsibility coming with making a movie about alcohol. That’s one thing. And also, curiosity towards the darker side of this, the fact that it can elevate conversations and politicians and artists, can kill people and destroy families, yet still is so socially accepted. That was fascinating to us.

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How do you avoid being preachy or moralizing with the subject matter?
I thought about putting “don’t try this at home” at the end! Well, we just decided not to do that. My wife is a priest, as you can see, by the way [points to vestment hanging on the bookshelf behind him]. We have female priests, and she’s an actress in the movie as well. But anyway, we decided to raise the questions and explore, but not to give the answers. I think it has been done so many times before. Actually, in the society where I come from, there’s this way of talking about alcohol [outstreches one arm], but then there’s this way of using it [outstretches other arm]. And there’s this thick wall between those two things. And we want to be right there in the middle, just exploring and investigating.

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What did you bring to “Another Round” from your life experience that you might not have if you’d developed it ten or twenty years ago?
If I made this ten or twenty years ago, I think I would have stuck to the provocation. I would have stuck to the pure celebration of alcohol because I would have found that sexier. Whereas now, I felt I wanted a bit more weight and truthfulness. I also felt it was important to make a film that became life-affirming and not just about alcohol. This is just a catalyst for talking about being inspired in life.

Could trying to find a balance with alcohol stand-in for other things like artistry or creativity? Maybe I’m projecting too much here, but I can’t help but think about how, 25 years ago, you kicked off the Dogme 95 movement with the “vows of chastity” and have since gone on to achieve a lot of the movement’s aims by transgressing a bit and leaning on various filmmaking techniques and styles.
So, you’re asking what happened to Dogme and the rules?

No, not necessarily! Maybe I didn’t explain this well, but I see a bit of a connection between your own career of coloring outside the lines of Dogme and the characters in the film pushing boundaries.
Right, right, right. Well, I’ve been around, exploring all sorts of different ways in my career. At times, I’ve been confused about what I was supposed to do as well. This movie is sort of coming back to what I am, I guess. It’s very much me and very much how I make movies. It’s done with my friends, and it really comes from the heart. It’s not in accordance with the Dogme rules, but it’s handheld! Everything is handheld. But working in accordance with the rules from back then would be strange, I think. It would feel like a retrospective or something. Back then, we tried to purify moviemaking. We tried to undress it. And then it became, overnight, a sexy dress in Cannes in ’98 [the festival where Vinterberg’s “Festen” won the Jury Prize]. And now, it would be a very old dress. I’m looking at new ways of gaining the same thing: purity and honesty amongst characters.

There is a connection somehow. Because, in its own same searching kind of way, it’s letting life happen with the camera. And it’s not as staged as, for instance, my previous movie [“The Command”] which was in a submarine with giant explosions and CGI. It’s kind of a return to what I come from.

How did you go about finding the delicate tonal balance in the film? There’s obviously drama and comedy, but we also go back and forth between laughing with and occasionally laughing at the characters.
It was a really difficult balance because we wanted it all. It was a little bit of an untamable beast, this project. Because every time we tried to sort of make it more stringent, such as taking out the slapsticky scenes, we killed it. It was supposed to be untamable, somehow, and go in all sorts of different directions. So we had to balance, and it was really difficult. I guess it was a little bit the same challenge when I did “Festen” [“The Celebration“] back in the day. I remember going to New York City back when there were cinema stores, and I found the movie under “dark comedy,” which was very interesting to me. Probably because it was so difficult to [identify] the genre, and that same balance is what we’re juggling here.

The way you just described it is leading me to a revelation: is watching “Another Round” a cinematic equivalent to being drunk or under the influence of alcohol itself? You have the ups and downs, have the downs, and hopefully, you end up in a somewhat happy place.
Exactly. Or, you die. Well, that’s really what we tried. Since the beginning, the drive as a writer in the writing is to tame it, listen to it, organize things, decipher genre, and narrow it down. But this one just didn’t want to be narrowed down. I guess it’s probably pretty similar to how it feels to be drunk, yes!

Was any of the movie, either in scripting or production, born of the same experimentation with alcohol that the characters attempt?
I have a lot of experience, but in the process of having to shoot the movie, both the writer and myself have small children and lead a reasonably civilized life, so we couldn’t just get pissed. But it’s really difficult to play drunk, so we had some rehearsals where I gave them alcohol. We watched videos, Russian videos in particular, of particularly drunk people. We very carefully every day, eight hours, tested out different levels of alcohol for a week. They weren’t pissed, but they were having a little bit of alcohol. On set, I couldn’t serve alcohol, of course, for legal reasons. They might have to drive a car right after playing drunk and stuff like that. Whatever happens in the trailer, I have no idea. But on set, no.

How do you keep directing drunkenness realistic and lifelike without sacrificing playfulness and spontaneity?
Playing it realistically is just very difficult. As I said, we had a rehearsal period. And we cannot forget these are really, really fine-tuned and fantastic actors. Playing drunk up until 0.8% [BAC] is one thing. You hide that you’re drunk like you hide every other feeling. You pretend that you’re not drunk, as you would do in reality, sit straight in your chair. But when you’re really drunk, it looks really overacted very quickly. So we had to find the balance.

You’ve played in so many different genres and styles of filmmaking from “Festen” to “Far from the Madding Crowd,” or “The Command” to “Another Round.” Is there anything you’re still looking to cross off your list with the next feature or somewhere down the line?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m just doing my own stuff, my own weird mix of genres. I’m working on a TV series. I’m still reading stuff and communicating with my agents. There [are] still things going on, boiling. But, as we speak, I’m writing again on my own stuff.

I don’t want to spoil the last scene for people, but I’d certainly be interested in watching a musical of yours after “Another Round.”
Oh, a musical! Well, yeah, maybe. Possibility.

I watched “Another Round” as part of TIFF at home, and I wish I had been in a theater to take in that ending – ideally, one responsibly serving alcohol.
Yeah, well, it does have that effect on some. But then, at the same time, you find a lot of AA people in the cinemas who feel they’ve been betrayed. They’ve seen how bad it can go, and it’s an interesting open end, I guess.