Shifting between modern offices in Copenhagen and a run-down cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, the new thriller "A Hijacking" focuses on the negotiations that ensue when Somali pirates overtake the vessel. Writer-director Tobias Lindholm ignites a pressure-cooker drama by lacing the story with details drawn from real life and subjecting the cast to some of the unpleasant ones.
Playing in limited release, "A Hijacking" ratchets up the tension with a startling sense of authenticity, blurring the line between reality and fiction. The scenes shot in Copenhagen take place in the offices of the shipping company Clipper Group; one of their security specialists who has been involved in resolving real-life hijackings plays a negotiator. The ship used in the film, the MV Rozen, was itself hijacked in 2007.
Lindholm previously co-wrote 20 episodes of the television show "Borgen" and also co-wrote the films "Submarino" and "The Hunt" with director Thomas Vinterberg. He co-directed the 2010 film "R," which also featured "A Hijacking" and "Borgen" star Pilou Asbaek and was set and shot in a Danish prison.
The emotional center of the film is formed by the ship's cook (Asbaek), who simply wants to get home to his wife and young child, being pressed into acting as mouthpiece for the pirates in the ransom negotiation process. On the other end of the line is the company's CEO (Søren Malling), who goes against the advice of his own team to lead the negotiations himself. What follows is a tense standoff by speakerphone.
To build the tension for the scenes in the Clipper Group offices, Lindholm would leave his actors in their small situation room without any idea when the phone would ring to begin the scene, sometimes letting them wait for hours. Likewise, while filming on the Rozen he would sometimes lock Asbaek and other cast members in a small cabin for hours on end, even releasing a jar of flies into the room.
"It's like talking about salt but not adding it to the food. You need to add it to taste it," Lindholm said during a recent call from Paris. "And reality is not something you can just read about and re-create in the studio. It feels like if you actually put reality in there you can taste it, you can feel it. So we're trying to get as many elements from reality as possible in the film."
Though incidents of piracy have been on the decline, the rash of hijackings that began in the mid-2000s led to thousands of sailors being held hostage and billions of dollars in costs. The recently released trailer for the upcoming Tom Hanks-starring hijacking tale "Captain Phillips," from "United 93" and "Bourne Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass, focuses the action on trying to repel the pirates from the boat. The invasion of the boat is entirely unseen in Lindholm's film.
"It's called 'A Hijacking,' and that's the only thing you don't see," said Asbaek in a separate call from Copenhagen.
"It never interested me," said Lindholm of the decision not to show the actual takeover of the boat. "I never wrote the actual action sequence of the hijacking. It was never in the script."
Some of the most gripping moments in the film instead come from a conference room full of people staring at a speakerphone, waiting for the response from the other end. The calls themselves would be shot using a live phone line, so that echoes and dropouts would frustrate the actors as in real life.
Playing the chief executive officer, Malling is more sympathetic than the typical character of the corporate raider. Just as Asbaek anchors the scenes with sailors and pirates, Malling provides a center to the extras drawn from real life in the corporate setting. Some of the ship's crew seen on-screen had been real-life hostages. The pirates in the film are Somali refugees cast from the production's base in Mombasa, Kenya.
"Both 'R' and 'A Hijacking' could never happen without the responsibility of the actors. The only way you can get experts from real life to act is to make them not act but just react to a situation," explained Lindholm. "But you need somebody to take control of the scene, and the actors will do that. I could never do this without actors, but I could never get all the actors to play as real as the real guys. That's the challenge."
For Asbaek, being put in such potentially torturous situations as well as putting on around 40 pounds to capture the doughy sympathy of his role as the ship's cook is just part of his ongoing collaboration with Lindholm.
"It was very tough, but it was very good for me," he said of the film's rigorous shoot, sailing out each day from Mombasa into the Indian Ocean under protection of armed guards. "It would keep the circumstances sharp. In my mind acting is believing in the circumstances, it's about believing in your surroundings."
Lindholm, 35, is working on another script for Vinterberg while also preparing another project to direct for Asbaek to star in. With his grasp of action dynamics and ability to keep an audience on edge, it would make sense for him to join the ranks of Scandinavian filmmakers who have recently come to Hollywood. While he's open to the idea, he says he is in no hurry, noting, "I want to keep on doing what I'm doing."
Added Asbaek, "I don't think we're going to come to Hollywood, I think Hollywood is going to come to us."