Oscar-nominated foreign language film "A War" is in some ways three movies in one. The latest from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm, it tells the story of a soldier brought up on charges at home for what he did while stationed in Afghanistan and is by turns a war film, a family drama and a courtroom thriller.
In "A War," a Danish soldier (Pilou Asbaek) is stationed in Afghanistan as his wife (Tuvu Novotny) struggles with life back home. In the heat of a firefight, he makes a command decision that has severe consequences on the ground and for his return. Once back in Denmark, he is brought up on war crimes charges that trap him between his loyalty to his fellow soldiers and responsibilities to his family.
"There is no right or wrong in that, it's really just a bad situation," said Lindholm during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "What do you do in a situation when you're expected to only do what's right, when you're only in wrong situations?"
To heighten the drama of the courtroom scenes that provide the climax of the film, Lindholm withheld the last few pages of the script from Asbaek so the actor didn't know which way the verdict would go.
"First of all, in real life we don't know the outcome," said Lindholm. "So we prepare ourselves for both. And I needed him to do the same. If he knew what was going to happen, he would psychologically be ahead of himself."
Asbaek said he wasn't surprised that the director gave him an incomplete script.
"I kind of expect that from him, always looking to challenge you as an actor, so you're prepared for something unexpected," Asbaek said. "Sometimes you need to not think about it, just be it. I kind of liked not knowing what was going to happen."
"A War" is the third film in which Lindholm has directed Asbaek, besides also working together on the popular television show "Borgen." Yet when the two first met during an Asbaek audition for Lindholm's first film, the prison drama "R," they did not hit it off.
"He saw a typical actor and I saw a typical arrogant director," recalled Asbaek. "And now we both found out the world is not that black and white."
Yet in Asbaek, Lindholm would find one of his closest collaborators; after "R" the actor starred in Lindholm's "A Hijacking." Lindholm isn't surprised that Asbaek has seen his star rise internationally. The actor will be in the upcoming season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," plays Pontius Pilate in a remake of "Ben-Hur" and will appear in the live-action version of "Ghost in the Shell."
"The camera loves him," observed Lindholm. "He's not a handsome guy in real life, he looks a little strange, but when you put a camera on his face his eyes are there and he reveals so much emotion. It's not something you can learn, either you have it or not. That discipline and lack of self-consciousness while you shoot is so hard to find."
The pair continue to push each other creatively. For example, Lindholm has become increasingly interested in realistic detail as an underpinning to emotional intensity.
"He doesn't like acting. The moment you start acting, he yells, 'Cut,' " said Asbaek. "Which is weird, the movies I'm shooting now, it's like 'Action' and then you act. But with him it's the exact opposite."
That desire to catch the actors in relatively real moments extended to other performers as well. Among "A War's" most intensely dramatic scenes is an extended conversation between Asbaek and Novotny in their car. She pleads with him to put their family first and as she struggles to hold her emotions in check, she lets out a pained, deflated apology. Lindholm noted that Novotny had told him that she was would try to give a more restrained take, so in that moment the apology was actually to her director.
"That 'I'm sorry' was for me, saying let's do it again," said Lindholm. "But when I saw that, I thought, that's brilliant writing, it's perfect."
The scenes set in Afghanistan were shot largely in Turkey with Afghan refugees who have settled there in the roles of locals. Apart from Asbaek and a few others, the majority of the soldiers in the film are played by actual combat veterans.
"I'm not just saying this to be a horrible idiot actor, but I was the amateur," said Asbaek. "I was working with professionals who has been soldiers for 15 or 20 years. They'd been to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, these guys had been in combat for real."
For Lindholm, "A War" comes at the end of an intense period of writing scripts for director Thomas Vinterberg — including the Oscar-nominated "The Hunt" — and others while also writing and directing scripts for himself. He is writing an adaptation of Greg Mitchell's nonfiction book "The Tunnels" for director Paul Greengrass. And then he plans to take time to write something again for himself.
"A War" did well at the box office in Denmark when it was released there last year, but wasn't exactly a blockbuster. Lindholm acknowledged that the sort of tough, clear-eyed dramas he specializes in don't necessarily make for everyone's idea of a fun night out at the movies.
"I'm not necessarily telling the audience the stories they want to hear, but they might need to hear," he said. "And in a world we're in right now with a refugee crisis and images every day of people getting killed … you feel you deserve some cake. And I have not served you a cake."