How They Did It: Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking

Art imitates life in A Hijacking, which portrays the scourge of Somali piracy.

The First Phone Call 

Four hours after having sent the producers my first draft of A Hijacking, one of them called me up. He had read it twice, smoked a few cigarettes, and was eager to discuss it. “We’ll have to lease a real cargo ship and shoot the film out in the Indian Ocean. If we take the sensible approach and shoot it in a studio, it’s gonna look like crap.”

I laughed and told him I agreed. Then I asked him what he thought of the script, but he hadn’t really given it much thought. He was more interested in getting hold of a ship and assessing the danger level offshore along the African east coast. Then he hung up. There was no way of knowing, then, just how precarious filming in the waters near Kenya and Somalia would be—that it would prove one of the greatest challenges any of us had ever faced.

The Second Phone Call

“I think I can help you with your film,” the man said into the phone without even having introduced himself to me. “I might have some information you need.”

The man on the line turned out to be Gary Skjoldmose Porter, the chief security officer with the Danish shipping company, Clipper. He had his first dealings with Somali pirates in 2008, when Clipper vessel CEC Future was hijacked off the coast of Somalia.

Within five minutes of meeting him, he’d solved a script problem for me. I couldn’t decide how we were going to hand over the ransom to our pirates. Gary just smiled. “We sent in a plane with the money in a small container and parachuted it down in an area designated by the pirates,” he explained. “It was the fastest and easiest way to hand over the ransom.” When we shot our drop in the film, we did so exactly as Gary had described it.

Later, we asked Gary to pretend we were a shipping company with a hostage crisis on our hands, and to tell us what to do. We taped the entire briefing, and as I watched the recording that night it dawned on me. I needed to persuade Gary to play the hostage negotiator in the film. Now I was the one calling Gary asking him for help.

Thankfully, he accepted. I say “thankfully,” because he is an intensely authentic character in the final film, in part because I didn’t have to script his lines. He knew more about the subject matter than I did. I wrote questions for the actors to ask him, but his answers are all his own.

The Third Phone Call

I was sitting in my hotel room in Mombasa with Magnus Joenck, our cinematographer, trying to lay out guidelines for our camera work. We had just written, “The camera can’t leave the actor, but the actor can leave the camera,” when my Kenyan cellphone rang. It was our producer, René, telling us to get down to the docks immediately. Then he hung up.

At the docks we met with René and the crew of the MV Rozen, the ship that was to provide the setting for our film, as well as house us for the many weeks of production. The crew would be working for us both as sailors (operating the Rozen) and as movie extras (playing the fictitious crew that falls prey to the hijackers). But René looked uneasy, even troubled.

“They’ve been held hostage for real,” he whispered.

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant. But then it dawned on me that these men had agreed to relive their worst nightmare to help us make the film. I realized that we had witnesses on board who knew first-hand what it was like to be held hostage aboard our ship, the MV Rozen.

I didn’t get any sleep that night. I sat at my laptop rewriting the script to encompass the stories the crew told me over dinner that evening.

The Fourth Phone Call

The numerous phone calls in A Hijacking move both the characters and the plot forward. In order to make the calls feel as real and intense as possible, we decided to shoot them live. We had the actors aboard the ship call the actors back home in Demark, while we filmed and recorded the entire thing. This meant that all the echoes and sound dropouts inherent in a real satellite-relayed phone call had a direct influence on the way the scenes panned out. If the connection was lost, the actors were to treat this as part of the reality they were portraying.

One day we were doing a scene in which the ship’s cook is finally allowed to call his wife back home. It had been a day of rough seas and technical difficulties, so we were several hours behind schedule when we got to the sequence.

The cameras rolled. Pilou Asbaek (the cook) called Amalie Alstrup (his wife), and they started reciting their scripted dialogue. Laughing and crying, they shared a brief moment of happiness. The mood changed dramatically, however, when the pirates put a gun muzzle to the cook’s neck and threatened to kill him unless his wife convinced the shipping company to meet the pirates’ demands.

Just then the satellite reception started to deteriorate. Amalie couldn’t hear what Pilou was saying, which frustrated Pilou as he was forced to repeat his lines. After minutes of chaos and confusion, the pirates hung up the phone and the scene ended as scripted. But Pilou didn’t break character. He launched himself at one of the pirates—who instinctively hit him over the head with his rifle. Pilou fell to the floor, weeping, and I, failing to see the blood gushing from his head, just kept the cameras rolling.

The next phonecall I made was to arrange for a local doctor to meet us at the docks and patch up Pilou with glue. Stitches were out of the question, since sewing him up would’ve required shaving his head.

The Fifth Phone Call

The dangers of the Indian Ocean, as I hinted earlier, turned out to be a greater ordeal than we had anticipated. Our producers had furnished us with a ship, we had a great cast, the sea was at our feet, and we were ready to go. But so were the real pirates who troll the Indian Ocean. As a precaution, we had to hire armed muscle from one of the security companies that specialize in escorting cargo vessels safely through the hostile waters off East Africa. This meant that we had six armed mercenaries patrolling the ship, scouting for pirates, the entire time we were shooting.

One day, while we were shooting in the ship’s cargo hold, I went up on deck to get a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Standing at the coffee counter were two armed guards taking a break. We nodded politely at each other, and as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.

One was telling the other how he always kept a single, full metal jacket cartridge at the top of his magazine—for piercing glass and steel plates. The rest of the rounds in his clips, though, were hollow-points: the only type of bullets effective against pirates. You need to bust up their internal organs to stop them, he explained, as ordinary bullets go right through them. “Because they’re so skinny,” he added.

I wish I hadn’t overheard that conversation. It felt like the innocence of our endeavor had been stripped away. Suddenly, this was no longer fiction. It was real. The pirates were real. The ammunition in the guards’ guns proved it.

Later, when I phoned my wife and son, I didn’t tell them about the conversation between the guards. I merely told them how much I loved them, and how much I longed to get home. And for the first time I meant it. I couldn’t wait to escape the reality of the Indian Ocean.

A Hijacking also ends with a phone call. The ship’s owner phones a woman to tell her that her husband won’t be coming home. Then we see him drive off. We don’t know where he’s going. We’re left in the parking garage watching the door close behind him. MM

Magnolia Pictures opens A Hijacking in limited release in the U.S. on Friday, June 21, 2013.

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