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In his moving Oscar acceptance speech, Thomas Vinterberg said that “Another Round,” the Academy Award 2021 international feature winner, celebrates not just drinking alcohol but life and awakening to life. 

Billed as an epic family drama, “Families Like Ours ” – his follow-up and first TV drama series and one of the big market launches at MipTV, sold by Studiocanal – looks set to ask what life is worth living for. 

Its log line kind of answers that question: “A country perishes, but love prevails.” If the emotionally engrossing early stretches are anything to go by, that love is both its first flush, embodied in Laura (Amaryllis August), in love for the first time with fellow high-school student Elías (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt), both on the brink of graduation; and family love, represented at first remove by Laura’s relationships with her divorced parents.  

The country which perishes is Denmark in a not-too-distant future. That scenario rings nightmarishly realistic, especially since the “storm of the century” hit Denmark in October, the sea level rise exceeding two meters along the coast.

In the series, as water levels rise inexorably, the country is evacuated. Suddenly, Denmark implodes. With property worthless, most Danes, are plunged into desperate poverty. 

Laura’s dad, successful architect Jacob (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), may have a chance of scoring a plush job in Paris. Her mom, unemployed and clinically stressed science journalist Fanny (Paprika Steen), looks set to be shipped out like most Danes to a more challenging destination, such as a shabby high-rise suburb of Bucharest with eight people per apartment and a dormitory bedroom. Laura, angling for a Sorbonne residency, may have to choose between the two and Elías.

That’s just the initial set-up. Shot for stretches over nearly a year, employing over 40 actors and 2,500 extras, the seven-part series shot in five countries: Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Romania and France. 

Each episode runs 50 minutes, he series took four years, making for the “biggest series to date” at top Danish production house Zentropa, said producers Sisse Graum Jørgensen and Kasper Dissing, also behind “Another Round.”

Production took in 11 companies based in eight countries with Nordisk Film’s partly owned Zentropa co-producing with France’s Studiocanal, Canal+ and TV 2 Denmark, and with Germany’s ARD Degeto, Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s TV4 and Zentropa Sweden and Film i Väst, Czech Republic’s Sirena Film, Ginger Pictures in Belgium and Romania’s Saga Film.

That conforms to the new TV era of partnership. Scale, however, does not guarantee success, Vinterberg cautions. One of Vinterberg’s best and most immediately enjoyable films, “Another Round” restored some people’s faith in cinema. “Families Like Ours” certainly suggests that, in a cost curtailing Europe, series of large artistic ambition are still getting made.

BTS “Families Like Ours”
Credit: Julia Vrabelova

Vinterberg gave his first interview to Variety on “Families Like Ours” in the run-up to MipTV:

I sense there may be a through line from “Another Round” to “Families Like Ours” in that you’ve described “Another Round” as not just a celebration of alcohol but also of life. Here in the series you step back and and ask what life is worth living for and you suggest two answers: Romantic love and love framed in a family context. But maybe I’m totally wrong?

Thomas Vinterberg: No, no, no, I think it’s totally right. By talking to you, I am starting a journey where I’m getting to know my own work. Yes, in a deeper and more profound way. And this does sound profound and right and beautifully put. I did “Families Like Ours” together with my co-writer Bo Hr, Hansen as an experiment saying: “How do we learn how much we love what we have?” We can learn that by saying we’re going to lose it. It’s as if I’m doing an interview about my graduate film, “Last Round,” which was about a young man dying, and he had a long row of celebrations, which also were a tribute to life. I guess in a larger sort of saga version, we’re doing the same thing here.

“Families Like Ours” is your first TV drama series. Did that make a difference?

Vinterberg: To be honest, I’ve looked at these episodes and this format as a long, large film. For me, the opportunity of making a series gives you basically time to develop, to unfold things. When making a feature film, a lot of the work is about what happens around it, the things that you don’t see, like what happened before the film started, or all the dreams of the future. And here you get an opportunity to embrace some of that and put it on on the screen. I guess it creates a weight, a gravitas.

And the challenges?

Vinterberg: It seems to me that by creating movies, what you have to avoid being generic., aiming for the specific, which is where they become universal, starting to talk to people. I dig in my own backyard with my friends and colleagues whom I’ve known forever. “Families Like Ours” does develop in the rest of the world, visiting five or seven other countries and I need to be as specific. That’s been difficult, entailing a huge amount of research and hard work to be able to dive into a foreign culture.

You also brought in French, Romanian advisors…

Vinterberg: Exactly. We have French investors and it started with a great laugh when they read some of the French episodes and then we developed it from there. 

You got a lot of notes suggesting this doesn’t happen in France or a French person wouldn’t say that?

Vinterberg: I asked for those notes! I used my co-producers as part of the research. And the same went for Poland and Romania and so forth.

At a San Sebastian Festival E.U. conference , Beta Group head Jan Mojto explained that Beta had bought or bought into companies around Europe, according to just how ambitious their producers were. On “Families Like Ours,” you’re backed by two of Europe’s biggest companies, Canal + and Studiocanal, that aim to take illustrious film auteurs – Xavier Dolan (“The Night Logan Woke Up”) or Xavier Gianolli (“Of Money and Blood”) – and help them direct their first series. Such series and again “Families Like Ours” cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition…. 

Vinterberg: I always end up somewhere between ambitiousness and neck breaking. I start out trying to make things easy for myself. Let’s just for one time’s sake, do something that is not going to break my back. But then again –  and I think this goes all the way back to the sensation I got from doing Dogme back in the days – I’ve become somewhat addicted to the risk. That is combined with being ambitious. Risk makes you explore, curious, awake. It even creates solidarity on a crew because we’re doing something that might break our neck, but we’re doing it together. 

Where does this risk-taking come from? 

Vinterberg: I grew up in a hippie commune. They moved into big villas. There was 15 of them, and they broke off the floorboards and put them on the fire and painted everything purple. And they felt very sexy about it. But they were also nervous. Is this going to work? I guess it’s become a thing that I end up doing automatically. But my ambition is the opposite. I want to be comfortable. I’ve been breaking my back too many times.

Scale can of course give a certain comfort because you know that at least what you’re doing might not have been done before….

Vinterberg: But scale in itself is not an ambition. This might be an expensive big scale series but the risk here was: Are people going to buy into this experiment?

One way people might buy into in that this is a hugely realistic disaster series which people might have experienced on a far smaller scale if, for example, they just try to negotiate a bank loan. Here, only the rich survive the disaster of Denmark disappearing…. 

Vinterberg: There’s a class thing going on here. One Sunday, years ago, I was sitting stuck in my hotel room in Paris feeling super bored. I missed my daughters – this is now five, six years ago or something. And I suddenly started to think about their perception of the world and and got inspired by their sort of responsibility for this planet and that’s where this thought experiment came out. I thought: What would happen to my family if Denmark were to be emptied? Being divorced myself, I could probably settle here in Paris or in London, get a job making a movie.  And then this whole class thing: Who fits into the lifeboat and who would you put in the lifeboat with you. This whole thing started to appear.

Was this idea enhanced by the pandemic, when a lot of people I think sensed the same? 

Vinterberg: Yes. It was as if real life has overtaken our series here. When I pitched this, at the beginning, people were like: “This is a crazy fantasy, Thomas. This would never happen.” Then the pandemic hit and they were a lot of similarities that made it feel very real. Now if you look at Denmark, it’s soaking and drowning all over, and there’s even more water in reality than I managed to put in my series. We’re being overtaken by reality here, which is obviously scary.

And what were your guidelines to directing the series? Vinterberg: Honestly, I brought as much as I could from my ways of making movies: My crew and the budgets. Meaning that if we’re doing 350 minutes instead of 100 minutes, we’ll have to multiply equally. That’s been a big challenge for the producers of this show, obviously, because it’s become quite expensive. But I didn’t want to compromise. What changed? The only thing I’ve noticed is that my body and my age was suddenly less capable of carrying me.

Because you shot over a year….

Vinterberg: On and off. Not in one stretch. But a lot of shooting days and a lot of countries. I did my morning yoga for the first 80%, 90% of the shoot. Then towards the end, out of fatigue or something, I replaced the yoga with beer. In the evening my body disintegrated. I was ill for a month. I wrote the series myself as well, which was also a long stretch. I’m not trying to get pity here….

Did you have to shoot slightly faster at times?

Vinterberg: Yes, because we did set up some expensive shoots like a harbor with a big ship and a lot of extras which cost money and money costs time. So on the chamber play days, like when you have three actors in a room, I had to do more pages.

You can also replace cliffhangers with episode-ending scenes which deliver a large unexpected emotional punch, such as when Holger, Laura’s uncle, turns up at her mother’s place and presents her with money. Suddenly you realize that this rude violent man has spent the whole of his life feeling inferior, despised by her, his great journalist sister. And he wants to prove to his sister that he loves her and that he isn’t a hopeless bum.

Vinterberg: I did try to provide some cliffhangers. A difficult thing is that audiences, viewers have become much more sophisticated than we realized and they don’t want cliffhangers to be too stupid. They’ve gotten used to TV series now. I use test audiences a lot. On “Another Round, we did 19 screenings before the end and those were crucial. They told us very, very important things. For the first 10 tests, people were asking: “What’s this movie about? So it’s about Mads Mikkelsen, an alcoholic starting to drink again.” I was like, “No, no.” There were a lot of very sophisticated and clever notes comes from test audiences and talking about cliffhangers. There’s a point where you talk down to an audience with cliffhangers.

One of the key dramatic elements of the series’ early stretches and the possibly main plot driver of the whole of the series is a possibly coming of age, the first mature love of two young people who have found the first love or the love of their lives.

Vinterberg: Making a series about the end of our world here in Denmark, I’m trying to create a tale about resilience and hope. I felt that youth was representing that. I grabbed that element of electricity, naivety and youth shooting “Another Round.” I always enjoyed shooting Mads Mikkelsen but I really enjoyed it when the camera panned left and I saw all of these youngsters with like a sense of ignition. I wanted to bring that into this series as a sign of resilience and hope for the future.

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