Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer’s R is a striking and claustrophobic Danish drama starring Pilou Asbæk (a.k.a. Johan Philip Asbæk) and Dulfi Al-Jabouri. The film follows two men who must learn the survival tactics necessary for coping with the brutal violence that transpires within a prison’s walls; using toilet pipes to pass drugs, they climb up the ranks of masculine hierarchies until their lives are threatened by kingpins. Lindholm and Noer, documentarians making their feature debut, spoke with Slant about their experience making R.
What motivated you to make a prison film?
Tobias Lindholm: A childhood friend of mine was incarcerated because of [minor] drug crimes. He started to write letters and I went to visit him. I had no idea what was going on in Danish prisons. People think it’s a country club, and not as brutal as in other countries. It is dangerous and violent. Also, we both love the American genre of prison films. It was fun to do an art-house Danish version.
What are the views of Danish prisons?
Michael Noer: I have a funny story about that. At a festival in Mumbai, a guy yelled, “It’s not a prison! It’s a hotel with bad service.” Our goal was to show how a Danish prison—an environment with a lot of rules—works. There’s a big difference in prisons around the world, but not in how each country deals with its inmates. Concerning the Danish prison, the most shocking thing we learned was that it becomes a school for criminals. [Crime] is what you have to do to survive. If you come in as a minor criminal—and Rune is a weak prisoner, not a weak man—this is what happens to you. And you deal with a lot of racial issues.
What issues did you consider regarding the portrayal of race?
Noer: We didn’t think that our prison system had different wards, with Muslims separated from the Danish. We talked to a consultant and did research to make the film [authentic]. We had to make this prison a mini-society. Rachid’s character is a bit a mystery. He’s from a culture we don’t know enough about in Denmark. We were proud of the scene between Rachid and his mother, where we don’t understand what they were saying [it’s not subtitled], but we understand the emotion.
Significantly, while the film has a strong understanding of the characters’ masculinity, there’s never the threat of male rape. Did you deliberately avoid this prison-film cliché?
Lindholm: You have a right to maintain your sexuality in a Danish prison. But every prisoner has the right to have a visit with a wife or girlfriend, so they don’t need to adopt [homosexual behavior]. I had an idea that [rape] was going on, but was proven wrong.
How did you shift from working in documentary to making a feature?
Lindholm: I’m a screenwriter, and Michael is a documentary director. We built our relationship on a shared interest in reality. I’m not into ideas, but logic—and finding the drama and stories in that. We are big fans of the Dardennes, and stand a little on their shoulders. We did this film “as documentary as possible.” We pre-lighted the set so we could follow the characters anywhere. This made it possible to give the film a documentary flavor and get rid of what makes fiction stiff and unrealistic.
How did you cast the film?
Lindholm: Johan was the only professional actor. Many in the cast were prisoners. We put an ad in the paper, and the ones who showed up for casting were ex-inmates or guards. The prison emptied out a half year before we started shooting, so a lot of guys we hired spent time there. They showed us how they behaved in jail. The amazing thing about Dulfi, we gave him the part and he said he didn’t want it unless we changed some things. Dulfi is Muslim. We had a moment in the script when he carried drugs into the mosque. He said, “I would never do that, hide drugs from Allah.” We were pleased by that response, and so we changed it.
How did you work with your actors?
Lindholm: The trick for us was not to give them too much motivation, or talk with them about their psychology, but to find the exact, practical things they needed to do: lighting a cigarette, looking out the window, throwing coffee at someone’s head. When we found Johan, he wasn’t an obvious choice for the part, but his eyes were telling stories constantly. That was why he got the part. We could throw him into underworld subcultures in Copenhagen, and he could come back with ideas, but it was his eyes that communicated a lot in his cell. The best director of the film was the prison. It kept making us do stuff that was natural and logical.
Can you discuss the way you filmed some of the brutal violence?
Noer: When we conceived the script, we had a plan of attack. We felt the stairwell [assault] scene was important to show early—12 minutes in. It makes viewers scared, like they are in prison. We wanted the feel of never knowing when the violence would hit; the threat of violence hangs over the entire film. The violence is a reenactment of something we heard that happened and we used the exact stairway where it happened. It was scary to reenact this sadistic reality. Recreating it, we were meticulous. We chose to knock out the teeth on a pig, so the sound you hear isn’t that of real [human] teeth being knocked out. Thank God people think the scene is scary, because if the violence wasn’t scary, that would have been scary! We followed a Dogme-like rule to have the violence be as realistic as possible.
What was your style for working together?
Noer: We like rules a lot, so we work together in a brotherhood. We are servants for reality. It is a militaristic way of working.
Lindholm: At the same time, in the screenwriting, we were very inspired by The Wire, and Generation Kill, where you maintain realism more than the plot.
There are some interesting uses of music, sound, and silence. How did you conceive these elements?
Noer: We initially didn’t want to use music at all, because it’s the strongest way to tell folks they are watching a film, but it’s also a way of [conveying] emotion. So we used music without a melody, which is very masculine. We tried to use something that was melodramatic. We used an annoying/disturbing sound; it goes to the pit of the audience’s stomach, not to their brains or heart. It conveys how it must feel to be the main character who knocked out someone’s teeth. It’s the echo of violence.
What resonates in your film is not who dies or survives, but the realism of it all. How did you create such a palpable sense of reality?
Lindholm: My childhood friend who was imprisoned was a great source. We met with Roland Møller, who plays a character called the Mason, and who spent time in that exact jail. He was our mirror of truth all the way through—from idea to script to shooting. We would discuss all the details with him and other former inmates. We chose to film in the exact stairwell, the exact toilet/pipeline. We were loyal to truth. Kim [Winthur, who plays a guard] worked in the prison for many years. He never touched the door handles—he kicked them in. He said, “I don’t touch the door because the prisoners put piss and shit on the door.” So he never touched it. We did this film in an almost 1:1 realism. We didn’t add ideas. We just filmed the story as it was.