COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- When Danish director Thomas Vinterberg wrote the script for "The Hunt" -- one of this year's contenders for Best Foreign Language Film -- he pictured a young Robert De Niro as the lonely teacher whose life crumbles because of an innocent lie.
But when fellow Dane Mads Mikkelsen, known for his roles as the icy villain in the James Bond movie "Casino Royale" and the brilliantly evil Hannibal Lecter on TV's "Hannibal," signed on, his vision changed.
"It was really awesome when I got Mads," he said. "But, I had to rewrite the script."
Vinterberg says his original idea was that the lead character, Lucas, would be a young, tough blacksmith. However, he toned it down and turned him into a humble, quiet kindergarten teacher, popular with the children. The small-town teacher becomes the victim of a modern witch hunt over a 5-year-old's false accusation of pedophilia.
"I changed it because I thought it would be a much more interesting combination," he told The Associated Press.
Vinterberg won't speculate about the chances of his film winning the Academy Award, which would be Denmark's fourth foreign-language Oscar. To be sure, the film is facing tough competition.
"The Hunt" is up against, among others, Felix van Groeningen's Belgian entry, "The Broken Circle Breakdown," and Italian Paolo Sorrentino's bittersweet "The Great Beauty," which grabbed the Golden Globe and is considered the favorite in the category on March 2.
The small Scandinavian country's reputation for filmmaking could help his chances.
Gabriel Axel, who died Sunday, won Denmark's first foreign film Oscar for "Babette's Feast" in 1987 and Bille August's "Pelle the Conqueror" won the award a year later. Susanne Bier was the 2011 winner with "In a Better World." And enfant terrible director Lars von Trier has brought Danish films a whole new audience.
Vinterberg himself broke into the international spotlight some 16 years ago for "The Celebration," a twisted family drama that won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998. Its minimalist production techniques shared with Von Trier -- hand-held cameras, no props, lighting or special effects -- gave him a reputation as a director to watch.
Now, having abandoned those techniques, he may get one of film's top awards.