It’s been 11 years since Mads Mikkelsen starred in Nikolaj Arcel’s Danish period drama A Royal Affair, one of 2012’s most raved about international films which also went on to an Oscar nomination.
Now, the countrymen are back together again with Venice competition title The Promised Land (Bastarden) which Magnolia acquired for U.S. distribution at script stage and which is already on the shortlist to be Denmark’s Oscar submission this year.
Mikkelsen plays impoverished captain Ludvig Kahlen who in 1755 sets out to conquer the harsh, uninhabitable heath of Jutland with a seemingly impossible goal: to build a colony in the name of the King. But the merciless Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) does everything in his power to drive the captain away. Kahlen will not be intimidated and engages in an unequal battle — risking not only his life, but also that of the family of outsiders that has formed around him.
In Venice this week, Arcel, who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, told me that he wouldn’t have made the film without Mikkelsen, a rare actor able to embody the level of complexity that the rigid Kahlen experiences, Arcel explained.
I caught up with both Arcel and Mikkelsen here on the Lido this week to discuss the film and their collaboration, as well as their different experiences in Hollywood during the years between A Royal Affair and The Promised Land. Read the Q&A below which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
DEADLINE: How did you guys come back together for Promised Land?
MADS MIKKELSEN: We never left each other.
NIKOLAJ ARCEL: Yeah, we never left each other, truly. We had a great experience on A Royal Affair and we kind of met a few times, we have a common friend in Anders Thomas Jensen who’s the co-writer of this film, so we kept in touch.
DEADLINE: And why was this the project that got you two collaborating again?
ARCEL: I came upon this novel by Ida Jessen about three years ago and immediately when I read it, I felt it was a perfect film for me to make but also I didn’t want to make it without Mads. This was always written for him and I don’t think a lot of people can achieve that complexity of what that character goes through. I actually spoke to Mads before we even wrote the script, I was like hey we have this book, this idea, do you want to do this film? He said, “Sure, if the script is good I’ll do it.”
DEADLINE: So was it kind of do or die? Like if Mads had said no, you wouldn’t have done it?
ARCEL: For me it was. I didn’t want to do it with anybody else.
MIKKELSEN: He said to start out by reading the book and I said no because I do know that from (the book to the script) is an entirely different journey and I’d rather hear it from that imagination. You can always go back to the book and pick up little inspirations, but for me it was important to see what was the story he was telling.
DEADLINE: Did you veer very far from the book?
ARCEL: We did at times. One of the things I think we stayed very faithful to was the themes and the characters, that’s something we really retained. But plot-wise, I think we changed a lot because the book is almost Tolkien-like in its infatuation with nature and the heath and at times, which is part of why I fell in love with it, spends chapter upon chapter describing flowers on the heath and the nature and the daily life. Of course the type of film I wanted to make and Anders wanted to make, and Mads ultimately, was not the very art-house-y version where everybody is walking around for hours, it’s not the Terrence Malick version, but rather something closer to my heart which is a little more driven storytelling and a love story, but every element was there in the book, we just probably contracted some stuff.
MIKKELSEN: But still gutsy enough, especially in the beginning. You know, spending time with a person in the elements and the changes of that character are very subtle. So that’s really gutsy and that’s also a beautiful part of the story.
DEADLINE: In terms of the elements, was shooting as brutal as it looks in the film?
MIKKELSEN: We had places where you could go and take shelter but it’s a main character of the film in a way, so the fact that it’s there is a giant helping hand for everybody, to feel like you’re 12 or 11 hours out there with the wind – ruthless, no mercy. That’s nice to feel it, knowing I can at least eat something and knowing they didn’t eat, just imagining that.
DEADLINE: You ended up pulling this film together fairly quickly…
ARCEL: This was a fast film to get made, We pretty much financed it almost as we wrote it. I think it was two and a half years, it was quite fast in relation to how big of a film it is.
DEADLINE: Wherever do you find time, Mads?
MIKKELSEN: I’m not that busy, but it can look like it. A few of my films have been quite visible but that’s not always the case – you’ll have actors who are working twice as much as me but some of those films might go under the radar. I tend to have nice breaks of three-four months when I wrap something up. I’ve always done that so it’s no exception here.
DEADLINE: It’s been 11 years since A Royal Affair. In between, Nikolaj, you went and did The Dark Tower in the States. Mads, you took part in major franchises and continue to work between the U.S. and Denmark or Europe. What’s the significance of doing a Danish period piece for the two of you now?
ARCEL: For me and Mads it’s been very different. For me, the whole experience of working on a studio picture was not a very happy one. It was very different from here where it’s very much about your vision as a director and your film. Over there, at least within that kind of film, the sort of blockbuster studio film, it’s their film, it’s not yours. You’re just a hired hand and that was not a pleasant experience for me at times. I don’t think I would want to do exactly that kind of film again. For me, it was such a great thing to return home and to work on a film that was purely mine and my passion and my vision and my themes and the characters that I love and the actors that I love. But for Mads, obviously, it’s just a choice of you can do whatever you want…
MIKKELSEN: No, not really, but there is a big difference in the sense that, when they fall in love with, let’s say an actor from over here, they might want to like shape your accent – can you do an American? Can you do a Brit? And then they say, ah I don’t mind, I kind of like when you do that. So what they like is what they want to use. They say the same to the directors, but the second they put their feet on that soil, it’s like, “We loved it, it was so special, can you do it more like these guys?” That happens the second the budget is at a certain level.
ARCEL: I would certainly do an independent film in the U.S. any time, but I think a big studio movie I would probably shy away from. Every Danish director who has gone over there has come home screaming, “Oh my God, what was that?! What happened? Where was my talent?”
MIKKELSEN: We’re so not used to it, right… It’s just a very different experience.
DEADLINE: On this film, you’ve not been affected by the current Hollywood strikes because it’s a Danish production and your U.S. distributor is an indie?
MIKKELSEN: No, we’re lucky this goes under the interim rules so we’re very grateful and happy that we can be here. There’s obviously some stuff that has to be fixed and we are all in favor of that.
DEADLINE: Mads, what specifically brings you back to Danish filmmaking? I imagine the collaboration is part of it…
MIKKELSEN: Yeah, it is. I mean, we loved it last time, 10 years ago was a long time to wait but finally it happened, so absolutely. And then on top of that there was a story I really loved. So that brings you back. It’s my friends, it’s my stories, it’s my language so it’s nice to be home.
DEADLINE: And it’s a great character. He’s a little bit difficult to like at certain times. Not as bad as de Schinkel…
MIKKELSEN: (Laughs) No, I had that going for me. We were very aware. On paper, we knew exactly how the minimal steps of him kind of opening up to life, when they should happen. We got nervous obviously after shooting the same kind of energy, the same stubbornness – at the beginning we were like, should we give him a little heart, a little warmth? And then we realized we always have to draw back and say, “No, trust what we have agreed upon, so that smile that opens up the sky will have that effect.” If not, if we do it all the time, it won’t happen. But that sometimes happens, like, “I am booored of this guy.”
DEADLINE: You guys and compatriots you’ve worked with have talked to me before about being part of a kind of close-knit filmmaking community in Denmark…
MIKKELSEN: We are, but the community is growing. There is a generation that is coming up and they tend to work with each other and their own generation, so that’s how it should be. But this one is small still, and it’s nice. It’s an interesting thing for us to look at because I know all these guys, but to see how much they take care of each other and give feedback to each other even though they are films they would never make, that collaboration is very terrific.
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