A decade after their Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair, director Nikolaj Arcel and star Mads Mikkelsen reunite with the 1700s-set The Promised Land. The Danish pair talk about how they created a historical epic that resonates with modern audiences.
“I don’t think I would have wanted to make the film with anyone else,” says writer/director Nikolaj Arcel of the actor Mads Mikkelsen, who leads historical drama The Promised Land, Denmark’s submission to the 2024 international feature Oscar. Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen, a former army officer who was determined to found a new colony in the wild heathland of rural Denmark in the mid-1700s, setting him on a collision course with a ruthless, entitled landowner (Simon Bennebjerg). The film reunites the actor and director after A Royal Affair, which was Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language film category in 2013.
Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen adapted the screenplay from Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain And Ann Barbara; the story portrays Kahlen’s unorthodox ‘family’ — companion Ann Barbara (played by Amanda Collin) and the orphan girl they take in, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg).
Arcel, whose credits include Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower, shot the film in autumn 2022 across the Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark — on a budget of $8.7m (€8m), marking Zentropa’s largest production in years. Magnolia has US rights and Icon has UK, with both set to release in early February 2024.
Screen International How do you think each of you has changed as an artist since making A Royal Affair?
Mads Mikkelsen: I think we just turned older [laughs]. Every day there’s something new you learn but you’re not aware of it until eventually it will dawn on you that something has changed. Not unlike this character of Ludvig. And for Nikolaj, he became a father. So that has a big impact on him, for life in general.
Nikolaj Arcel: One of the things I could feel this time around is that we also strive to make something that had a different complexity to it in terms of character and emotions. As we get older, maybe we can be a little bolder in our choices about this character’s evolution and how we tell the story.
Why did each of you care so much about the character of Ludvig?
Arcel: I could recognise certain things in Ludvig that felt personal to me — like being very ambitious and having a certain drive towards your goals. Possibly not always seeing what’s around you because you’re so focused. Being a director is a very, very focused job. I could certainly recognise when you have a family, you’re trying to balance how much you’re willing to sacrifice for your own aims and goals.
Mikkelsen: It’s always interesting when a character is not only exposed to outside influences that will shape his fate, but that he’s actually the main driver of his own fate. He has so many chances to go left instead of right, and change the course of his own story. It’s dramatic to have a character who so desperately wants to be part of something that he loves.
Did you two ever have any differences of opinion about something Ludvig would have done or his motivations?
Arcel: Any minor disagreements we worked out in script development and then we’re on the same page for the shoot. With Mads, he has an uncanny instinct for character development and character arc, which means he’s extremely valuable in terms of when we sit with the script.
Mikkelsen: With the character of Ann Barbara, a few times she speaks her own mind, and I was thinking it’s the 1750s, maybe Ludvig would shut her down. I knew Nikolaj didn’t disagree with me that that would have been the case, but he said, “At this time in the story, we don’t need to see that,” and I could respect and agree with that.
How did you make Ludvig feel true to the 1750s but also a fully fleshed-out man we can identify with in 2023?
Mikkelsen: It’s a very fine balance. We do need to identify with this character in 2023. There are some things they didn’t do in the 1750s that we do in the film — like there is a kiss they wouldn’t have done until the 1880s or 1890s. But for us it was a recognisable emotional thing about love.
Arcel: We tried to strip the script of any psychological conversations between the characters because that is really what’s modern. We can’t go back in time and listen to their conversations but I don’t think they had a lot of chat about their state of mind and their feelings.
Mikkelsen: They weren’t talking about their emotions, they were trying to survive and find their place in life.
You have both had successful careers with English-language projects, so why was it important to tell this story in Danish?
Arcel: It is about autonomy. My experience with working on a studio picture was that there was a lot more muscle behind it, but it also meant that my vision was sometimes buried underneath commercial needs. It was important for me to do this film in Denmark to do it the way I wanted to. Maybe we can be a little bolder making a film in Europe.
Mikkelsen: Ten years ago I would have said, “It doesn’t make a difference where the work takes me, I’m happy.” To a certain degree that’s still true, but I’ve also realised lately that there is a necessity for me to go home. I’m deliberately seeking work with my friends, my stories, my language.
This was a long shoot across three countries and on a cold heathland. What was the mood like on set?
Arcel: It’s probably more interesting to say, “Oh, it was such a tough shoot and we never slept.” But Mads and I are friends and we had fun every day. The rest of the cast was wonderful. When I look back, every day was pleasurable, even when we were shooting in harsh conditions. There are certain tough moments in the film. I think everybody agreed that the mood should be light because otherwise it would be too depressing.
Mikkelsen: We have to remember one thing when we’re standing in the cold and the rain — it’s that we’re never more than a few minutes away from a warm trailer.
What was the toughest day on set?
Arcel: Something you and I share in common, Mads, is that the talky scenes that have a lot of dialogue can be the most challenging to film — you’ve got the same lines over and over and over and you need all this coverage.
Mikkelsen: One day that was surprisingly tough is a scene I have with the little girl, Melina, who plays Anmai. I’m supposed to be fake slapping her. And we had a great time rehearsing, I’d do one fake slap and then she could really hit me twice. She loved that [laughs]. But when we came to that scene, I was playing this grumpy character, I wasn’t her friend Mads anymore. So we had to explain it to her that when we say, “action”, I will be different, but when we say “cut”, I will come back as me. Then she got it. She was a quick learner and we had a fantastic relationship.
Nikolaj, what are some of the qualities of the way Mads works that draw you to him?
Arcel: He takes responsibility for a lot more than his own character. He’s so helpful in knowing where the story is, where we’re going. He has so many helpful observations and ideas every day, we speak about story and not just his character. He’s such a supportive partner in the filmmaking.
Mikkelsen: It’s important I can keep track of my character constantly, but if there are scenes I’m not in, I want to know what they did. Because we were playing an orchestra together and I want to know once they leave that scene, which note do I pick up?
Will you have a third collaboration in the future?
Arcel: I think this one has fired us up to do another one quickly. Quickly in our world means probably in three or four years. But it’s definitely not going to be another 11 or 12 before we work together again. We will need to find the next project that challenges us even more.
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