The Danish writer-director talks A Royal Affair and explains why Scandi cinema is so hot right now.
Denmark's Nikolaj Arcel is probably best known as a screenwriter, having penned 2009's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Now he's staking his claim as a director-to-watch with assured costume romp A Royal Affair, which sees Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander and impressive newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard play out the most infamous ménage à trois in Danish history. Arcel sat down with LWLies recently to discuss the contemporary tone of his period drama, and why the Danish film industry is in good health.
LWLies: It's an old-fashioned setting but the language used is very contemporary. Is that something that's common in Danish period dramas?
Arcel: Not exclusively. I'm a big fan of some recent British period dramas, both on TV and films, like Jane Eyre, and also Rome, the HBO series, and I always thought that if I was ever going to do a period drama I would want to make it as modern as possible. Old Danish language is almost laughable and if you tried to use it no one would have a clue what was going on. It's not like Shakespearean language which is taught in schools and have aged quite well.
Does it make it easier for you as a director when both you and the actors are working with contemporary dialogue?
It makes it easier in the sense that I wanted to make it feel intimate. It's about the characters, not about the formal surroundings, and language was a big part of making sure the characters felt real. For the actors of course it's easier to feel connected to the characters if they're not having to speak formally.
It's a very famous story in Denmark, something that's taught in school, but it's never been told on screen before.
That's right. It's quite surprisingly really because as you say it's such a famous story, everyone in Denmark is familiar with it, and yet there are no films or TV shows about it. I know there have been attempts to make a film about the subject but for whatever reason they all failed, which I'm extremely glad of. It's such an obvious story, it's so cinematic and so historic. It's a classic and a fairy tale: the British princess marrying the crazy King and falling in love with the German doctor... And that's just one part of the story! There's the whole political aspect of them changing the whole nation. I think that's why it resonates with Danes.
Did you do much research into how the scandal was viewed at the time?
Yes and actually they were depicted as villains a little bit. But there's been a recent reassessment of it and in the last 25-30 years historians have viewed the events in a more positive light.
Do you think that's because they were on the side of the Enlightenment, which is now seen as a really significant movement of the time?
Oh, definitely. If their love was the same but they happened to be ultra conservative Christians I think it would be a very different film. As it is they were the good guys. They were of the modern age, they understood poetry and romance. The Enlightenment shaped the way we are today and so the forerunners of that movement are always going to be looked back on as the good guys.
The film is almost a pretext to the French Revolution, which is a subject that will be more familiar to most viewers.
Exactly. It's an important chapter in European history.
How important was the casting, particularly of King Christian?
The story with Mikkel [Følsgaard] is that he had never done a film before, he was actually in acting school when we asked him. Actually he's just graduating now, which is kind of cute. I wish I could say that I was in doubt or had a long search but it was actually really easy. The risk of taking on an unknown was worth it.
It's a very delicate role with regards to his mental illness. How did you help Mikkel prepare for the role?
As far as the writing went I took Christian quite seriously. I approached him more like a spoiled child, as someone who's spent their whole life bein told what to do. His illness came from the frustration of always being locked in that cage, in that mental cage where simple things like having fun and being a kid were difficult. As for Mikkel, I think he read a lot of books about Christian and talked to some historians, but the main thing was that we agreed that one should always have a little bit of doubt about what Christian is thinking. What I had him do was do four or five different versions of the same scene, starting out very subtly going to full-on crazy, much too crazy for the film. With that we were actually able to shape his performance in the editing room, picking up on little expressions and shifts in mood from different takes.
One of the key progressions in his mental illness occurs on his European tour. Why did you decide not to show that?
To be frank it's got to do with length. The film is already over two hours long and I don't think it could bear being any longer. Also, showing that whole European tour had an economical aspect attached that would have been difficult to accommodate. But I think it actually makes for a nice little segue when Christian and Johann arrive back at the court and they are already friends.
Scandinavian cinema and television are very popular right now. Are you proud to be a part of that?
Sure, particularly when I see someone like Noomi [Rapace] doing so well. I mean, Stieg Larsson wrote the character but I wrote the lines in the film so I feel like I contributed in quite a big way to the role that made her. And it's great seeing Mads [Mikkelsen] is doing amazingly well, I feel proud that he's off winning awards in Cannes, and the same goes for Thomas [Vinterberg].
From an insider's point of view, what's the Danish cinema scene like? Someone like Thomas Vinterberg, for example, where does he fit in?
Well Thomas is perhaps a slightly older generation. I would say I'm part of the newer generation, but I grew up watching Festen and was in film school when Thomas was becoming well known as a director. Even though we're actually friends now and have worked together, I wouldn't call us peers as such. There are others, like Susanne Bier and Lars [von Trier] who are quite well known but it's a small group. It's hard to categorise it as a scene.
What about Nic Refn?
He's the biggest right now, but we don't think of him as a Danish director. He's off doing American films.
What does it mean to be a Danish filmmaker, then?
To make films, consistently, in Denmark. Thomas did It's All About Love and Lars does a lot of English-language films, but they are both still our own because they come back to Denmark and they play a big part in supporting the industry. The only director who's had consistent success with Danish productions is Susanne Bier, but what's interesting is that her films and something like A Royal Affair or Thomas' new film will get much more press in Denmark than the new Nicolas Refn film. Even though in terms of worldwide success Nic is much bigger, to Danes it's just another American film. I don't think many people went to see Drive in Denmark. There's a lot of love and support for local films in Denmark, a really strong sense of cultural identity.
Would you like to follow someone like Nicolas in what he is doing?
Of course, but what has done is unique because he somehow managed to make a personal film, in Drive, in a very commercial way. He didn't sell out, which I think he should be applauded for. If I do an English-language film I hope I can do something as personal and non-conformist at Drive.
What's next for you?
Right now I'm writing a few things for other directors, I'm going to spend at least three or four months doing that before I start thinking about my next film. I write in small spurts and obviously directing is a long process so I like to mix things up. I imagine I'll be directing again in six months or so.