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Exclusive Interview: Director Nikolaj Arcel on THE PROMISED LAND

Written By:

Ben Bradley
Kongens Land - Zentropa - Nikolaj Arcel

To celebrate the UK release of the epic Nordic western The Promised Land, we caught up with the film’s BAFTA-nominated writer and director Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) about the making of his latest, critically acclaimed film.

In 1755, the impoverished Captain Ludvig Kahlen sets out to conquer the uninhabitable Danish heath in the name of the King. But the sole ruler of the area, the merciless Frederik de Schinkel, who believes the land belongs to him, swears revenge when the maid Ann Barbara and her serf husband escape for refuge with Kahlen.

As a filmmaker, Arcel has reunited after a decade with actor Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Another Round), headlining a strong supporting cast including Amanda Collin (Raised by Wolves), Simon Bennebjerg (Borgen), Kristine Kujath Thorp (Sick of Myself) and Gustav Lindh (The Northman). Arcel tells us more about this new historical epic.

STARBURST: After working with Mads Mikkelsen on A Royal Affair, The Promised Land takes us back into the world of the period epic. Was this a conscious return to a genre you enjoy?

Nikolaj Arcel: I’ve always loved the scope of epic films, but this time around, I didn’t want to return to a certain period so much as I fell in love with the characters in the source novel, “The Captain and Ann Barbara” by Ida Jessen. The characters being so powerful is what truly inspired me to make this film. It was also the perfect opportunity to work with Mads again. We’ve been looking for a new project to collaborate on and couldn’t find one that suited us, but this was the right film at the right time.

Was working with Mads on The Promised Land different this time around?

It was kind of the same, actually! Mads and I have even discussed this, and we agree it felt like getting back on the bike. I never knew Mads before making A Royal Affair, but we became friends through that experience. We’ve seen each other many times since but, remember, his career really took off after that and he’s done so many huge films. Yet at the same time, none of us changed or became divas! I’d say the only thing that significantly changed was our experience. We’re a bit older now, and we wanted to exceed what we’ve done before by doing something better and more nuanced. I think we wanted to go a step further in terms of storytelling and saying something about human nature.

Did Mads encourage this from you as well?

Yes, he always encourages me to push things further. For The Promised Land, he was always adamant, and rightly so, that we should be bold in the choices our main character makes. It’s not about being heroic or looking good, it’s about doing things that are true to his nature.

credit: Henrik Ohsten

As a writer and director, do you welcome improvisation from your actors, or do you prefer they closely follow the script?

As a writer, I obviously prefer if they say what I’ve written! [laughs] However, I’m very open to input and changes from actors. In fact, I’m even happy to remove words. The more words you can remove, the better it usually becomes. You can say so much with facial expressions and visuals, so removing dialogue is fine. Look at Mads, he can convey so much without any words. On the other side of it, I would probably avoid adding much dialogue. In fact, for a film set in the 1750s, it’s quite hard to get the tone of the language right, so you can’t really improvise on a film like this.

Apart from being a historical drama, the film has been described as a ‘Nordic western’. Did you have any ambition to reinvent a classic formula?

No, we didn’t. I mean, we did look at certain westerns for inspiration around the visuals because there is a western element. But for me, it was always a historical epic because it takes place on the heath, but also in the grand manors with the wigs and fancy parties!

You directed the big-screen adaptation of The Dark Tower, which had Wild West influences, too…

Well, lets not forget that Stephen King’s novels are actually westerns! One of the many things that was tough about making that film was the first dictate from the studio telling us “don’t make it a western because nobody wants to watch a western” [Laughs]. Then perhaps it became a case of trying too hard ‘not’ to make it a western! But look, I love certain westerns like The Searchers and Unforgiven, however I’d say there are genres I have a greater affinity for. So, there was a western-inspired visual influence on The Promised Land, but it’s not a genre we set out to recreate.

Looking back at another of your earlier works, the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became a huge international phenomenon and spawned the Hollywood remake. Did you get a sense of what it would become, back when you were adapting the book and writing the original screenplay?

I had no idea! While we were working on the script, the book was only just becoming popular. Only after I saw the final film in the editing room did I think, “Wow, this could be something special”. I think a big part of that is down to Noomi Rapace; her performance and the way she totally became Lisbeth Salander is incredible. But I had no idea how big it would become and, truthfully, you never really know!

How do you feel about the response to The Promised Land so far, and what do you hope audiences take away from it?

Compared to the big, beautiful period romance of A Royal Affair, we made a deliberate change in The Promised Land to go very earthy and gritty and tell a more harrowing human story. The response worldwide has been incredibly overwhelming, and I hope audiences enjoy becoming deeply immersed in these complex characters.

Icon Film Distribution presents THE PROMISED LAND in UK cinemas from February 16th.

Ben Bradley

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