Nikolaj Arcel and Mads Mikkelsen had similar trajectories on the international film scene, both beginning in their native Denmark. Mikkelsen made a name for himself with several Danish masterpieces from the directors Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn before heading to Hollywood and mastering a kind of intelligent and enigmatic villain (on display in titles like Casino Royale, Hannibal, and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny). It’s his Danish films, however, that remain his greatest work, from After the Wedding to The Hunt and Another Round.
Count A Royal Affair among them, as well. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, the film found the two Danes developing a friendship and strong working relationship. Arcel himself would head to Hollywood and become attached to a giant blockbuster of his own, directing Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in The Dark Tower. Seven years after they worked together, Arcel and Mikkelsen were both yearning for home, and have now collaborated on a grand historical epic, The Promised Land, based on the book The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen.
The period piece follows a soldier of lower class, Captain Ludvig Kahlen, who retires from the army in the 1750s and propositions the royal court to build on the Jutland, a moorland that’s notoriously difficult for land cultivation. Unfortunately, the aristocracy has other plans, violently rejecting Kahlen and his stubborn attempts to farm the land. Love, adventure, envy, and pride all collide in a wonderful epic about stubbornness and male ego, not to mention capitalism and class consciousness. We spoke with Arcel about the film, his working relationship with Mikkelsen, and his upcoming Apple TV+ project with Benicio Del Toro.
MovieWeb: This film is such an interesting hybrid of a really classical historical epic like David Lean, but also a very culturally specific Danish film. Are Danish people aware of this man’s story?
Nikolaj Arcel: First of all, I just have to say when you mentioned David Lean, that I could feel my heart swelling with pride. That was like the biggest compliment I can get. People were not familiar at all with this story, which is what really was part of what interested me. I had no idea about this guy, what he did and what happened to him. I thought it was such an interesting, unknown story that was just lying there waiting to come out and be told. I’ve done films about more famous chapters of Danish history before, but this was a completely unknown person until The Captain and Ann Barbara, the book, and the film came up.
MW: What was it about the book or the man’s historical story that interested you?
Nikolaj Arcel: Every filmmaker worth his or her salt is trying to evolve in some way. And I think if you look at my career, a lot of my work has been slightly more black and white, you know, in terms of like, there’s good and there’s bad. There’s people who want to do good, and people who want to do bad things. And what I really was attracted to this time around, was to try to make a film about a man that I didn’t necessarily like from the get go. There was somebody who had an ambition and a drive that wasn’t immediately identifiable.
Nikolaj Arcel: Of course, you can identify with the fact that somebody wants power and money and all that. You can identify with that, but it’s not necessarily a positive thing, because he wants it at all costs, he will sacrifice everything to get it. And I thought that was such an interesting character to try to have come alive on screen, and it was a new thing for me. So, just in terms of the challenge of that, that was interesting. And then I also felt that, knowing that I wanted to do this with Mads Mikkelsen, I knew it was going to be a great role for him. It wasn’t just either the bad guy or the good guy. It was somewhere in between, and I think he relished playing that as well.
More on Mads Mikkelsen and Moving Back to Denmark
MW: What do you like about working with Mads Mikkelsen? Why was he good for this film?
Nikolaj Arcel: You know, I think I would cast him in every film, in every role in every film. So it’s an easy question. I think we had a lot of fun on the last film together, A Royal Affair. We became friends on that, and we had such an easy time working together. We really had an understanding. And so basically, for the past seven years, we’ve been talking about getting back together but haven’t found the right project. And this was certainly it.
Nikolaj Arcel: One of the things that I love about working with Mads is that he’s not only a great actor, he’s so talented, he’s so incredible, but he’s also a very sweet, nice guy to work with, very down-to-earth. He’s a true partner in the sense that he will take responsibility for the story alongside you as a director, so he will really worry about the same things that you worry about as a director.
He will go into the script and really sort of help you and try and figure out, “What are we trying to say here? What’s the story about at this point?” And he will really help me shape the story and always remember even the details. He will be great at sort of keeping an eye out, so he’s like a multitasking, multi-talented guy to have by your side.
Nikolaj Arcel: We are talking about doing something else together. The thing about coming home and doing something — I think I’ll give you a metaphor that me and Mads are using at times. So if you imagine this little playground, and we’re playing in this playground, and people are leaving us alone, and we’re having fun, right, and we’re just we’re just building sandcastles and doing what we love and having fun doing it — that’s working in Denmark.
Nikolaj Arcel: Now, take that playground and put it into a corporate-like building, a corporation with 55 suits watching over you and telling you where to build the castle and how to build the castle and at what time to build the castle. It’s not quite as fun anymore, you know, the playground is a little claustrophobic.
So going back to Denmark is really freedom, freedom to have final cut, freedom to retain the vision that is yours. Nobody gets to interfere with the little playground during the game that you’re playing, and I think that Mads and I both love that, because then we can be our own critics. We can push each other to try to achieve what we want to achieve, and not have a lot of other people whispering in our ears.
Money and Power Make You Become What You Hate
MW: Though it’s a period piece set in the 18th century, The Promised Land feels very relatable to today. So many people are working so many hours for so little pay, trying to hustle and get rich quick. We criticize the 1% elites among us, yet at the same time, work our butts off to become like them, just like Captain Ludvig Kahlen. Was that theme relevant to you? What do you want people to walk with after this film?
Nikolaj Arcel: The most important thing for me, thematically, was that you really have to be careful how much of your life you spend trying to obtain certain goals. Like if that’s all you’re about, obtaining certain goals, then you’re not going to win. You’re not going to sort of conquer what life is really about. And I think that’s what I really want people to think about. He’s so close to losing everything that’s important, just because he’s so driven and ambitious and only is thinking about one thing.
I think that a lot of people can sort of recognize that. It’s the classic ‘lying on your deathbed’ thing, thinking about what was important in life and then suddenly realizing, “Oh my god, I wasted so many years trying to achieve this or that, and it means nothing.” What really means something is the love that I have for my children, or my wife, or my husband, or my parents, or my family. That is something that felt poignant or true to me.
MW: Can you tell us anything about your next project, starring Benicio Del Toro?
Nikolaj Arcel: I can only share that we’re developing this show called Monster of Florence at Apple, and it has a great cast, great writers, and we’re working on it. That’s why I can’t really say anything, any more than that. But if people are familiar with the story, they can easily Google it. It’s a true story, and it’s an insane story.
In the meantime, check out the quasi-true but insanely great story in Arcel’s new film, The Promised Land, in theaters now from Magnolia Pictures.