Interview: Nikolaj Arcel on Getting Entangled in the Oscar-Nominated “Royal Affair”

On heels of adapting "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for the big screen, the writer/director mines the palace intrigue of a sordid chapter of Danish history for a riveting...
Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in Nikolaj Arcel's film A Royal Affair

In adapting one of the more famous chapters in Danish history to film, Nikolaj Arcel was placed in the unenviable position of breathing new life into a story the locals knew all too well and that foreign audiences might not connect with, given their lack of familiarity. Still, considering the intoxicating mix of class warfare, politics and sex that marked British princess Caroline Mathilda’s rise to the Denmark’s throne through an arranged marriage to the mentally ill King Christian VII, he needn’t have worried.

“When we were finishing up the film, it was in the middle of the Arab Spring,” Arcel recalls. “When we took it to America, we had the election [in the fall] and some of the same things were being discussed, so the themes in this film are probably never going to be out of date, which is really lucky. But also a bit scary, if you think about it.”

He gives a dark chuckle as he says this last part, an indication of all the factually accurate fun in store for audiences of “A Royal Affair,” one of the most engrossing historical dramas to come around the bend in quite some time. With nearly the same level of suspense as the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” his most famous adaptation to date as a screenwriter, Arcel recounts the tumultuous 1760s in which the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) essentially ran the country as the only person the crazed King (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) would trust as an adviser, eventually taking his place in the bed of the lonely Queen (Alicia Vikander) as well. A progressive thinker who preferred scientific reasoning to popular religious belief of the time, Struensee broke the stalemate of entrenched power in the King’s cabinet by all but eliminating them from decision making completely and installed his own beliefs in such things as a free press and the abolition of torture, though his empowerment of the underclasses would ultimately come back to haunt him.

The parallels to modern political issues are there if you want them, but Arcel, with co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg, expertly brings the palace intrigue into a new age without them, shaking off the dust the usually associated with period pieces with a cool crispness to everything from the film’s visuals to its dialogue. As it turns out, you only need three people for a film as epic as “A Royal Affair,” or to run a kingdom for that matter, and between Mikkelsen, Vikander and a spooky Følsgaard, the film never feels less grand than the finery found in the three’s shared palace. On the eve of a rerelease in theaters this week to celebrate its nomination for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Arcel took the time to talk about the long journey to bring the legendary story to the screen and his own origins in filmmaking.

How did you get interested in making a movie about this?

It took me some time because it’s something that I knew about since I was a kid. They teach it in school and there’s been a lot of nonfiction works about it. [There’s also] a very, very famous ballet on that story and I used to work at the Royal Theater in Denmark when I was in high school, just kind of a coffee boy side thing and that ballet was playing all the time, so I remember watching it from backstage. At one point, it just hit me, why has nobody done this film? It’s one of the most amazing stories in Danish history and I found out that a lot of people had been trying to make it, but had failed because of either financing or probably bad scripts. [laughs] Then I just took it upon myself. I said, okay, this’ll be a wonderful film to do. It would be a wonderful world and some pretty amazing characters, so I just took it. But after I made that decision, it still took me five years to get it made.

Financing surely was a big part of that, but was there something creatively that you had to crack to make it work?

Usually, the story behind every movie is that you have a script you have to develop for years and years until it finally works or until you get maybe the right actors. With this one, it was strange because I spent a year working on the script, doing a lot of research because I had to know everything about the real events that happened and the characters, but after the script was done, I was very, very happy with that script and everybody around me was very happy with the script. But then the waiting period of three-and-a-half to four years was basically about not raising the kind of money that we could have. But the script almost didn’t change in the entire four years while we were waiting for the financing, so when I finally got to do it, it was like going into the past.

It seems like it would be a job of stripping away the history as much as building and recreating the past. Was that the case?

Yeah, you’re spot on. We had this huge story in which so many events are happening – the film spans five or six years — so what we really spent that whole year on was basically stripping away stuff and finally arriving to the core of the story. But we could’ve easily made a 10-hour miniseries of this story. There were so many minor characters and events that we had to take out of the film, but maybe one day I’ll do the 10-hour version.

What’s it been like to take the film outside of Denmark where the story is less well-known?

Traveling outside the borders of Denmark with the film has been very gratifying in many, many ways that are quite hard to explain. Showing it to the Danish audience, it was almost an inevitable success because everybody knows and loves the story. Frankly, I could’ve made a very poor film and people would’ve still gone to see it in Denmark, I think. So I was obviously very happy with the reception that it got back home, but it’s even more interesting to see that it can play well in France, in the UK, in Australia, here, it’s been very nice to talk to the audiences because there’s nothing lost in translation. When I talk to people like you or just general audience members that come up to me after a Q & A or something, they all get every single element in the story, which is really fascinating to me because that means that it’s not a local film, it’s a film about larger questions.

Was there a big celebration when you got the Oscar nomination?

There was a celebration, but it was a little bit muted. I hadn’t been able to sleep all night, of course, up until the actual announcement, so after we heard that we were nominated, we got very, very happy, but then five hours later, I was so crazy tired that I almost couldn’t keep my eyes open. We went to the Critics Choice Awards and sat there almost asleep at the table. [laughs] But obviously, you feel like you’re in the finals of the Olympics and all the talk that it’s good just to be nominated, it really is true. The happiest feeling of all is when you get nominated because it’s such an honor and you stop thinking about whether you’re going to win or not – that’s not as important. You just feel you’re in extremely good and honorable company.

Speaking of which, as a Danish filmmaker, you are in quite good company year around. From what I understand, it’s a very tight-knit community of filmmakers who often help with each other’s projects and on “Royal Affair” in particular, Lars von Trier is an executive producer through his Zentropa banner. Is there a lot of cross-pollination?

At Zentropa especially, there’s a good tradition for that. It’s not all directors who are watching each other’s films, but four years ago, I was invited into Lars von Trier’s editing room and I started showing him my stuff. That’s probably been the greatest inspiration for me the past four or five years because  it’s quite dynamic…we’re so different. We are the polar opposite kind of filmmakers and it’s very inspiring to have him sit in my editing room and to have his views on my stuff and I hope he feels the [same] with me going in there. So if I have other directors come in, the directors I choose to help me are usually the ones who are completely different than me, so I can get a totally different perspective.

How did you get interested in filmmaking initially?

It was sort of an inevitable thing. I can’t really answer that very precisely other than the fact that I think it was right after I saw “E.T.” I was just the right age – I was 10 and after that, I was hooked. I went to the movies almost every day, often by myself, and I got myself a Super 8 camera when I was 11 or 12, started doing film and I haven’t stopped making films since then. I’ve been making short films and longer films since I was 12 or 13 and I couldn’t really tell you why it happened other than the fact that I was so in love with movies and I said if anything, it’s going to be fun. When you’re a kid, you just think what’s going to be fun and my friends wanted to be cops and firemen. I always wanted to be a director.

Is it true you met Rasmus Heisterberg, your co-writer on “A Royal Affair,” in your teens?

I met him when I was 19 or 18. We were in a pre-film school together. We didn’t really hit it off, especially in that school actually. We became friends and we had some beers and some fun, but we didn’t really start working together until after both got into the [National Film School of Denmark] at the same time, then we started helping each other out with scripts. Finally, when I was about to do my first feature film, I asked him whether he wanted to write that with me and we’ve been working together ever since.

You’ve said when you went to film school, it was during the Dogme 95 movement, which was a rebellion against what was going on globally, but your films thus far seem to have been a rebellion in some ways against what was going on locally in a way that’s almost like what’s old is new again. Why did you want to go against the grain?

I’ll tell you what happened. It was more a feeling of when I got out of film school, it was the peak of the Dogme wave and I was inspired by them and inspired by the directors, but that was not my thing. I had grown up on the ’70s Hollywood films and let’s face it on the ’80s pop blockbuster-type films coming out of Hollywood, so I was a little more inspired by that period whereas [the previous] generation had been inspired by the French new wave, the films of the ’60s even.

I thought that if I wanted to distinguish myself, I shouldn’t try to just do another Dogme film or another film about a divorce or death. I wanted to do something that was both appealing to the brain and to the heart, so for me, it was politics. I started out doing a political thriller, but did it in sort of the classic Hollywood style film I would say. So by that nature alone, I stood out from every other director at that time in Denmark, which was a good thing for me. First of all, it was the language that I am naturally inclined to work in, but also it meant that I was part of the new generation of Danish filmmakers, which I think is important. You always try to be a little bit of a rebel in terms of the times that you are in, so to me, that was important not just to copy the generation that came before me, but to try to do something new for Danish film. Danish film had never really been into genre films or political thrillers in many, many years, so it was fun to reinvent that.

“A Royal Affair” is currently in theaters across the country and reopens in Los Angeles on February 1st. A full list can be found here and Arcel will appear in person at the Royal Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday, February 1st and Saturday, February 2nd after the 8 p.m. shows.

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