"I have a deep-seated love for epic movies," effuses Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel. With The Promised Land, he has finally made a true historical epic of his own.
Based on The Captain and Ann Barbara by Danish novelist Ida Jessen, the 18th-century Nordic drama follows a war veteran, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), who sets out to become the first man to cultivate Denmark's notoriously inhospitable Jutland Heath in the name of the king. If he succeeds, Kahlen will receive the noble title and estate that he has long desired; but to do so, he has to gather supporters to his cause (including Amanda Collin's runaway Ann Barbara) and fend off a nearby land baron who insists the heath belongs to him.
"I love seemingly never-ending movies that span a long time and introduce you to a lot of characters — films that feel a little bit like reading a novel," Arcel says. "When I read Ida's book, there was something about its story that made me think, 'This could be that one film I get to do that does all of the things I love.'"
For Arcel, The Promised Land not only marks a return to European filmmaking — following a brief foray into Hollywood to direct 2017's The Dark Tower — but reunites him with fellow countryman Mikkelsen. The two first worked together on the 2012 historical drama, A Royal Affair, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (the category that is now Best International Feature Film). Their latest collaboration was likewise chosen as Denmark's official Oscar entry and was shortlisted at the 96th Oscars.
It had been more than a decade since the director and the actor last worked together, but Arcel immediately knew that he wanted Mikkelsen as the lead in The Promised Land.
"The first page of the book describes his character, and when I read it, I thought, 'This is Mads or nobody.' I even told him that," Arcel tells A.frame. "I put a little bit of extra pressure on him to do it. I said, 'I have this film that I want to do, and I want you to play the main character. If you say no, I'm not going to do the film. So you better say yes!'"
The rest is, as they say, history.
A.frame: What is it about Mads as a performer that you think appeals to so many directors?
Well, he's not only insanely talented, but he also has the rare ability to express so many emotions with a lot of subtlety. That's one thing that I know a lot of directors like. He's very precise, but no one is going to get as many wonderful roles as him unless they're a good person, too. He's a good guy. He's a pleasure to work with. He's a true partner for a director. He will always be present on set. He's invested and passionate no matter what he's doing. He never makes it seem like he wants to go home. He never seems tired. He's such a hardworking actor and, when you marry that with the crazy talent that he has, that just makes him the perfect collaborator for any director.
Besides the epic nature of its story, what was it that appealed to you about The Promised Land's source material?
There was something very personal about it. It felt like an intimate portrait of a man who almost always makes the wrong choices. He's so ambitious. He wants so badly to have power and nobility and become somebody that he almost loses everything else along the way. I thought that it was a poignant and timeless story. It was really the mix of the intimate and the epic that drew me to it.
Were there other historical epics that you looked at as points of reference while you were making this film?
I had one major influence and that was David Lean, and specifically, Lawrence of Arabia. I remember once watching an interview with Steven Spielberg where he said that, when he saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, he thought, 'I probably don't need to do movies, because nobody can top this.' I feel the same way. I watch Lawrence of Arabia once a year, and every time I watch it, I'm like, 'Oh, my God!' I mean, the complexity of the characters and the adventurous nature of the storytelling is just amazing. You’re gripped for 3-plus hours.
That film means a lot to me, and we even tried to borrow from it a bit in terms of the way that we used our lenses and cameras, and the way we manipulated the lighting and the depth of field. We tried to make it so that some of the images in The Promised Land actually do harken back to the way that directors used to shoot movies in the '50s and '60s. I think my DP, Rasmus [Videbæk], still managed to make it look modern, but those choices that we made are why audiences might get a vintage feeling from the movie. And I love those older historical epics. I can't get enough of them. I wish there were a new wave of those films so that would be all we [would] get for the next 10 years.
This movie looks expensive, even though it wasn't by most moviemaking standards. What was your approach to capturing this 18th-century world with a fairly limited budget?
I had to do a bit of a similar thing on A Royal Affair, which was the film Mads and I made together more than 10 years ago, and it's a challenge. But there is a trick to it, and the trick is being so overprepared that none of your days are wasted. The way I do that is I usually storyboard every single camera setup. I go out to the locations, I get to know them very well, and I storyboard every sequence so that we're not ever wasting a single second of time on the days we're shooting. Of course, stuff goes wrong. It starts to rain or somebody gets sick. Stuff happens, but that's just what movies are like. You have to do your best to be as prepared as possible. That also involves surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. It involves putting together a great crew of people who are the best of the best. I've worked with Rasmus on every single film I've made, and I think he's really topped himself on this one. It's important to work with people who almost know the inside of your brain and who can do a lot of work for you. You have to work with great actors, too. Sometimes, you just get lucky, really. Sometimes, there's a certain amount of luck that has to happen for a film to get made. With The Promised Land, I think it was a mix of me making the right decisions and also having some luck on my side.
The movie also looks like it was physically taxing to make. Was that the case?
It was like summer camp! It wasn't summer, of course, so it was slightly colder than what that implies, but we did really enjoy ourselves. Every day, we felt so lucky when we were out there on the heath. Sometimes, it got a little cold, but every day was beautiful. We would watch the sunsets and sunrises and we were all just in the elements. Making this movie was a really pleasurable experience in every way, and I think that's what happens sometimes when you have to travel to make a film. When you go outside of your hometown or your home country, everybody's just there. That's why I say it was like a summer camp kind of feeling on set, which is a very nice way to feel when you're making a film.
Mads' character is a man desperately trying to unite as many people as he can to help him accomplish his vision, and a family really grows out of that. As a director, does that reflect what being on a set is like for you?
You're the first person to notice that. It's interesting, because whenever we were doing scenes where Ludvig, Mads' character, was stressing out over the ground and the winter frost, it felt exactly like he was a director trying to make a movie. Being with the cast and the crew was really like being with a family, and one of the main reasons why it felt like that was Melina Hagberg, who plays Anmai Mus, the little girl in the film. She'd never done anything like The Promised Land before she came into our lives. She's playing this big character in the film, though, and somehow we all began to feel like her fathers and her big brothers and sisters. She united us, and she made us feel like a family. You always feel that a bit when you're making a movie, but when you're working with a child actor, that becomes a little stronger because we were all so protective of her. We were all nurturing her and trying to help her. She was having a lot of fun, and seeing a film production through her eyes was fun for all of us because everything was amazing to her.
When you think back now, do you have a standout memory from your time making this film?
I have so many, but I think one of my favorite memories is working with Melina. It's always a pleasure to work with Mads and everyone else, but working with Melina every day was a great joy. One of the funniest and most joyful things that we experienced, in fact, was when we were filming a scene where the characters are just eating dinner together. It's one of the few scenes where they're all just happy. At one point, Melina was so happy that we were serving real pancakes for the scene that she raised her arms and yelled, 'Pancakes!' That wasn't in the script, but we laughed so hard and I thought it was beautiful. That's exactly what her character would do in that moment, so we kept it in the film.
By Alex Welch