After directing 2017's The Dark Tower, Nikolaj Arcel's blockbuster Stephen King adaptation, the Danish filmmaker felt a strong desire to return home. "I think a lot of European directors find that when they do come over to Hollywood and do a studio movie — which many do at least once — it's hard to retain their voice," he observes. "I felt like I kind of lost my voice a little bit there."
Before that, Arcel was perhaps best known for his period drama, A Royal Affair, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Feature Film) at the 85th Oscars. His latest film, the 18th-century epic The Promised Land, not only marked a return to European filmmaking, but also reunited the director with his A Royal Affair star, Mads Mikkelsen.
The Promised Land follows a determined war veteran (played by Mikkelsen) who sets out to cultivate the Danish heath in the name of the king. Though epic in scope and scale, the film was made for a fraction of what The Dark Tower cost. For Arcel, that was the point. "I wanted to get back to my roots and retain my vision and play in my own little playground," he says.
That sentiment, he says, was shared by Mikkelsen. "I think he enjoys the American movies he makes as much as his Danish films, but I do think there's a difference for him," Arcel explains. "He always tells me that, when he's working with an American director on a big studio film, he can't call them up at two in the morning and say, 'Hey, I've got an idea!' But he can with me."
Below, Arcel shares with A.frame his five favorite films, most of which ended up in one way or another influencing The Promised Land.
Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Lawrence of Arabia has really complex characters — so complex that I've often found myself still searching for that kind of complexity in modern films. Even when you look at somebody like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, she's complex! She's very unlikable for almost all 3 and a half hours of that film, and the same goes for Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
He's this very elusive figure. You can't quite figure him out. And that's interesting to me, because you're following him for over 3 hours in this big, sweeping epic, but the film itself still feels very intimate and interested in him. He's like a puzzle that you're constantly trying to solve, and I think that's what makes Lawrence of Arabia such a classic. He's not a hero. He's not a simple guy. He's very interesting and a little odd. And I think that's what makes the film so enduring.
Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
There are a couple of milestones in my life where I've watched a film and thought, 'I haven't felt like this since I was a child.' When you get older, you watch movies and you can always admire them, but there are only certain movies that make you feel like you're experiencing something truly new as an adult. For me, those are films like Jurassic Park, Fight Club, and There Will Be Blood. I had an almost holy experience watching those movies, and the genius of There Will Be Blood is that it's very much a classic epic, but it's done in such a way that keeps surprising you.
Of course, it's very tragic and brutal, but from the performances to the images themselves, everything about it is just perfect. It was a bit of an inspiration for The Promised Land. In both cases, the beginning is about a guy who is all alone trying to find gold or salvation in the Earth. There are similarities between the films, and we definitely looked at it as we were making ours.
Written and Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie that, for me and probably a lot of other filmmakers, evokes a special feeling. There's something about that movie that reveals and reflects what it's like to create a film. It's about being obsessed with something and nobody understanding your obsession, but you've seen the light in the sky somewhere, and then you manage to find this other person who also has. Richard Dreyfuss finds Truffaut, and it's about all these people coming together over one vision. And then, at the end, the big mothership comes down and it's sort of the apotheosis of everything that they've dreamed of. Obviously, it's such an incredibly well-made, well-acted, and beautiful film. To me, it's the quintessential example of what's great about Steven Spielberg. When he's not being sentimental, he's able to communicate pure filmmaking joy.
I love that movie. What I think is interesting about it, too, is that I heard Spielberg say that he could never do that film today, because he has kids now. I never even realized until I had kids that, of course, Dreyfuss' character just abandons his in the end! I just had my first kids three years ago, and now I'm sort of dreading rewatching it, because I wonder if I'll feel weird for the first time about watching this guy leave his kids to go to space. It might offer a different experience the next time I watch it.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola | Written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
I think everyone probably has The Godfather on their list. We have a little bit of an homage to it in The Promised Land. For the scene when the antagonist has gathered all of his fellow landowners in a room, we look at Gordon Willis’ cinematography and how he photographed all the mobsters hanging out together in The Godfather. I always liked to think of that scene as our homage to it.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
When looking at Scorsese's filmography, I know a lot of people like to pick Goodfellas over Casino, but I think I have a love for Casino because I watched it before Goodfellas. When I did, I thought it was an absolute masterpiece. It is the relationship between Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro's characters that makes it stand out, and I don't think I realized that the first time I saw it. I think I was more focused on the mobster elements of it and all the money and power and Vegas of it all. When I watched it a second time, I realized that it's really just a tragic love story. It's a film about a guy who's brought down by his complete infatuation with this woman who doesn't give a s**t about him. It's a 3-hour movie about unrequited love. It's so tragic and beautiful in a way that has really stuck with me.