Nikolaj Arcel | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, director of A Royal Affair.

Nikolaj Arcel

Intimate With History

Mar 22, 2013 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“When I embarked on this, I never thought that a Danish period drama with subtitles would ever be able to travel outside of Denmark,” writer/director Nikolaj Arcel says of his film, A Royal Affiar. “I was very surprised, obviously pleasantly surprised, that it has happened.”

A Royal Affair, nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on true events that occurred in late 18th century Denmark. It traces the rise and fall of Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a small-town German doctor and man of enlightenment who is appointed as physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Through his friendship with the king, Struensee begins to wield influence and institute reforms that benefit Denmark’s commoners and rankle its upper class. But his power and stature are jeopardized by his secret affair with Christian’s neglected wife, Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander).

“I always felt that it was a great story,” Arcel says. “It’s about daring to change things and wanting to change. Obviously, there’s the love triangle and everything else, but the political undercurrents of the story are the most important to me, and that’s the reason I was attracted to the story.”

Among other reforms, Struensee initiated to make vaccinations available to the citizens, improve the sewage system, reduce the military, and to abolish torture, unpaid labor, and censorship. The film portrays how the king’s court and other political movers and shakers fought against such measures and were resistant to the ideas being propagated during the Age of Enlightenment. At one point, Caroline refers to Denmark as a dark place controlled by faith and suspicion.

“The translation is also a little bit tricky, because I’m actually a believer and I think that faith is not a bad thing,” Arcel says. “But faith, when we use it to make rules and control people, then it might become a bad thing. So that was the point of that. Of course, again, it’s very timely for what’s going on everywhere in the world. One of the most powerful ways to keep people controlled is to use faith or guns or both.”

Arcel recognized that many of the issues and debates that play out in the film are still relevant now, particularly in the Unites States, but he didn’t set out to draw parallels to today’s political climate.

“When you see the story of Johann being a newcomer, coming to court, trying to change everything, then realizing how hard it is to change things and that you have to play the game, and becoming a little bit disillusioned with the whole thing, it reminds me of the current President,” he says. “Not only are some of the themes relevant in Denmark but very much so over here as well. I’m completely fascinated with American politics because I think they dictate the politics of every nation of the Western world. So, it’s very interesting to follow what’s going on over here. We’re still having some of the discussions today about church versus state, science versus religion, poor versus rich, and all those things. It’s quite amazing that these same controversies and debates are happening today. I was very much aware of that when writing it. It was not that I put them into the film, because they already existed in the true stories. It just goes to show that human nature doesn’t really change a lot. We haven’t changed that much, and politics haven’t changed that much. It’s still the same things we’re debating today that we did 300 years ago, which is a little bit scary when you think about it.”

Financing the film proved to be difficult for Arcel, partly because of Denmark’s small population, a limited audience. This makes state funding a necessity for Danish filmmakers. After he and writing partner Rasmus Heisterberg had completed the screenplay for A Royal Affair, they took on the Swedish adaptation for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That film’s international success made it easier to finance A Royal Affair. Arcel consequently picked up partial financing from German television as well as private funds from Sweden.

“That was a good career choice,” he says of co-writing the screenplay for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “I worked for four years just trying to get [A Royal Affair] made. There were several times during this process where I thought it would never happen, and I would just sit at home and stare at a wall and think, “When is the phone going to ring?” and “When are they going to tell me we have the money so I can get a cast?” So, finishing it felt big. It was like a project that almost never happened, so for me that was really a big thing. Now that it’s sold to various countries and it’s even coming out in the U.S. means a great deal to me, because this is the first time that’s happened for me as a director. Obviously, in so many ways, it’s very rewarding.”

Visually, the director had ideas in mind to modernize the Scandinavian historical drama. Though accuracy was important, one of the rules was to not focus on detailssuch as sets, costumes, or table arrangementsthat would remind viewers that they were watching a period drama.

“Some period pieces are shot slightly objectively, a little bit, and some call it stuffy or dusty or old fashioned,” Arcel explains. “I always felt that some of the films that I admire the most are the ones where they’re intimate with the characters, and I really wanted that. I told my entire crew that I wanted them to feel like we were not looking back through time and trying to depict those times. We had to imagine ourselves being there and then shooting the film as if it were the most normal thing. We had to take the costumes, the wigs, the horses and everything for granted, because if we didn’t, we couldn’t focus on the characters. So that was the main dogma, if you will, of how we shot the film. If it was intimate, we even used handheld cameras a lot of times, which is a no-go for most period films. I mean, some have done it. That was one of the ways that we tried to do it.”

The film was shot in 40 days. To achieve the look of a big-budget film, Arcel and his crew of 10 years planned everything meticulously.

“I think that the biggest money-consuming thing is time,” he says. “When you don’t quite know what to do, you spend a lot of time on it. But I knew that I had to do this film and I couldn’t spend an enormous amount of money on it. So I planned it very, very well for a long time before even going to the actual shooting stage.”

Still, there were days when time got away from Arcel and the crew. He remembers a particularly difficult night of interior filming when the darkness outside was a precious commodity. Three scenes in a ballroom had to be filmed, one in which Struensee and Caroline, amid a crowd of dancers, realize that they are falling in love.

“There were these huge windows all over, and we had to shoot everything at night because we had to use the candlelight, and it was all night scenes,” Arcel remembers. “But the sun was coming up, and we still had five or six shots to do, and you can’t put screens on huge ballroom windows. We had no chance. We were basically running away from the sun. Every 10 minutes, we had to move a little further to shoot, and then finally we were in this little corner, the only corner of this building where the sun wasn’t streaming through the windows. We were shooting the close-ups in the end, so we got the final shot just before the sun hit the entire room, which is actually quite amazing when you think about it. That was a tough night.”

At the time of this interview, Arcel was working on another crime trilogy that he’s executive producing. The first film, Kvinden i buret, already was in production. Since then, he was hired to direct an adaptation of Don Winslow’s epic drug war novel, The Power of the Dog. Arcel and Heisterberg will reteam to write the screenplay. And, most recently, Arcel was tapped by DreamWorks to direct a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into a Best Picture winner in 1940. When asked if he ever would direct another period drama, Arcel replied, “I would love to, but not for the next film. I think that the next film will probably be something contemporary.”


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