In 1760s Denmark, a woman (Alicia Viklander) married to the highly irresponsible King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) falls for his politically radical physician (Mads Mikkelsen). The two lovers conspire to manipulate the king into embracing the ideas of the Enlightenment, which leads to a revolution. This is a famous story in Denmark, and has been recounted in books, plays, and an opera. However, this is the first time a full film adaptation has been made of such a tale. Co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel's successful A Royal Affair (executive produced by Lars von Trier) has now become the country's official submission for the "Best Foreign Language Film" Academy Award. (Read our CIFF 2012 "7/10" capsule review here.)
Though Affair required him to heavily research life in 1760s Denmark, Arcel comes from a much more contemporary filmmaking background, and is likely most recognizable for his co-writing credit on the first Girl with the Dragon Tattoo script (working alongside frequent collaborator Rasmus Heisterberg). Arcel has also directed a few other films of his own, including King's Game and Island of Lost Souls.
I sat down with Arcel to discuss his film, the pressure of adapting such a revered story, the first impressions he had of the talking fox in von Trier's Antichrist, and more.
A Royal Affair opens in Chicago on November 9.
'A Royal Affair' stands apart from other period movies for having a more modern filmmaking attitude. As you have said in previous interviews, you wanted to present it like a contemporary political drama, instead of focusing on the stuffier details of the period. When it came to taking on this project, did you have a particular interest in costuming, or general period design? Or was all of that something you had to be involved with simply because of the story?
I wasn't very interested in these things, as my other stories had been modern day stories. But what I really found out was that it was so difficult if you don't know a lot about it - you are starting from scratch. Then you had to choose wigs for people, and that's not something you'd know about. When I came into the room and saw these actors with these weird wigs, I was a little bit like, "I don't know, maybe? What do you guys think?" In the end, I actually figured out what a lot of directors have figured out before me, which is when you pick out wigs for actors, try to make them feel like natural extensions to their real hair. Because otherwise, it is going to look fucking weird.
When you were writing this, did you have to do a lot of research? Or did you originally write this story without much of the specific historical details in place?
I did spend seven or eight months just doing research for the period, for the Enlightenment, including what books they were reading, what kind of paintings they were doing. I was very steeped in that culture, and you needed to be. You can't have characters who are walking around in a castle in the 1760s if you have no idea what they were doing. So I did a lot of research on that, and wrote the script knowing these things, but still trying to keep the dialogue fresh and modern, and not thinking about how they would have said it back then, because it would have been "Yonder, come hither!" We just tried to modernize the dialogue.
Considering your taste toward more modern fare, what about the realization of this period story excited you the most?
When I was trying to do this story, and deciding as to whether to do it or not, it actually did occur to me that one of the most beautiful parts of the story is the friendship between the king and the doctor. Everybody in Denmark knows about the love story, and the political aspect, but no one really knew there was this male, kind of paternal friendship. I thought that was very beautiful, and something that I tried to accentuate. Here's this doctor who comes and helps this crazy king, and the king almost becomes normal,but when the affair comes out, the king goes crazy again. It's a very crazy story.
If you were in King Christian's shoes and at the age he is in the film, what kind of king do you think you would have been?
Oh, a bad one. I am so happy that I don't have to do that. I would just say, "Give me everything. I want all the luxuries!" I certainly hope I would be one of those who would be doing good, but I don't think even the best politicians of today ... when they get their power, something happens. You have to make everyone happy, so your own ideas fall through the cracks.
What involvement did executive producer Lars von Trier have with you on this project? What comments did he provide during the filmmaking process?
He was a script consultant. Whenever we hit a snag, or were in a place when we thought we didn't know what to do next, we always called Lars in, and he would read it. He would say, "You know what, I think you should take this scene out and go this way, because this is very interesting," and usually he was right. Even more so in the editing room, where it's always nice to have opinions of your colleagues to come in and see the film in various unfinished stages. This is what he did as executive producer — he saw the film, maybe five or six times in various stages and said, "This is great, keep this as it is," or he said, "I don't understand this, could you explain it more." I also do that on his films. He invites me into his editing room.
Which films of his?
Antichrist and Melancholia. I feel very comfortable having him come in, because if you can go into his editing room and say, "I don't like this scene," you always welcome him to do the same. And obviously he's one of these big, big directors, so I trust him, and look up to him a lot.
Does Lars von Trier take well to criticisms?
No. Not at all [laugh]. He always comes into my editing room and says, "Cut that! Do this!" And I say, "Yes, Lars, I will!" But when I say, "I don't like that weird fox [from Antichrist] talking in the woods; why is it supposed to be talking?" He would just say, "It needs to be there." But then, when you see the film, and he actually did listen to you. Some of the things I said, he did do. He just doesn't tell.
Did you have problems with the fox?
No. In the editing room, they didn't have the real voice for the fox, so I think it was just him who said the voice of the voice, and it sounded like [nasal, indifferent] "Chaos reigns."
Considering the many different variations that have told about this story, was it particularly nerve-wracking to have your own version of the story?
It was nerve-wracking because it is such a popular story, and it is part of the popular culture. So it is nerve-wracking to be part of the first film about this story, but on the other hand, I knew that if I didn't mess it up, it would be a really, really big film. Because everybody in Denmark wants to see this film, and they did, thankfully. The other thing is that if I did mess it up, the whole country would hate me. But, nobody hates me!
Quick Questions with Nikolaj Arcel
Favorite fruit? Banana.
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Oatmeal, with bananas. English muffin, which is not so healthy. And a lot of coffee. It's my general drug, I drink maybe eight, nine cups of coffee a day. I am very unhealthy; I am a classic European. Smoke too much, drink too much coffee. And then once a week I go to the gym to feel really healthy.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours, who would you be? Someone who all the women found really attractive [laughs]. Maybe Mads Mikkelsen? He was a magnet every time we went out. He never does anything, because he is happily married, but it would be fun to feel that, "Oh my god, the chicks love me!" I think he has some sort of raw thing going on. He is very enigmatic.
Age of first kiss? I was eleven. I can't remember what kind of kiss it was. She was a year older than me. She was so much older - she was mature [laughs].