A very Nordic Western

Mads Mikkelsen as Ludvig Kahlen and Melina Hagberg as Anmai Mus in The Promised Land.
Mads Mikkelsen as Ludvig Kahlen and Melina Hagberg as Anmai Mus in The Promised Land.
It wasn’t his intention to make a Nordic Western, director Nikolaj Arcel tells Peter Larsen.

"I didn’t make out or intend to do a Western," Danish director Nikolaj Arcel says. "I was intending to do a historical epic. But, of course, it’s so obvious when you look at it, it’s totally a Western, so now I totally get it."

Certainly, the film’s star, Mads Mikkelsen, was never in any doubt.

"I’m surprised you didn’t see it," he says, teasing his longtime friend for overlooking the obvious. "Because you got landscape. You got horses. You got guns.

"Nah, it’s not a Western," Mikkelsen continues as Arcel laughs. "It’s kind of a Western. But there’s nothing wrong with a Western."

In The Promised Land, Mikkelsen plays a real historical figure: Ludvig Kahlen, a proud but poor military captain. In the 1750s, Kahlen convinced the Danish king to grant him the right to farm the remote heathlands of Jutland, an uninhabited, inhospitable region where no-one before had succeeded.

The screenplay, adapted from Ida Jessen’s novel, The Captain and Ann Barbara, portrays Kahlen as a man so stubbornly driven by his dream that at times he becomes his own worst enemy.

In his fight to keep his land from a cruel nobleman who seeks to seize it, Kahlen risks harming the few people who care for him — the runaway servant Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and the outcast orphan girl Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) — whom he realises too late he cares for, too.

"We wanted him to be an obstacle himself," Mikkelsen said. "Because you can always make a film about some bad people doing something to good people. We wanted him to be in the grey zone, and also, for that reason, we wanted him to be not necessarily super-likeable until page 68.

"It was difficult," he said of his and Arcel’s intention to let him make mistakes until deep into the screenplay. "Because we’d get fed up being him and watching him, and we’d just look at each other and say, ‘page 68’."

Arcel, who said he only thought of Mikkelsen, his star in the 2012 Oscar-nominated film A Royal Affair, for the part, knowing that the actor could pull off the transformation the story required.

"One of the amazing things about your performance, in most films where a character changes profoundly, there’s always that one dramatic sequence or moment that changes him and he suddenly realises," Arcel said. "There’s really none of that here. It’s very subtle. But if you look at him, the beginning of the film and the end of the film, he’s a completely different man."

Q. Mads, when Nikolaj called and said I’ve got this part for you, how did he pitch it? "You’re gonna go out and farm potatoes on the heath" or something else?

Mads Mikkelsen: Well, actually, he did start with the potato part. And there was a long pause. He didn’t add anything. I did ask him, "Is there anything else happening, Nik?". And there were a lot of things happening.

It’s not only this character trying to survive in the 1750s with his ambition. You have Ann Barbara trying to survive. You have the little girl trying to survive. And then, of course, this character being so stubborn that he is about to ruin everybody’s lives because of his own dream. I thought it was recognisable and very human to watch somebody who wanted to desperately be part of something (the landowner class) that he hates.

Q. How well-known is the real Ludvig Kahlen in modern-day Denmark? Someone you were aware of or kind of a minor figure?

Nikolaj Arcel: Completely unknown, actually. There’s a plaque on the heath, but up until the moment that the film came out, I mean, obviously he’s now known. But before the film came out, it would only have been the locals in the area.

And really, you have to credit the author. She kind of found him from the annals of history, and she wrote this book about him, and that was sort of her genius, to find somebody, the first person to ever go out on the heath and succeed in planting something.

Mikkelsen: I think one of the reasons he’s also not known today is that he succeeded with his Sisyphus job, which is the insane ambition of going out there, but then he abandoned it, and it was left like that for 20, 30 years. Had he kept going and built, let’s say, a phenomenal castle there, it would have been a different thing.

Q. What had to happen to turn the novel into a film?

Arcel: I have had a lot of experience adapting books — I think I’ve done it five or six times, or maybe more. (Among them are the original Danish-Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, with which Arcel made his Hollywood directing debut.) You have to be a little tough with the book, because usually novels, especially big epic novels like this, they have a multitude of characters and a timespan in years and years.

I very quickly excised two or three or four or five characters that don’t really matter that much to the main character’s story.

Q. Mads, talk a little about how you approached this character, and the subtlety with which he changed.

Mikkelsen: It was in the screenplay, and that’s what Nick wanted to do as well. So we have to trust each other. That we can make that little crack happen on page 68. Meaning that before that, we will see the version that we have decided on, and we should not get desperate, while we’re shooting the film, that he doesn’t become more like a man from 2023. We cannot force our 2023 morals into the character.

Q. The scene where he has to make a hard decision about Anmai Mus is one of the toughest in the film.

Arcel: That day for me was a very moving day. It came kind of late in the shoot. That was the first scene where Ludvig truly sort of cracks. And then Mads’ performance, and the work that you did. I think it was three takes, really, and it made everybody cry. We were all just weeping. Not just for the brilliance of Mads, but also for what we saw was happening with Ludvig in that moment.

Q. What did you feel, shooting on the remote heath in the same location that the real Ludvig had lived and farmed?

Arcel: For me, it was very poignant. It was emotional. There were days where we would stand together and just look out over the heath and see the sun come up or the sun come down. That’s so rare. Anybody who’s making movies can tell you that you never shoot anything where the stuff actually happened. But this was such a rarity, and so important.

Mikkelsen: I agree. It’s a magical situation to be there, like, to get a little whiff of the winds of time. Every though Denmark is a very small country, surprisingly, standing on the heath, you felt very small, very alone. If you took the crew away, you could not see the end of it. It just kept going and kept going.