Interview: Director Nikolaj Arcel Conducts ‘A Royal Affair’

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CHICAGO – One of the fascinating expressions of fallibility is when human beings are trapped in the emotions and physicality of adultery. Despite all efforts to the contrary, the house of cards such relationships are built upon, tend to tumble at the most inopportune moments. Director Nikolaj Arcel explores these complications in the epic ‘A Royal Affair.’

This is Arcel’s fourth feature film as a director, but he may be most well known as the screenwriter for the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The theme of “A Royal Affair” is nothing sort of a seismic shift in history. During the late 1700s, King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) must take a wife, and is set up in marriage with Caroline (Alicia Vikander), a member of the British royal family. The king’s physician, Johann (Mads Mikkelsen), takes a shine to the lonely Caroline, and the walls come tumbling down. The consequences of the affair are universe-shattering, with the modern age and the power associated with it adding another weakness to exploit.

Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander
Mads Mikkelsen as Johann and Alicia Vikander as Caroline in ‘A Royal Affair’
Photo credit: Magnolia Films

Nikolaj Arcel attended the Chicago International Film Festival to promote “A Royal Affair,” and talked to about the challenges of filming a period piece, and the repercussions of the struggle between being regal and being human. How would you compare the circumstances in ‘A Royal Affair’ to our modern world? Where did you see the parallels and where did you emphasize them?

Nikolaj Arcel: One of the reasons I loved this story is because is has so many parallels to the modern world, especially when it comes to politics. One of the elements I was interested in was – what if there was a visionary guy [Johann], who is not even a politician, but he wants to change as much as he can. And how can the opposing ‘bad guys’ get to him, because he’s just basically doing good. The opposition can use the press and use the affair to publicize his mistakes, even though overall he is doing good for society. It’s unfair obviously, but that is also politics today. It happened back then, and it certainly happens on a larger scale today. Your casting was very precise. What qualities were you specifically looking for, when considering the look and feel of 18th century Denmark, as opposed to a modern looking person?

Arcel: Mads [Johann] was someone I wanted to work with for many years. If you would meet him he looks cool and modern, and the character he played in was described in real life as a small, slightly fat guy. [laughs] It was a bit of a stretch. I obviously didn’t want actors who looked like they just walked off the street in their hoodies. I wanted people who could hold themselves with panache and a certain regal quality. I think we really got that, but we also made them up with the hair and the costumes. We were very careful to costume them as a natural extension of their own personalities, not try to squeeze them into something funny or absurd. You had to deal with a period piece, which has its own difficulties and challenges. Which 18th century prop, artifact, setting or costume bothered you the most or caused the most problems while filming?

Arcel: The horses caused me the most problems, First off, I’m slightly scared of horses, [laughs] and every time we had horses on the set I deferred to the trainers, ‘oh yeah, it’s fine you can do whatever. I’ll stand here by the monitor.’ But actually I got used to it, the animals are very kind, although the difficulty is you can’t go up to horse and tell them, ‘I know it’s cold, but you have to do the scene one more time.’ [laughs] The trainer had to stop filming because of the cold, if horses get too cold they get really sick. Obviously we didn’t want that. You adapted the screenplay from two novels. How fictionalized is this story? Does it have any recognition with real historical events or is it a broad re-imagining?

Arcel: Actually it’s a bit of a misconception that we used two novels. We had a novel that we started with, but then we got so interested in the real story that we spent a whole year researching it. We [Arcel and co-screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg] talked to historians and read 20 books on the actual period, and what happened to these historical characters. What we ended up writing was a script that had very little to do with the book, and a lot to do with actually happened. It’s a true story. Power is definitely a theme in the film, both power of government and the counter-power of relentlessly better ideas. Where do you think we struggle most today in the conflict between current world power versus the power of ideas?

Nikolaj Arcel
Nikolaj Arcel in Chicago, October, 2012
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Arcel: The great struggle today happens on several levels. On one, we see the Arab Spring, which at the surface is a bit black and white when we look at it from a Western perspective. We can see the people trying to get democracy, free speech and free press, that’s where we’re already at in the West. But we have similar problems in the way power is being abused, in the way politicians are trying to gather as must power as possible, by restraining the power of the press. It happens everywhere, on different levels. The film industry is still centered in the United States. In your opinion, how does the keep the overall film industry viable and strong, or on the other hand how does it limit overall film industry?

Arcel: I am of the school that it doesn’t limit the industry, I think Americans are the best in the world at making films. 90% of my favorite films, from when I was a kid to now, are American. I’m not just talking blockbusters, but also the independent movement. Of course, European cinema expression does still exist, but the difference is many of these Europeans have been inspired by American films. It’s all good. There was an American remake of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ which was well received. Since you worked so closely developing the original screenplay, what do you think is the visceral appeal of the story that has made it such a worldwide phenomenon?

Arcel: There are strong sequences in the film, and at it’s core it is a classic crime drama. The genius of [source novelist] Stieg Larsson was the invention of the character Lisbeth. She is what wants us to see the film, she is a modern day superhero. She’s a punk, a goth girl, a computer genius, she can seemingly do anything. She’s both hot and cool. It was her invention that made the film. You obviously had a strong connection to her as you were writing the screenplay…

Arcel: That was the reason I wrote it. I wrote with a co-writer [again, Rasmus Heisterberg], and I said to him ‘you can have all the Mikael scenes, and I’ll take all the Lisbeth scenes.’ [laughs]. Those were the most fun. Finally, since we touched upon it before, what American director influences you the most, and do you ever do a tribute to those favorite filmmakers within your movies?

Arcel: I did a whole film called ‘Island of Lost Souls,’ which was my second film, and that was an entire homage to Steven Spielberg, during his Amblin period. Small town, kids, mystery in the air. It was all that.

“A Royal Affair” has a limited release, including Chicago, on November 9th. See local listings for theaters, show times. Featuring Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkei Boe Gølsgaard. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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