A Royal Affair, written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a captivating historical tale set in 18th century Denmark inspired by a true story about forbidden love and a political struggle that changes a nation forever. The film, which opens November 9th, centers on the intriguing love triangle between the insane King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the royal physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who is a man of enlightenment and idealism, and the young but strong Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander).
At the film’s recent press day, the Danish filmmaker talked about the challenges he faced getting the project financed, why he found the real story inspiring and sees contemporary parallels, how he shot the visually stunning movie on a limited budget, why he cast an unknown actor in the role of King Christian VII, why he chose a contemporary visual style for a period piece, and how he feels about his film being chosen as the official Oscar entry for Denmark for Best Foreign Language Film. Arcel, who wrote the original screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also revealed that he is currently writing another crime trilogy, the first part of which is now being filmed. Hit the jump for the interview.
Nikolaj Arcel: Thank you. It’s a very well-known story in Denmark. It’s one of the great true stories that everybody knows about but it hadn’t been made into a film. I didn’t really know why so I was trying to figure it out. I was going into researching the whole story, and then I caught the bug to do the film, and I spent four years on it. I wrote the script and I spent many, many years – three, four years – financing it and trying to get it off the ground. Then finally, we were lucky enough to have it happen.
How did you pull together the financing?
Arcel: It did take a lot of time. In Denmark, it’s state funded. They fund about 50% of the budgets, which is the only way we can do films in Denmark because we are only 5 million people, so there’s a limit to the audience. And then, we got some financing from Germany as well, from German television. There’s some private funds there and from Sweden as well.
The picture looks very expensive, and it’s beautiful and well done. How did you accomplish that?
Arcel: Well, I have a really good crew and a really good team and we’ve worked together for 10 years, so we all knew each other very well. We were able to do many, many things that would have been prohibitively expensive, but we were able to do them in a more financially practical way because we planned everything very meticulously and in a very detailed way. I think that the biggest money-consuming thing is time. 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.
How many shoot days did you have?
That’s long for an independent film.
Arcel: He is quite fantastic. He won the Best Actor Award [at the Berlinale] in Berlin. When he met the jury later than night, the jury foreman – I think Mike Leigh actually – asked him if he was really crazy. He wanted the award back. But no, he’s a very nice young man. He’d never done any films before. He’s never done anything. He was a drama student when we found him, so that’s quite extraordinary. He was obviously right for the part, so I took the chance and he took the chance. That was good.
Did the King Christian VII in fact have an African companion?
Arcel: Yes, he did. He had an African friend or companion. It was quite normal at the time. But, what was not that normal was that they became friends later on, and he was very dependent on him, especially when Johann died. He was his only comfort actually.
In the movie, Christian VII wasn’t told about the execution, and after he found out that his long lost friend was gone, he slowly retreated. Do you know what the King’s real-life reaction was when he discovered that Johann Struensee had been killed?
Arcel: Absolutely. The real story behind it is they did cheat him. He wanted to pardon Johann, but the power that be obviously did not want him to, so they neglected or forgot to tell him when the execution was going to happen. When that happened, he went into a long period of apathy and didn’t really know what to do. There’s a very sweet, very childish drawing that the King did that you can find in the National Archives. It’s a drawing of him and Johann together, like matchstick drawings, and then he has written their names and he says “I didn’t want this to happen.” It’s quite moving.
In the real story, did the Council set up those restrictions that made it impossible for the King to agree to his execution? Did the King know that the Council had made those extra demands?
Arcel: That’s one of the things that we can never probably be totally sure of. There are some historical records, obviously some witness accounts, but you can’t always trust these witness accounts because some might have been written by the wrong types of people and people who wanted the story to be one thing. We had to be very critical of everything that we read, even in the National Archives, because you don’t quite know what the truth was behind it. But we had a great help from some very prominent Danish historians from the time, and they would tell us “We think this is the closest thing to the truth.” We really tried our best to be as close to the actual story as possible.
Arcel: Yes, all that is completely true. All that you might find in the film that feels factual is in fact real stuff. He did implement so many of the ideas of the Enlightenment very, very fast. Too fast, I mean, because people started to turn against him. He was a radical reformer and he changed everything in Denmark in the course of eight months or a year. And then, of course, the Council killed him and changed everything back again. But he did manage to make what I like to call the small Danish revolution. Just before the French Revolution, we had a small one in Denmark as well.
But then, King Christian VII’s son re-implemented those ideas and did even more?
Arcel: Yes. You’re right about that. He did. That was one of the reasons when I did go into the research doing this film, I always felt that it was a great story and 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. I always felt that if it had just ended there — they killed him, and nothing happened, and Denmark became backwards, the end — that would not have been very nice. I was very happy to find that the ideas that they had were implemented by their children. I think that is quite moving as well, not only in an emotional way, but also this is obviously what happened throughout the rest of Europe and over here as well, that these ideas were implemented. I think it is good that they took the ideas and brought them back. For me, the story is very much about even if you lose your life doing it, you have to try to change things for the better. That would be the main theme of the film to me.
After Struensee died, how long did it take to return to the reforms that he tried to implement?
Arcel: It took about 20 or 30 years. It took many, many years, and in those years, obviously the Danish people were suffering. We could have made an even longer film with a very tragic ending, but in the end, Denmark has become and is now known as a very progressive country and a fairly democratic and very social, humanist country. I like to think that some of that started with Johann Struensee.
Arcel: So many things that I can’t even begin to tell you because I worked for four years just trying to get it 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 or I can get a cast. So, finishing it felt like a big [accomplishment]. 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.
That’s such a great thing because it’s not easy to do something like this.
Arcel: No, especially for a Danish film. When I embarked on this, I never thought that a Danish period drama with subtitles would ever be able to travel outside of Denmark, and I was very surprised, obviously pleasantly surprised, that it has happened. In fact, when I’ve seen it with an American audience, and I’ve seen it a couple of times now at various festivals, I find that the Americans get the film. They totally get all the themes and the politics of it, and obviously the romance and everything. They see the same film that I do. There’s nothing lost in translation here.
You used a very contemporary approach to shooting this film compared to how period pieces are normally shot. Can you talk about the film’s visual style?
Arcel: Yes. Some period pieces are shot slightly objectively, a little bit, and some call it stuffy or dusty or old fashioned. 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 was 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.
Arcel: The hardest night of the shoot, and probably my life, was to do the ballroom scenes. There are three ballroom scenes and we had to shoot them all in one night which is crazy. 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. The problem was that we were a little bit behind [schedule] because we had so many shots that we had to do, so many big acting [scenes], the dance, and the first time when they notice they’re falling in love. 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 ten 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.
The dinner scenes are very interesting in period pieces because of all the little details, such as who doesn’t want to be there, are they happy with what’s being served, and what is the health of everybody in that period?
Arcel: It’s funny that you say that, because basically in all period films, we all cheat a little bit. Back then, they didn’t bathe really. They had various diseases. I don’t think they smelled very good, to be fair. I think that’s just one thing we tend not to [show]. If you do a film that’s historically accurate about the 1750s, I don’t think we could handle watching that if it was completely accurate. But, in fact, the characters of our film were actually quite healthy for their time. Struensee brought the idea of bathing, brushing teeth and all sorts of modern ideas to the court. As the doctor, he took that with him to the court.
Some of the film’s themes rang familiar here in the United States. Did you see some contemporary parallels?
Arcel: Oh yes, absolutely. 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 vs. state, science vs. religion, poor vs. 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.
It’s class warfare.
Arcel: Yes, it is. It is definitely. I really didn’t think about that, but 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 and that whole journey. There are many ways that this film came to be quite timely.
There’s also that moment when Struensee has to re-impose censorship and make these very difficult, hard choices, and he tells Christian “Just sign it.”
Arcel: Yes. He has to go against his own ethics and ideas because he suddenly finds out. And, I guess, he also got slightly corrupted in the end. I mean, all people in power do at certain times, I think. Yes. He became like the old rulers.
To put an American perspective on it, Caroline Mathilda was sister to George III who was the King during the American Revolution, so there are these parallel revolutions going on but in different ways. That was from the top down as opposed to this which was …
Arcel: …from the bottom up. Yes, exactly. I think it’s fascinating. It’s one of the few revolutions, if you can call it that, which happened from the top down. That’s quite fascinating because usually they start with the people. But here, of course, if you think about it, this was a man who was a commoner. He was a normal [person], a small town doctor, and by some amazing coincidence, he got into the Court and became the King’s physician, so I guess you could say it came from the people because he was a regular citizen. He was not royalty or nobility or anything. He just did it from the inside.
Arcel: Yes, there was. There definitely was.
It’s interesting how you portray the townspeople and how they’re manipulated to go against their best interests. Do you see parallels to today where people can be manipulated to do things that aren’t in their best interest?
Arcel: Of course, we can. We are susceptible, and if the arguments are powerful or stubborn enough, we can be made to believe almost anything, I think. Back then, they definitely were. They should have not turned against him, in my opinion, because he was obviously doing everything for their sake. He was trying to help the people and free the peasants, but in the end, all they cared about was that he’d had an affair with the Queen. Let’s kill him. His big mistake was to have that affair. If he hadn’t, maybe they wouldn’t have had a chance to bring him down.
Did the Queen actually write that letter to her children or was that a device that you invented?
Arcel: She wrote letters to her kids, but it’s not based on a specific letter that she wrote. We know that she wrote secret letters to the children, and some of them were not even secret. But she was never allowed to see them so that’s horrible.
Do you think those letters were instrumental in motivating the children to speak to their father, King Christian, about what had happened?
Arcel: Being sort of a romantic, I certainly hope so, and just the idea of the mother reaching out to her kids and they are not able to see her, and I know that she loved them dearly. I know that at least the son was old enough to remember her and miss her, so I would certainly hope so. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they would take the exact same ideas that Johann and Caroline implemented and do the exact same thing. I hope it’s not a coincidence.
One of the things Caroline says is that the country is now a dark place controlled by faith and suspicion. Don’t we also see that today around the world in different places?
Arcel: Yes, in the Middle East. Absolutely. That’s the thing about it. It’s interesting. The translation is also a little bit tricky, because I’m actually a believer and I think that faith is not a bad thing. 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: No. Somehow we’ve managed to completely separate it. In Denmark, it’s quite interesting. If a Danish politician would go up and say he believes in God, people would be a little bit taken aback by that because it’s slightly different there. Most of Europe is not that faith based, especially in terms of the politics, and politicians don’t use that there. It’s different there.
Right now in the States there’s a pushback against these ideas that he was promoting. After these were implemented in Denmark, was there ever a period where there was a similar pushback against these ideas?
Arcel: There’s been a pushback. The politics have followed America pretty much. I think that the only thing is we never discuss abortion rights and some of these more, I would say, extreme things. But there’s a big discussion about various other things that are also being discussed over here. It is not in the same way, but there’s a very nationalistic party in Denmark that has gone out and said that they believe the Enlightenment was a bad thing for the nation and that it made people unhappy instead of making them enlightened. I guess in certain ways they are probably a little bit right. The more we know, the more we worry about stuff. That’s not really good going back to that again. I wouldn’t want that.
Is there an anti-science party in Denmark?
Arcel: No, there’s not. They accept science. Again, there’s no faith-based political party, which is rather odd now that I think about it.
Not only is it political, but they do it in the textbooks.
Arcel: That’s interesting.
It’s scary actually.
Arcel: So it’s like intelligent design and stuff like that?
Arcel: I would agree there. One of the things that I got from researching and studying this period and this film and having done in general some films that are fairly political is that what happens now is there might be this pushback against those ideas but they’ll come back again. It has happened throughout the past several hundred years. It goes in waves. It’s always going back and forth. It’s a constant struggle. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can ever get to a point where we can say “Now we’re all enlightened and we all want the same things and we’re going to have peace.” There’s always going to be this constant battle, and in some weird way, that makes me a little bit more calm about the future and not so worried, because I know that if things go bad, the counter to that will come again. It will be good again. Unfortunately, that’s just how it has to be, I think. I don’t know.
How does it feel to have your film be the official Oscar entry for Denmark for Best Foreign Language Film?
Arcel: It was a great honor because there were a great many films in Denmark this year, and there was this committee sitting and thinking about whether they should. I was up against some really great directors. I was just happy to be selected. I think it’s a huge honor. Of course, I’m happy! What else could I be? Dissatisfied? No, I’m really happy. It’s good and it’s good for the film. I would love for many people to see this film. I think people will notice it a little bit more. It will help.
What are you working on next?
Arcel: Now I’m working on another crime [script]. I wrote the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the script. And now, I’ve been hired to do yet another crime trilogy from Scandinavia and I’m executive producing that as well. So, I’ve written the first one which is in production now (Kvinden i buret). It’s shooting now. And I’m writing the second one. I haven’t figured out what to do for my next directorial effort. I’m still looking. I’m reading a lot of books and thinking, but I’ve just landed with this one. I feel I have to probably wait a couple months before I decide what’s next.
Is the screenplay you’re doing being filmed in Danish?
Arcel: It’s being filmed in Danish. Yes.
Did the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo help you get this film made?
Arcel: Oh yes. Without that, this wouldn’t have happened, definitely. I had written this movie before and I couldn’t get financing. Then I wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and everything was a lot easier for me. (laughs) So that was a good career choice. Yes.
Do you think you’ll do another historical drama or…?
Arcel: I would love to, but not for the next film. I think that the next film will probably be something contemporary.