A ROYAL AFFAIR : Interview with Director And Writer

On the heels of its success in Berlin, the Danish film A Royal Affair enjoyed screenings at the Philadelphia Film Fest back in October. Writer/Director Nikolaj Arcel and co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg were kind enough to sit down with Cinedelphia to discuss the film, from its inception to its awards and nominations, and its future. The two were great fun to converse with, and were perfectly at ease in my line of questioning and casual banter…

CINEDELPHIA [Aaron Mannino]: Yesterday, I actually had my first interview ever, so you’re now my second.

NIKOLAJ ARCEL:  Oh? Congratulations

C: I’m seasoned now.

RASMUS HEISTERBERG: Well then we should feel honored!

C: No no, I should. I wanted to congratulate you guys first on making an excellent film, but also for success at Berlin. Two awards? That’s pretty awesome. Do you have any recollections?

RH: It was just good times. First of all it was the world premiere of the film. Just to get it out was a big thing for us, and just to be there. So, we were drinking a lot of champagne, and then we were about to go home but stayed for the awards and then we drank more champagne, haha. It was one long, great party.

NA: It was a bit surreal. First of all, we were very happy even when it got into the competition, but didn’t think we had any chance at winning awards because Berlin is slightly more arthouse. This is a fairly commercial story and so we were pleasantly surprised. Grateful I think is the word.

C: I was on IMDB last night and I was looking at the credits for the film and I saw that there’s like almost 20 producers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many producers for a film and I’m just wondering, did people just rally around the concept for this film or am I getting a false impression by all these titles; co-producer, producer, line producer, executive producer, etc.

NA: You’re probably getting the wrong impression. I mean, there were three main producers on the film, then you have a lot of co-producers…

RH: When you do a film in Europe you have to put the financing together from all these different countries, you have to get subsidies from the state, you have to get the TV stations to pay, so it’s like a patchwork of money you have to put together, so you have more people getting the “producer” credit. This was a particularly expensive film to make and it took a lot of time to do the financing.

NA: I wouldn’t actually say that they “rallied” around the film, I would more so say that it was actually a struggle to get this film done. Because first of all, it is expensive for a Danish film, and also that’s been the experience of a lot of historical epic-type films in Denmark. We were taking a little bit of a chance doing this. They didn’t know whether we were gonna have the audience to support the budget. Obviously it became a success, but you never know what’s going to happen. It was tough. I think it took us 3 years to get the film financed after writing the script.

C: I guess that leads into the very beginning. I hadn’t realized it was adapted from a novel. Could you talk about that process?

NA: We also wrote The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo original screenplay, and that was more of a straightforward adaptation where we actually used a lot of the book. In terms of A Royal Affair, what we did was we had the rights to a book that had a certain way of viewing the story, which is a true story, but the further we got into the research the more we pulled away from the book. I think even the author of the book would probably say ‘that’s not really my book.’ Its more based on a lot of research about the actual events of the time.

RH: There were a couple things like the thing with Caroline taking Opium, thats from the book. So we had some details scattered around the film that we used. In that sense it is a sort of free adaptation. “Inspired by.”

NA: The author was happy with the film.

C: Thats a great compliment.

RH: ….she didn’t think it was a particularly faithful adaptation, but she didn’t really mind. She was a good sport.

C: Ive seen a few films where a director will collaborate with the writer of the original material to write a screenplay. I’m thinking of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers or a recent Japanese film called Villain. In those examples it seems that these authors were excited to be part of the process, and excited that it is going be different than their book. They wanted it to be different. Was it ever an idea to collaborate with the author as a co-screenwriter?

NA: That wasn’t an idea, no. We (Rasmus and I) have worked on various adaptations of books and we always find that because we are two screenwriters, we don’t really need a third one. Too many chefs in the kitchen, you know? And also, most authors want you to be too faithful to the novel. You can’t really do that. The film and the novel are two different things. Any time we’ve had the experience of working with the actual writer in the room , we’ve found it very hard to convince the person that we can’t take every chapter of the book and put it on film. So we’ve never really tried that.

RH: And we are not eager too.

NA: I mean, it depends on the writer. In terms of Dragon Tattoo, we would have loved to have had Stieg Larsson in the room, but he was deceased, so there wasn’t anything we could do.

C: Despite the fact that A Royal Affair takes place in the 1760’s it felt extremely modern in terms of the content. There were a lot of little details that made me feel that way, particularly Christian for a reason I might explain a little later. I think for me it was probably because of the philosophical and political ideals that are being fought for in the film, that are assumed or taken-for-granted in American culture but were also fought for here, and are kindof still being fought for. Like freedom of speech. I mean, everyone wants freedom of speech, but then somebody says something mean you’re like ‘You cant say that!’ So its this tension that still exists. I was wondering how you guys felt about that, the placement of the content of the film happening now. In short, why make this film now?

RH: I think that was one of the main attractions to do the film. We did research and read about the events and they felt so modern, they felt so contemporary, and its a sad state of affairs that human nature doesn’t really change and we still have those conflicts going on. But from a dramatic point of view its a gift that makes the film very universal in its theme and in its plot. we felt fascinated that all this was taking place in the age of the enlightenment. And you have the same situation, the world was being globalized, newspapers were being made, it was sort of an information revolution like the internet today. Everything was changing in more or less that same way as it is changing today and that was compelling to us, and one of the main reasons we wanted to tell this story.

NA: We felt that obviously the film is set against a backdrop. I guess you could say its a “love story” or  love triangle, and its a story about friendship, but the one thing we really felt was interesting was definitely the political stuff that was going on, the discussions, the debates. No doubt about it, so much of what was “back then” is the same as it is now. The same discussions, the same types of people that are for or against. Its very interesting, you know, that we found that not a lot has really changed in terms of rights.

C: I think that is what made me love the film actually. As it started, it seemed like it was going to be about Caroline, and I thought ‘well, maybe I’ve seen this story before…’

RH: Yes, exactly.

C: …And I wondered, is that story strong enough to sustain a whole film, and thought ‘maybe not,’ but then you realize she’s just one component of this three way relationship that’s tied to everything thats happening. The stuff that’s happening outside the castle walls and within is affected by their relationship and vice versa, so dramatically it was really interesting. I think it was Christian (Mikkel Folsgaard) who stole the show for me though. I think he felt like the most modern character because I feel like he could have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum or something, even manic depressive. Those are top level conversation topics in modern culture and you see more and more characters in television and film exhibiting these qualities. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the American show Parenthood with the character…

NA: Max, yeah. That’s really good.

C: Yes, and I drew a really strong connection between those two, and felt that it was really important. I wondered if Christian had ever been retroactively diagnosed. Like if historians looked back and said “THAT guy had autism” or Aspergers, or whatever.

NA: It’s not for lack of trying. Danish historians have been trying to retroactively diagnose Christian for years, but there’s no way of knowing because you can only try to read all the witness accounts in the history books. Even from back then I think our own diagnosis, after doing a lot of research, was that he was very hard to pinpoint if he suffered from any one kind of disorder, or if it was a mix. I don’t think he was autistic, but I think he was probably also just a product of an extremely unhappy childhood and a guy who really didn’t want to be king. He REALLY didn’t want that and he was forced into this role. The more he was forced, the less happy he was and the more disturbed he got.

RH: His obsession with theater was a fascinating part of the real Christian, and he used the theater as a shield in order to protect himself. So he was rehearsing his lines and perceiving the council and the whole court as a stage where he had to act, and that was a big gift from the real events.

C: He really lit up when people started listening to him though, when he was presenting ideas to the council.

NA: He’s a wonderful character.

C: He is. At first I was like, ‘this guy is such a ….jerk!’ and then you realize he is probably the most complicated person in the entire film.

NA: Totally agree.

C: When I found out he won the best actor award at Berlin I thought ‘Well done!’

RH: Did you know this was his first role ever?

C: ……no?! wow! That could be a blessing and a curse. You don’t want to peak early.

NA: Haha, yeah he feels a little cursed. Like ‘Where do I go from here?’ haha

C: I was wondering how you developed your visual language for this film with your cinematographer?

NA: I’ve worked with my cinematographer for ten years now. We’ve done everything together, just as Rasmus and I have done everything together as writers. We’ve come to understand each other on a level that is a little bit beyond discussion. We always know what we are trying to go for in terms of the emotions, visuals, the tonality and the colors, and we’ve always felt that we never want to go directly on the nose of whatever we are doing. If we had done this in a sort of brown sepia tone, you know, old fashioned way then it would have been a little boring to be frank because it would be just another colorful historical drama. We wanted to have very modern images, modern lighting, and even the handheld way of shooting that’s a sign of the times. We didn’t even have to discuss that a lot because we just knew that was the way we were going to shoot it. Basically, I’m just lucky to have a great cinematographer, haha.

C: I think that that’s great, when two people have the same language, and only you two have that language.

NA: (looking at his fruit tray) What is this?….its uh…

C: Honeydew? You know,  I’ve tasted maybe five perfectly ripe honeydews in my entire life.

NA: Yeah, there’s not a lot.

C: They’re never ripe. They’re never right where they should be.

RH: haha, that’s true they’re always a bit hard.

C: Well guys, those were all my gut instinct questions. I was able  to see the film on an online advanced screening, but I won’t be able to make the festival screening tonight….

NA: It is getting released here in America in November too, so…..

C: Oh, excellent! Who’s distributing it?

NA: Magnolia. It’s actually going to open in 40 cities across the US, which is nice.

C: That sounds pretty big for a foreign film.

RH: For a danish film, that’s quite good.

NA: And we’re actually the official Danish entry to the Academy Awards.

C: Did success at Berlin kind of spur people on to snatch up distribution deals?

NA: I think so, and I think we sold the rights to a lot of countries even before Berlin because …it’s just a good story, you know, and also Maads Michelson, who plays Johan in the film, has become a pretty big international star in Europe. He was the bad guy in Casino Royale, so even some people here know who he is.

C: Well, excellent guys. Good luck at the Oscars.


A Royal Affair is now playing at the Ritz Five.

Official site.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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