Dramatising history: an interview with Nikolaj Arcel, writer/director of A Royal Affair
A Royal Affair is writer/director Nikolaj Arcel’s sumptuously shot love triangle drama set in 18th century Denmark. The story, full of political powerplays and back room machinations, focuses on a Danish queen, her insane king and a German doctor.
Based on real events and partly adapted from a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth, Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) and physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) embark on a steamy love affair while Struensee pushes King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgard) to implement radical progressive changes to Danish politics and society.
It isn’t the first time Arcel has worked from a literate source material; he was one of the writers of 2009′s hugely successful adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Shortly before A Royal Affair’s Australian theatrical release (it opened in cinemas last Thursday) I sat down for chat with Arcel about A Royal Affair, Game of Thrones, adapting novels and converting history into interesting drama.
There’s a lot of tense interpersonal relationships between the characters in A Royal Affair. A lot of politics, a lot of plotting and scheming. It reminded of the TV show Game of Thrones. Have you watched it?
I’ve seen it and I dearly love it. Game of Thrones is my favourite series right now. It hadn’t aired when we started the film. I would definitely agree that there are similarities and I take that as a very big compliment because I think Game of Thrones is one of the most intelligent TV series I’ve seen in a long time. It’s beautifully done and spoke to me on a number of levels. I can’t until the next series comes out.
In terms of taking something that’s real and changing it into screen drama, the film portrays the Struensee character as an idealist and an advocate of free speech. But some historians have not agreed with that representation. How do you respond to that? Is your depiction accurate? Inaccurate? Does it matter?
I think it certainly matters. You have to be true to reality but the further you come from what happened the harder it is to get reliable information. It was the victors who wrote history, so for hundreds of years Struensee was portrayed from a partisan point of view. He was a villain, he did this and that, but then newer historians reappraised him and put new effort into studying the actual events and what happened. He is now widely portrayed as a much more complex person. We had three or four historians working with us on this film. They are all experts in this period in history and they all agree that he was a very complex man and that while he was probably not as heroic as we portrayed him, he was definitely not a villain. He was definitely not a bad guy. You can see that even by just looking at the laws that he passed and ideas that he had.
We all know that reality is very different to the rhythmns required for interesting drama. I’ve spoken to lots of filmmakers over the years who have constructed films based on true events. Given we know this is a constructed reality, what broad approaches did you take to find the best way to make it truthful?
I think the best way to do it is to know your real history. We infused the film with so many real events, so many that you might think that they didn’t actually happen. Trust me, they all actually happened. But we have changed some of the context and we also boiled down some of those events and meshed others together. Sometimes we had to erase real life characters from the story because there was no room for them…It’s difficult when you’re dealing with drama. Even if I was making a film about your life and you told me to make it as truthful as possible, I think we would probably come to a point where both you and I would say OK this is not interesting enough. We’d say I know you didn’t do it exactly this way but in a film drama is more important than truthfulness. It always comes down to that mix between not outright lying and not telling so many downright untrue things.
From a writing perspective, you are best known for working on the incredibly successful adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. What is the most difficult thing about taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay?
It’s interesting that you ask that because this fits very well with what we just discussed. You have to be faithful to the book but realise that you can never just take the book and put it on the screen. You have to do all the things needed to make it an interesting film. With Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, what we had was a really great book, a really exciting book with interesting characters. We were lucky because all we really had to do was say: we need to get these characters. Those characters in the film need to feel like the characters in the book and if they don’t, we’ve failed. But other than that we could be quite free with the book because it’s a very long book. I think it’s 700 or 800 pages long. We skipped this or not, changed this and that. We even had the characters go on a road trip in the film which they didn’t do in the book; they just sat in a cabin. We did what we thought Stieg Larsson would have wanted, because he had already passed away. With adaptations it’s often an odd thing, where you start off being extremely proud of the source material and you slowly liberate yourself. You can see more when you get a little distance from the book, you can say OK this is what happens but it doesn’t really work. We have to change this or that. It becomes a very slow process of figuring out what works in a film.
Did you like the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Yes, I think it was very good. I’m a big David Fincher fan and a big of Steven Zaillian, who wrote the script. But given the work I’d already done I wasn’t that entertained by it. I always knew what was going to happen. It was quite close to our film; almost too close for my taste. I didn’t feel that I had seen a new film, so it was a bit boring for me.
A Royal Affair is beautifully shot and edited. What was the first stage in your process of designing the look of the film? How did you set out to invent the film on a visual level?
I was so lucky to have a collaborator — his name is Rasmus Videbæk — who I have known since I was quite young. We’ve known each other for almost 15 years and done all our films together. First of all it happens by watching films but most of all by looking at old photographs, looking at magazines, going to see the sunset, talking about the general feeling. Then because we know each other so well, I almost don’t have to say anything. We have a very good dynamic. He knows what kind of look I am going for and with this film we tried to be as open as possible. It’s a beautiful film but also a modern film. We didn’t want it to feel too old fashioned.
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