Director Nikolaj Arcel and producer Louise Vesth discuss the three-country film shoot for their 18th-century epic The Promised Land, which reunites the Danish pair with headliner Mads Mikkelsen. 

The Promised Land

Source: Henrik Ohsten / Zentropa

‘The Promised Land’

It was a case of the right story at the right time for Danish writer/director Nikolaj Arcel, who read the novel The Captain And Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen and saw parts of his own journey in the real-life protagonist Ludvig Kahlen.

“He’s a man driven by ambition and certain goals in life, probably not realising too much what’s going on around him,” says Arcel of Kahlen, the illegitimate son of a maid and a nobleman, who defied his status to succeed in Denmark’s military and was determined to start a new colony in the country’s wild heathland in the mid-1700s. “Many people probably recognise that element.”

At the time, Arcel — whose credits as a writer/director include the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair from 2012 and the 2017 Idris Elba-­starring Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower — had just become a new father, and in Kahlen’s journey he recognised his own feelings of “realising how much life has to offer and maybe being a little too stubborn to see it. In some ways it’s my most personal film. Not from the outside — it’s a big epic, set in 1755 — but in terms of the character’s journey, it’s the film that I can relate to the most.”

The Promised Land screened at Telluride and in Venice’s main competition before arriving as a Special Presentation at Toronto. It will also play at San Sebastian International Film Festival before a local release in Denmark on October 5 via Nordisk; it is shortlisted to be the country’s international feature Academy Award submission.

From first reading the novel, Arcel had Mads Mikkelsen, who he directed in A Royal Affair, in mind for the leading role. “I don’t think I would have wanted to make the film with anyone else,” insists the director, who collaborated with co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen on the novel adaptation — and brought in Mikkelsen early during the writing and develop­ment process. “We were having meetings with Mads, talking about the character and hashing it out. He was very much part of it. It was a collaborative experience from the very early stages.”

Producer Louise Vesth of Denmark’s Zentropa was the fourth key member of the filmmaking team. She praises Mikkelsen’s role in helping to shape the project and lead character. “Mads is a truly professional person,” says Vesth, who also produced A Royal Affair. “He is prepared in a way that makes you never doubt the character is in place, and that Mads knows exactly what secrets the character is keeping. Every look and every movement is designed to fill the role.”

Kahlen is not an easy man to inhabit. In 1755 he set out to conquer the harsh, uninhabitable Danish heath with a seemingly impossible goal: to build a colony in the name of the king. To do so, he gathered his own family of outsiders to fight back against a merciless landowner, Frederik de Schinkel (played in the film by Simon Bennebjerg).

Much of the film sticks close to the history. “Ludvig’s story is true to what he did and didn’t accomplish, and de Schinkel was real — he was a maniac and treated his workers horribly,” says Arcel. But Jessen also invented several characters for her novelistic account, inspired by the true stories and including Kahlen’s unorthodox companion Ann Barbara, played in the film by Amanda Collin. While they changed structure and plot, “the characters really remained the same [from the novel],” says Arcel. As in the book, Ann Barbara is “slightly invisible in the beginning, you don’t know if she’s a main character or a bit part. As a screenwriter, it is fascinating to try new things like this. You grow that bit part into a lead that nearly takes over the whole film, which is exciting and interesting.”

The Promised Land was shot over 42 days between September and November 2022 on location in the Czech Republic, Germany and Viborg in Jutland, Denmark (the site of Kahlen’s real heathland). Studio work was undertaken in Saxony-­Anhalt, Germany.

TrustNordisk has already pre-sold the film to more than 50 territories. Co-producers are Zen­tropa Berlin, Zentropa Sweden and Film i Väst with backing from the Danish Film Institute, Den Vestdanske Filmpulje, Eurimages, the Czech Film Fund, Mitteldeutsche Medien­förderung, Moin Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-­Holstein, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Deutscher Filmförderfonds, the Swedish Film Institute in co-operation with TV 2, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Plaion Pictures and SVT, with development funding from Creative Europe/MEDIA.

Complex production

Vesth says that at a shooting budget of $8.7m (€8m), The Promised Land marks Zentropa’s largest production in years. “Having a big budget is great because it creates a lot of options, but it’s also a burden because everything becomes much more complex,” she says. Like many other productions, it was hit by “inflation, workforce capacity of the industry and the global supply crisis”, adds Vesth. “We had to raise the budget several times to be able to catch up and create the film we set out to do.”

For Arcel, having enough money to achieve his vision was “a dream… I think what frustrates a lot of people around me, especially the financiers and my producers, is that every idea I bring to them is huge. I have a love of epic cinema. One of the films we looked at for The Promised Land was Lawrence Of Arabia.

Arcel, whose directing credits include Danish political thriller King’s Game (2004) and who has co-writer credits on the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Department Q thrillers The Keeper Of Lost Causes and A Conspiracy Of Faith, likes to be well prepared. “I story­board every scene,” he says. “With a film trying to achieve all of this on €8m, you have to plan excessively for every single shot. Even with all that planning, we were still running so fast you can’t believe it.”

For the visual element of the film, Arcel reteamed with another collaborator from A Royal Affair — cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk — and the director cites influences from David Lean to Dogme in what they set out to achieve. “We use the word ‘visceral’ a lot and the word ‘epic’ a lot,” he says. “It’s a style we started building on A Royal Affair, and we went even further on this film. We got closer to this character, more intimate, while retaining the epic sweep of it.”