An Interview with Director Kristian Levring

Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring has written and directed a number of films including The Intended (2002), Fear Me Not (2008) and the Shakespearian drama The King is Alive (2000). Six years have passed since his last feature film and Levring has returned with a nostalgic homage to the classic Western movies he grew up with.

Co-written by fellow Dane Anders Thomas Jensen, The Salvation explores a Danish immigrant in 1870s post-war America as he seeks vengeance for his murdered family. Nordic favourite Mads Mikkelsen stars as the film’s Danish cowboy alongside Nanna Øland Fabricius, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Jonathan Pryce,

We spoke with Danish director Kristian Levring about his experience on filming his hybrid Western, The Salvation.

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What inspired you to set a Danish film in America; are you a fan of the Western genre and the desert landscapes?

Kristian Levring: I’m very much a fan of Westerns in the sense of having watched them a lot as a kid up until I was a teenager. Then you grow up and evolve into liking other things but to come back to what you like from your childhood was really fascinating. I’m Danish, yes, but when you do a Western it has to take place in America. It’s not much fun to do a Western in Denmark so it was very straightforward to set it in America.

How was it working again with Anders Thomas Jensen after collaborating on Danish thriller Fear Me Not?

I always work with my good friends and colleagues. We have known each other for many years and Anders Thomas is a very talented Danish guy. We work mostly in psychological dramas so, to write a film with very little dialogue and much more action, it was actually a lot of fun. It was also like coming back to our childhood in a way. We have this agreement that I come up with an idea and if he likes it we work on it, and if he doesn’t like it we don’t do it. So I came up with the idea for this one and he said, “That could be fun, let’s do it.” The good thing is that we know each other so well. I find that when you are working with other people it becomes a battle asking, “Who came up with this?” “I did!” It becomes very unfruitful. Anders Thomas and I we know each other so well so there is none of that. It’s just like playing with ideas and it’s a lot of fun in that way.

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What was your main inspiration for The Salvation?

Revenge is universal but in Denmark, we have this thing called the ‘Nordic Sagas’. They’re tales about Vikings and there is a lot of revenge in these stories that have a lot of the same darkness that Westerns ended up with, as well as the same kind of simplicity. We were looking at many different things and the ‘Nordic Sagas’ – with Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian people – it’s quite a big thing. It’s something we have heard a lot in school and read about it and so it is very deep within us. This idea to think of the sagas as a Western fascinated us.

The cast is internationally diverse but what was it like working with Scandinavian actors Mads Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt?

Both are real characters. I actually wrote the part for Mads because, being Danish, he was quite an obvious choice for that part. I wanted actors with strong faces; in a Western, that is part of it. It’s a myth, it’s not a reality but, at the same time, you want really talented actors. With Mikael, he’s got those qualities; he’s a wonderful actor like Mads. They also have these very powerful, strong faces that come across on the screen. Mads was born to be in a Western. From the deep depths of my heart, he is such a wonderful actor with a large, talented range. With Mads’ acting, he is so economic you can see in his face that he keeps a lot of things inside. He’s a very physical actor as well with his body and the way he moves. He rides well and Mads was a dancer, that is where he came from. His brother Lars Mikkelsen was going to play his brother Peter but there was a family illness, which was very sad, and he had to leave three weeks before the shoot and they had never properly starred alongside each other, especially as brothers, in a film together. It left us in a bit of a panic but we got Mikael in the end.

Were you quite conscious about the casting of Madeleine “The Princess” as she is a mute character?

Yes, I felt, in the genre, that it is so male and women have quite ridiculous parts where they hardly speak. So I thought let’s go the whole way with it and create a character that can’t speak. Madeleine’s character even had her tongue taken out! But, still, she’s a survivor and she’s able to survive in this very tough environment. Eva was fascinated with doing something where she couldn’t speak because talking is such a big tool for any actor or actress. To have to perform without that tool is very challenging. She was very attracted to this and I think that is why she wanted to do the part.

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Nanna Øland Fabricius’ character Oh Land is quite a popular Danish artist.What was it like casting her as Jon’s wife Marie; are you a fan of her music?

Yes, I saw her on stage and I just found that she was very powerful. It is always interesting to find a film that has people from different backgrounds, acting wise. So I felt Nanna – ‘Oh Land’ – and Eric Cantona were very different – Nanna as a singer and Cantona as a footballer. It’s nice to have people with other approaches to acting in a different way. I feel it gives some energy to a project.

What were the most challenging parts of filming The Salvation?

It’s all shot on-location in the sense that we built all of the houses and towns. I love shooting on-location because it brings an extra magic: the light and the reality of things. I think the challenging things of doing a Western – of doing this Western – were the horses. It’s very hard to work with horses. They don’t always do what you tell them to do and they are quite nervous animals, so you have to think a lot about how you do things and carefully plan everything around them.

There are many tense scenes in The Salvation from the outset, especially at the beginning when Jon is trying to save his family. What are your favourite scenes looking back on the film?

That scene that you mention is also one of the things I really like. That scene is shot with a technique called ‘Day for Night’. It’s actually shot in daytime and that was a technique made for Westerns. I also like the scene with Sheriff Mallick (Douglas Henshall) and Jon when he is in jail talking about the theme of the film: revenge. Dougie, who is the Sheriff and the Priest, says, “You’re going down the wrong path.” It’s very interesting because, when he says that some people see him as quite horrible, in some ways I feel he is not. He’s actually right. If Jon hadn’t gone down that path all these other people wouldn’t have been killed so I found that quite interesting.

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It was recently the 20th anniversary of the Dogme 95 movement…

I realised when Lars von Trier called me and said, “Do you realise it was twenty years ago?” I said “Oh my God! Are we really that old?”

How did you celebrate and what are your fondest memories?

I didn’t actually celebrate but I have a lot of good memories; that was a very fun time. We started at a dinner table having wine and then five years later we made all of these films. It is fun when you go from something where everyone thinks you are half mad. All the people we knew thought it was the weirdest thing and the most stupid thing to make films in such a way. In Denmark, it has created an important status to our industry so it’s been a fun journey. 

The Salvation rides into UK cinemas on 17th April.

Words and interview by Antony Smith