It turns out a private club takes the private part seriously. I’m supposed to meet Danish director Kristian Levring in Soho at two but the lack of signs, or even a number on the blank door delay the process. Arriving with one minute to spare, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Kristian is upstairs promoting The Salvation, his western showing at the 2014 London Film Festival. Stuck in a never-ending Q&A with a roomful of investors and producers, he seems to be delighting in the opportunity to discuss his first film since 2008.
I sit at the back of the room as the questions keep coming. The poor guy was supposed to have wrapped up 45 minutes before. Eventually they disperse leaving just enough time to find a quiet spot on a shabbily hip sofa. Kristian arrives tea-in-hand, dressed casually. In his mid-fifties with long hair and a well-kept beard, he seems relaxed and happy to be here. Originally from Denmark but now a London resident, the capital’s film festival could hardly be more convenient. When we finally start, time is short as he has to be in Leicester Square for the start of a public screening.
We get straight onto his decision to make a western. Kristian smiles at the question. As one of the founding members of the influential Dogme 95 movement that sought to restore purity to filmmaking, the heavily stylised genre riffing in The Salvation could hardly be further away. “Westerns were a childhood love; the first movies I ever saw. When I was a kid living in Denmark there was only one television channel and every afternoon they would show westerns. I just loved them.” He pauses to take another sip of tea. “You grow up and your love for film goes in many directions, but to do a western was like resuming an old love affair.”
Given that he’s living out childhood fantasies, it’s no wonder the film abounds with classic western iconography. It’s a tale of revenge as Mads Mikkelsen’s Danish settler Jon ends up locked in conflict with a local gang after they kill his wife and child, and it’s one played out in full genre regalia. “I wanted this film to be a classical western. Of course, you make it now in modern times so it will always be different, but I wanted to make a homage to the kind of western I used to like. Like when you play jazz you have certain standards you have to play. It’s the same here. You have to have people riding in on horseback, a stagecoach battle, a train station.”
It’s not just the background that’s packed full of old favourites. Thematically, The Salvation throws the kitchen sink into the mix, all within the constraints of a tight running time. Finishing his drink, Kristian leans forward. “It’s like a dish – all these different flavours make the dish. How women are treated, immigration, oil, the Indians all being killed. You need them to make the full flavour.” I ask if he always intended to sprinkle a number of ideas lightly across the film, or had he written longer sub-plots before cutting them back? The answer is unequivocal. “I always felt this should be a 90 minute film like an old John Ford western. But I like these flavours so that was important to mix in.”
We move onto immigration, one of the most prominent themes in the film. Mikkelsen’s character Jon originally emigrates with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) to start a new life. After serving in the army, they save up enough to buy land and bring Jon’s family over. I ask if the move to the US is a big part of Danish history. “Yes, Danes are a travelling nation. A lot of Danes emigrate. At the specific time the film is set [in the 1870s] there was a war. We were fighting Germany and the Germans won. They took over part of the country and a lot of people emigrated.”
To illustrate his point, he tells me a story. “If you go to America you will find a lot of Danish people but they won’t speak Danish anymore. I was in a hotel in Morocco and there was an American staying there. I was leaving when a member of staff called out Mr Levring, you forgot to close the door to your room. I checked and it was shut and he told me 320, which was not my room, was still open. It turns out the American staying there was also a Mr Levring. There are descendants of Danes all over the country but particularly in Illinois, Wisconsin and North Dakota.”
The other theme that comes into focus in the second half deals with the role of women in the old west. The most prominent female character Madelaine, played be Eva Green, is the widowed sister in law of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s gang leader. And yet despite being in a position of relative power, she can’t speak at all. Kristian has a clear reason for this. “When you watch a lot of westerns, women speak very little. I felt lets go the whole way and say she can’t speak at all. It’s a homage to all these silent women who aren’t allowed to speak.”
This segues nicely onto casting. Despite a small budget, The Salvation offers up Mikkelsen, Green, Persbrandt, Morgan and even Eric Cantona. We discuss how he managed to get so many people involved on a relatively low budget. “A lot of guys want to do westerns and there’s not that many made so when you send the script out, there’s interest. For Eva, I think she was quite intrigued by the silent role. She thought it was a really big challenge and came on board very early. The film was written for Mads but Eva was second onto the project.”
I ask if he’d been in touch with Mads beforehand given he’d written the part specifically. Kristian chuckles before answering. “No, he’s Danish and we wanted a Danish lead. He’s the obvious choice. I’ve always said he was conceived to be in a western. He had to be in it.” From here it seems others trickled in. We talk about Persbrandt in particular. “Mikael actually heard about the part. He’s a big name in Scandinavia [successful in his native Sweden, he has branched out recently with a small role in The Hobbit series and is cast in Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming King Arthur film] and he wanted to be in the film. We didn’t actually send it to him. I think it was Mads who told him and he called my producer and said he wants to be in a western. He hadn’t even read it. That’s a good example of what I was talking about.”
Circling back round to budget, the reason a packed audience had been so eager to quiz him earlier, we discuss how he managed to make a small £8m budget film look like something much more. Location seems to be the answer. “It’s because we shot in South Africa. I was hoping to shoot in the US but that was way too expensive, at least double. We had to be clever about it and not waste money. It was also a relatively short shoot, around seven weeks.”
The huge disparity in cost based on location is interesting. I ask why studios fritter away money when they can get an excellent finished film for a fraction of the price. “The studios work in a different way. They don’t trust anybody so if they go to a place like South Africa, they will bring 60 Americans. When we went, there were just four of us. I really like working with the locals. There’s something personal about going to a country when you actually meet and get to know the people well. I was there for six months so I really got to know the crew. It’s the same in other places I’ve been like the UK or the Czech Republic. There’s a lot of good film crews out there so why not use them. Half of them work on American films anyway, just perhaps not in the senior jobs. They are totally capable though.”
We finish on his future plans, and it appears he’s out to repeat the process, only in a different genre. “It’s really early, we haven’t even written the script, but we’re working on the story for a gangster movie that takes place in the 1920’s in North Dakota in a Danish community. They are actually the bad guys, the ones who make the beer. It’s a prohibition story. It’s always interested me and I love gangster movies.” Clearly The Salvation has rubbed off on him. “A lot of gangster movies are shot in Chicago or New York so it’s making it rural. It’s almost like it has classic western elements in it.” No news if we can expect Mads to star yet though.
The Salvation is released nationwide in the UK on Friday 17th April 2015. Culturefly’s review from the 2014 London Film Festival can be found here.