Putting their dreams to work in Los Angeles

FILM PEOPLE. Their new projects include "Fables", "Rebecca" and "The Power of the Dog". The two Danish filmmakers behind "A Royal Affair", Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, have done better than their dared to dream when they boarded a plane to Los Angeles last August.

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"We have always had a great respect for each other's opinions and way of doing things. I don't think we have had a single controversy in the 13 years we have worked together," says Nikolaj Arcel about his professional partnership with co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg. Private photo from their home in Los Angeles.

FILM asked the rock-solid filmmaking duo about their experiences in Tinseltown and their three American projects, the first of which is an adaptation of American author Don Winslow's "The Power of the Dog" about Mexican drug cartels.

Nikolaj Arcel is directing, and he and Rasmus Heisterberg have penned the script together with the film's producer Shane Salerno.

It's quite a leap from a film about 18th-century Denmark to a crime story on drug trade. How did you end up adapting Don Winslow's bestseller "The Power of the Dog"?

Nikolaj Arcel: Rasmus had read the book and loved it. And the moment I read it, I knew it was right for us. It has elements of all our favourite stories, from "The Godfather" to "Heat" and "City of God". We were telling ourselves we'd be lucky to get to do that film in five years or later after we had proved ourselves via other American projects. But we made it happen! We really were extremely stubborn. I think Shane [Salerno] and Don [Winslow] turned us away four or five times before we convinced them to actually see "A Royal Affair" and talk to us.

Rasmus Heisterberg: It's a gripping tale of two people on different sides of the fence between America and Mexico. It opens with the formation of the first drug cartel in the late '70s and runs all the way through to 2004, and the story is set against the political backdrop of the American role in Central America. Winslow's book has a lot in common with "A Royal Affair" that way, at least in the way it tells a story: intimate character studies, epic time span, and political drama. In fact, I think that's probably why Don thought we were up for the job.


"A Royal Affair". Photo: Jirí Hanzl

You've really tried your hand at a lot of different genres. What's that about?

NA: When I was younger, I thought that if I tried making every kind of film, I would probably die a happy man with a healthy sense of accomplishment. I'm smarter now, but the idea still makes sense, because your curiosity and innocence stay fresh when you have to deal with a new kind of story every time.

RH: A lot of screenwriters and directors have the kind of temperament that compels them to investigate a particular subject over several films. I'm the complete opposite. For me, the greatest privilege of writing is having the pick of the litter every time I start something new.

NA: I totally agree. But even though our films are so different from each other, I still think there's a clear thread in what we do. A certain style, the tone of the acting, the rhythm of the written word ...

A lot of Danish filmmakers are throwing themselves into English-language projects these days. What was your idea behind going to Los Angeles?

NA: We wanted a year in the sun to get inspired and see something else besides the familiar view from Zentropa's windows. Our girlfriends wanted to go, too, so the timing was perfect. Of course, we did think a lot about potentially making the leap to English-language films. But it wasn't a clear decision on our part. The only promise Rasmus and I made ourselves was not to take on a project unless it was one we were really dreaming about doing. We already talked about "The Power of the Dog" before coming over ...

RH: We have written features together for 10 years and have always tried to challenge ourselves more and more for each film. So, after "A Royal Affair", it seemed obvious to gravitate towards an international project.

Your success with "A Royal Affair" – including two Silver Bears plus an Oscar and a Golden Globe nomination – must have put wind in your sails in Hollywood?

NA: We were received incredibly well over here, because of "A Royal Affair" as well as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", which we also wrote together. But no actual contracts were drawn up until the nominations started rolling in.

RH: That's true ... Some of our key deals fell into place in remarkable synchronicity with our Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

NA: A producer told me that industry people in Hollywood would make the worst stockbrokers, because everyone only puts money into the strongest stocks in town, and only when someone's already on top. For me, that was an important lesson in doing business over here – that I had to get better at "selling" who I am.

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"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Photo: Knut Koivisto

Apart from" The Power of the Dog", you inked another deal, for Warner Brothers?

NA: Yes, an action-adventure film, which we will be doing with "Harry Potter" producer David Heyman and which is based on one of my all-time favourite comic books, "Fables". I never ever in my wildest dreams thought we would get that film.

And Nikolaj, you'll be directing a third project, also a bit of a classic …

NA: I'll be directing "Rebecca" – which Hitchcock adapted in 1940 and which won him two Oscars. As a starting point, Rasmus isn't officially onboard. But of course, he will be a consultant on the script. It's not a remake of the Hitchcock film but a contemporary take on the Daphne du Maurier novel, putting the characters front and centre.

You are directing the film for Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. What does it mean for you to have one of the greatest icons of American cinema as your producer?

NA: It's because of Spielberg that I started making films. He inspired me even as a kid. I can't wait to work for his company. I have this naïve fantasy that he'll keep popping into the editing suite with coffee and donuts, though it will probably be a bit different in real life! 

Thick as thieves

Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg both graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 2001 and have written all of Arcel's films together, including "King's Game" (2004), "Island of Lost Souls" (2007) and "Truth About Men" (2010). They hit an international high with their latest collaboration, the lavish historical drama "A Royal Affair", winning them two Silver Bears in Berlin and a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.

The two of them also wrote the original Stieg Larsson mystery blockbuster "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2009), and both work as screenwriters on individual projects, the most recent being Mikkel Nørgaard's "The Keeper of Lost Causes" (Arcel) and Michael Noer's "Northwest" (Heisterberg).

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