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How Oscar Played Matchmaker for a Scandinavian Mutual Admiration Society

Nikolaj Arcel and Espen Sandberg had never met before awards nominations brought them together — and now look!


Two Scandinavian directors.

Nikolaj Arcel, nominated for his smart Danish costume drama “A Royal Affair,” and Espen Sandberg, the co-director with Joachim Roenning of the Norwegian epic “Kon-Tiki,” had never met before this awards season — but when both films were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, the two men began to find themselves at the same events in Los Angeles, far from where they grew up. 

Is there a kinship between Scandinavian filmmakers?
SANDBERG: Absolutely. It is a small scene, and I think every Scandinavian movie that does well helps me.

Remy Haynes for TheWrap

ARCEL: When we heard the Oscar nomination announcements, me and my friends were in the room, and obviously at first we were screaming about our own nomination.

But then we immediately went into talking about how fantastic it was that “Kon-Tiki” got nominated, too. For two Scandinavian countries to be in one nomination pool is quite good for us.

SANDBERG: It’s a phenomenon. A small one, but still …

ARCEL: There is also something worth mentioning, which is that me and Espen and Joachim are sort of alike in the way we work. We are very un-Scandinavian. I think they are known in Norway as being the Hollywood guys in Norway, and I am known as the Hollywood guy in Denmark.

We’re both lovers of Hollywood films, and I think it’s fun that we both have these big films at the same time.

SANDBERG: I totally agree. We make movies sort of in the vein of the movies that they used to make here. They’re the kind of movies we grew up with, and we miss.

ARCEL: Some of the other Scandinavian directors are arthouse directors, more inspired by the French [New] Wave and by filmmakers like Godard. Our generation, we are slightly younger, and we are inspired by Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola.

Both of your stories are very dear to the countries you come from: “A Royal Affair” is about Johann Struensee, the German doctor who became the lover of the queen and helped push for human rights in Denmark, and “Kon-Tiki” (pictured below) is the story of a voyage by the legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. Were you thinking of the international audience when you made them, or were you just trying to please your home countries?
SANDBERG: We were thinking about both. We even shot a version in English, which was a demand from the financiers, and we also knew that the story, when it happened, was an international phenomenon. But we of course knew that we had to succeed at home first.

ARCEL: Didn’t it make you go crazy that you actually had to edit two films?

SANDBERG: Yeah, but we did the Norwegian one first. And then we matched the English and then adjusted slightly.

ARCEL: I have to say, we didn’t think about the international stuff, other than we knew that it had to be big in Germany — which was the only country where it totally flopped, by the way. [laughs] It’s a period drama in Danish, and I never thought it would travel outside of Northern Europe.

Was it hard to pull off a period drama on a limited budget?
ARCEL: It was extremely difficult. It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do, and I think I will never do that again. It was $7 million to do the film, and I had to do five or six big scenes a day. So we worked 14, 15, 16 hours a day. And we didn’t focus so much on the surroundings. It’s still a little bit of a chamber piece. 

I have to say, I am even more impressed with the work that the guys did on “Kon-Tiki,” because that looks like a $150 million Hollywood film. I still can’t figure out how you guys are doing that.

SANDBERG: Thank you. We are very proud of the effects work. I don’t think the effects houses made any money on this. I think they thought, like the actors did, ‘This is our chance to show the world what we can do.’ And they did. We sort of promised them that this movie can really break out, so it’s great now that we’ve come so far.

We had to be very well-prepared. We had to storyboard everything and make pre-visualizations of the scenes that had a lot of effects work. We shot digital, so we could shoot more with the actors in a shorter time. And then we were just being very economical about everything. We shot the two versions, the Norwegian version and the English version, in 59 days in six countries. It was very, very hard work, and four of those weeks were open sea.

Casting somebody to play Thor Heyerdahl, a national hero, must have been a big job.
SANDBERG:Yeah, it’s tough on the actor. We knew [Pål Sverre Hagen] from beforehand, because he also plays a smaller part in Max Manus. He’s an amazing actor; he looks the part, but he was actually on his way to study biology when he got accepted to theater school. So I knew he would understand Thor on a deeper level. He is interested in the things that Thor was interested in. We knew very early on that it had to be him, and we cast around him.

ARCEL: I was actually wondering about these specific moments in “Kon-Tiki.” Whenever he gets faced with a real tough challenge, the actor has this little smile on his face, like ‘I can beat this.’ Was that something that Thor Heyerdahl was known for?

SANDBERG: Yes. He put on a smile whenever things got tough.

ARCEL: That was a great touch. You guys must have felt a little bit of the same thing that I did, because as much as Thor is a huge icon in Norway, in Denmark Streunsee is equally known and a very iconic character.

You must have felt the same pressure, that if you fuck this up the whole country’s going to hate you!

SANDBERG: [laughs] Yes.

You’re both living in Los Angeles these days. Are you looking to do Hollywood films?
ARCEL: Absolutely!

SANDBERG: When Joachim and I started out making movies, we were watching American movies. That was what we dreamt of since we were kids. We always wanted to do that. We would love to do a movie here, and preferably a studio movie. We’re getting close. We’ll see how it goes.

ARCEL: I’m getting some very interesting things as well. But I have a process that’s very important to me. I need to develop my own stuff. Otherwise I have a problem steering the ship. So I’m looking for things that I can write — or maybe books, maybe scripts that are not good so I can fix them and rewrite them. So I don’t think I’m going to be directing right now. I might take a year or so and write.

SANDBERG: I was very happy to hear that you and your writing partner also work as scriptwriters. I would love to have you write something…

ARCEL: Oh yeah. Any time. Absolutely.

SANDBERG:  Let’s make a deal here in the room. Anybody have a napkin?

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