The Salvation, in cinemas on Friday 17th April, is a revenge Western starring Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Hannibal) as a peaceful Danish American who finds himself having to avenge the brutal murder of his family.
Director Kristian Levring crafts a dark tale of revenge and redemption and DIY spoke to him about the film and the Nordic sagas that inspired it.
It’s rare for a Western to represent the European immigrants who essentially made the West. Did you do much research into the history of these immigrants?
Actually that’s not something people ask me very much. America is a place, specifically the West, the frontier, is where the Europeans went. I think it was kind of my right to make a film about it because it’s also our story, my story, your story. It’s a fascinating thing I find because when a Danish person would go to America the moment they left the boat they were Americans. Of course they still had Danish roots, or Irish roots or German roots but the moment they left their country they became American because there was no going back. America in a way was able to bring in a lot of people who very quickly became American. I started to read a lot [about the history] and in a lot of these villages and small towns there were many people who didn’t even speak English and you’d find that there wouldn’t be one church, there would be 6 or 7 completely different ones. Catholic, Protestant, Baptist etc. It was multi-cultural but very European. Not multi-cultural in the sense of different races but just different Europeans. You can see that in the house [in the film] I tried to do that in the film, there’s inspiration of different architectures, different clothing at that time.
You also took inspiration from the Nordic sagas as well as the classic Westerns…
I realised that because I loved Westerns for so many years since I was a child. The thing about the sagas is that they’re quite dark and Westerns of the 40s and 50s are not that dark but then something happened. I would say after John Ford made The Searchers which is very dark and then Westerns became dark with Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah etc. You could say Unforgiven is a dark movie. And so Westerns became dark and the sagas also, they’re not romantic at all, they’re very spare and dark. They’re quite simplistic like a Western and they have big themes. You realise that the sagas are like the Westerns moral tales but with a lot of darkness in them, whereas the old fashioned Westerns were moral tales but with more naivety. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the end line: “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend,” that’s a very cynical and actually quite a dark comment on life. I just felt there was some kind of connection with the sagas. They’re something that’s taught in school and I never really understood that there is a relationship between those two things.
You co-wrote the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen and actually the dialogue is quite sparse, it’s mostly visual. What was the reason for that?
That’s the genre. If you take for instance Once Upon A Time In The West, the film is three hours and it numbers 21 pages. It’s not a psychological genre, people don’t talk for long and Anders Thomas and I felt that was a real challenge but a fun challenge. You know when you have to do something that is so different from everything else that you’ve done. To have these scenes where you just have to say things that normally you would say in five lines you have to say in one line and that’s a real challenge.
You’ve cast it extremely well, everyone has very striking looking features…
That’s very important you need people with strong faces.
Did you have people in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
Yes, Mads. Denmark is a tiny country, you’ll find a lot of good actors but you won’t find many actors who have those kinds of Western qualities, Mads has that combination of being known outside of Denmark, he’s handsome but not in a pretty way and I think he’s a sensational actor. He holds it back and keeps it in and for this kind of film that’s very good and he’s very physical. His approach to acting is very physical, he rides, he moves. He was a dancer, a lot of his approach is very physical and that’s important when you do Westerns. He’s a very nice person.
Why did you choose to film in South Africa?
There’s a lot of films being shot in South Africa. Of course initially we wanted to shoot it in America but it’s a very expensive place to work. So we had to find a place that had the kind of landscapes that I wanted but also the kind of landscapes that would be believable as America but also a place where you have a film industry and South Africa has that. When you shoot a film like that you can’t go just anywhere, you need a place that has horses that are prepared to make film, riders, stunt people, all these things. So you need a place that has a film industry and in South Africa they do 10-15 American films a year. They also do quite a lot of American television. It means that they have all the cameras, all the gear. They have very sophisticated equipment and all the things that you need when you make this kind of film.
The Salvation is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th April.