Mads Mikkelsen, star of new cowboy bloodbath The Salvation, kicks off our celebration of modern westerns
What happens to the western when a director from the Danish realist Dogme 95 movement takes on the genre? The answer: surprisingly little. Kristian Levring has set aside several of the group’s rules (‘no superficial action’ and ‘genre movies are not acceptable’ being the most notable) to create a western so traditional it wears spurs to bed.
Levring’s tale of a Danish immigrant (Mads Mikkelsen), who has waited years for his wife and son to join him in the US, only for both to be slaughtered by members of the not-so-friendly local land baron’s gang, has all the hallmarks of the great westerns of the past: revenge, guns, lawlessness, more revenge. Here, Mikkelsen holds forth on Danish melancholia and zebras in the Wild West.
The Salvation is more traditional than you’d expect from Levring…
I think it is. I think it is very much a traditional western. Kristian was eager to pay respect to all the films he loved and at the same time bring his story to the table, but he was not trying to invent a new genre or reinvent it. His love affair with the old traditions was way too strong and he didn’t want to break that.
It’s a pretty grim film from about 10 minutes in. Nothing new for a Danish production. What’s in the national psyche that allows you to produce such macabre work?
I think there is something in the national psyche, that melancholic approach to life. We have a few bad days where we have some showers and longer winters. So that’s part of the national mood, to a degree. At the same time, we’re also focusing very much on domestic stories because that’s where the big drama lies to us. We don’t have a giant CIA or a giant army. We have crime, but not on that scale, so we tend to focus on the inner life.
What do you think makes a good western?
A good western has to contain a good story like anything else, but I guess it’s been a tradition that there’s revenge most of all. There’s somebody who’s cleaning up. There’s a city or a place where the law is not being upheld, and somebody else has to take the law into his own hands.
How does your character compare to the traditional Clint Eastwood or John Wayne-style cowboy?
This dude is doing it out of necessity, he has no choice. Everything has been taken away from him. He’s not coming with the background story of being the hurt lonely rider who’s already looking for vengeance in general and helping out some poor people in the city. This is his place. This is his life. There is actually quite a big difference.
He does have, to paraphrase Taken, a particular set of skills that help.
Yes, he has tons of skills. He’s a hunter, so he knows how to shoot and he has been a soldier as well. How many people he killed in that war, we don’t know, but being a soldier means that you have to have certain skills, of course.
So what kind of cowboy were you when you were a kid?
I was never a cowboy. I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies in politically correct Europe. If we were cowboys we were evil, so we all wanted to be [Native Americans]. It meant we could actually shoot an arrow and hit each other with it, but we couldn’t really shoot a bullet.
So who did you get to be the cowboys?
The guy who had the whole cowboy outfit. We would just basically slaughter him. That’s how I remember it.
You filmed in South Africa. Did you have to try harder mentally to feel like it was the Wild West?
No, not really. The only thing that we, once in a while, had to keep an eye on was that instead of having a horse in the background, sometimes it would be a zebra.
So you were riding horses? You didn’t just paint a zebra and jump on?
No, I was riding horses! I had the coolest and easiest horse ever, but unfortunately I only rode a couple of times. I wanted to buy that horse, it was beautiful.
Do you remember its name?
No, I can’t remember its name. That’s how unfaithful I am to what I’m saying. I want to buy something and I don’t know what it’s called.
Are you pretty handy with a gun now?
Yeah, I think so. Not necessarily with an old western weapon. Every time there’s a gun on the set of a film, it can be a contemporary gun or an old gun, everybody goes, “Hey, let me have a go.” I think it’s always been a boyish thing. I’ve shot quite a few handguns in my life.
Did you have to do any quick-draw practice?
I didn’t have to, but you can imagine what was happening during the breaks in filming. We were standing there and everybody was drawing guns nonstop. And I’ve got to say, I’m pretty fast.
The fastest draw in Denmark…
I think I was, yeah.
The Salvation is released in selected cinemas from 17 April