Director Kristian Levring talks westerns ahead of the release of The Salvation starring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green.
Were you a fan of westerns growing up and what is it about the genre you love?
Yes, my love of westerns came from my childhood. In Denmark where we grew up, we only had one television channel so my first encounter with films was westerns, and of course at that age the first movies you watch stays very strongly with you. I think every person is attracted to different things, but I think there was something in westerns, a combination of these landscapes but also a certain simplicity in the tales that attracted me. Westerns are moral tales, and the morals are quite easily accessible. I’ve made films which were much more psychological, yet westerns are not deeply psychological at all, they’re more mythical and more simplified and I think that I find that very attractive to work with, or fun, or fresh, you know, or different to what I’ve done before. At the same time I felt like it was a genre that, because I’ve seen so many westerns in my childhood and as a teenager so I knew the genre very well, so it was almost like coming home. Also the fact that westerns have very little dialogue to tell your stories, so you have to be very condensed and direct and that’s a challenge that I’ve found fun to deal with.
How did you and Anders Thomas Jensen go about creating the story and writing the script?
We wrote 4 drafts, and no major changes were made, just normal sort of aspects that you add and remove to better the story. But the main character, Jon coming to the station to pick up his family and the horrible thing that happens in the stagecoach which sets off the events of the film, that was always there. The film is about revenge and the consequences of revenge, which is a very kind of classic western theme, and I wanted very much to do a classic western, the kind of western I loved when I was a kid but of course with a modern intake.
Being in a western seems to be something of a childhood dream for a lot of people. What was the atmosphere like on set?
There was a lot of interest from actors when we announced that we were doing a western and although we wrote the part for Mads, he had wanted to do a western for a while. So there was a lot of childish enjoyment, you know, horses, belts, boots, guns, everyone starts walking in a kind of different way, sometimes I couldn’t stop laughing. It was a lot of fun and because the story of course is quite dramatic and quite dark and I think when you make something that has a darker side to it, it’s quite important that you have a lighter spirit on set because everything can get, you know, so heavy. It was a very fun and unproblematic shoot actually and it could have been, of course we had problems like you have on all films, but in general it was very uncomplicated.
So westerns for a long time were considered a dead genre. What do you think has contributed to their resurgence?
But is it really a resurgence? In the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s I think half of American films were westerns, and then something happened and they were largely gone. I see westerns as a someone gravely ill getting visited by different doctors every now and again who pump a bit of life into their veins, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I’m not sure it’s really alive in the same sense as the old days of Hollywood because, say Warner Brothers would have their western town in the middle of the studio, and so would all the big studios, and there would be horses everywhere and in that sense it’s not really like that anymore. A lot of fans still remain though, of course doing this film you meet a lot of people who go ‘oh I love westerns,’ so they are happy that the genre still comes up now and then but it’s more like a sporadic genre nowadays. If we compare it to gangster films, which was the other genre of those times, you can see how and why that genre is still going strong. I think it probably has to do with the notion of the old west, the problems of that era seem quite far removed now, whilst we still have gangsters and mobs and crime present in society today so the interest is still there. I think it has to do with something like that.
So some of the greatest westerns ever made were created by European directors, and some from even further afield. Why do you think these directors have done so well in tackling the western genre?
I think there are many different answers for this. I think if you take the best example, which for me is probably Sergio Leone, he loved westerns but his earlier work were not great films about Greek Gods. But, you know, he found westerns and the genre was also very much myth and Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, they are all almost like gods in these films – the golden cardinal, the women bringing the water – it’s very mythical so I think he was attracted to that side of it, the epic storytelling. I think the other element, which was very much my way in to it, was that the ‘old west’ was actually where all the European immigrants went, the Poles, the Irish, the Germans, so actually the story of the west is very much also the story of Europe. That was my way to say I have a right to do a film about the west because it’s also my story, it’s a story of Denmark.
The Salvation comes to cinemas April 17