We talk to Kristian Levring, director of The Salvation, about his strange new take on the Western genre.

With its frontier setting, gun-slinging villains and bloody revenge narrative, The Salvation looks like a conventional Western. But although it’s steeped in the Hollywood tradition of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it’s actually the work of Danish director Kristian Levring, a filmmaker more known for art-house movies such as The King is Alive and The Intended. We sat down with Kristian to chat about The Salvation, genre cinema and the nature of revenge.

RD: The revenge narrative is a very popular one for a Western, but what made you want to delve into this genre?

KL: Westerns were my first encounter with movies when I was a kid in Denmark. We only had one TV channel, and on Saturday afternoon there would be Westerns. I loved John Ford, Howard Hawks and, later, Sergio Leonie – it was stuff that just stayed with you. So when I had the opportunity to make a Western, the obvious topic was revenge. Of course, it’s something that everyone can relate to because it exists everywhere, admittedly on a much smaller scale than this film. But it’s there in schoolyards and in families, and The Salvation is essentially about the price of revenge – do you want to go down that path, which sometimes has horrific consequences?

RD: Two performances really stood out for me. The first is Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the lead character John. It stuck me that he has a wonderful face for the role: weather beaten and twisted with emotion and pain. Was he always in mind?

KL: Yes, definitely. We always wanted a Dane for the lead, and we wrote the part for Mads. As you say, his face is perfect for the role; he was almost made to be in a Western. He’s a wonderful actor, and very subtle – he can communicate a lot without saying much. He’s also a very physical actor, which you need for Westerns. This is essentially a genre about faces and landscapes.

RD: In terms of minimal dialogue, you take that to extremes with the Eva Green, who plays the widow of the man John kills at the start as part of his revenge. This was the second performance that really stood out, even though she’s completely mute throughout the film. How did she react when you offered her a role with no dialogue?

KL: I think Eva was very attracted to doing a part where she had to leave behind one of her tools. This is a character that wants to speak but can’t – it’s stated near the beginning, before you meet the character, that the Indians have cut out her tongue. Again, that’s very like a John Ford film, going back to The Searchers. But she’s still a very strong person with incredible swagger. We talked about that a lot beforehand and it really interested her.

RD: And, of course, we should mention Eric Cantona, who makes a small appearance. How did he get involved?

KL: Eric is actually someone who acts all the time on the stage and screen – he has quite an impressive body of work. But I wanted a different dynamic, and Eric’s method is completely different from others in the film. I felt that gave it a nice energy.

RD: You’re famous for being one of the main people behind the Dogme95 movement, which was designed to strip away a lot of the artifice from cinema – real locations, no artificial lighting, handheld cameras and so forth. The Salvation wasn’t made in that way, but does the Dogme95 style still influence you?

KL: Well, Westerns were very often shot in Technicolour, so I wanted to create a modern version of this for The Salvation. Of course, this breaks every single Dogme rule! But you learn something with every movie you make, and if you’re denied a number of filmmaking tools, that’s a big learning process.

RD: One recurring theme of your films is how characters react in enclosed settings and under circumstances of extreme pressure. I suppose The Salvation fits into that category as well.

KL: Definitely. You could see the Western frontier as the beginning of civilization, and I’m very interested in the nature of civilization. Often these places are a microscope: you can look at these characters and see how they behave in quite extreme situations. Civilization is quite a thin varnish, and when you take that away it’s interesting to see what happens.

RD: Kristian, thanks very much for talking to me.

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