After winning an Oscar for his 1998 short film Election Night, Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen moved into feature filmmaking with his debut, 2000’s Flickering Lights. That action comedy starred a young Mads Mikkelsen, setting in motion a collaboration that would still be going strong 20 years later.
From The Green Butchers to Men & Chicken, Mikkelsen has acted in every single one of Jensen’s films, including his latest, Riders of Justice. Their new film tells the story of Markus (Mikkelsen), a soldier who is sent home when his wife dies in a tragic train accident, leaving him alone to care for their teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Godeberg). While Markus has accepted his wife’s death as a random twist of fate, three men led by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kass), another passenger on that train, arrive to inform Markus that his wife’s death was actually part of a plot orchestrated by a local gang.
This reveal sets in motion Markus’ mission to take out the gang one by one, fueling the narrative thrust of Riders of Justice. While this propulsive story would be enough to sustain a movie on its own terms, Jensen fills the feature with existential musings on the meaning of life and an abundance of absurdist humor that fits in step with the films he and Mikkelsen have made up until this point. It’s a tonal balance that has drawn comparisons to the work of directors like the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino.
We recently sat down with Jensen and Mikkelsen (a second time for Mikkelsen, after Joey interviewed him here for Another Round) to speak about their latest film, and the way that their collaboration has evolved over the years of working together.
See our interview with Anders Thomas Jensen and Mads Mikkelsen below:
Mitchell Beaupre: To start off, I want to congratulate you Mads on the Oscar win for Another Round.
Mads Mikkelsen: Thank you.
MB: Anders Thomas, did you feel a sense of Danish pride seeing your fellow countrymen win the Oscars, 20 years after you won your own?
Anders Thomas Jensen: Oh, of course. You’re always happy to see that, especially when it’s your friends. We were very happy and proud.
MB: The two of you have been working together for 20 years now, making all five of Anders Thomas’ features together. How has your collaboration changed over the years? Or has it changed at all?
ATJ: I think it’s actually pretty much the same. We drink less than we used to. We fight less. Professionally it’s evolved, but it’s still the same thing, the same method we use, I would say.
MM: The first one you did was this shaky kind of camerawork which we hadn’t seen back home before, and then after that we took a giant step together doing a film called Green Butchers. That film could have been a creative suicide for all of us, but I think that was a step that made me feel like this partnership could really go anywhere now. It’s interesting to take those kinds of steps with old friends. It allows you to dare to do it, because I don’t think you could do it with anyone else.
MB: Riders of Justice is interesting in that it maintains the absurdist humor that you’ve had in all of your films, but it also pushes into another direction as well. It’s more existential than your previous films, it’s got darker themes, heavier emotions. Could you talk about navigating that balance between the tones in the film?
ATJ: We’ve had the existentialism to a degree before, but you’re right that in this one it’s more of a crossbreed of genres. There’s a naturalistic melodrama mashed together with the kind of movie that we’ve done before. That was a challenge, of course, and it was the thing that I think we worked on the most. In the readings, in the rewrites, during the shoot, and especially the editing room, we were constantly working to find that right balance. There’s not much to say about it though because a lot of it comes down to just a gut feeling that we all share.
MM: I think that one of the key ideas there is that in the absurd world it’s always based in something naturalistic in your films, in the sense that we’re trying to go for straightforward clean emotions, and we try to make it as honest as possible. Then in the realistic world there is always something quite absurd about it as well, so those two can cross somehow if we find the right bridge.
MB: Mads, you’re usually playing really exaggerated comedic characters in Anders Thomas’ films, and this is the first time you’re in the role of the straight man. How did that change the experience for you?
MM: You know, that’s how we did the movie so you just want to wear that hat, but sometimes I was a little frustrated. Usually on set I am the most theatrical and insane person in the film, and I could get a little jealous on certain days, but I always had something up my sleeve so I just had to wait for my turn.
MB: You’re at this point in your career where you’re essentially in every single Hollywood franchise imaginable —
MM: (laughs) Right.
MB: For a lot of non-American actors once they get established in Hollywood they tend to stay there, but you’ve really oscillated back and forth between the big blockbuster movies and these character-driven independent Danish pictures. Could you speak about the difference between working in those two milieus, and that strategy of bouncing between them?
MM: It would be a lie to say that those two worlds aren’t different, but for me I do try to come at them from the same place. As an actor I have to understand the framework of every film, even if I am fighting giant scorpions and wizards. I have to understand that framework and be contributing as much and as honest as I can within that world. In Anders Thomas’ films I still have to understand that world, and be able to benefit it. If it’s a straightforward drama, though, I can call Anders Thomas in the middle of the night with an idea, or I can be frustrated and say that we should be aware of certain things and we can adjust accordingly. I cannot do that on a big budget film, of course. There is that difference, but I try to go in there still and take these large scale films and make them as small as possible. I try to make it a little intimate scene between four people, and then I have to go and fight the scorpions.
MB: Anders Thomas, I’d love to speak with you about where the genesis of the film came from. You’ve got these two opposing views of the world going on – one in Markus, who thinks that everything is random and nothing has meaning, and the other in Otto, who believes everything is connected. What was your motivation in wanting to tackle those opposing ideologies with this film?
ATJ: We all fight those questions, especially when you’re down. You try to see connections. Those connections, call it faith or whatever you want, is what gives life a purpose. If you can see them it gives you a reason to live, and if you lose those connections and decide there are none and everything is just randomness then you question why you should even be here. The funny thing is that it tends to become very banal when you discuss these questions, but we all have them. Ultimately, the movie came from the idea of a man fighting his way back to life, and what tools you can try to use during a depression, or PTSD as he is suffering from. You can choose religion, you can choose alcohol like they do in Another Round – there’s a lot of places that you can go, and Markus chooses the wrong path—
MM: Well, he got rid of those bikers. That’s not too bad.
ATJ: He got rid of those bikers, that’s great, but in the end, as the film suggests, the best shot at a meaning of life that I can come up with is surrounding yourself with people you love. I think eventually people will end up there, and I think if you try to look for more than that you might be disappointed.
MB: The film is ultimately rooted in those connections and bonding together. How much of the film was about the relationship between Markus and his daughter Mathilde, having that serve as sort of the crux of the film and his journey, charting where he starts to where he ends?
ATJ: Mads might disagree because he builds the character elsewhere, but for me his whole character lives in the scenes with his daughter. His whole way of looking at life, his denial, his inability to reach out in those scenes were the favorite scenes of mine, and seeing that arc.
MM: I don’t agree. I think there is a part of it which is important that the daughter is not a part of, which is that this is a man whose hands are tied. There’s nothing he can do. He can find no answer of what happened, why it happened, and when these three geeks turn up and tell him that there might be a reason, all of a sudden he can do what he’s best at. He can hit something. So he does, and that turns out to not be the best solution, but it is a solution.
Riders of Justice will be released in LA & NY theaters on May 14th, and in theaters everywhere and on VOD on May 21st
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]