Danish writer/director Ole Bornedal (pictured) has been working for the last four and a half years on the war epic drama and love story 1864, set against the backdrop of the Schleswig-Holstein War that had a decisive influence on the Danish nation. The most expensive Danish TV series ever was produced by Miso Film in association with DR, among others and support from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. We spoke to him this week in advance of the first of eight episodes premiereing this Sunday on DR1’s prime time 20.00 slot.

How did the books by Tom Buk-Swienty ‘Slaughter Bench Dybbøl’ and ‘Doomsday Als’ that inspired the film first land in your hands? Was it your idea to bring to the screen the tragic historical events of Denmark’s defeat to the Prussians in 1864?
Ole Bornedal: Back in 2010, I was working in Paris when I received a call from Ingolf Gabold [former Head of Drama at DR] who asked if I’d be interesting in doing a film about 1864. The idea of making a film about one of the biggest tragedies in Danish history had already crossed my mind, but I had thrown it out because it felt impossible to put it together budget-wise. Ingolf invited me to dig into the project again and told me about Tom Buk-Swienty’s books. I read them and knew I couldn’t do a straight screen adaptation as the books are more like documentaries. But there was so much interesting material there and eventually I kept it as inspiration and source material. That was four and a half years ago.

When 1864 received the extraordinary DKK100 million backing from the Danish government, via DR, you had already been working on the script for a year. Getting such a big lump of money from the state must have been a double edge sword - a great present to lift the project to a totally different level, but at the same time a weight to carry with the pressure to deliver …
OB: I have worked with big budgets before and that doesn’t pressure me at all. Some films need more financing than others. You just work on the movie and make the best out of it.

The Danish government put DKK100 million aside to support a major historical drama on DR. We had to bid for the pot of money with other competitors. The greenlight for the project came in very late in the process. I wasn’t sure the project would actually happen. Therefore I went to the US and directed The Possession in between. It’s only at the end of 2012 that 1864 was greenlit. 

Did you have any interference on the making of 1864, considering the subject matter and DKK 173 million at stake?
No there was absolutely no interference. Of course, I had constant discussions with the producers from Miso Film and people at DR, but they said: ‘Ole this is your project. Do whatever you think is best.' I don’t think such a free reign given to a director exists anywhere in the world. I appreciate all the trust that people gave me.

How did you use Tom Buk-Swienty’s books as inspiration to then create an epic drama with the historical events as backdrop?
I used the letters from the soldiers to their families and girlfriends because they inspired me. Tom Buk-Swienty also told me that I could double check with him while I was writing a scene about particular political events or strategy, not to be too far off from the historical facts. 

However I knew that the film shouldn’t be only about politics. I wanted to tell the story seen through the eyes of ordinary men and soldiers, the guys in the trenches and in the mud. So I created a family saga, a triangle love story between two brothers and a woman. I invented a gallery of loveable characters that all become victims of these events. Then as the writing evolved, the main themes that emerged became the loss of time, the loss of life. If there is any message in 1864 it is live your life to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow brings.

Why did you add a contemporary plot to the storytelling?
I felt that 1864 was so far away historically from my generation and of course from today’s younger generation. I needed a link to that period and to those characters to make the story more accessible and relevant to today’s generation.

Regarding the casting, why did you choose relatively unknown actors for the main roles of Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen), Laust (Jakob Oftebro) and their love interest Inge (Marie Tourell Søderberg)?
Yes the film is carried by actors that are almost debutants. Then you have a solid cast of highly talented actors from Denmark, Germany, the UK such as Rainer Bock, James Fox, Pilou Asbæk, Nicolas Bro, Lars Mikkelsen, Søren Malling, Sidse Babette Knudsen etc. I just cast the actors in the parts that were best for each one of them.

What were the biggest challenges when filming 1864?
The hardest was doing the battle scenes. I don’t think any director really enjoys this because it’s about thousands of extras running back and forth. There isn’t much psychology in filming 12,000 Prussians attacking 4,000 Danes. But you have to do it over and over again. It was also difficult because of the heat wave. 

Were you pleased with your shooting experience in the Czech Republic?
It was imperative for us to do it there because we had to build up the whole of Dybbøl again. It would have been too costly to build it in Denmark. Then the Czechs are very skilled in major historical films. They have fantastic grips, gaffers etc. They were extremely helpful. 

As a filmmaker and a person, what did this whole experience bring to you? It’s a once in a life-time opportunity….
OB: I’m very grateful. I spent two years writing 400 pages of film script. I was allowed to do it as I pleased. I participated in every single part of the filmmaking process, including editing, CGI, sound mix. If there is any problem with 1864, I won’t be able to blame producers or anybody else but myself. 

What’s next for you? Would you be tempted to work again with Peter Bose and Jonas Allen from Miso Film as you had such a great collaboration?
Yes definitely. But right now I have an offer to direct another TV series for a US network. Working for television has become very hot and it’s a wonderful medium. You get time to develop your characters and to create a whole universe. All of a sudden making features seems restrictive. 

Will you continue to split your time between the US and Scandinavia?
It’s such a strong pull on your family when you have to go abroad. I hope to work more in Europe and less in the US in the future.