If you haven’t had a chance to see KON-TIKI, I suggest you head out to wherever you grab your home entertainment from and secure yourself a copy. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year, KON-TIKI dramatizes the tale of adventurer Thor Heyerdahl who led an expedition in 1947 to prove that Polynesia was settled by travelers who originated in Peru, contrary to popular belief. In order to dispel any opposition to his theory, Heyerdahl fashioned together a balsawood raft and drifted 5,000 miles with a small crew from Peu to Polynesia, using the same techniques that would have been available 1,500 years ago by those indigenous people.
Choosing to shoot out on the open waters of the ocean and with a budget of about $15 million American, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg turned out an incredibly polished, exciting adventure film that is every bit as incredible to look at as some of the big budget fare we’ve seen take place out on the high seas. It’s fun, it’s thrilling and it’s easy to see why it was worthy of such high praise from the Academy and everyone else who enjoyed it during its theatrical run. Now hitting Blu-ray, you have a chance to catch up on a superb film that you may have missed last year, and , just in time for the home release, I had the chance to hop on the phone with KON-TIKI’s directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg to talk about their approach to making such a challenging film with such limited resources. Oh, and being lined up to direct PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5 for a 2015 release date, you know I tried to see what information they might have been generous with regarding the future of the franchise on that particular day. Enjoy.
Joachim Rønning – Hello.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd – How are you?
Joachim Rønning – Very good… thank you.
The Kidd – Good to talk to you today.
Joachim Rønning – Good to talk to you.
The Kidd – Let me start off by asking you about your process for shooting KON-TIKI. You’re shooting this thing on budget of about 15 and a half million dollars US. You’re shooting it out on the open waters of the ocean, rather than on a set or in a tank. It’s very difficult what’s comprised of special effects or not, and then you still manage to turn out this incredibly polished adventure film. What is the secret that you have figured out as far as doing this right that the rest of Hollywood can’t seem to get when it comes to making films like this without bloated budgets and the like?
Joachim Rønning – Well we don’t have a choice! [Laugh] It’s that easy! The budget, the 15 million dollar budget, that’s… to put it in perspective, that’s the biggest ever coming out of Scandinavia. I think that it’s one of our strengths, to put it all up on screen and then some. Going into making KON-TIKI, we were very inspired by the movies of David Lean and early Spielberg and stuff like that, and making it epic somehow. That’s not necessarily the most expensive shots. The big shots, the helicopter shots. That’s like a half a day of helicopter and you’ve got them. So it’s really… It’s know how to spend the money and I think you have to learn that as a Scandinavian director. As a Norwegian film director you really have to be on top of the budget because you don’t have money, basically.
The Kidd – Well do you find then that, when you’re working with a more limited budget, that, as you said, you’re kind of forced to make the money work. You’re forced to do things creatively that if you had these bigger budgets… Sometimes that money seems to get wasted. Is it more of a… not necessarily guerilla filmmaking, but that you really need to have everything mapped and planned out to make sure that you execute as well as possible?
Joachim Rønning – Yes.
Espen Sandberg – Yes, we always talk everything through. So we’re very well prepared. So we know what we’re gonna do and how we’re gonna do it.
The Kidd – I had seen it previously and then I revisited it on Blu-ray literally this morning when I was prepping for us to talk, and I was really just taken aback about how clean a lot of it looks. You hear all these horror stories of people trying to shoot out in the water and sometimes you don’t get as crisp an image or as good of an action-type shot, and here I found that everything was very much on point, which was much more clear the second time around than when I had seen it the first time.
Espen Sandberg – Yeah, again, I think we’re very well prepared. It’s like Joachim said. We have such a limited amount of money that we have to be smart about it. That process starts very early on with the script. We can’t allow any fat to be there. We have to trim it down and make it lean and make it effective. I guess everybody tries to do that, but of course when you have no money, you’re forced to go a few extra rounds, and that can help.
The Kidd – One of the other things that really struck me, too, was rather than spectacle, there’s a lot of use of tension, and building to these very tense moments in order to create real stakes for these characters. Especially if you’re not familiar with the story, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how this is going to turn out. Whether or not they are all going to make it. Whether or not any of them are going to make it! So when you’re going through the script, how do you make sure to balance it out so that you’re building to these tense moments in order to draw the audience into these characters and the adventure that they’re going on.
Espen Sandberg – Well we worked a lot on the script. We worked on the script for many years. We also worked very closely with the actors. A lot of it has to do with… Actually we worked a lot with the actors to take away dialogue. So every night we went through the scenes and we tried to strip it bare, basically, leaving what we felt was sort of the essence. It was partly because they talked less and less when they’re on the raft, but also to tell the story in pictures, and to get more tension out of the scenes. And the actors love it too, because it means they do more acting, and less just talking. So that’s at least one of the things. Also we wanted it to feel sort of claustrophobic. It’s a small stage. It is really a stage play, and we knew that the relations were important. That’s how we make the connection and we worked very hard on that because when we read about Thor and some of the movies, that it was hard to connect with him in a way, because he’s so strong willed, and he doesn’t bend. So we really worked on all the characters to make sure that there were several ways of accessing the story and the characters.
The Kidd – Well let me ask you a little bit about Thor, because the thing that struck me, as the story continues to play out, is that this expedition is really a borderline obsession for him, that he sacrifices so much with this unwavering belief to kind of prove that he’s right no matter what the cost is. So when you’re working with a character like that that’s extremely complex and you’re talking about stripping it down, what kind of collaboration is it then, with your actors to make sure that you kind of really flush this character out so that we can identify with what it is he’s trying to get to?
Espen Sandberg – We feel very close to Thor in many ways. Not all ways. We also, because we were working on this project… it was too expensive. We spent many years just getting the money. We really… started to feel like we were on the same path as he was. We had spent so much time that we couldn’t just give up. We couldn’t let it go. We couldn’t not succeed. We had to make it. And also we felt from a very early age that we wanted to become directors and we had told so many people that we were going to be directors, so it was like we had… It’s something about your identity being part of the project. That raises the stakes a lot. I think actors can also relate to that, that you feel like you have to succeed at a certain level.
The Kidd – One of the other things is that there’s a great deal of spirituality and religious allegory to Thor’s adventure that really didn’t strike me until way later in the film, which is this idea that everything will be okay if you believe it will be, as well as the faith in his theory being this one absolute truth. So what is your approach to tackling these complex themes without being so heavy handed where then it feels dumbed down for the audience?
Espen Sandberg – Well we wanted it to be appealing. It’s sort of interesting because it was a big part of Thor’s journey. Thor wrestling with himself. His father was a religious man, he was a Christian, and his mother was not. She was all about science and didn’t believe in spirituality at all, and Thor was sort of exploring both, and ended up with this sort of faith-based belief… in a way. That started him. I think he found that, also, in these ancient cultures. I didn’t want to spell that out, we just wanted it to be appealing. We like telling our stories with pictures. We’re really all about that. I hope we got that balance right.
The Kidd – When you’re dealing with the character of Herman, too, it’s this near-death experience that he goes through with the sharks that seems to be the first time that Thor realizes the seriousness of this journey. That it’s not just this carefree fun journey to prove a theory. There are actually lives at stake here. A lot of that goes toward the character and building these likable characters around him as well. Once again, when you’re going into a production like this with the character, can you talk a little bit about the character transformation throughout the script and making that apparent on-screen where you can see it both with the pictures as well as with their actions.
Espen Sandberg – Yeah, when it comes to Herman, I think it was two things. I think Thor definitely felt the seriousness, but he also felt really close to failing. Because if Herman had died when he fell off the raft, that would be the story. So it was a dual thing there. We found Thor’s character, on paper, to be hard to relate to, because he is so strong-willed from the beginning. He has his theory and he does go after it. So we were afraid that the audience wouldn’t like him, wouldn’t find a connection. So what we did is that we gave him a lot of obstacles. You like a character that tries. As long as he doesn’t give up, that’s the most important thing. Also to make sure that we could put some doubt into this, and ask the questions that we would ask as modern viewers, in a way, we changed the character of Herman a little bit from real-life. He was also a firm believer, but we made him ask the questions that we wanted to ask Thor. So in a way, Herman takes over the emotional arc there for a little while. We did that because it was so hard to do with with Thor without… We wanted to stay true to how THor was in real life. So we created Herman a little differently than he is in real life.
The Kidd – You’re linked and attached to the future of THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series and with the 2015 release date already announced, I was curious as to what the state of the script was, and kind of a time table for heading into production in order to make that release date.
Espen Sandberg – Yeah. We’re in great shape with the script. It’s really, really good. It’s Jeff Nathanson’s. It’s very funny, and it’s also a very touching script, actually. So we’re very happy with the collaboration we have with him and with Bruckheimer and Disney, and we’re planning now that we’ll begin to shoot at the beginning of next year. We’re already a few months into pre-production.
The Kidd – Is there a name for it other than PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5 at this point?
Joachim Rønning – Yeah. DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.
The Kidd – Oh, okay! Is it going to link back to the other films as well or is this going to be its own adventure?
Espen Sandberg – Both! [Laughs]
Joachim Rønning – We can’t really go into that. I think what we can say is that we’re very much inspired by the first film and the purity of that.
The Kidd – Alright, guys. Thank you very much, I really enjoyed the film very much. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I look forward to seeing what you take is on the PIRATES material.
Joachim Rønning – Great, thank you so much.