INTERVIEW: ‘Arctic’ Director Joe Penna Talks Working With Mads Mikkelsen And The Challenges Of Shooting In The Arctic
Surviving against the harshest conditions seems impossible, yet protagonist Overgard has an inner strength, courage and kindness that compels him to battle through everything to save another soul. Joe Penna’s directorial debut comes in the form of survival movie Arctic, starring the incredible Mads Mikkelsen. Focusing on the power of humanity with a bleak yet heartwarming plot, this film really offers something for everyone. I spoke to Penna about the themes exhibited in his latest film, Mads Mikkelsen’s dedication to the film and what’s coming next.
Arctic gives the audience a real look at humanity and makes us reflect on our own character. What was your inspiration behind creating a film that had this effect?
I see it as a film that’s very positive and happy, but people have said this is so bleak. Which I get. But the main idea was to really show that there is an endurance of the human spirit, even in very bleak situations. That we can continue and go further than ever thought, especially if we have someone that we care for. I wanted to end the idea that to do something like he does in the film you have to be redeeming yourself for your past or you need to truly love the person you’re helping out. He doesn’t know her name, he doesn’t know her language, he doesn’t know who she works for. That was the idea; to show something different and I hadn’t seen that in a film before.
You mentioned how Overgard is a sketch of a character, which obviously means the viewer can only experience his situation through the current moment and without judgement based on the past. Were you ever worried that audiences would feel a lack of connection with his character?
Yeah absolutely. I had written an entire back up plan with little snippets of his past, snippets of his life but I never wanted to shoot them. I had done a little abort button that was like if I need to this I can do it in a way where he has some sort of, not quite a volleyball, but a way he speaks out loud a lot. I saw that Castaway had the same thing, and I read the script for Castaway in preparation for this. They had written a lot of dialogue that was just Hanks speaking to himself and they’d established that back when he is home he is speaking to himself because he’s just that kind of guy. They didn’t need it and we didn’t need it, and I felt like it was fine without it.
I completely agree and felt like without the dialogue I found myself more immersed in the film. Were there any particular emotions that you were trying to evoke through the lack of speech?
It’s a way for you to lean in as an audience member and it’s a way for you to kind of participate in the storytelling. A movie like this will become very boring very quickly if I’m telling you his name is Overgard, he has two kids, he fought with his dad before he flew, he went drinking and he shouldn’t have gone drinking because that’s why he crashed the plane, and now he’s trying to redeem himself by saving this lady. Maybe that’s the story, but then that’s the story and especially if you’re watching something that is so open, you get to put yourself in those shoes. Otherwise, you say you don’t have a dad or two kids – whereas I can picture myself in that character’s shoes as much as my sister or just as much as someone I don’t know. For me, it’s more interesting that way.
Mads Mikkelsen gives an incredible performance in Arctic, as he does in everything he’s in. Did you always know you wanted to cast him in the film?
No. I thought it would be incredibly presumptuous of me to think that I could get Mads for my very first movie. I thought that we were going to film with an actor friend of mine or get a TV actor. For a little while, we were trying to get someone that hadn’t done anything like this but was a bigger name, because it’s still a $2 million movie. It’s hard for a financier to say sure cast your mum. She would have done a great job I’m sure, but it’s hard for a financier… We decided to go for it and we knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Mads, and it’s a very short screenplay so it wasn’t too hard to get somebody to read it. He did and there we go, he loved it.
How was working with Mads Mikkelsen? It sounded like he was very dedicated to the role, with moments where he was walking over the ice for long periods of time and helping the rest of the crew with their bags.
He’s just such a gracious actor. He was playing against somebody that on surface level is quote-on-quote playing dead, and he was there for every scene of hers, every close up of hers. He was also carrying gear when he had already just trudged about 30 minutes and back. When everyone was sitting there he was saying we have 5 minutes and just helping on set. He knew so much about the script – I would say alright moving on and he would tell me we were missing a shot and missing this too and I would tell him I know Mads, but I’m going to get it later. So yeah, he kept me on my toes as a filmmaker – so he spoilt me really.
One particular scene really stood out to me – when Overgard is confronted by the polar bear whilst inside the sleeping den he’s made. I loved how realistic it felt and that Overgard was terrified, rather than trying to be a hero. What was behind your decision to go down the route of terror than portraying a hero like most films aim to do?
I just pictured myself in that situation and I was in that situation during the shoot because I’m actually the guy who is wearing the parka! We shot that months and months later. Even though it’s a trained polar bear, I was terrified. I just pictured myself literally if a polar bear poked its head into a tiny place where I cannot go back, I’m not going to like *gun noises* and then wear its skin. It’s not what I’m going to do, I’m going to be terrified, I’m going to be as far back as I possibly can and maybe I’ll throw some snowballs at it or something. With everything, we tried to be as realistic as possible and as soon as I heard that flares really scare polar bears, I spoke with a person who is an expert, and I decided to give Overgard two flares. I knew I would include something where he has to use a flare so he has just one, not where he just finds one flare in the helicopter, which is how it was before. A lot of it was influenced by speaking to people who are smarter than I am about this topic and these kinds of things, asking if I tweak my story in this way it’ll be a little more realistic. I think that people don’t know that it’s more realistic but they can feel it, and they can say it seems like a lot of research has been done for this, otherwise people will say things seem to be a little fishy.
Of course, and I think that’s one of the things I like the most about Arctic is that it’s realistic. When you watch many films they feel very over the top and to me, I felt that it was very realistic. I guess that was what you intended for the film to be.
Absolutely. It’s something where I often watch films and I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none trades, so I read about different things but have never mastered any of them. I read a lot because I feel taking inspiration from aspects other than filmmaking is really important. Even with my really cursory knowledge of a bunch of little subjects, I get bugged when they’re like this quantum tunneling is going to take us into this place, and I’m thinking what are you saying, that doesn’t make sense. Do something real. For example, for my next film, it’s set in space and I have 35 different people who are algae and construction experts who are telling me what doesn’t work, and saying you would close your eyes otherwise you get sick and little details like that.
Filming in the arctic must have been very challenging. What was the toughest aspect that you had to combat during the shoot?
I thought it was going to be the cold and the snow, as a Brazilian guy that’s what I thought, but it was the wind. The wind was the worst possible thing. Trying to shoot a movie like this in 19 days and you literally cannot shoot because your actor can’t stand up straight, and it’s not supposed to be a super windy scene that you’re shooting. When little bits of ice are being picked up and thrust into your face, and everyone had red marks around their goggles all the time, and poor Mads would have to keep his hands on his face because we’re paying for his face so he can’t be given goggles. So it was by far the hardest aspect of the shoot. That and the schedule. Shooting this film was spent the majority of the time just trudging to locations. Once there you shoot one take and then you have to move down a little bit because of the marks in the snow, and you move down and down and down. If you put a foreground element in, it’s got to be a fake rock that you can move or a rock that’s light enough that you can move. Yeah, it’s very difficult.
It’s quite an ambiguous film in terms of interpreting it in a personal way, but when people watch Arctic, what’s the most important thing you want them to take away with them?
Often people come up to me and say I would have given up there or I would have just stayed at the camp or I wouldn’t have done the trek, no way I’m not strong enough for that. Or I would have left her at the hill when he couldn’t get her up. I spoke to a lot of people about incidents like this – I spoke to this one guy who had jumped into a subway track to save another person, even though there was a train coming, he just jumped in. He broke his leg trying to get the guy out but he pushed him and saved him and then went and saved himself. I asked him if I had asked him before if he would have jumped in and he said absolutely note but he just blanked out and did it. The most important thing that I want to get across is that Mads’ character Overgard is someone that was so adamant that he had his little house and home, and that’s how he’d been surviving. He’s not the kind of guy that would have gone on a trek for a random person, but he did. Maybe we’re like that too – me and you. I might think to myself that I wouldn’t survive that but we are stronger than we think we are.
It definitely got me into a headspace thinking about courage and strength. And when you were filming were there any other directors or any other movies that you took inspiration from?
I watched every single survival movie that I could, and ones that I specifically took reference were: one movie called the Red Turtle that I saw, and I really love how they did the silent storytelling in there. There the classics, even ones that weren’t about survival such as Bresson’s A Man Escaped. That was a film that I saw, again and again, to prepare for this. Castaway, 127 Hours, The Grey, The Shallow and all of the ones that I could find. All the movies that were all in vain of one person surviving. So I watched as much as I could.
I’m really looking forward to seeing more films from you. Are you currently working on anything else?
I just premiered a series at Tribeca called Release. Now that’s out I can talk about that which I haven’t yet! It’s about six different stories within a city that have to deal with an airborne infection, and every episode divulges more about the world but follows different characters. A bit of an anthology in a way. Later today I’m flying to open up the Fant Bilbao Fantastic Film Festival and then I’m heading to Germany to film my next film. At the moment it’s called Stowaway but it needs a new name as there is a film being released a month earlier with the same name. It stars Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette and two other people who I can’t talk about yet. It all takes place inside of a spaceship headed to Mars and has similar themes, as it’s a thematic sequel to Arctic.
Signature Entertainment presents Arctic in Cinemas and on Digital HD 10th May 2019
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