Talking ‘Kon-Tiki’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 5′ With Directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning
A nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Academy Awards, Kon-Tiki not only roused audiences with its sweeping tale of Thor Heyerdahl’s journey across the Pacific, but earned the kind of widespread acclaim that could make its directors’ careers. But Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning, the team responsible for the adventure, have been working steadily for years around the world, debuting with the feature Bandidas and subsequently helming commercials and another feature, Max Manus, which established their talent and versatility. That their next project is a massive Hollywood blockbuster – the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film – feels like the icing on a cake they started making almost a decade prior.
We caught up with Ronning and Sandberg via telephone earlier this week to discuss the home video release of Kon-Tiki. In addition to talking about the obstacles – and opportunities – in telling Heyerdahl’s tale, the duo discussed their worldwide professional ambitions, and the prospect of rekindling the essential appeal of the original Pirates film as they connect their personal creativity to its fifth installment.
How important was the accuracy of Thor Heyerdahl’s claims as a foundation for the story? Did you look at this as a sort of validation of his theories or as an adventure tale about a man with a vision?
Espen Sandberg: The latter. It was really about a man willing to die and take people with him just to be right. We were very fascinated by that, and also that the ocean was sort of the last frontier. So that was what drew us into this – and the accuracy of the theory, no.
In order to make the movie more dramatically compelling, some changes had to be made. How did you decide what characters and situations to change, and how difficult was it to dramatize them without making them too unbelievable?
Sandberg: Well, it’s a discussion I think everybody has that is making a story based on real life. You have to take certain licenses to make it work as a movie, and of course, different people will make different choices. We felt that it was a challenge to make this story about Thor because he is so strong-willed. He has this theory, and he doesn’t really bend, and we needed somebody on that raft that would question it. And we felt that the most important thing was to stay true to who Thor was, and based on that, we changed the character of Herman, and gave him more doubt than he had in real life. We talked about that very early on, and we also cast and actor that does not look like the real Herman to underline our creative choice. But that is a ting we did to make the story work, basically.
How did that apply to the “action?” I understand that, for example, the bird was swept overboard by the tide as opposed to what happens to it in the film.
Sandberg: The bird is actually interesting, because you’re right – it was washed overboard. It was probably eaten by somebody (laughs). I think we felt we need to show them kill the shark, and in real life they killed a lot of sharks. But to do that today and to justify that, on an emotional level, and we wanted people to feel their frustration, but at the same time we didn’t want the audience to disconnect from them. So we made the shark eat the parrot, because we knew in that way they would emotionally connect with their frustration and their hatred of the sharks. So that’s a way of combining things and adjusting it to fit the feature film format. We’re being truth-ful; the bird did disappear, and they did kill a lot of sharks. So it’s a way of striking a balance.
What challenges did shooting on the open water present? What opportunities did it provide?
Sandberg: It’s always a challenge to shoot in open water and we did study of course other movies that have done things like that, like Jaws for example. I think we were very lucky with the weather; we had a very small crew so we could move the crew around. And what it gives is authenticity, authenticity for the actors to be on a real raft, on the real ocean, to have to sail the raft and steer it as we go. We can feel that. And I think every filmmaker will try to get the right thing if he or she can, but sometimes it gets too expensive. We are lucky now that we can make sharks digitally, because then we were able to go out there and do it. The only thing we couldn’t do on the open ocean was night shooting, and the reason for that was because we were shooting in Malta, and the war in Libya was going on at the same time. We were not allowed to be on the ocean during nighttime, because of refugees – the army sort of needed to control that. And also, the storm sequences, we had to have a high degree of control, basically, so we did that in a tank. So basically we had foru weeks on the open sea and four weeks in a tank, and if we were to do it again, we would probably have another week out on the open sea – because we enjoyed it so much and the actors did. And we feel it in the final movie where we are doing the real thing and whatever or not, so it’s interesting.
What did you learn about the expedition as a result of making the movie that you felt was most surprising?
Joachim Ronning: I think what was interesting to see in a way was the desperation of Thor – that this was something he had to do. I think the way we kind of saw ourselves in that, going into making this movie. It was almost like we spent so many years trying to get it off the ground, and in order to justify spending so many years of your life, you have to see it through – you have to see it through. If not, your life is a waste, you know? So I think to dig into those feelings and taste a little bit of that desperation was eye-opening.
Pirates 5 is next. What do you feel like landed you the job – an aptitude for nautical adventure, or did you have a take on the material that appealed to Bruckheimer?
Sandberg: I’m pretty sure it’s both (laughs). Having shot on water is of course an advantage. And I think also the fact that we made a pretty big movie out of a small budget. I think we love making epic movies, movies for the big screen. There’s so much great drama on television these days that you really have to. But we also work as commercial directors and we’ve done a lot of comedy, so this of course is a combination of our body of work, that drew us to this, and made us get the gig. And yeah, we have some strong opinions about how to do this, but we can’t unfortunately share that. We’re in preproduction now, and I think they want t present the news story.
What sort of pressure, or opportunity, do you have taking over the series given that the last two were hugely successful but less well-liked than the earlier films?
Ronning: I think we are very inspired by the first movie, going into this.
Sandberg: We love all of them. But there’s something pure about the first one.
Ronning: I think we’re going a little bit back to that, the feeling of that at least. It’s a very funny, emotional script, and a great one. So it reminds us of the kind of adventure movies we grew up with – Indiana Jones movies, or movies that inspired us to become filmmakers, really. So it’s almost for us like coming full circle.
How important is it for you to maintain connection to material or work at home as opposed to taking on projects in Hollywood or internationally?
Sandberg: We also made a movie previous to Kon-Tiki called Max Manus. But we like both – we like epic movies, movies for the big screen, and we are drawn to adventure, I think, and drama. So when we feel a connection, that’s how we decide. So hopefully we’ll be making movies both in Europe and the U.S. in the future.
In terms of that connection, what sort of story hooks you automatically?
Ronning: Well, I think it has to do with we need to see something in ourselves in the story. We have to somehow relate to it – even if it’s Pirates of the Caribbean, you know? It needs to be something there.
Sandberg: We believe movies should be an emotional experience. Even if it’s a comedy, at least the comedies we respond to have that as well, and like we said, we found that in this Pirates movie as well. So we’re really looking forward to telling that story now.
How soon are you starting filming?
Ronning: We’re shooting in the beginning of the year in Puerto Rico.
Did the box office reception of Lone Ranger affect anything about the production?
Ronning: We can’t really talk about anything about the production in detail like that. I think there’s been some reports on the media, and I think you’ll just need to use them as a source (laughs).