Kon-Tiki Redux: Norwegian’s Oscar-nominated film arrives

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Kon-Tiki is a new, much buzzed-about film from Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, which depicts a historic expedition across the Pacific Ocean by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

KON-TIKI Trailer #2 HD (English subtitles) from Peter Degerfeldt on Vimeo.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl voyaged on the vessel Kon-Tiki from South America to the Polynesian Islands. His mission: To prove it was possible for pre-Columbian South Americans to have journeyed across thousands of miles of open ocean to eventually settle in Polynesia. To make this perilous, 4,300-mile journey, Heyerdahl (and five other men) sailed on a small, wooden raft, which they named Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god, Viracocha. Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, wrote both a bestselling book (The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas), and directed a documentary (Kon-Tiki) about his extraordinary voyage. In 1951, the movie won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and remains the only Norwegian film to win an Academy Award.

Sixty-two years later, Norwegian moviemakers Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg (Max ManusBandidas) are releasing the English version of their feature film Kon-Tiki, which depicts Heyerdahl’s inspiring journey. With its lush visuals and exotic locales, Kon-Tiki stunningly recreates this amazing quest across the Pacific. The film stars Pal Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl, and has already received glowing reviews and an enthusiastic reception. Released in Norwegian theaters last summer, it was Norway’s highest-grossing film of 2012, and the country’s most expensive production to date. Kon-Tiki was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (which marks the first time a Norwegian film has been nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe).

kon-tikiJust before the movie’s U.S. release on April 26, MM caught up with co-directors Roenning and Sandberg to discuss the challenges of embarking on the ambitious Kon-Tiki.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): When did you first became aware of Thor Heyerdahl, and his historic expedition?  At what point did you decide to bring his courageous story to the big screen? Was it a long journey to make the film a reality?

Joachim Roenning/Espen Sandberg (R/S): We grew up in Sandefjord, the neighboring town of Larvik, where Thor is from, so we’ve always known the story. Thor was an inspiration to us already as kids, because we started making movies together when we were ten and Thor was the only Norwegian ever to win an Oscar. So we went to visit the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo and saw the raft, and were fascinated with the adventure. And we went into the basement, and saw the raft from underneath and there they have a life sized replica of the whale shark—and naturally, we were lost to story then and there.

We tried to get the rights, but they belonged to producer Jeremy Thomas [Oscar winner for The Last Emperor], so we went on doing other things. Jeremy then saw our previous movie Max Manus, and liked the drama and the scope. So he called us and we met, and we said “yes” on the spot. We have been working on the movie for about five years now; our producer Jeremy Thomas has been on it for over sixteen years. It’s taken a long time because the budget was huge.

MM: You shot two versions of Kon-Tiki—one in Norwegian, and one in English. Why did you make that decision? Do you think it’s something you’d try again on another film?

R/S: We had to do one version in Norwegian to get funding from the Norwegian Film Institute, and the English because Jeremy had promised Thor to do it in English. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle—twice. It went surprisingly well, thanks to highly motivated actors, but we’d rather not do it again.

MM: The movie was shot in six countries across the globe. Making a sweeping adventure story like this couldn’t have been easy—what was the biggest challenge you encountered during filming?

R/S: The biggest challenge was shooting it in open sea. We shot for over a month out on the ocean with the actors actually sailing the raft. That was demanding, to say the least, but that’s also where the magic happened. It was as close to the real experience as we could possibly get. Thor’s grandson, Olav, built a replica of Kon-Tiki in 2006 that drifted from Peru to Polynesia. And that raft is the one we are using—so it’s pretty much the real thing.

The CGI was also a big challenge—because we had so many scenes with exotic marine life. All the sharks are Scandinavian, as we say—100% computer made. We were very concerned about how that would look, because we have many intense and up close scenes with the sharks. But they look very alive indeed. We’ve had people fainting during screenings.

MM: Kon-Tiki marks the third feature you’ve made together. How is it collaborating as co-directors—what are the advantages? Any downsides?

R/S: For us it’s a natural thing, since we’ve been making films together since we were ten. Over the years, we have developed a method where Joachim deals with the visuals and Espen talks with the actors. But we really do everything together, through the whole process. The advantage is that we have someone to discuss with and have a creative process with, and we learn to put words on everything before we are on set. We also like to make complicated movies, with an epic feel, to keep us both busy. The downside is production has to pay for two rooms, two tickets, etc.—but we split the salary. 

MM: Although the events of Kon-Tiki are obviously a point of pride for Norwegians (and the film has, of course, become a huge success in your home country), what do you hope American audiences take away from watching the film? Do you think Thor’s story is a universal one?

R/S: Thor was certainly an international man and the story takes place outside of Norway. When they made the voyage, the whole world followed their radio transmissions, so we jokingly say it was the world’s first reality show. After that, he wrote the book Kon-Tiki, which sold over 50 million copies, and his documentary won an Academy Award, so yes, we strongly believe that this is a universal story.

Thor was terrified of water and couldn’t swim, yet he drifted across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. We feel that is very inspirational. Imagine what we all could do and how much more adventurous our lives could be, if we could overcome our own fears and be as brave as him. We all have our expeditions that we dream of, whether it’s making a movie, climbing a mountain or crossing an ocean. We hope our Kon-Tiki will inspire people do it.

Kon-Tiki opens in theaters on Friday, April 26th. For more information, visit the Kon-Tiki film website. For more information about how to subscribe to Movie Maker Magazine, please visit the MovieMaker Magazine home page.