There’s a great temptation to draw parallels between directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s epic journey in making “Kon-Tiki” (reviewed here) and the expedition it chronicles. And it’s a temptation we’re going to give in to; when we met the co-directors during the Göteborg International Film Festival recently, they had the air of men who had finally come in to port after a long stormy voyage. They too embarked on a hugely ambitious project that had no guarantee of success or even completion, and encountered myriad unforeseen problems along the way – there’s no doubt the film had to be something of a labor of love for them both.
“Well, we grew up in a village not far from [the film's subject] Thor Heyerdahl’s home, so for us it was a local story as well as a national one,” explains Rønning. “And we always always wanted to make a film of the Kon-Tiki, ever since we were making films. In Norway, every child knows about the Kon-Tiki, the book was huge, and the film [Heyerdahl] shot on board won an Academy Award.”
“It’s the kind of story that the grandfather could read and the kid could read, so it was very very popular,” adds Sandberg.
That sort of popularity level meant being the ones to get to make a feature film was never going to be easy – especially since early inquiries the pair made were met with a stone wall. “We were told the rights were owned by a British guy [producer Jeremy Thomas] who wanted to make it into a Hollywood movie,” says Rønning. “But then we made ‘Max Manus’ which became the biggest Norwegian film at that time in Norway – I think 1.5 million tickets were sold in a country with a population of 5 million – and [Thomas] saw it and thought it would be good to do 'Kon-Tiki' with Norwegian directors, so he contacted us…without knowing we had ever asked about it.”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing after that either: the film was constantly on the verge of being pulled, and at one point was shut down ten days before filming was due to start. But in the end, says Sandberg, “to make this film, with a Scandinavian cast and crew, and Norwegian directors, with money from all over the region was such a great thing.” Indeed it does feel like something of a flagship production for Scandinavia (apologies for the seafaring puns, they’re not deliberate), not least, of course, because of its Oscar nomination in the Best In A Foreign Language category – a distinction it shares with neighbouring Denmark’s “A Royal Affair.” “There is definitely a feeling of things happening [in this region] now…there just seems more confidence around in Scandinavia, more of a sense of ‘we can do it’ than before,” says Sandberg.
But for their part, while the directors were so apprehensive that, despite being in LA, neither could watch the nomination announcement (“I was in the shower,” claims Rønning), they also mentioned that an earlier stage in this award’s unique process was a highlight. “I think we were just as happy when we heard the film had got Norway’s vote as we were when we got the actual Oscar nomination. Because it was not guaranteed at all, and it can be quite political,” says Rønning. But that’s not to suggest they’re not grateful. “Getting the nomination was amazing. No matter what happens, I look at it like we came at least second – because they don’t rate the losers, so basically if you don’t win, it’s like you came second in the world championship of film which is just fantastic,” enthuses Sandberg. “And for the big prize, well we have a 20 percent chance…” adds Rønning, diplomatically.
Interestingly, for such a piece of Norwegian history, one of he aspects that captured their imaginations was that to them, Heyerdahl was really quite “not-Norwegian.” “In Norway you must never build yourself up,” explains Sandberg. “And Heyerdahl more than anything was a master of public relations, and of self-promotion. That’s not a very Norwegian thing.” Rønning, laughing, agrees: “I think you can see that in the fact that he brought no one who really knew how to sail but two guys to operate the radio.”
Rønning and Sandberg are lifelong friends, and having met at 10 and discovered, apparently simultaneously, a passion for filmmaking, their working partnership feels very natural for them both. “It’s just how we do it, how we make movies!” says Rønning. “But we tend to split up the duties when we’re shooting – Espen ends up more with the actors, and I am more with the visuals. But, you know, we are different people, we are not the same, so we sometimes have different opinions, but when we find an agreement, then we know it’s good.”
As to their style, the distinctly Hollywood flavor of “Kon-Tiki,” which we commented on in our review, is definitely reflective of what they consider their chief inspiration. “We are very influenced by Hollywood filmmaking and I think you can see that in this film. We grew up with the American movies of the '70s and '80s, those are our influences.” So do they think of themselves as 'auteurs' in the European cinema sense, at all? “I don’t think I’d consider us auteurs, no. I like to say ‘visionaries’ ” jokes Sandberg.
They do also namecheck the last big Scandinavian "wave" – the Dogme movement, but respectfully distance themselves from it too. In fact, we wonder if they in any way define themselves in opposition to that movement’s ultra-realist, formal purity – are they "post-Dogme"? Sandberg replies, “I think it’s just a generational thing, that we go for a much more classical style, because that is what we watched. But then in some ways we are inspired by Dogme, for instance the sound design of 'Kon-Tiki' was very influenced by that – keeping the sounds natural and close to the water and so on, to get a real sound.”
Of course, their Hollywood leanings have not gone unnoticed by Hollywood. Ever since "Kon-Tiki" premiered at TIFF last year, interest in the pair has been building across the Atlantic. Just recently, we reported they were attached to “Spectral” for heavy-hitters Legendary Pictures. Sandberg expands a little on the "supernatural 'Black Hawk Down' " conceit saying, “I would say it’s more like that film meets ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ which is one of our favourite films of all time.” But they are hesitant to say more because “actually there are a few things we might do next,” says Rønning. He goes on to explain with some candor, “Making ‘Kon-Tiki’ we were so desperate, because it was our only hope, our only project, and you know we don’t get paid before we make it. So what I hope the Oscar and [the response to the film] means is that we never have to be that desperate again. Because I never want to be like that again. From now on I want always to have two, three projects going so if one of them falls through there’s something else to turn to.”
We ask if they worry they might ever miss the desperation, and the drive that came with it? "Oh I don’t think you have to worry about that," laughs Sandberg. “We’ll always be a little bit desperate.”