Survival cinema

We talked to director Joe Penna about his inspiration for Arctic and making movies in the extreme cold.

Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic. Photos by Helen Sloan

I would venture a guess that about 30 per cent of the reading curriculum when I was in high school consisted of (mostly) Canadian novels about being stranded in the unforgiving wilderness.

The influence of Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain and Lost in the Barrens was so large that I spent a major part of my adolescence assuming that I would one day have to fend for myself when my plane exploded over Labrador. Suffice to say that I had a rather visceral reaction to the trailer for Joe Penna’s Arctic, a harrowing adventure story wherein Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, a pilot who finds himself stranded in the Arctic. The helicopter sent to rescue him also crashes under the harsh meteorological circumstances, killing the pilot and leaving the co-pilot (María Thelma Smáradóttir) badly wounded and catatonic. Overgård takes it upon himself to save the woman, even if her extremely precarious state makes the trek that much more difficult.

Knowing that director Joe Penna was born in Brazil made it unlikely that he, too, had grown up reading books about which berries will give you sustenance and which will give you deadly diarrhea. As it turns out, Arctic’s origins were very different.

“It’s very voyeuristic for me,” he says. “I lived in Massachusetts for 10 years and that was my Arctic… but nowhere near as cold as the real Arctic — or even, I suppose, Chicago right now! The initial script was actually not set in the Arctic – it was set on Mars. It was a continuation of a science-fiction short film that I had done on my YouTube channel. When The Martian came out, we decided it was a little too close to what we were trying to do. So what’s the most desolate place on Earth? It’s either the Sahara or the Arctic. For some reason, the Sahara just kind of feels like you’ll either walk out of it or die right away. There’s no in-between, where you become this survival machine, basically.”

Arctic is extremely immediate, beginning in the heart of the action and never pausing. We don’t get any flashbacks to Overgård’s life before; we never get a sense of who the young woman is, really. All of Arctic’s action is painstaking and highly detailed, a survival thriller with an effective but undeniably barebones approach.

“It’s polarizing, to use a word that’s close enough,” says Penna. “It’s something that we wanted to do to show that it doesn’t matter where he comes from — we still care about him and we still care about what he does. It’s the same thing that he does for the woman — he doesn’t know who she is or even her name, but he still cares about her and we still care about her. It’s in theme with the film and what he does as a character.”

Of course, making a film like Arctic also requires bringing a cast and crew to harsh subzero temperatures and asking them to do a job that’s already pretty difficult to do under perfect circumstances. Penna explains that it wasn’t really the cast and crew that needed to be convinced.

“I can’t tell you how many people told us, ‘This film is going to cost you $20-million and it’s not gonna be worth it,’” he says. “It’s more difficult because of the snow and the footprints. There were some initial considerations that we had for a cinematographer who told us, ‘I don’t know how to work with snow, I don’t know how to light it.’ We shot in Iceland and we learned that if we hired an entirely Icelandic crew, they were used to it. And it actually kept my spirits up! Any time that I would get frigid and start shaking, I would look at them and they’d be fine! So I had to say to myself, ‘Okay, you can handle this, Joe!’ (laughs)”

In some interviews, Mikkelsen has claimed that Arctic was the hardest shoot he was ever on. Penna agrees.

“It’s definitely the hardest feature film that I’ve ever shot, but it was also the easiest feature film that I’ve ever shot!” he jokes (it’s his first feature film). “The continuity involving the snow was incredibly difficult. We set up our base camp and throughout the day we would just move it over a little bit. We’d pick a place that was relatively open and where the parallax wasn’t too different, so we could just sort of move down. By the end of the day when we’d be done shooting, we’d have to walk back maybe two hours to set. Snowmobiles would come and pick us up because we had moved so far away, inch by inch.

“We also had other locations where we were stuck to a certain location because of a rock or a piece of set that was too close. We’d need to, between every single take, take some brushes and clean up the snow and try to make it as close as possible. For some parts of it, though, we had to CG virtual snow into it. But the vast majority of the film is one single take. There are maybe five or six scenes where we did two or three takes, and those were due to audio or focus issues.” ■

Arctic opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 15.