Polaris 2023 2022 film movie interview

Like Mad Max in the snow, Polaris is a Northern Canadian post-apocalyptic film

An interview with director Kirsten Carthew about going home to the Northwest Territories to shoot Polaris, a film about a young girl raised by a polar bear.

Last year, Polaris opened at the Fantasia Film Festival. The film was billed as “Mad Max in the snow,” featuring almost no dialogue and an all-female cast. Shot in the Yukon at the height of the pandemic, the film offers a singular and mythic look at the future. Polaris follows Sumi (Viva Lee) and her mother — a polar bear — on an epic quest towards the Polaris star. An epic adventure brimming with post-apocalyptic detailing, the film evokes a vision of the future where the world has become enveloped by snow. Polaris has screened at festivals worldwide, and since its Montreal premiere, it’s also gained a voice-over, which adds a new narrative dimension to the film. 

Director Kirsten Carthew grew up in the Northwest Territories and has long used Northern Canada as a location for her short and feature films. She offers a different view of the Canadian cinematic landscape in an industry dominated by voices from major cities. Now based out of Toronto, Carthew spoke to Cult MTL by phone about her inspirations, challenges shooting in the snow and environmental stewardship. 

Justine Smith: In other interviews and reviews, they mention that your short film Fish Out of Water (2015) inspired Polaris. How did you adapt the short into a feature? 

Kirsten Carthew: It’s inspired by the short and a few other things. One is Greek mythology, something that I was raised on. Specifically from the short film, the interesting elements were the colour palette, the story world, the tone and some of the characters. For Fish Out of Water, we shot in Yellowknife. It was -40. It was very cold, and we were on a frozen lake. Any audience familiar with winter, especially if they live in Canada or the northern U.S., knows there are so many different colours to winter. I really loved the different shades of white and different shades of grey. The colour palette was interesting, and then the story world in Yellowknife. 

I’m from Yellowknife. It looks like the apocalypse hit — like things that you find, you can imagine they’re from a different time, because a lot of the North was opened with mining equipment, with big barges, all sorts of interesting, eclectic items. There’s a real sense of do-it-yourself culture in the North, and there are some really phenomenal aspects about that. I wanted to bring out these themes visually, and in the film’s psychology. 

JS: Your film features very little dialogue, mostly in a made-up language or just grunts. You work within some familiar frameworks, but it presents many unique challenges. What does the script look like? 

Kirsten Carthew: The story is typical of a hero’s journey or an epic undertaking in many ways. The story is of this young girl raised by a polar bear. She’s raised away from other human civilizations and she’s on a journey. She’s following the Polaris Star, which is the North Star, and it’s on the move — instability is important in any film set in the future. You have a very simple story: A young girl is out with her mother on this quest to follow a star, much like one might follow a rainbow to see what’s at the end, to take that adventure and unlock her destiny. She doesn’t know what’s at the end when she embarks. She knows very clearly that she has a connection to the star. In the film, that connection is shown through her hands. She reflects some of the qualities of the star in her hands. Visually, it’s shown that way. But in terms of the story itself and the scriptwriting process, the first script was about 20 pages. It wasn’t very long. And then, the final shooting script was about 55 pages. 

I’m the writer and also the director, so I knew I needed to flesh out the scenes a little bit more so that we could actually go into the logistics of filming. I’ve filmed in many weather conditions, and you can’t negotiate with the weather. You just do your best and hope for the best. But you need to detail things. So much of a “normal” script is the dialogue. Typically, a minute (equals) a page, but a lot of that is timing it out for dialogue. When you have a script like Polaris, which is bereft of dialogue — the language spoken is fictional, and there are only about 20 words — there’s just not a lot on the page to take up that space. It makes it feel a little bit sort of special in that way. But really, a lot of the architecture of maybe more traditional storytelling is still in there.

A polar bear raised Sumi, and we needed to see the film through her eyes. She speaks the language of nature, which is a language of action, instinct and different types of observation we all have access to. Her grunts and movements are more like a polar bear cub, somebody who’s just a lot more physically attuned to what is happening with the nature surrounding her. That’s the other animals, the trees. It’s the star. I hope (viewers) understand the fictional language because it is all in action. But in any case, you know, whether you’re watching in Canada, Japan or Brazil, wherever in the world you’re able to watch the film, it’s a universal experience linguistically.

JS: What was the process of working with Viva Lee, who plays Sumi? She gives such an incredible performance.

Kirsten Carthew: We really had a great time in casting. So many talented young people came out to audition. Viva was 11 when we filmed, and she’s 13 now. She had a really strong awareness of her body. She had a keen sense of her physicality, and she was excited and motivated to play in this world of nature. Typically, the casting process would be an audition with dialogue, but we gave things that were a little more improvised and based on animal behaviour. We provided video footage of polar bears just to start understanding how the actor might command their body. One of the great things about working with actors is that they begin to own the character once they are on board. I don’t want to say I didn’t do anything, but I give a lot of credit to Viva. She really embraced bearhood. She really got into it. Anybody with a pet dog or cat or bird, or a baby, the way you’re communicating and your expression, you’re reading into that nuance, and she just really embraced it. That is how she was able to take on the bear’s language, so to speak.

When we were filming, it was -20. The story is set in a frozen world, but it didn’t have to be the Yukon. It could have been Tijuana. It could have been all sorts of places around the world in terms of this future. But we did film in the Yukon, in and around Whitehorse during wintertime, and that location really enhanced the experience for Viva as an actor. She did a great job. 

polaris Kirsten Carthew interview
Viva Lee in Polaris

JS: What were some of the challenges of shooting in such a cold location?

Kirsten Carthew: The logistics are quite challenging. It’s really good if you have experience working in a winter environment. I recall our producer saying she’d never seen such a huge budget for snowmobiles. We had to be snowmobiled out to location. And that’s its own logistical thing because snowmobiles only fit so many people. And even if you have a towing capacity, you’re still towing everything in and out. It’s a minimized crew. You’re at the whim of the weather. So some days you can’t film in the location you wanted to because it’s too windy, or if you’re out on the lake, you’re too exposed. Our crew is pretty talented and always ensured that everything was warm and ready to go. A lot of the challenges we had were also related to COVID. We were shooting there during COVID. We only had a little prep time that you’d normally want to have on a film, particularly one like this. 

But the crew had a great spirit that just said yes to the adventure and went for it. Some of the cool stuff is improvising. Instead of having a dolly, we were using a snow cam. We just, you know, jimmy a snowmobile. There are so many great gimbals for cameras these days to create opportunities for shots that once upon a time would have been impossible because of budget or technical reasons. 

Our director of photography, David Sherman, became this champion snowshoer. I would be out on snowshoes filming, too. It’s probably what people would imagine Canadians do. Nobody’s really filming on snowshoes, but in some places, the snow was so deep, and that’s how you had to get around. Viva would have to run through the snow, but sometimes the snow would be 2 or 3 feet high, so she’d stop. But it worked because it was the right thing for the story world. 

JS: Can you talk about the art direction and the costuming? That contributes so much to the atmosphere and the film’s overall look.

Kirsten Carthew: The idea is a world that has a nostalgic look to it. It looks like it’s before our present-day time, but it’s from a future time. It’s a world that has been neglected. There are strong themes in this film around environmental stewardship, essentially showing the results of our neglect and our terrible job of looking after our planet. But regarding the production design, the things that survived are things like these massive vehicles used in mining equipment. All the items you see on the screen are related to exploration, whether that’s mining, space exploration, other types of vehicles, or planes. These are the types of relics, the type of material that many people in this world can salvage and make clothing out of. It’s an all-female cast, and the “bad gals,” their wardrobe is accented by these metal parts, which come forth as weapons and armoury. Mad Max: Road Warrior is one of my favourite movies, and the idea of a DIY salvaged culture was very much the look we were going for and then creating the wardrobe around that.

JS: If we look at this past summer, with so much of Canada on fire, as well as the themes of stewardship over the land and humanity’s responsibility towards nature, how can you relate the ideas of what is happening in your film with what we are seeing in the “real” world? 

Kirsten Carthew: I have a lot of gratitude for being raised in the Northwest Territories. The experience of climate change is something I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, and I’m not that old. Some elders told all these stories about when they were young versus today, and it’s such huge differences. There’s an awareness of climate change, but also just the proximity to nature in terms of it being in your backyard. That kind of knowledge, it’s not textbook knowledge, although I did study a little bit of environmentalism, but it’s not my area of expertise. It’s just more my observation and life experience and learning from traditional knowledge and science. This is a frozen world (in the film). My brother, an environmentalist, will be like, “The world is not going to freeze over.” It’s more about warming than freezing, but this is fabricated. It’s a film, it opens up discussion. You know, after the fires came the floods and then came the freezing. ■

Polaris (Dir. Kirsten Carthew)

Polaris opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 1.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.