Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominee “Kon-Tiki” is a fictionalized account of the Norwegian experimental ethnographer (and subsequent Oscar Award winner) Thor Heyerdahl’s trans-Pacific journey in a balsa raft over 65 years ago. It’s also a Scandinavian box office sensation and the first Norwegian film to nab nominations from both Oscar and the Golden Globes. I spoke with the film’s co-directors, slated to helm a major Hollywood movie next, about their own trip from Norway to L.A.’s wild west.
Lauren Wissot: How did this film come about? Is the story of Norwegian anthropologist-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition – 4300 miles on a wooden raft from South America to Polynesia to prove pre-Columbian tribes could have done the same – something you grew up with?
Joachim Rønning: Yes, we grew up with the story of Kon-Tiki. Thor Heyerdahl is from our neighboring town, and as the only filmmaker (from Norway) to ever win an Oscar, he was a great inspiration to us. We’d always wanted to make the movie about the expedition, but learned that the rights belonged to an Englishman, producer Jeremy Thomas. Our first Norwegian movie “Max Manus,” was a huge success in Norway, and close to 25% of the population came and saw it in the movie theaters. Jeremy Thomas learned of this, watched our movie, and then asked us if we would consider directing “Kon-Tiki.” We said yes right away.
LW: So was anyone affiliated with the original 1947 expedition – or Heyerdahl’s subsequent Academy Award-winning documentary about his trip – still alive to consult with?
Espen Sandberg: The writer Petter Skavlan met with Thor Heyerdahl many times, and talked about the script. So did Jeremy Thomas. We did not get to meet Thor before he died, but we have spent a lot of time with his sons, Thor Jr. and Bamse. That gave us a unique personal angle to both Thor and Liv.
LW: Interestingly, the character that most held my attention was one who didn’t even take part in the expedition – Thor Heyerdahl’s wife Liv, played by Agnes Kittelsen. I remember Kittelsen as the lead in last year’s Norwegian Oscar submission Anne Sewitsky’s “Happy, Happy,” and she’s hard to forget. Besides looking like a young Michelle Pfeiffer she’s just as talented. Is she a household name in Norway? How did she get involved?
ES: Agnes Kittelsen had her breakthrough role in our movie “Max Manus,” where she played the role of his wife Tikken (it’s available on Netflix in the U.S.). For us she was the natural choice for Liv as well. She is very talented and we have a great relationship. And yes, Agnes is a movie star in Norway now. She will be in L.A. for the Oscars.
LW: I’ve been a big fan of Erik Skjoldbjærg since “Insomnia” (still wondering why his brilliant “Nokas” hasn’t had an American remake), but I’m not all that familiar with the Norwegian filmmaking scene in general. Do you all know each other and work on one another’s projects? (Which seems to be the case in other Scandinavian countries like Denmark.)
JR: Erik is great. We all sort of all know each other in our business. The population of Norway is just 5 million. We don’t work as closely as they do in Denmark, because Zentropa and Nordisk more or less dominate the market there. In Norway it’s more fragmented. But we also do enjoy a very friendly atmosphere and see each other as colleagues, not competitors.
LW: Speaking of Hollywood, I hear L.A.’s come knocking – and you’ve answered the door. Could you talk a bit about your upcoming project “Spectral,” for Legendary Pictures? Do you think the fact that “Kon-Tiki” is the most expensive Norwegian film ever made, and was a box office hit in Norway, sealed their faith in you?
ES: We are very honored to be talking to Legendary Pictures. They are making the kind of movies we love. We want to make epic movies with a strong emotional core, and love a fantastical element. “Kon-Tiki” hopefully shows all that – and that we can handle complex shoots with lots of CGI without losing track of the story and the emotions. The fact that the audience responds to it is, of course, never bad. We even broke our own opening weekend record with it (the old one belonged to “Max Manus”).
Being nominated for both the Golden Globe and an Oscar is the best kind of attention “Kon-Tiki” could possibly get now that we’re launching it internationally. It opens here in the U.S. on the 19th of April.