JOE PENNA Cold calling the Arctic

Joe Penna first found worldwide fame on his Youtube channel MysteryGuitarMan. His pieces have accrued hundreds of millions of views, been covered internationally on TV, been part of YouTube’s Best of the Year compilation, and displayed at the Guggenheim. It was obvious the Brazilian born musician, writer, and director would transition to the big screen, and his directorial debut is a chilling tale of man versus nature, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a downed pilot. With Arctic hitting Perth screens this week, DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Penna about his debut film, and working in such a harsh environment.

I’m curious as to the set up of Arctic. You start with Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) already in an established survival routine, which is different from a lot of survival films. Why did you chose that set up?

I wanted something that was universal, something that could be seen in Australia and the US, or could be seen in Brazil, where I’m from. Something that touched on the most primal of instincts. Everything that is alive, is trying to stay alive. I wanted to create a story that it’s most basic level had a kind of universal appeal, and it’s also the same reason I decided to keep the dialogue as sparse as possible. So, telling the story visually as opposed to aurally.

We learn almost nothing of Overgård, not even as you put it, “the flash of a wedding ring”…

It’s a continuation of that. If we’re not expanding on his inner thoughts, if he doesn’t have that volleyball to talk to, then maybe we make him a blank slate. We make him a stencil of a man, in order to get the audience to imagine what his life has been like. When you first start watching the film, a lot of people assume we were just starting in media res, and would eventually get into flashbacks and get into his back story. But as it was getting a little too late into the film for that to happen, they start inventing their own stories. This is interesting… like when people talk about how they like a book rather than the film. A film could be a bit restrictive sometimes, as visually it’s stuck as “that’s how it must be”. At least it gives you a hint of his past but doesn’t necessarily tell you exactly what it was.

I‘m just realising that I did that myself. Assuming he had survival training as part of his pilot training…

Exactly. At the very end of the shoot we talked about the things that must have been true for this Overgård character. He must have had survival training, he must have been very experienced with engineering. I’ve spoken to survivalists and pilots who worked in the Arctic, and they must be very experienced… and a little crazy… to do what they do, because it is a very dangerous situation. So I knew what his character must be because of his job. But that’s all we wanted to say about his character. His personal life, things that didn’t touch on what he must be, we wanted to keep those open for the audience.

Was it difficult to strike that balance?

The very first iteration of the script had him almost having little fights with himself about everything. He was obsessed about getting out, so I had him constantly imagining an interview with a newspaper, about what it must have been like to survive his ordeal. We had a little bit more of his back story to give something for an actor to do. But as soon as we got Mads… with films like Valhalla Rising he works really well in the silent moments, where you wondering what’s the character thinking. So we greyed a lot of dialogue out, and when we brought the script to Mads it was 20 pages shorter.

What was it like having Mads?

He was incredibly gracious. I’ve seen films Mads (gives) a great performance and he’s the only stand up thing in the entire film. So I figured with an actor as great as Mads, my job as a director is placing a camera in front of him, pressing the red button, and say “do your thing”…. and then he just delivers. But it was the opposite of that, it was so collaborative that we’ll talk about how fast he should move, and how he holds his body. We were very scripted the physical aspects of this performance. We did a lot of location studies with Mads, so we can get used to the location and know it like the back of his hand. It was a wonderful, collaborative process.

I imagine the location must have been a challenge. Footprints alone must have been a nightmare for continuity?

Footprints were a huge issue. Had to deal with them in a bunch of different ways. One was we have to move down a few meters every once in a while, then move down and do another take. The mountains in the distance were too far for you to be able to tell, but you’d move down another 5 or 6 feet every time. The problem is that you end up an hour or two away from your base by the end of the day.

Which came first, the decision to tell a survival story, or wanting to set something in that location?

It was definitely to tell a survival story first. The location was the last thing. We actually plotted out the entire film on Mars. It was the exact same story but on Mars. Then The Martian came out and we decided to switch to a more earthly desert.

I was going to say that Arctic is different than your short films…

Reasons that we had done science fiction short films, was because the two features we had written were science fiction. They’re not proof of concept, they’re proof of ability in the genre.

And your next piece is sci-fi?

It was already written so we decided to take Stowaway out, and we’ve already got some interest in it. Thankfully I’ve got two Academy Award leading actresses to be the stars in the film. Anna Kendrick is going to be a lead, and Toni Collette is playing the commander of the ship. So wonderful news for the Australians.

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