Alistair Harkness meets the men behind the new screen dramatisation of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic Kon-Tiki expedition
In 1947, a Norwegian adventurer by the name of Thor Hyerdahl decided to sail 4,300 miles from Peru to Polynesia. An ethnographer by trade, he wanted to challenge the prevailing scientific theory that the South Sea island had been settled via Asia. Thor believed that Incas sailing from South America in the East were the first settlers, so he decided to prove it could be done by assembling a five-man crew to sail with him on a balsa-wood raft that he named after the Inca sun god Kon-Tiki and constructed using only materials to which the Incas would have had access. The resulting voyage saw them face every extreme imaginable, including shark-infested waters as well as magnificent specimens like the whale shark that Hyerdahl’s subsequent Oscar-winning documentary about his adventure captured on film.
Needless to say, that film, first released in 1950, along with Thor’s subsequent writings about his adventure, captured the public imagination around the world. But it particularly inspired kids in his native Norway. Or at least, that was the case with Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning, the Norwegian directing team behind Kon-Tiki, a new big screen dramatisation of the adventure, starring Pål Sverre Hagen (In Order of Disappearance) as Thor.
“We grew up in a small town called Sandfjord and next to that is an even smaller town called Larvik and that’s where Thor’s from, so he always felt very close to us in that way,” says Sandberg, who actually started making films with Rønning when they were just ten. Back then, they were inspired by a shared love of Jaws, Indiana Jones and, ET but also drew inspiration from visits to the Kon-Tiki museum. “Just to see the real raft had such an impact. When you go into the basement of the museum you realise there’s a huge model of the whale shark underneath it. And of course, that really caught our imagination. We’ve been fascinated with the adventure ever since.”
What’s sustained their interest? “As a boy it was just the idea of going off to do something and leaving everybody behind. As a grown-up, I’m very fascinated by the fact that Thor felt he had to do it. I think there are parallels to Joachim’s and my life also in that regard: we also travel a lot and do these crazy things for a long time and leave our families behind. I think there’s something there we both like to explore.”
Though they’ve been professional filmmakers for 20 years, they had to wait until CGI was good enough to do the shark scenes. “But also,” adds Sandberg, “it was because Jeremy Thomas [the film’s British producer] asked us to do it. He heard about our previous movie, Max Mannus, and that was quite an epic war movie that he saw had been done on a budget. I think he saw an opportunity to make Kon-Tiki more authentic by making it with Norwegian actors rather than doing the Hollywood version.”
That said, Thomas got the best of both worlds: Sandberg and Rønning shot an English language version simultaneously with the Norwegian version and both will be available in UK cinemas. What was the biggest challenge of doing it that way?
“Time! And having to catch lightning in a bottle twice was a little daunting. But it kept the actors motivated.”
The authenticity was bolstered by their ability to use a replica of the original Kon-Tiki raft that Thor’s grandson, Olaf Hyerdahl, used to recreate his grandfather’s expedition in 2006.
“That was just amazing for our actors, to be on a raft that actually worked – and to have Thor’s grandson there teaching them how to sail it.”
Shot on the open seas off the coast of Malta, the film’s old-school approach to location work also allowed them, says Sandberg, to get much better images because “the actors were actually out there – it felt real to all of us.”
He does confess, however, that the reason was as much practical as it was romantic. “We couldn’t afford to do it in big water tanks because it would have required CG in every shot. That’s the Life of Pi version, which is a great movie by the way.”
Coincidentally, the Norwegian-language version of Kon-Tiki was Oscar-nominated the same year Life of Pi won four Academy Awards and the subsequent buzz put Sandberg and Rønning on the international map as directors of epic adventure stories. They’ve been heavily involved, for instance, in the latest Netflix show Marco Polo, which premiered on the streaming site this past weekend and has already been much-hyped as Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones, albeit with added martial arts.
“If you want to distil it, that’s a fair assessment, but it’s so much more than that,” says Sandberg, who co-directed (with Rønning) the two-hour pilot that introduces us to the life of the 13th- century Venetian adventurer in the court of Kublai Khan. “It’s a true story and a really epic show on every level.”
The blurring boundary between epic cinema and television was one of the main reasons Sandberg was excited about doing the show. Another was simply the increased speed of production. “We got that job a year ago and now they’re screening ten hours of it,” he marvels.
“That’s certainly in marked contrast to their next project: a new instalment of the Pirates of the Carribean series with Johnny Depp.
“That is a different world because we’ve already been working on Pirates for a couple of years,” Sandberg reveals.
Given that it’s not due out until 2017, it sounds as if they’ll have plenty of time to do something new with it. “Yeah, we definitely want to put our mark on it.”
And as for working with Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, they can’t wait: “People forget that he was Oscar-nominated for that role originally. It’s an action-adventure movie, but it’s also a comedy, so to get an Oscar nomination for that is outstanding. And we love the character, so it’s going to be great fun.”
• Kon-Tiki is in cinemas from Friday; Marco Polo is available on Netflix now