I was extremely gracious for the opportunity to have a discussion with director Joe Penna and star Mads Mikkelsen for their new survival epic, Arctic. Set in the Arctic tundra, a pilot named Obergard (Mikkelsen) braves the icy wilds after a plane crash alone for an untold amount of time. Just when he thinks he’s rescued, there’s another crash. Now Obergard must rescue himself and an injured young woman from certain death.
The film is exciting, inspiring, and most importantly beautiful. Both Penna and Mikkelsen were great to talk to and in what follows we discuss the ins and outs of Arctic as well as Jurassic Park, Taxi Driver, and even Lars Von Trier. I hope you enjoy reading the conversation as much as I had having it!
By the way just super, super impressive feature debut (for Joe Penna). I mean I know you’ve been doing videos forever but just very solid and you (Mads) were extremely believable insofar as what was happening on screen, and I wanted to ask what was it like on location, and how did the weather impact the way you (Mads) acted and you (Joe) directed.
Because you, Mads, you’re from Denmark and I’ve never been there, so I’m not going to say anything too stupid…
Mads Mikkelsen: It’s nothing like that. Denmark is like New York, really, it’s nothing like that.
How did being in this rough weather inform the way you directed and the way that you performed the role?
Joe Penna: Sure, for me, maybe it helped. I’d like to think that it helped, historically speaking so that I can have it in my brain that it was a good idea to shoot out there while being Brazilian and perhaps it gives me a new lens to look at things through. Over here we should get this on screen because that’s different. Whereas, perhaps, some of the Icelandic people were very used to something like that (the landscape) but “let’s make sure we get this shot” but we were very much at the mercy of the weather and thankfully I was ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice.
“It’s nothing like that. Denmark is like New York…”
Mikkelsen: (the weather) kind of makes it easy to look very difficult because it is very difficult, and then when you move, you’re not as cold, but when you stop, it’ll make the scenes where he’s freezing start freezing, so that’s a lot of freebies there. It’s something you have to move with.
Something I was thinking about through the whole movie was myself and if I was in that situation.
Mikkelsen: That’s good, that’s what we wanted from the people.
I just thought “Oh my god, I am the biggest wimp on the face of the Earth.” Because I would have been like “Okay, I’m just gonna stay in this plane forever.”
Penna: As the actual biggest wimp on the face of the Earth, I can tell you, you would survive. That’s something I wanted to do with this film, to show that, this is just a normal guy, this is just a pilot.
Mikkelsen: He’s not some sort of survivalist.
Penna: Yeah, he’s not huge, he’s just a guy that was plopped down and didn’t expect this, and he survives, so I can too
Mikkelsen: This surviving gene is extreme in human beings. I mean, you’ve got all these crazy stories about moms lifting cars when they have someone they love underneath them, so, I think people get surprised about all the stories with the concentration camps. It’s unimaginable what they went through, right? And it’s just another guy in a situation like that, so what’s the big difference here? He’s a survivor when you meet him, that’s all he is. When she enters the film, he becomes alive. It’s two very different things, and that’s what it makes the story about. Is it all possible to live in real life by yourself? Do you need another person?
Adding on to that, and sorry if this question has been asked a thousand times. If it were either one of you in that kind of situation and the other person didn’t come along, how do you think you would deal with it?
Mikkelsen: Well I haven’t been asked that one before. Tell you what, the distance from the plane, crossing the lake to go up that hill, to look out into indefinite snow, that distance, in reality was just inhuman. It was inhuman to move that distance, so you really man up and gear up to make it up there and I would definitely think once or twice about going back to the plane. It is a giant step. It’s certain death or life. 99.9% certain death. Those are bad odds, but thinking about it constantly, you might take the step.
Penna: Yeah, I wonder, even after the woman would come, I wonder if I would’ve done what he does because it’s so selfless and it’s so exhausting. I mean, I was walking around with a clipboard, and I was exhausted. So imagine actually hauling a person. Because often, we’d actually have to either haul the woman or a dummy that was the size of the woman, the exact same weight as the woman because if not, it looks fake.
Mikkelsen: He had this great idea that the dummy should weigh the same.
You know he’s an actor, right? (haha)
Penna: Yeah, the sled is a really bad actor.
I want to talk about the polar bear because that bear is awesome.
Penna: So, fortunately, Mads couldn’t be there when we shot the polar bear in Canada a few months after. Like a half day of pickups and when I spoke to the trainer, he said there were very strict rules. She was the only half-trained polar bear in the whole world so I couldn’t speak to him directly, I had to speak to his wife. I would have to whisper to him, or else she would growl and bark at me or perhaps swipe at me.
“She was the only half-trained polar bear in the whole world…”
Mikkelsen: She’d just get jealous.
Penna: yeah she’s very jealous
Mikkelsen: a jealous bear.
Penna: She had her own thirty-foot trailer….she was a happy camper. She doesn’t usually get snow or much of it, and we had got real snow for her. Snow in that magnitude is more expensive. Because if she gets fake snow, which looks just as good for us on film, she can tell and she gets upset, and she doesn’t work.
Mikkelsen: What a diva!
Mikkelsen: She wanted the blue M&M’s
Penna: The trainer said that we have to have as few people on set as possible, so Joe you’re going to have to put on the parka, and you’re going to have to be attacking this bear. So all the over the shoulder shots are the only times in the film where it isn’t actually Mads.
Well, I want to ask you, Mads, when they were shooting your scenes, what was going on in place of the bear?
Mikkelsen: What was his name? Hooker (sp?)
Mikkelsen: Hooker was a giant of an Icelandic man, we dressed him up. I’m not kidding. We filmed his shadow, and we also had like a paw, and I think he began to like it eventually, but in the beginning, he was like “Oh god, I’m gonna be dressed up like a polar bear. So there was an interaction, a timing. Actually at the beginning he was smashing this cave in, and he would swipe the camera, and it was quite effective without the actual polar bear, but when he went home we were like “oh we would like to see a polar bear”, but we could’ve done it without one, but she was such a fantastic polar bear.
“…that they could just create a little miniature on a desk of a dinosaur and all of a sudden get a T-Rex…”
Penna: We didn’t know that there was a polar bear that was trained when we shot that scene, so we thought we were going to be with Mads the whole time but I went on YouTube, and I saw a guy swimming with a polar bear, and I said “We gotta talk to this guy!”
So I tracked him down, and thankfully he was a huge Mads Mikkelsen fan, so he was very willing to work with us.
What film made you want to be a director and made you want to be an actor?
Penna: It was Jurassic Park for me. My parents got a VHS tape that the second tape was the behind-the-scenes/making-of Jurassic Park and that was amazing to me that they could just create a little miniature on a desk of a dinosaur and all of a sudden get a T-Rex in a film as if it’s real. For me, that was so incredible that at first, I thought I wanted to be in computers. I wanted to be a computer programmer, and then eventually I realized, nah, I just want to do the films.
Mikkelsen: I don’t know, I don’t recall a specific point where I wanted to be an actor, but I remember loving Bruce Lee and loving Buster Keaton, they’re two of my very big heroes to this day. One film that really changed my perspective on filmmaking was Taxi Driver.
It was one of the first films that I can recall that we didn’t like and then we kind of liked and then we didn’t like him. He just bounced us back and forth instead of just giving us the result, he gave us a lot of questions, and I thought it was just fantastic filmmaking.
That was one of the first anti-hero or unreliable narrator films that I remember seeing.
Mikkelsen: Yeah, but then he became human in a fantastic way all of a sudden.
“I remember loving Bruce Lee and loving Buster Keaton, they’re two of my very big heroes…”
Yeah, I loved it.
Penna: Very voyeuristic view. You’re like “What is this guy?” and then you see films that are like Nightcrawler, a film like that where you have a completely reprehensible character and yet you’re so intrigued by that person.
Mikkelsen: Well, obviously it’s DeNiro as well, but there’s all the insistence of staying with the character for good or worse and eventually he rubs off a little on you.
Yeah you’re like “mmm, yeah maybe a hard rain’s gonna come and wash away all the filth.”
Penna: Hopefully that’s what Obergard does, I hope he rubs off on people.
Yes, I think so. I think that he has an optimism to him that I think people need, especially right now. That people might see “Oh s**t, well this guy went to hell and back” and I thought in the end he was going to die. I think it can help people sort of handle their own survival in day-to-day life.
Mikkelsen: Whether he dies or not in the end was something we talked about, but we also came to terms with the fact that we would be fine if he does because as he was telling her “it’s okay, you’re not alone.” So he can easily lie down and give up now, because she’s there.
Honestly, I thought that might happen (here I say some spoiler-y stuff I had to remove)
Mikkelsen: No, it’s brutal. We considered it for a while.
The Lars Von Trier ending.
Mikkelsen: Well then there’d just be nothing left at all.