The inside story of the Kon-Tiki movie

It’s Norway’s most expensive film of all time. Its producer spent 16 years getting it made. It’s about Thor Heyerdahl’s epic journey across the Pacific in a raft. And it’s up for an Oscar this month.

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2013)

If you’re a Norwegian director, it’s a ballsy move to take your country’s most-iconic modern story to the big screen with a record-breaking budget.

Although, admittedly, not quite as ballsy as drifting across the Pacific on a homemade balsa wood raft when you can’t swim. That’s what legendary adventurer Thor Heyerdahl did in 1947, when he, five crew and a talismanic parrot undertook the 101-day, 8,000km journey from Peru to Polynesia – all to prove a scientific point, namely that the people of South America could have colonised Polynesia more than 5,000 years ago, rather than people from Asia, as is the common view.

Though Heyerdahl’s scientific thesis has now largely been discredited, his legend has only grown. To this day, Norwegians grow up with the story of how Heyerdahl navigated the world’s largest ocean on the Kon-Tiki raft (named after an Incan sun god), with no “modern” equipment except a basic radio, at the whims of the ocean’s currents and having to catch sharks by hand for food.

Heyerdahl – who was fastidious about documenting his own story – sold 50 million copies of his account of the journey and won an Oscar for his filmic documentary.

So no pressure, then, on Joachim Rønning, 40, and Espen Sandberg, 41, the directing duo who have taken Kon-Tiki to the big screen, at a cost of more than US$16 million (NOK90m), filming in seven locations with a crew of more than 1,000.

“Of course there’s pressure,” says Sandberg, on the phone from LA, where he’s doing the rounds before Kon-Tiki‘s US release, just days before he’ll find out that the film has been nominated for an Oscar, adding to its previous Golden Globe nomination. “But he [Heyerdahl] didn’t sell 50 million copies of his book because people are interested in migration theories. We knew before we started that this is a unique story that moves people.”

Rønning and Sandberg had long been inspired by the Heyerdahl legend – and their own story has its share of Heyerdahl-esque pluckiness. The pair grew up best friends in Sandefj ord, not far from Larvik, where Heyerdahl was born. “He was from a small town like us and showed us that anything is possible,” says Rønning. “It’s very un-Norwegian to go offand do what he did. You’re supposed to think you’re not that special, that you should keep your place in society and just be satisfied.”

Rønning and Sandberg nonetheless decided as young boys they were going be film-makers. Inspired by films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, they started making their first movies, aged 10, in a makeshift studio in Rønning’s attic. “We were basically blowing up Star Wars figures with firecrackers smuggled in from Sweden,” says Rønning.

The journey to making their own blockbusters reads like a series of serendipitous encounters. As teenagers, the two friends found a local production company that taught them to edit VCR, which helped get them to film school in Stockholm. During their two years of military service, they met an officer who let them spend their time making propaganda films from helicopters. They moved into a decade shooting TV commercials for the likes of Budweiser, which was when they got a call from French director Luc Besson (NikitaLeon).

“He called us up out of the blue in 2004 and asked if we wanted to look at his feature film – we couldn’t believe it,” says Rønning. The Norwegian pair ended up in the Mexican desert with Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek, making Bandidas (2006), a tongue-in-cheek Western that cost €35 million, but received an underwhelming response from critics and film-goers.

But it was a start. Their next project was Max Manus (2008), a big-budget biopic about a Norwegian World War II resistance fighter. Along with the 560,000 of their fellow countrymen who watched Max Manus, the film came to the attention of Jeremy Thomas, a leading British movie producer, whose credits include The Last EmperorSexy BeastStealing Beauty and David Cronenberg’s Crash.

Coincidentally, Thomas held the film rights to the Kon-Tiki story and had been desperately trying to get a film made about the voyage ever since acquiring the rights in 1996.

“Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki was a huge story when I was growing up,” Thomas tells me over the phone from Sydney. “But it only occurred to me to make a film about it when I learned from [actor] Michael Douglas that a Norwegian industrialist and publisher called Johan Stenersen had the rights to sell.”

Thomas flew to Tenerife to meet Stenersen and Thor Heyerdahl himself. He recalls that it was tough work getting the great man to part with his story. “Thor is a great showman, and he was very charismatic and energetic even in old age. He’s also very PR-savvy and had fixed ideas about how he wanted to be presented. It was hard to get him to agree to give me the rights to his story.”

But he did agree – although Thomas has admitted elsewhere that the production process became easier after Heyerdahl passed away in 2002, aged 87. Initially, Thomas had envisioned a US$80 million, Hollywood-blockbuster treatment for Kon-Tiki, with Leonardo DiCaprio touted as a possible lead. Five scripts came and went, and Thomas struggled to secure the financial backing he needed. It wasn’t until he saw Max Manus that he realised there was another way to get his film made.

Rønning professes to having been amazed when he and Sandberg were approached by Thomas in 2009. “We’d always wanted to tell this story. We’d kown Jeremy Thomas had the rights but we’d thought, ‘Forget it, he’ll just want to make a huge Hollywood film.'”

In the event, he didn’t, he wanted to make a Norwegian film. In addition to his two Norwegian directors, Thomas got a Norwegian scriptwriter – Petter Skavlan – and a Norwegian co-producer: Aage Aaberge. As in real life, the crew of the raft in the film consists of five Norwegians and a Swede, led by the impressive Pål Hagen as a lanky, blond-haired Heyerdahl.

Yet the movie, which was filmed over 59 days in 2011, feels no less epic in scale than anything created in Hollywood. Filming the main raft scenes in Malta, Sandberg says they used more special effects in Kon-Tiki than the original Star Wars, though you’d be hard-pressed to know that the whale shark or the flying fish in the film aren’t real.

Perhaps what’s more interesting about the movie – which, almost uniquely, was filmed in both Norwegian and English – are the ways in which it is not your typical Hollywood film. The central cast are notably understated, with Hagen’s Thor barely suppressing his blue-eyed conviction. The drama between the crew is played out through subtle tensions, and a lot of the film has a meditative quality: the cast read, paint and often don’t say much.

“We’re Scandinavians; we’re not southern Europeans,” says Sandberg. “If you read Heyerdahl’s book, all the guys on the boat come offas these tough guys who never complained. Back then, men didn’t talk about their feelings, so the challenge was to reflect that, but also have emotion and drama in the film.”

While researching the movie, the team met Thor Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav, who was part of a 2006 trip that recreated his grandfather’s journey. Sandberg recalls: “He told us that you talk a lot for two days, and then there becomes less and less to say. When he got to land at the end, there was nothing to talk about. Yet he remembers this deep sadness – he wanted to get back on the boat.”

The one major departure from the facts is the character of Herman Waltzinger, the raft’s second-in-command. In reality an accomplished engineer, in the script he becomes a divorced former fridge salesman, whose background in engineering gets him onto the boat, but whose fretting, paranoid presence sets him apart from the rest of the grizzled cast. “We put Herman there to ask the questions that the audience would,” says Sandberg. “You need that questioning voice because, really, Thor believes he’s right at the beginning and still believes he’s right at the end.”

The film has already been a big success in Norway, where it was released last August and has since been seen by more than 600,000 cinema-goers. “It’s tricky, because Thor lived one of the most-documented lives ever,” says Sandberg. “For Pål Hagen playing him, it was a real challenge. Thor has a famously strong Norwegian accent, so it would have been easy to slip into a parody. But Pål did so much research – the way he moved, how he talked – and pulled it off brilliantly.”

When the film is released this month in the US and Europe, the directors hope what will shine through is simply a phenomenal story of triumph against the odds. “For us, it was never about the theory he was trying to prove,” says Sandberg. “We were interested in why a man who couldn’t swim wanted to drift across the world’s biggest ocean on a makeshift raft. It’s a Norwegian story, but there’s something universal about it.” Steven Spielberg could hardly have come up with a better story – best of all, this one’s true.

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