The hit Norwegian film scored not only an Oscar nomination, but an all-important thumbs up from Steven Spielberg.
12 Apr 2013 - 12:33 PM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2020 - 10:38 AM

Joachim Rønning is a busy man. The co-director, who made the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film Kon-Tiki with his childhood best friend Espen Sandberg, is talking on the phone from Los Angeles, having flown over from Norway last weekend. By now he must be fully in the grip of publicity-loving Harvey Weinstein as the film releases in the US on April 26 through The Weinstein Company.

We had a great lunch with Steven Spielberg and he said he’d seen Kon-Tiki and loves it.

While in Tinseltown, Rønning and Espen, who admit their love for movies like Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, should also be discussing their supernatural feature Spectral for Legendary Pictures and maybe even a potential sci-fi period piece at J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot.

After experiencing the joys of a flop with their first film, 2006's Bandidas, starring Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek, the directors rose to fame back home with their second movie, 2008's Max Manus, where around a quarter of the Norwegian population turned out to see the film. Understandably, they are not about to forsake their Norwegian roots and again have a high profile Norwegian film, Beatles, in the works. They even made headlines in the U.S. for procuring the rights to Beatles songs for the film, which is based on the Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen's 1984 novel about four 1960s Oslo teenagers. “It's a book we grew up with and it reflects the first rebellion of our generation,” says Rønning, 40.

Rønning and Sandberg grew up in Sandefjord, which is not far from Thor Heyerdahl hometown of Larvik in southern Norway. They were fascinated by his 1947 adventure, which captivated the world. Hellbent on proving that South American pre-Columbian Incas could have migrated to Polynesia, Heyerdahl had travelled 4300 nautical miles across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia with five other men on a traditional balsawood raft held together with ropes. Boasting the largest budget ever for a Scandinavian film, it was a mammoth kind of undertaking of which Spielberg would be proud. In fact, when Rønning and Sandberg were in Hollywood for the Oscars they met the man himself.

“You get to meet all the nominees over the duration a few months as there's so much happening,” recalls Rønning. “Many are our heroes we've admired since when we were kids. Espen and I have been making movies together since we were 10 years old. We had a great lunch with Steven Spielberg and he said he'd seen Kon-Tiki and loves it. You know, hearing stuff like that you have to pinch yourself. The film has definitely opened doors and we'll see what happens. Our goal is to be able to make films both in Norway and in the U.S.”

Starting out in advertising, the Oslo-based directors had lived for two years in Los Angeles and have worked on campaigns for giants like Coca-Cola and Nike.

“I think making commercials is a fantastic school; it teaches you storytelling,” says Rønning. “For us, we always adjust our storytelling style in accordance to the story and I think we're good at that and that's why we've been successful doing commercials because we don't necessarily have a particular style. We discover that as we go along. Espen concentrates more on the actors and I concentrate more on the visuals, but we're always working together. It's a very natural process. We don't know any other way to make movies.”

He freely admits that neither of them knew a lot when they came to make the English- and Spanish-language Bandidas, which never even released here or in the UK and barely made it into U.S. cinemas.

“That was our first film coming straight out of commercials and it was a fantastic film school for us to begin working with those actors and also working with Luc Besson, who is a great producer,” Rønning says. “It taught us a lot of important lessons about filmmaking and somehow the most difficult film to get made is your first. You can only get money to make a movie if you've already made a movie.”

The success of Max Manus ensured they would have a strong career. “In a way, that was our first film because with Bandidas we very much were hired guns and we didn't influence the script. Max Manus was much more personal for us, a story we could relate to that was taking place in Oslo and we worked on the screenplay for three years. Kon-Tiki brings a story we could identify with even more. Thor Heyerdahl's expeditions even resembled a little bit the filmmaking in our film. Both were hugely ambitious and it's basically a dream that you need to get a lot of people invested your project in before you can go and make it. It's an ordeal and you do it basically on your own. You leave your family behind and you go out in the world. We say that the price of success is very often paid by others and I think that was very much true with Thor, and I can also relate to that in my personal life.”

As the movie shows, Heyerdahl's embarking on the expedition led to the end of his marriage to Liv, with whom he had two young boys. He would remarry several times and became very famous in Norway. “He became sort of a rock star in Norway and people admired him. This is the man I knew as I grew up, so it was good for Norwegians to go back to the beginning and to see what made him famous.”

As I sit at my desk looking out at the Pacific from the Sydney suburb of Coogee, I tell him that it's not unusual to see whales going past.

“Fantastic!” he enthuses, noting that they of course didn't shoot on the ocean at all, that the sharks were fake and how Thailand was only briefly used during filming.

“It boils down to logistics and budget,” Rønning explains. “We ended up shooting Kon-Tiki in six different countries, mostly on the island of Malta, where they have a huge water tank used for movies. We spent four weeks out on the open sea, the Mediterranean near Malta, and used Malta as a base.”


Watch 'Kon-Tiki'

Tuesday 8 September, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Wednesday 9 September, 3:45am on SBS World Movies

UK, Norway, Denmark, 2012
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Action
Language: Norwegian
Director: Joachim Rønning
Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård

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