Joe Penna’s Arctic evokes a specific dichotomy, for it is at once a film of bleak coldness set on a crisp, white landscape and equally a warm, entirely human story of resilience and the tenacity of spirit. Thanks to some extraordinary performances by María Thelma Smáradóttir and Mads Mikkelsen, Penna’s feature debut manages to upend expectations, drawing audiences in to a tale that feels as ancient as the landscape on which it is set.
That Shelf spoke exclusively to Penna by phone about his remarkable film, the transition from being an Internet video maker to celebrated Cannes auteur. We spoke of the reaction to the film, the challenges of nailing down the ending, and how his greatest effect may well be the lead actor he managed to score.
How does one go from a YouTube sensation to spending 19 days in freezing Iceland torturing Mads Mikkelsen?
A lot of people were kind of confused about the fact that I went from YouTube to doing a feature like this. From my perspective it’s been a relatively normal career trajectory! I started on Youtube, making very spastic, two minute long music videos. That gave me enough training to start making music videos, then working bigger and bigger music videos – there’s no cap to how big music videos are these days! I started moving on to bigger commercial productions, and lots of national commercials, for Coke, McDonalds, Disney, Sony, that kind of thing. Eventually that got me working in short films. I did a 10 minute short film with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. I did another one with the creators of The Walking Dead, and ended up doing a 40 minute long “medium film”. It just felt like the natural step was to get a feature film on the books!
How big of a jump was it for you, or did you really feel more of a culmination of everything that had come before?
I was prepared for some of the feature film making, because of the training I had done, especially some of the technical aspects of it, such as how to talk to an assistant director, the right language to speak to my crew. But you’re never ready for the marathon that a feature film is.
What was worse than you thought it was going to be?
We always knew that the weather was going to be horrific and difficult and awful, especially for me, somebody who’s very used to 70 degree weather at all times! The [challenge was in the] logistics of shooting in locations that looked very different, because otherwise you’re going to wind up with a film [where] everything looks the same and everything is going to look like it’s shot around the same area. We actually had to travel very far between different locations. One glacier, one is a snowdrift, and the other one is the very end of a frozen lake, or whatever may be, just so you can get some variety in the film. Having three or four locations for every scene heading on the screenplay was difficult. It was so much location scouting we had to do in case the snow would melt from one location!
You shot in a relatively small amount of time. Do you think fundamentally the film would have been better if you were given let’s say 30 days or 120 days or whatever crazy stuff Hollywood might have given you, or do you think that the film sort of in a weird way benefits from this sense of anxiety of location that is reflected maybe on screen?
19 days was tough. I’m looking at my past self, and if I’m saying, don’t worry about it, you can get it done in 19 days, I would be very upset at myself if I didn’t give myself more days. But it did force us to really pare down the script to what was 100% necessary, and locations that were 100% necessary for the story. We had a clever cut that we had from here to there that was lost because we just didn’t have the time. But I think that a filmmaker should always end up seeing their films and thinking that it could be better because if you don’t think that it can be any better, you’ve reached your peak and your limit.
Speaking of peaks and limits, obviously you’re pushing your star a little bit, could you talk about working with Mads? Was he always the one you had in mind to actually throw in the middle of a snowstorm? Could you talk about how his performances shaped your own filmmaking?
No, Mads was never somebody I had in mind because I never thought that I’d be able to get him. He had just come from Dr. Strange and Rogue One, two immense films. We’re this dinky little 20 day production – we ended up losing a day because of the weather – and he’s never going to say yes to this. But we happened to know a producer who knew a producer who knew Mads, so we decided to give it a go, and after a 3 hour Skype call, it was a go with Mads.
For a film like this, his performance shapes the film so much, so it was about finding a middle ground between what I wanted and what he wanted for this character. Because it’s Mads effin’ Mikkelsen I thought that it would be 90% of what he wanted! But really, most of the time he just deferred to what I wanted and what I thought was the vision for the film. Of course, the few times that he didn’t, he said, how about this instead, those were always great suggestions because he’s so experienced and has a very clear sense of the story.
The greatest special effect of your film was the micro-expressions of Mads Mikkelsen!
With a look he can just say so much. We knew right away that Mads was going to pull off what we wanted in the film and as soon as we got Mads Mikkelsen, we went back into the screenplay and started deleting dialogue lines because we knew that he could do things without dialogue that are much more subtle. We can hit you much harder than him actually saying something like “I’m so fucking cold right now” or “I’m really worried about you”, I don’t think you’re going to make it. We don’t need that. We don’t need any of that.
[Spoilers ahead for the ending of Arctic]
I’m asking this as delicately as possible – there are two ways this film could have ended. And in some ways, the ending is still ambivalent, whether or not the helicopter is there or isn’t there is up for debate. There’s certainly a Scandinavian way of ending this film, that it’s just like, man goes through struggle, dies. It could be very clear cut…
We call it the French ending!
Then there is the Hollywood version of this film, where man is in the wilderness, helicopter comes, he’s on the helicopter, sipping coffee, everything’s perfect…
Well, there’s also the version of it where we cut to a few months later, and she’s pregnant…
[Laughs] Hah, the Castaway version! So given that at some point in time, you have to come to an end, something has to culminate, could you talk about your own struggles with which direction to go in?
[The ending] was one of the only parts of the film that we had time and was allowed to shoot for multiple options. So we had our “American” version of it, where the guys come out of the helicopter and check his pulse and at the very last second he breathes, takes a deep breath in and it’s a very conclusive, everything is going to be ok ending. And then, because we were submitting to Cannes, we toyed with the idea of a very conclusive negative ending, or like you said “Scandinavian”, where man struggles, man dies, woman dies, helicopter never comes back, “Directed by Joe Penna” [credits on screen].
It just felt so wrong to be conclusive in either way because the rest of the film is so much up to what the audience believes it to be. Where does he come from? We never say. Someone in the audience might be thinking that he is a divorcé who was an airline pilot and then took this polar cargo job because he just needed to do something crazy and different with his life. Someone else might think that he’s just been this grunt his whole life working up and finally he is moving from engineer to the pilot and his first flight, he falls down, the plane falls out of the sky. Because the film leading up to that final moment is so much in the audience’s head, then so the ending should be.
I’ve spoken to some people at Q&As and at screenings who 100% believe that the way that we set up the ending is a very happy ending, and I’ve spoken to some other people who thought that the helicopter crashed at the very end.
I think the easiest read is whether or not the helicopter is even there. So that would be the other way. I think of that as more French, that the helicopter is there, but, psyche, there’s no helicopter!
I’ve gotten that too, that it was all in his head because the sound of the helicopter was different and his hair was blowing in a way it hasn’t been the whole film. That’s what I love about it, hearing what people thought. Whenever people ask me “oh, what did you think of this?”, I always ask them first. I always get something new, something different.
One of the great films of last year was First Reformed, Paul Schrader also had the courage to have a film where the ending very much lies upon the audience making conclusions or accepting the mystery of it. Were there other works which gave you the confidence to be that ambivalent?
Yeah, absolutely. It feels like it’s the thing du jour to do a little bit, and it was something we had to fight for. Because we’re in Hollywood and that’s how we were trying to make this film and we had to find the right producers, we had to come up with a list of films that do it this way, both on the lack of exposition about his backstory. We looked at All is Lost and The Red Turtle – these films are going to Cannes, you guys want to go to Cannes?
One day years and years ago when I still had cable and I happened to get to a channel which was a black screen and [realized] I’m catching something that is coming back from commercial. When it faded up it was a fish swimming around and then the spear comes in and gets the fish, you tilt up and, oh, I’m watching Castaway and it’s Tom Hanks on the island. I watched the rest of the film from there and I started thinking, wow, this almost works better without the setup with Helen Hunt and him working for FedEx and etc. You get these little mysteries that keep you engaged with the film. I thought how interesting could that be just as a feature film in general.
You’ve lived with this film since last May, could you talk about the experience of showing at Cannes and how the film has grown and shaped you over the last few months as you’ve come more comfortable with it, as it recedes into memory for you?
When we first screened it at Cannes, there were only 30 or 40 people who had seen the film. We never did test screenings or anything like that. So it was still a question of whether or not people would like the film. I did the disservice to myself of looking up some crowd reactions at Cannes and I saw that they are very vocal about it when they don’t like a film, so I was ready and prepping myself for the film to be booed at Cannes, just in case. It was a 2300 person theatre, everyone was wearing tuxedos, giving us a standing ovation, so that was great validation for what we had done and the chances that we had taken, the chances that the producers were willing to trust us with. Go for it, they said, if we’re going to lean into this, lean into it hard. So that was great validation.
But when you first finish something, call it a commercial, call it a music video, call it a feature film especially, you see all of its flaws. You have been pixel peeping for the last few weeks, looking for, oh, is that a footprint? I had done some of the effects myself, so literally I was looking at it for its components still. When we had our New York premiere over half a year later, I had some time away from it, so I was able to watch the film for what it was. I remember turning to my co-writer next to me and I was like, Jesus, Mads Mikkelsen’s a really good actor! I’d forgotten. It’s almost like when you work on something comedic, you forget that something’s a joke until you watch it with an audience and they start laughing and you kind of are startled for a second because it’s become parts to you.
I was able to take a deep breath and watch the film for what it was, forgetting that I was looking for footprints.
That must be a rewarding moment.
[Arctic is] something I’m really proud of. For my first commercial, I wanted to make sure it was a big and beautiful and great commercial, my first short film, I wanted to make sure that it was the best short film that was on Youtube at the time. [This is] my first feature film, I wanted to make sure that it got into some kind of festival. So I’m proud that we’ve been able to do that.