EXCLUSIVE: ‘Kon-Tiki’ Filmmakers Set their Sights on ‘Pirates’


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg are calling from the Walt Disney Studios lot where they are hard at work in pre-production on the next installment of the worldwide box office bonanza “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“We can’t really talk that much about it,” says Ronning, one half of the dynamic filmmaking duo. “What we can say is we’re inspired by the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie. Aside from that, we can’t really go into details.”

Returning in No. 5, titled “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” is Johnny Depp, reprising his role as wily Capt. Jack Sparrow.

“He’s really passionate about it,” Ronning says, treading carefully not to reveal much more.

Working with American writer Jeff Nathanson (“Rush Hour 3,” “Men in Black 3”), the Norwegian filmmaking team has some big shoes to fill. (Americans Gore Verbinski directed the first three films and Rob Marshall directed the fourth. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote all four “Pirates” films.)

Fans of the “Pirates” franchise need not fret, if Ronning and Sandberg’s previous body of work is any indication. Most notably, they helmed the critically acclaimed seafaring adventure drama “Kon-Tiki,” which was an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film earlier this year. That film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray combo pack, which contain both the original Norwegian-language and English language versions. They were shot at the same time, which added to the length of the production but made the film more commercial to a wider audience, the filmmakers say.

Additionally, there are bonus features, including a segment on how some of the effects, such as a shark frenzy scene and a reef scene were made and a background feature on the Heyerdahl’s, whose grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, recreated the 5,000-mile raft trip in 2006.

“Kon-Tiki,” made with a miniscule budget (by Hollywood standards) of $15 million, tells the true story of Thor Heyerdahl, a Ryan Gosling-handsome Norwegian adventurer who set sail in 1947 on a home-made raft (made of balsa wood and rope) from Lima, Peru to prove his theory that South Americans were the first settlers in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. (The conventional wisdom at the time was that Polynesians had settled in South America.)

Heyerdahl recruited a crew of five men for the treacherous journey, which took 101 days across the Pacific. The adventure film, starring Pal Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl, is based on a documentary Heyerdahl made of his incredible journey—on a raft made of materials pre-Columbians would have used. It won an Academy Award in 1951, which, to this day, is the first and only feature film from Norway to do so.

Growing up in a small town adjacent to Heyerdahl’s birthplace, Ronning and Sandberg were quite aware of Norway’s famous adventurer. As children, they had visited a museum in Oslo filled with artifacts of his journey, including Heyerdahl’s original raft. After years of making other films (including the offbeat Western “Bandidas,” starring Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek), Ronning and Sandberg finally got the chance to make their dream project last year (shooting off the coast of Malta subbing for the Pacific). With their relatively small budget, they shot most of their film on the open water over the course of a month, instead of in a massive tank as many big-budget Hollywood movies with giant effects budgets do.

Q: What was the advantage of shooting on the open water?

Ronning: It was great for the actors to be on the raft, on the water. It was a real adventure.

Q: You filmed “Kon-Tiki” in English and in Norwegian. How much did you have to reshoot?

Sandberg: We pretty much had to shoot everything twice. The reason why is that Thor Heyerdahl is very well known in Norway. He’s like an icon. He also was very well known for having a very strong accent when he spoke English. In the Norwegian movie, when he speaks English, he has to have that accent, but in the English version, where everybody speaks English, that was too much. So Pal (Sverre Hagen) he had to speak the English lines twice with different accents. It was quite a challenge for him. But it was all worth it because usually Norwegian movies don’t travel and “Kon-Tiki” has been sold to over 70 countries.

Q: Did Pal speak English before this film?

Sandberg: Everybody in Norway speaks English.

Ronning: We don’t dub our films in Scandinavia. Children learn English there in elementary school.

Q: Did anyone get seasick or get sunstroke?

Sandberg: Not really. We were lucky with the weather and most of us had been to sea before so we were used to the water. The only thing is we always went swimming at lunchtime to cool down and we noticed none of the locals did that. They told us there are some very big fish in the area and later we learned that the biggest great white shark was found off the coast of Malta. It was just like in “Jaws.”

Q: Did you model the raft after Thor’s craft?

Sandberg: The raft in the movie was built by (Thor’s) grandson. We took that raft and made sure it looked like (the original) Kon-Tiki in our film. So the raft in our movie is as close to the real thing as you can possibly get. It made the voyage.

Q: Was there anything that Thor wrote in his book about his adventure that you couldn’t shoot?

Sandberg: When the raft goes over the reef, Thor actually was swallowed by a huge wave and disappeared, but then a few seconds later he was pushed back onto the raft by another wave. We thought that was too crazy so we took out. Of course, we also were restricted by time so we had to make choices. But the true story is the more fantastic one.

Q: What was your first connection with Thor’s story and why did you want to make the movie?

Sandberg: We grew up in a small town called Sandefjord, and the next town over, which is even smaller, is called Larvik, which is where Thor came from. When we grew up, he was a big hero for us as filmmakers. He’s the only Norwegian ever to win an Academy Award (for a feature film). He did that with the “Kon-Tiki” documentary. He showed us that when there’s a will, there’s a way. That was very important for us because there were no filmmakers out of Norway that have managed to break out, so to speak. When we were young we went to the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo and saw the real raft. When you walk into the basement of the museum, you are under the raft and they have a huge model of the whale shark and that sparked our imagination. We just wanted to make that thing come alive and we wanted to tell the epic adventure on the big screen. We are strong believers in making epic movies and the story of the Kon-Tiki is just perfect for it.

Q: There are few places left on Earth for exploration. Is this film a bit nostalgic about another era?

Ronning: A little bit. When Thor went out on the ocean 60 years ago, it was one of the last undiscovered places on Earth. When they went out for the 101 days they were out, they never saw any other boats. They were completely alone. When his grandson and his crew did the trip a few years ago, every day they saw a tanker on the horizon. It’s another time. It’s a pity that the space program has slowed down. It’s so expensive to go up there so that’s why we have that shot where the camera pulls up into space and back.

Sandberg: We wanted the movie to serve an inspiration to audiences. Everybody has a dream of traveling somewhere—either climbing a mountain or taking a boat to sea or driving Route 66 to challenge themselves. Hopefully, we’ll inspire people to do that.

Q: Did scientists ever do a DNA test to support Thor’s theory that Peruvians once inhabited Polynesia, and got there via a raft?

Sandberg: They did and it did not support his theory. But Thor had another theory that the people living there now killed off the people that came there on the raft. There’s a story about the “long ears.” So there is, at least, a legend supporting his story.

Q: Where are you in the production process of “Pirates 5?”

Ronning: We’re in pre-production. We’ve been working on it for a couple of months already so every day we have to pinch ourselves. Just being here and being in the middle of it with the best crew in the world and the best producers in the world, is unbelievable.

Sandberg: Jeff (Nathanson) has written a fantastic script. It’s great and so funny.

Q: Since you are going to be working with a much bigger budget for “Pirates 5,” will that present greater challenges for you or make it easier to shoot it? And will you use some of your Norwegian crew and actors?

Ronning: It will always be daunting going into a movie. It was daunting going into “Kon-Tiki” because, for us, $15 million was huge. The principle is the same, basically, it is just more people involved. That’s the big difference. We’re hoping to draw upon some of our Norwegian crew and Scandinavian actors.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works before “Pirates 5?”

Ronning: We are producing a Norwegian movie called “Beatles.” It’s based on a Norwegian bestselling book (by Lars Saabye Christiansen about four Beatles-obsessed Norwegian boys who adopt the names of their favorite Fab Four band members). We were able to get the original Beatles recordings. They’re shooting it as we speak.