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Interview: Joe Penna on Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen, polar bears and YouTube

Updated 12-05-19 | 10:20 AM | Staff Reporter

Reading time: 10 mins

Arctic is a survival thriller in which Mads Mikkelsen plays a man stranded in the Arctic Circle waiting for rescue, only for a helicopter that finds him to crash, killing the pilot and forcing Mikkelsen’s character to have to tend to a severely injured passenger while barely keeping himself alive.

It’s visceral, absorbing stuff. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that director Joe Penna’s background is as a YouTube content producer for over 12 years – his main channel, as MysteryGuitarMan, has nearly 3 million subscribers and has racked up around 400 million video views.

How does someone goes from the culture of YouTube influencer to making their directorial debut (an on-location survival thriller in harsh terrain, shot in Iceland in under a month) with a major international star in a close to wordless performance? And not only that, but managing to get that debut feature to premiere at Cannes last year? We sit down with Penna to talk Mads, polar bears and more.

How did the concept for this film come about?

I found an image of Mars on Reddit and it was an image from the ground level of Mars. It had trees and grasses that were planted; this red earth. It was almost like one day in the far, far future when we’re working on terraforming Mars and making it habitable, but we’re not quite there yet. It wasn’t like a lush, beautiful green place. It would be difficult to survive in that situation; the trees were barely hanging on. And I felt like this would be such an interesting place to set a film. I wondered what story it could be. So, I brought it to my co-writer [Ryan Morrison] and we started thinking about it and we just vomited out a draft in about two weeks that was exactly what Arctic was.

And we sent it to our agents and they said ‘Oh, this is great. Okay, we love the story, but maybe go on YouTube right now and check out the trailer for a Ridley Scott movie called The Martian.’ That was stepping on our toes a little bit and we were bummed out. But then we started thinking ‘I like the story still, let’s move it to somewhere else. It doesn’t need to be Mars. Can’t it be the Sahara Desert? Can’t it be the Arctic?’ And then we moved it to the Arctic. Instead of it being that he can’t breathe, it’s that he’s cold.

Your leading man, Mads Mikkelsen, told Variety last year it was the most difficult shoot he’s ever done.

It was an incredibly difficult shoot, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. It was 40 mile-an-hour winds while we were trying to get a really emotional scene. There was a moment where he opened the door and the car door broke off and flew about 100 metres away and we lost it for a few days.

It was a 19-day shoot. If I had to shoot a feature film in 19 days in a room, I would be shaking in my boots, but to shoot it in an unforgiving landscape that is constantly changing… That was the biggest issue: weather continuity was all over the place, because we had four or five different weather apps and they would say four or five wildly different things about the next day, and it would all be right at certain times of the day. They have a saying there: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.

“I said [to Mads] : ‘We’ll plop you down in the Arctic. Best of luck.’”

What did Mikkelsen’s preparation for this role involve?

Well, we talked about preparation and we had people ready to give him survival training and things like that. But Mads had an interesting thought. He said that if this guy didn’t prepare, that he was just plopped down and he needs to survive and MacGyver his way out, then why should he be prepared? And I said, ‘That’s a great question. We’ll plop you down in the Arctic. Best of luck.’

I imagine that’s one of the reasons why it was so hard for him because it was hard for the character. Trudge through the snow for 30 minutes because we all have to step into each other’s footprints to make it look like there’s only one person here instead of a crew of 60. We were told the weather was going to be awful, so we prepared as much as we could. I’ve never seen so many hand warmers in my life and I’ve never used hand warmers in different places on my body. Stuffing it into my boot and things like that.

The hardest thing, definitely, was the polar bear shoot, because by the time that we were ready to film with the polar bear, Mads had already gone, hilariously off working on a film called Polar. We had already shot Mads’ side of things, so we needed a wild animal to hit her marks, basically; to play against the pre-recorded footage of Mads. And she was a diva. We were told that there’s no food allowed where we’re to film her, for almost a week prior, because otherwise she smells it and if she can’t find it, she gets upset and she tears up the set. We can’t have fake snow because otherwise she steps into it and she tears up the set and goes into her trailer and doesn’t come out. There were a lot of things that ended with, ‘And then she tears up the set.’ She’s 900 pounds and evil! No, she’s a really, really kind bear.

I’m sure Mads was just as temperamental.

Oh yeah, almost as temperamental. It was tough for Mads, too, because he’s in every single frame of the film. Usually, the way that it works for a big star like that is you’re staying in your trailer for three hours and then we bring you out and you do a couple of shots and then go back to your trailer. Not for Mads. He said he slept in his costume for a good majority of the shoot because he was so exhausted; he would just plonk down in his bed and then wake up in the morning and keep going.

What are the best survival movies that you’ve seen? What other films inspired you?

I saw a lot of survival films in preparation for this. There is this animated film called The Red Turtle that was animated in a way that was so interesting to me. It was almost like a nature documentary. A lot of still shots and the way that there were little mysteries in that film that I completely copied for my film… In that film, there’s a lot of the protagonist looking at something and you stay on his face and his face changes and there’s surprise and you’re wondering, ‘What is it? What is that? Come on, show me, show me, show me, show me.’ And then it takes you two or three shots to be able to understand what it is. We did that a lot in Arctic, from the script phase, even.

How did you land on your shooting style in collaboration with your cinematographer, Tómas Örn Tómasson?

We had a different DP that flew to Iceland, an Academy award nominated DP. And two weeks before the shoot, I said, ‘This isn’t going to work. I need somebody who is an Icelandic native.’ The rest of our crew was Icelandic and this person was looking at the environment and looking at the shots from an outsider’s perspective. And that’s what I was doing as a Brazilian man who does not belong in the Arctic. But this DP was doing it, the same thing, and it almost became a voyeuristic approach. I needed it to be a lot more grounded and a lot simpler, in a way. So, I brought in an Icelandic DP who said, ‘I don’t need any lights to shoot this film. We’re not going to shoot it with a single light.’ And we didn’t. There’s literally one shot in the film where we have a movie light and it’s him waking up in the morning. The rest of the film is shot naturally.

“On YouTube, I am limited by the constraints of my ability…”

With your YouTube Channel, you must be used to having full control over a production. Did that have an influence on how you made this film?

The biggest thing for me was that on YouTube, I am limited by the constraints of my ability, or was until I started working with other people on YouTube videos. And with bigger productions like this, this feature film especially, I’m able to hire people who are just as passionate as I am about filmmaking, but only about a certain aspect of it. Joseph Trapanese, our composer, has had such an illustrious career. He had done such huge films, amazing scores, and he was wholly dedicated to this film. And then, our sound mixer got an Academy Award nomination in the middle of our sound session. Our sound editor had worked on Frozen, had worked on all of these amazing films. Our colourist had just done the Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight. So, he had just done so many beautiful white vistas full of snow. And they all brought so much to this film and made it rise above the sum of its parts. When every single aspect of the film has so much attention and care put into it, then it starts to become something that’s pretty special.

This past year has been notable for early YouTube content creators moving into films, like yourself and Bo Burnham with Eighth Grade. What made you want to post videos on the platform back in the day in the first place?

I was about to go to med school, so I started posting videos to YouTube as one does when they’re about to go to med school. It was very early on YouTube, when even the name was weird to people. I was just so excited about telling stories in that way. I could do exactly what I wanted. I had what was almost like a public film school. Every time that I would post, people would, for some reason, find the videos. And then I started trying to almost decode what it was that made people interested in these videos.

Now, YouTube gives you all of these analytics. They tell you exactly when someone is leaving your video, exactly where you fucked up. So, you start to learn a lot about attention and a lot about what keeps an audience engaged. And then you start breaking those rules purposefully, to throw everything on its head. You start thinking about what gets people excited. And you start thinking that every single thing can become a new idea, a new video. I’m looking at this water bottle, I can do a video with that. You start putting your creativity into everything when you have to make a video twice a week.

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