There are still a few regions in this world where nature reigns, and humans must learn to adapt to her whims. Arctic, the debut feature by Brazilian filmmaker and YouTube sensation Joe Penna, follows a stranded man (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen) as he struggles to survive on one of the last true frontiers. Produced by Armory Films, the house behind last year’s pioneering Oscar-nominated drama Mudbound, Arctic premiered to acclaim at Cannes this May. Honeysuckle sat down with Tim Zajaros, Armory’s co-founder, for some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from this icy new epic.
How did you come to produce this film?
Noah Haussner, one of the other producers, sent us the script and the look book [pitch deck]. The intention was to shoot in Iceland, although other locations were in consideration. The Icelandic look was absolutely breathtaking and that’s what really got my attention. I read the script and immediately saw the potential. I had a few comments/notes I wanted to share with Joe Penna and [co-writer] Ryan Morrison. They implemented the changes incredibly fast and exceptionally well. We all sat down for lunch, discussed the project and bit more and decided to move forward together. The whole process from getting the script to getting into production was quite fast. Maybe a few months at most.
How did you get Mads Mikkelsen for the lead ? What was it like working with him?
This was one of the rare instances where you land the first and only actor you go out to. Typically, it’s quite a process casting a movie. I credit the script, Joe Penna’s vision and ability to communicate that, and Martha de Laurentiis for making it all happen so quickly with Mads. Martha had produced the show Hannibal with Mads, so she was able to get the script to the top of the pile of offers he had. Joe and the script were able to do the rest.
As for working with Mads, he was absolutely amazing. I mean, I don’t think the word “dedicated” is strong enough to really communicate how much he cares for his work. The shoot was incredibly difficult being out in the snow and very far from civilization 98 percent of the time. While there was a trailer and vans for Mads if he wanted to get in from the cold, he really never did. He remained on set almost the entire time. He wanted to do everything as well. No stunt doubles, no doubles of any kind. He’s so aware of his movements and how the character carries himself, he didn’t want anyone else to do even the simplest tasks, because he wanted to be sure the film and the character maintained [their] authenticity and honesty. He really thought very much like a producer and kept incredibly detailed notes on his script. None like I’d ever seen. He knew what we’d shot and what we needed every day. On top of that, he’s just an awesome guy. Incredibly nice, fun and down to earth. As you’ve probably gathered, I loved working with him and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Was anyone on the crew in particular concerned or aware of climate change? The Arctic is one of the Earth’s great measures of climate effects. During The Revenant, for example, I think they continually had to hunt for snow.
This was a MAJOR issue for us. We were absolutely chasing snow. You think Iceland and you’d think it’s got to be all snow all the time, at least in winter. This was not the case. In fact, our production got incredibly lucky. Snow was sparse up until three to four days before we started principal photography, at which point we got one of the largest snowfalls Iceland had seen in years. If that would not have happened, we would have spent thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars to make snow. A production that took place literally right before ended up having to do that. I believe they spent upwards of $200,000 on making snow. In short yes, EVERYONE was both aware and concerned.
If you could please contrast the environmental experience on Mudbound with Arctic…
Similar to Arctic, we would get frequent weather changes when shooting Mudbound in Louisiana. It was ALWAYS extraordinarily hot and humid, but it also stormed generally once a day, and when that happened, lightning and thunder would accompany the rain, which would mean we had to stop shooting for safety reasons. The difficulty was really when bigger storms would come and cause massive delays. For example, our 29-day Mudbound shoot ended up becoming a 27-day shoot due to losing two days to major storms. Unfortunately, because weather in Louisiana is so unpredictable and storms are so common, you can’t purchase insurance for those days. Thus, if you lose a day to weather, you don’t get it back unless you take from somewhere else in the budget. On Mudbound, when we lost a day, it was simply lost.
The same was true with Arctic; there wasn’t insurance for weather. If it stormed and we had to stop, it wouldn’t qualify for an insurance day. Thus, everything that was to be shot on a day you lost now has to be scheduled into the remaining shoot days, which is a real challenge when you’re already on a tight schedule.
The two films were completely different in that Arctic was shot in Iceland and it was very cold and snowy, whereas Mudbound, being shot in the summer, outside of Louisiana, was extremely hot and humid. It’s literally one extreme and then the other. I’m not really sure from a climate standpoint which was worse. It took a good fifteen minutes to get ready to brave the cold every day (LOTS of winter clothing) and oftentimes was very difficult to stay warm; however, the extreme heat and humidity in the south during the summer is also truly brutal.
Mads has said this is the most physically difficult shoot he’s ever done. Did the crew experience similar challenges out in the elements?
90 percent of the people on set were from Iceland. Thus, the climate is something they are incredibly familiar with. Our crew was a bunch of Vikings, and I say this in the most endearing way. While the rest of us are freezing and trying to figure out better ways to stay warm, we’ve got set [decorators] digging snow with their shirts off.
The weather was still very much a challenge for everyone in that it changed almost hourly. This made scheduling almost impossible. While we did have a schedule, it changed depending on what was forecasted for the next day. The problem was oftentimes we’d have to wait to see what the weather was like in the morning and then decide what we were going to shoot. Fortunately, the team from Pegasus Pictures was incredible. I don’t know how we could have pulled the film off without them. Every member of the production staff was invaluable. Our small, nimble team allowed us to quickly and easily make last-minute decisions that afforded us the ability to make our film on time and on budget. I can’t credit them enough.
Tim Zajaros is a producer and co-founder of Armory Films. Originally from Michigan, he now lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit armoryfilms.com.