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'Kon-Tiki': How a Crazy, Unlikely Journey Became a Crazy, Unlikely Film

Kon-Tiki Still - H 2013
The Weinstein Company

A world famous trip on a raft across the Pacific was turned into an Oscar nominated film during a six-nation, water-bound shoot.

In 1947, a Norwegian ethnographer with a wild theory and a flair for adventure decided to risk all his considerable blessings in a quest for scientific validation.

If no one would accept Thor Heyerdahl's hypothesis that Polynesian people could have descended from South American migrants who had sailed on rafts across the Pacific Ocean more than 1500 years ago, he would just have to make the trip himself. It was a seemingly preposterous idea, constructing a 45 foot long raft made of balsa wood logs, with just a small hut for protection, but he wanted to simulate the conditions of 1500 years ago as precisely as possible. He had a few modern tools -- a radio, stove and video camera -- but he and his crew of five men set sail under skies of doubt.

Despite all the odds, the trip was a success, a 4,300 mile journey made in 101 days with all its crew alive and well. Heyerdahl became a hero and celebrity, selling 50 million copies of his book about the journey, and winning an Oscar for the documentary about his time at sea, as well.

Now, nearly 65 years since the first journey, the trip has been re-created in a film by Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; the movie was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, and is now opening in American theaters. Just making a film about the adventure was a massive feat, and in a recent chat, the pair told The Hollywood Reporter about the crazy production.

THR: I know it's a true story, but it’s almost too insane to be true. If you made it as a fiction movie, it’d be too unbelievable.

Ronning: Well the story of Kon-Tiki and Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific always had a presence. We’re from a small town in the south of Norway, and it’s only ten minutes away from where Thor Heyerdahl comes from. He always had a presence when we grew up, and Espen and I, we started making films together when we were about ten years old, actually. And we even decided when we were ten or eleven years old that we wanted to become filmmakers, so we’ve been going at it for a while. And Thor Heyerdahl, he was also the only Norwegian to win an Academy Award, and he was also a filmmaker, and in that regard, a huge inspiration for us.

THR: Is he a huge national hero in Norway?

Sandberg: Yes, he’s definitely a hero back home.

THR: He had this theory, that people had moved from South America to Asia. And while that seems to be wrong, the way he tried to prove it became his legacy.

Ronning: I think he had a very strong urge to question authority. I think that the more doors that got slammed in his face, the more determined he became into proving his theory, and I think it was important for him to prove that they could have done it, they could have sailed from Peru to Polynesia 1500 years ago. But that being said, he probably didn’t sell 50 million of the Kon-Tiki book because people are into migration theory; it’s because he was also a great storyteller and adventurer.

THR: He survived, so he was a hero, but had he died, he’d have been a crazy person. So there’s a fine line between national icon and insane person who died on a little raft in the middle of the ocean.

Ronning: I think in a way, Espen and I saw a little bit of ourselves in Thor Heyerdahl. He spends many, many years trying to get acceptance for his theory and he’s spent his life going on many expeditions, and I think going on an expedition is a little like making a movie -- the odds are against you, usually, and especially when you’re making such an expensive and logistically difficult and challenging in Scandinavia. So in many ways, our production mirrored the trip of Thor Heyerdahl, except that we didn’t risk our lives.

THR: They say try not to rely on water when making a movie. You did the opposite of that; much of it is on the ocean. Where did you shoot?

Ronning: We shot this movie in six different countries. We started out in Norway; then interior New York scenes we did in Sweden; then we went on to shoot outside New York scenes in Bulgaria; then we went to Malta, and we shot for over a month in open sea.

THR: You shot in the open sea?

Ronning: Yeah, that’s where the magic happened. We had the raft, and that raft was built by Thor’s grandson, Olav, and he actually sailed that raft from Peru to Polynesia in 2006. So the raft in the movie actually made the voyage, so it’s as close as you can possibly get to the real thing.

THR: Did you have to do some repairs to the raft to have it ready for the movie?

Ronning: Not really. It was while we were planning the film, we looked at many options, and suddenly we discovered this raft. It was standing on land, on the coast of Norway, and we drove down and looked at it, and it’s the real deal. It’s balsa wood logs and I think for the actors, to be on the real thing, and actually they had to learn to sail it as well when we were out there, it was one of those lucky coincidences.

THR: How far out to sea were you when you shot?

Sandberg: We were a couple of miles offshore in Malta, but we always saw land, which made it a challenge, because they couldn’t see land in the film. So we had to keep rotating the raft according to where the camera was pointing.

THR: Wow, did people say you were crazy?

Sandberg: Almost everybody said we were crazy to do that, but we wanted the real thing. And Joachim and I had been sailing a lot ourselves, and we thought we could do this, and of course it was very hard and very difficult, but we were also lucky with the weather. When we finished the month, we had to go in the tank in Malta, we shot there for a few weeks. We had to do the night scenes and the storms everything there, because we were not allowed to be on the ocean at night, because Malta is right next to Libya and there was a war at the time. So people were not allowed in. So if we were to do it again, we’d actually spend more time on the open sea and less in the tank.

THR: Were there any close calls or near-accidents?

Sandberg: Not that we know of. But what we did on the ocean is that we’d jump in the water when we’d have lunch. But what we noticed was that the locals had not, and we learned the biggest great white shark ever caught was in Malta. There was another there, we learned later on. But the tourist board doesn’t tell you that.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin