'Kon-Tiki' Directors Discuss the Making of Their Offshore Epic (Q&A)

Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg talk to THR about Harvey Weinstein, Michael Douglas and how they turned their beloved childhood story into an Oscar nominee.

Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg grew up steeped in stories of how their intrepid countryman Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific in 1947 on board a balsa-wood raft dubbed the Kon-Tiki.  They were thrilled when British producer Jeremy Thomas, who owned the rights to Heyerdahl’s story, approached them to bring their vision of this epic adventure to the screen. It later transpired that Harvey Weinstein had also been inspired by the Kon-Tiki expedition as a child. On the eve of its release in the US under the Weinstein banner Ronning and Sandberg recall the genesis of their Oscar-nominated film and its long voyage to the screen.

PHOTOS: Oscars 2013: 16 Icons Come Together for THR's Oscar Issue

THR: Is it true you shot your $16.6 million film in two languages simultaneously?

Ronning: Yes we shot it in Norwegian and in English. It was because of financing basically.

THR: Did that help persuade Harvey Weinstein to pick it up for distribution in the US?

Ronning: Harvey was interested from the get-go. He grew up with the story. When he was in elementary school or something like that he had to give an oral presentation to the class for the very first time. He did it on the Kon-Tiki. So he had a very strong personal relationship with it. He actually saw the off-line and started calling Jeremy (Thomas) well over a year ago.

THR: How did you come on board the film as directors?

Ronning: When we did our previous movie called Max Manus which was a WWII movie we started looking around for what could be our next project and Kon-Tiki was the story we wanted to tell. We started calling around – this was in 2007/2008 – and we called Norwegian producer Aage Aaberge who had made several documentaries with Thor Heyerdahl and asked him who had the rights to Kon-Tiki. He said: “No, just forget about it; it’s an English producer and he wants to make a Hollywood movie out of it.” So we finished Max Manus and it became the highest grossing domestic Norwegian movie ever in theaters.  Then a couple of months later Jeremy Thomas telephones us and he was looking for someone to direct Kon-Tiki basically. So it was a coincidence. It was something that we were dying to do.

VIDEO: Harvey Weinstein Reveals Why Roger Ebert Called Him 'King of Cannes'

THR: Didn’t Thomas buy the rights to Heyerdahl’s book about his adventure back in 2002?

Ronning: Yes. There’s a good story behind that. It was actually brought to him by Michael Douglas. A Swedish industrialist Johan Stenersen had the rights and by coincidence he bumped into Michael Douglas at an art sale in New York. They’re both art lovers and got to talking. At first I don’t think he knew who Michael Douglas was. They had dinner together and Douglas said: “There are two great stories I know of which are Norwegian.” One was “The Heroes of Telemark” which starred his father Kirk Douglas and the other one was Kon-Tiki. So Stenersen said: “Oh is that right? Kon-Tiki I have.” He then said to Douglas: “Shall we make it into a Hollywood movie?” Douglas said: “No, you should take it to Jeremy Thomas.” He said basically that the movie needed to be made the right way and that he was the producer that could do it the right way.

THR: Why do you think it took so long to bring Kon-Tiki to the screen?

Ronning: Shooting on water is always difficult.

Sandberg: We wanted the film to be this exotic experience and to show people the wonder of nature. So I would say that the wildlife is very important to the story. To make a whale shark and the other sharks CGI needed to be at a certain level. Personally we had never seen sharks in movies that we felt were one hundred percent life-like.

Ronning: The reason why it worked so well in Jaws is because you basically never see the shark. We had to have it on deck and everything. So I think that was part of the reason it hadn’t been made before because it would have been too expensive.

THR: How long has this kind of CGI been available?

Sandberg: I would say very recently. We feel that we’ve never seen better sharks than the ones we have. So it just happened now, I would say.

Ronning: There are over 500 FX shots in the film.

THR: Was it all done by Scandinavian companies?

STORY: Berlin 2013: 'Kon-Tiki' Star Tobias Santelmann Joins 'Northman'

Sandberg: Yes.

THR: Do you think it shows the world that the Scandinavian film industry is developing along advanced lines?

Sandberg: Absolutely. It means that our industry is being treated by others as more professional than it was.  There’s been a big change in Norway as well by the way the system works. It’s much more open now so that you can make all kinds of movies. Back in the day we had a (state-run) film committee which controlled everything which got made. It was set free about ten years ago. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland were all involved in making Kon-Tiki.

THR: Does it signal an increased level of co-operation between Scandinavian countries?

Sandberg: Yes it really was a Pan-Scandinavian production. I think it’s important for us to tell these bigger stories and that has been happening in Scandinavia lately with films like Denmark’s A Royal Affair which was also nominated at the Oscars. They cost more but the audience wants that. They respond to that. We believe that’s partly because there’s so much great drama on television. So we have to step up when we make movies for the theatres. To make people come we have to tell bigger stories and tell them in a more epic way.