Man in red parka enters an area of disturbed snow on a mountain top, gets to work clearing snow from the black rocky terrain using a metal pole and scraper, takes a deep sigh then walks toward a small orange-and-white plane. Camera pans up to reveal “SOS” marked out in giant letters, with said man a tiny speck on the landscape. Thus goes the trailer for “Arctic,” the debut feature film of Los Angeles-based Brazilian filmmaker and YouTube sensation Joe Penna.
A raw tale of survival, the film, which made the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival, in the Midnight Screenings section, stars Mads Mikkelsen and was shot in 19 days in Iceland. The Danish actor plays a researcher-explorer who becomes stranded in the icy wilderness after a plane crash, and who after a failed rescue mission is forced to decide whether to stay put or attempt to make his way out of the situation on foot. Newcomer Maria Thelma Smáradóttir is the only other human in the movie.
“The landscape is the main character of the film,” said Mikkelsen fresh from slipping into his bespoke Brioni suit at the Martinez hotel in the countdown to the film’s premiere on Thursday night. The actor took a quick cigarette break with WWD to talk about the experience of making “Arctic.”
WWD: What drew you to this project. Had you met Joe Penna before?
Mads Mikkelsen: No. When I work, I don’t have any time to read anything, I just absorb myself in things and then when I’m done, I start reading stuff. Actually it was low down in the pile for some reason, but I picked it up and I started reading it and I really, really liked it. There are quite a few stranded-man films, some are good and some are not so good, but there are certain traps when you do that. And every time I turned the page I was afraid; let him please not do this — and he didn’t, he was very radical.…There was a very honest feel to the script. So I Skyped [Penna] and I really liked him. For me, the film was about the enormous difference between surviving and being alive. They are two different things. After an hour of talking I said, “Let’s do it.” We started shooting a month and a half later.
WWD: Is there much dialogue in the film?
M.M.: It’s one of these films where you have a non-descript person, you have no idea what his past is, you don’t know anything about his family — if he has one or not. You just meet him after he’s been alone for nine months, and that’s where it takes off. Which is also one of the things I like about it, you don’t have to go down memory lane; we don’t have to have an aunt or a sister on the phone. It was just, this is a person — could be you, could be me — this is the situation.
WWD: Does the film require patience from the viewer?
M.M.: To a degree, but actually, I think it will draw you in. In my case, when I watch films like that I get more curious, I wonder who he is.
WWD: Were you familiar with Iceland already?
M.M.: Yes, it’s my favorite country in the world, not only for the landscape but also for the people. They’re out of this world, there’s nobody like them.
WWD: They don’t care about celebrities.
M.M.: They don’t give a s–t. And the crew, and their energy, they just lift a film like this. A film like this, you need people to believe in it, and they all just went for it.
WWD: I heard you had to stop filming for four days due to the weather conditions.
M.M.: They have a saying in Iceland: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” It’s so radical. In the beginning, we were chasing it because we needed a blizzard here, some sun there, and it was always changing. In the end I said, “Guys, let’s just shoot it as it is, whatever we get, that’s what we do.” There was a day when we opened the car door on the mountain and the door flew off, it just broke off and flew away. Obviously, we couldn’t shoot on that day.
WWD: Were there days when you just couldn’t take it anymore?
M.M.: Yes, every day. Physically, it was by far the most challenging film I’ve done. I couldn’t prepare for it, I didn’t know what I was up against.
WWD: Did you train for it?
M.M.: No. And there wouldn’t be a reason to train for it anyway as this is a man who didn’t train for it. He thought, “Set the pace” because if you go too fast and you only eat a fish once in a while, a raw fish at that, you will not have the strength. It was super tough, a super hard film. It was also surprising how hard it was walking around in snow this deep.
WWD: You’ve done “Star Wars,” you’ve done Marvel Comics, are you more comfortable with smaller projects like this?
M.M.: I’m super comfortable with everything. If I did this kind of film again and again, there would be a certain sense of repetition for me. And likewise if I did a Marvel film over and over. The fact that I can go back-and-forth is what everybody wants to do, and I’m lucky enough to do it.