Erik Skjoldbjærg Writer/Director

April 5th, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

Erik Skjoldbjærg is best known for his films INSOMNIA and PROZAC NATION. Here he talks to Matthew Turner about the making of the film, which co-wrote and directed:

MT: How did the project come about, first of all? Obviously, it’s based on a true story…

ES: It’s based on true events, but the story, the way we put it together, I would say it’s fictional, the characters are invented, but inspired by the real people. The producer and two screenwriters had this idea whilst they were attending film school in Norway. The producer came to me in 2007 with an idea – it didn’t exist as a script at that point, it was just an idea of making a film about the point when we secured our oil resources and what it required, in terms of human expenses. So that was 2007, I was working on a different film at the time – I think I was doing a TV series and then a feature, so I didn’t start really working on this until 2011. Before that we were working on financing and there was script work to be done, but I worked on it since 2011, quite intensively.

MT: What kind of research did you do?

ES: We went and talked to some of these divers. Quite a few. We talked to the physiologists and a professor of modern oil history and then we started looking through archive material. When we got to that point it got a bit more tricky, because the oil companies, they were sceptical about giving us access. But a lot of this is publicly accessible anyway. And I like doing research – the last film I did was based entirely on research – it was a heist movie called Nokas. It was very popular in Norway, but for some reason didn’t travel that much. And that really gave me an appetite for doing research and I gained a lot from it, in many ways. So we started going into all these materials and it turns out that 99 divers died in the North Sea during the 70s, in various accidents. And quite a few of these accidents, the conclusion, if any, no-one really believes in. So I started looking into that. It’s such a big, complex amount of material that we had to sort of try and make it into a storyline and a coherent character journey, where we sort of blended various real people together into a character. But I’d say a lot of the situations you see are for real, like the experiment at the very start, it took place and they did hallucinate and they did see a bird and they did change the gas, all these things. And also just technically, to fully understand what is beyond actually just mechanically going down there at that level, why is it so dangerous and why is it something no-one’s done before. You know, we’ve had a man on the moon, why can’t we send someone four hundred metres down?

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MT: You very deliberately have that echo of the moon landings, there’s that line about one small step for man. How did you approach the underwater sequences?

ES: In talking to all these divers, they told me this is weather dependent, because of currents and all sorts of stuff, but sometimes you could see, way, way away, far, far, far away and up towards, you could see the light of the boat, like a little dot. The light is really clear – and you’ve got to remember how dark it is, they told me. So at that point I was looking through all these underwater films and I found them not satisfactory, in the sense that they didn’t have any dynamics, they didn’t have proper depth of field, because the waters had turned muddy, which is what happens if you go diving nearly anywhere. So the production went on a quest, to try and find a place to shoot where you could guarantee clear water or infinite visibility. We did sort of think, well, could we do dry-for-wet sort of techniques and stuff, but they’re more Hollywood-based – my feeling was we wouldn’t have the proper resources to do it, so we would get somewhere in the middle and we’d run out of money and it wouldn’t look organic. So we kept pursuing this idea of where we could find clear water.

MT: So you shot them in a real location? You didn’t use a water tank?

ES: No, we went to Iceland and shot all the wide shots in an underwater crevice. It was glacier water, which has been filtered by lava sand for fifteen miles and then it sort of enters this crevice, but it has a current and it’s crystal clear and it’s ice cold. And because of that, we had to have professional divers to stand in some of the wide shots, because the equipment which we had established – the Pioneer diving equipment – we couldn’t use any warm elements or whatever. So it was a Finnish team who sort of experimented on how long you could be in two degrees Celsius water without freezing to death or something or something close to that. And they presented us with the idea we could shoot forty-five minutes twice a night, because we had to shoot at nights with the darkness and all that. So it meant we had to try and do six set-ups in one go, before they came up – I had to plan with the camera and everything, meticulously, what to do before they went down.

MT: So were you underwater for those sequences too?

ES: I experimented with going underwater to get the sense of it, but I didn’t go underwater while we were shooting, because it made no sense – it was better to be looking at the monitor and directing. Well, I’m not comfortable with water anyway, so I mean not for myself, but I like to think that it made more sense, to me, to stand up on top. It was freezing cold there as well and when you see the divers come up and they’re a sort of ash colour and they’re shaking uncontrollably, I didn’t realise that what I would be going through up on top, there’s a whole other level to what it means to freeze, you know?

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MT: How did you approach the casting? Obviously you have both Norwegian actors and American actors, but you also have Stephanie Sigman, from Miss Bala. How did she get involved?

ES: I introduced this idea of a Mexican woman [as a character] – I was sort of inspired by the fact that these divers travelled the world and they were sort of quite ahead of their time. There was an odd community in Mexico, but I guess it’s also a metaphor for what Norway’s kind of gone on to do, when we started moving out in the world. So there was a Mexican character there, but the problem was we couldn’t afford to go to a Mexican casting agency, so I was looking at YouTube and I was looking at Mexican telenovelas [Mexican soap operas] and that was my method of casting, until I came across Miss Bala. There were five short sequences that were put out for promotion and I looked at one of them and I immediately thought there’s a whole different level to her performance. So that’s where I saw her for the first time and then I saw the movie and we got in touch with her.

MT: And the American cast, Wes Bentley and Stephen Lang?

ES: Through an American casting agency, but they did tell us you had to be really calm about this, because no American actors with a name, you know, or within the film community is going to go for a supporting part in a small, small-ish in their term, Scandinavian movie before three weeks in advance, because if there’s a lead that comes up, they don’t want to be tied. So we started looking when there was like a month before shooting and I think Wes Bentley showed a genuine interest early on – I never really talked to him about it, but my impression was that he’d seen some of my earlier work, probably Insomnia or something, so he got on board two or three weeks beforehand. Stephen Lang was probably just like a week before [shooting] and even tighter with Jonathan LaPaglia. So it was nerve-wracking from our point of view – it took all our energy in the last three weeks before shooting.

MT: You were talking about American actors not necessarily wanting to play supporting roles, but also the lead is quite unconventional-looking for a heroic lead-type. I mean, I know Aksel Hennie is a well-known actor, but was that a deliberate decision?

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ES: Yeah. I was insistent – have you seen HEADHUNTERS? I was insistent that he was going to use his own hair, because this is a wet element, you know, so I asked Aksel to grow into his 70s look, which we had a lot of documentary material for. And Aksel, like most really professional, good actors, whatever it takes for the character, they call this the physicality of how you approach the character, it’s very important, I think, for how you mentally grow into your part. But I was talking to Aksel a couple of years before shooting – there was no other candidate.

MT: Did you have to cut anything out that maybe had to go, but that you were sorry to lose?

ES: I tend to forget these things, because film-making is so intense. But we did – there were some sequences that we changed, yeah. For economic reasons and for practical reasons. I don’t think the impact of the story – I find it hard to tell, I must say, because it’s like this process you need to go through and you make your decision and you filter it and eventually you come out with a movie and it feels like, well, that’s the way it had to be made, to become what it is. So there were definitely things I would have wanted to do, but once you put them behind you, I just suppress them from my mind.

MT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?

ES: I think probably the most difficult – there were two things: one is, in terms of this vast amount of material and the point in Norwegian history, probably the most important modern historical point, it’s what we base our current wealth on, so to dig into the history and then try and mould a genre piece out of that, the combination of that was a challenge which we were dealing with for quite a while. And then in terms of shooting, it’s the underwater stuff and figuring out how to – I believe in the sense that a film should physically carry you somewhere and preferably somewhere you’ve never been. And for this film it was obvious where I really wanted it to go, but the question was how to achieve it within a Scandinavian version, which wasn’t obvious at all, so that was a push.

MT: I wanted tell you, I’ve had a hearing imbalance in my head for the last week or so, where it feels like my head is half underwater. So Pioneer was pretty much the perfect film to see in that state, because the people on screen were experiencing pretty much what’s been going on in my head for the last ten days. So it seemed quite appropriate.

ES: On that note, I’d like to compliment the sound designer, who was a French guy. He was experimenting, he tried to push – in reality, the voices go much more squeaky and they’re unintelligible, there’s no way you can understand what they’re saying. But we didn’t want it to become like a Disney feel, you know? But they really did, the French sound designer and mixer, they were pushing this sound design, to try and convey that sort of sense of the mental strain and how it influences you. The divers were saying – that was one thing I came away with with doing all the research, I realised to what extent their whole existence was these really tiny, claustrophobic spaces they were sitting in for weeks and then they run into this sort of infinite ocean feel and to try and get that right was part of the challenge.

MT: Do you know what your next project is?

ES: I’m currently working on a TV series, which is based on an idea by the crime author Jo Nesbo, who wrote Headhunters. It’s called OCCUPIED and I’m set to do that.

PIONEER IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 11 APRIL 2014 IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

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