Some actors don't mince their words. "It was brutal," says Mads Mikkelsen, talking about the shoot for his new film Arctic, a survival story that makes Leonardo DiCaprio's trials in The Revenant look like a walk in the sunshine. The production, set in Iceland, was so rough, they lost six days to extreme weather conditions. "One day, I opened a car door," recalls the actor, "and the door flew off and it went down the mountain and we couldn't step out of the vehicle."
Danish-born Mikkelsen – known to global audiences for his roles in blockbusters such as Casino Royale, Rogue One and Doctor Strange – is certainly no softie. He previously played a Norse warrior in Valhalla Rising, enduring torrid conditions in the Scottish Highlands, but this was worse. "It was with us all the time. We did not go from a glacier into a five-star hotel. We went into a place with a roof."
Nonetheless, the results are there for all to see. Arctic is a spectacular tale of endurance against the elements after Mikkelsen's character, Overgard, crash-lands his tiny plane in the snowy wastes. Like J C Chandor's sea survival tale All Is Lost with Robert Redford, Arctic is stripped-back and pared down – so much so, we don't even see the aforementioned crash.
"We wanted as little backstory as possible with this character," says the film's first-time writer- director Joe Penna – a former YouTube sensation under the name MysteryGuitarMan – who prepped by watching other survival films – 127 Hours, Cast Away, and even the animated feature The Red Turtle. "[In our film] you don't see a wedding ring, you don't see any [family] pictures … then the audience is part of the storytelling, they're making their own movie in their minds. And that helps keep people interested."
Finding the most difficult environment
As Penna’s co-writer (and editor), Ryan Morrison, puts it: “Survival is becoming a genre in itself. We wanted to create something different. It might be polarising, but we wanted to take some chances. You don’t have to show the plane crash at the beginning – that’s inconsequential to the story. If it mattered, we would’ve put it in, but we tried to take a minimalist approach.”
Ironically, Arctic started out as something entirely different. Penna found an image on the internet of what Mars might look like if it went through the hypothetical process of "Terraforming".
“You start planting trees, creating an atmosphere and making it habitable for human beings,” he explains. Talking to Morrison, they decided to craft a survival story set there. “Everybody can understand a person trying to survive being cold or being hungry.” Penna sent the script, entitled “On Mars”, to their agent, who replied with a rather deflating comment.
"He said: 'Have you heard of this film called The Martian?'" Ridley Scott's 2015 tale, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, was already in production; and it sent Penna and Morrison back to the drawing board and a more Earthbound setting. "Joe, as a Brazilian, wanted to move it to some place warm," remarks Morrison, "and as a Boston native, I thought: 'I know that cold is the most difficult environment.'"
'That has something to do with his humanity'
When Mikkelsen received the resulting script, he was hooked. “I loved it right away. I never thought once that it was going to be tough [to make]. I just loved the story. Obviously, mostly the human story … it’s a film about the big difference between surviving and just being alive, which are two very different things.”
As the story starts, Overgard has clearly been in his predicament for weeks, maybe months, just about surviving in the frozen wastes but afraid to venture onwards. It's only when a helicopter crash-lands, with one barely-conscious survivor (Maria Thelma Smaradottir), that he finds the motivation to escape his perilous situation rather than await an unlikely rescue.
“The first time he’s full of action, he takes a woman, saves her … and just before he puts her down he realises, ‘I haven’t touched a person for a year,’” says Mikkelsen. “He steals a hug. Those things were important for us and that has nothing to do with his background. That has something to do with his humanity.”
'It was the scariest shoot of my life'
In reality, shooting Arctic was nightmarish. When it wasn't blighted by extreme weather conditions, the production was chasing the snow, which kept melting. There were also some extremely complex scenes, not least the aforementioned helicopter crash. "We actually had very difficult conditions on that day," says Morrison. "It was on the borderline of what our 'kill' condition would be – it was going to start getting dangerous. But the pilot we used was very, very experienced."
While the helicopter spinning out of control was performed for real, the crash was augmented with visual effects. But for the scene where Overgard is attacked by a polar bear – bringing to mind DiCaprio's bear mauling in The Revenant – the team had to go to Vancouver to film with the world's only trained polar bear, the 22-year-old Aggie. "It was the scariest shoot of my life," laughs Penna. "I have shot with a donkey, but a polar bear was a little scarier."
For 53-year-old Mikkelsen, it was an endurance test. “I lost so much weight and I just didn’t have any energy,” he says. “Also, the emotions become so close, right under your skin. When he breaks down, there is nothing left of him, obviously. That was a little surprising to us, that he actually breaks down. We didn’t write it like that. It happened because that was the natural thing to do, there was nothing left. So there were a few times I wanted to be back home but I signed up for it.
Mikkelsen, who can next be seen in Doug Liman's sci-fi Chaos Walking, denies that he chooses projects like Arctic or Valhalla Rising to live out extreme fantasies. "It's not why we do it," he says. "But I guess it allows us to go on a limb, on the edge, in the movie world and then in our real world we can be boring. It's a fantastic job because you get opportunities to do something that other people dream about. And then go home … sometimes in one piece!"
Arctic is in cinemas across the UAE from today