For a filmmaker who gives such consideration to the inner workings of the mind, it will occasionally happen to Erik Skjoldbjærg that something slips his. In the case of his latest film “Pioneer,” an engrossing thriller about Norway’s deep sea divers of the 1980s who uncovered the oil that led to the nation’s prosperity to the present day, that something happened to be the fact he’s afraid of water and he’d be spending a good deal of the shoot submerged in it.
“I didn’t actually think about it thoroughly enough when I said yes to doing the movie,” said Skjoldbjærg with a laugh. “Only when I started really preparing the movie, I realized my lead actor [Aksel Hennie] was right that I had to try to go down and experience [deep sea diving] or else how can you portray it in a subjective manner?”
By going somewhere he had not gone before himself, the director of “Insomnia” once again takes audiences to a place they’ve never been as well, plunging them 500 meters below sea level for a tale of treachery among the international team that’s sent down to create a pipeline to monetize the newly discovered black gold. As if Norwegian diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) wasn’t low enough, he finds even greater depths than the bottom of the ocean when tragedy occurs and he suspects a member of his crew is responsible. Not unlike Stellan Skarsgard’s sleep-deprived detective in the director’s auspicious debut, Petter begins to go a little mad as he searches for the killer, yet in the 17 years since Skjoldbjærg’s first whodunit, his skills have only sharpened, tapping into the paranoia of the ’70s potboilers made by Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet while creating something invigorating for modern audience with a nimble score from the French pop duo Air and exuberant pacing.
With a motley global cast including Stephen Lang, Wes Bentley and “Miss Bala” star Stephanie Sigman that contributes to its consistent sense of surprise, “Pioneer” crackles with energy and shortly before it finally docks in America after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Skjoldbjærg took time away from shooting his latest project to talk about recounting this controversial chapter in the history of his home country, returning to the first-person perspective that proved so successful in “Insomnia,” and why he always is on the lookout for new collaborators from around the world.
Since you grew up in Norway, were you familiar with the events depicted in the film before coming onto the project?
I wasn’t familiar with the precise events, but I was familiar with the North Sea divers. Not in the time I was growing up, but during the last 10, 15 years. They received quite a bit of publicity locally and they’ve been suing the state on numerous occasions [because of the] neurological effects from these early experiments, but I didn’t know exactly what went on.
Their civil suit against the state actually has been settled recently, though it was after you made the film. Was it interesting to make this at this point in time, particularly with the perspective of how prosperous the country has become because of these dives?
That was my angle on it when I started was having seen this radical change in terms of wealth in my society from childhood to where we’re at now. I was curious to investigate what was the price of all that. The divers felt like they were symptomatic of what happens when you’re at the cusp of finding something very valuable. They were risk-takers, they were seeking excitement. These days, they could be like people jumping out of a plane, so they were definitely prepared to do very risky things, but what they didn’t know were the neurological effects it had in the long run and some of them experienced it quite quickly.
You’ve said part of the attraction was to do a thriller similar to your first feature “Insomnia,” told from the perspective of the main character. Why was it interesting to go back?
Part of my fascination [with making films] is conveying an atmosphere and an experience which is subjective, meaning you don’t see the full picture. Then whatever you do, you realize later on, there’s a different context to this. I’m just attracted to that sort of storytelling.
I understand you needed to build many of the sets, either because the real-life facilities were too old be to be filmed or otherwise. Was that actually a blessing in terms of creating the atmosphere?
Yes, when you do a Scandinavian film, you have to be very conscious of the budget. You’re always conscious of the budget as a filmmaker, but [in Norway], you have to be very clever in how you create production value because, based on the population, we don’t have a big enough market to justify a big budget movie in American terms, so from that perspective, at first, it was disappointing to realize we couldn’t make use of existing equipment or we couldn’t find any, but from a purely artistic one, it helped us shape a more precise universe.
If I had two times the budget, I would’ve probably made it look more fantastic in some ways because the stories these divers were telling of going 400 meters under the surface in ice cold water and inhaling these gases, they’re basically going somewhere no one else had been at the time. Hardly anyone’s been there now and in speaking with these divers, a lot of them were inspired by the astronauts from 10 years earlier, so they had this attraction and they gave me very specific descriptions of what it might be like at the bottom of the sea, so this idea of trying to make the audience feel like you’re somewhere where you’ve never been was part of the challenge I found. It was challenging to make dark clear water in wide shots, and then make [the divers] seem like they were at 400 meters because obviously we couldn’t go down that far.
Aksel, your lead actor, is actually an accomplished diver and insisted you go diving. What did you get out of that experience?
I’m afraid of water in the first place, but it’s like with phobias, when you overcome something, there’s a joy. I didn’t go very far down, but I went to the bottom of where we were and this idea of standing at the bottom of the sea with everything going on around you is just otherworldly. Once I was there, I didn’t feel like leaving, so it felt liberating. Then again, I didn’t go down there to work. I didn’t stay down there for eight hours, so I don’t really feel like I’ve experienced anything similar to these guys.
Was there a day that was particularly challenging?
The most complex part of the shoot was shooting underwater, but we had a Finnish diving team who did [the dives] and performed heroically because actually they couldn’t even wear warm padding because of the costumes, so they went into these ice-cold waters for like 40 minutes and had to come up again. But we had prepared them so thoroughly, all that from my perspective felt controlled. It was dealing with the diving bell and all the [other] mechanical equipment we had to recreate that felt like the most challenging part. It was just very complex technically to make it work. That’s partly to do with [the fact] it’s old equipment and you had the actors performing in suits which needed gas to work and it’s hard to communicate that way. The bell was going in and out of the steaming pool and I had to communicate with a diving instructor to [the actors]. You need to be very good at communicating to get what you want on a normal film shoot, but on this occasion, it felt like the challenge was twice as hard.
The film is edited and scored in a very sensual way. While shooting the film, did you have an idea of how you’d create that feel in post-production or did it come about organically once you got there?
I didn’t have that many set ideas, but I get very involved in sound design. I was working with a French team on this one and I was very pleased about that. We were trying to find the right level [because] if you go on YouTube and you listen to people who go deep sea diving, you cannot recognize what they say anymore because their voices have become so squeaky, so we had to try and find the right balance with that. If we were trying to be realistic, no one would understand or it would be comical in some ways, so it took a long time to find exactly the right level of manipulation of voices, especially, because in the mix, one of the main rules was the voice should be identifiable and you should be able to hear it instantly.
In terms of the effects, we wanted to get a sense of how thick the gas is because it’s really hard to actually breathe in these gases. It’s not like the air we breathe [above ground]. It’s much more exhausting for the body to breathe in and breathe out and I really wanted to get that texture in a visual sense to portray it, as well as in the performance, [to show how hard it is on your body. So we worked on trying to make almost like an algorithm out of the image to give it a gas effect, which I was very pleased with.
In terms of composers, I was working with Air, the pop group, which was also a very creative experience because they came to it from a different way than traditional film composers. They were looking for very specific sounds and they got really into the subject matter of the film, so they were really working from that angle.
You weren’t just working with the French, but a number of the cast and crew come from around the world. Does that bring an interesting dynamic to a film like this?
I love working across countries and I always find it very intriguing that filmmaking is quite similar in different countries I’ve been in and worked, but some of the organization is a bit different. My main joy of making films is actually shooting them, so I love doing this stuff where I can be working with different people from different continents. I find that very creative. Some of my colleagues stick to working with the same people because they feel they can get the most out of their ideas that way, but I guess I feel a bit different about it.
“Pioneer” opens in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre on December 5th and will be available on VOD. More theaters and dates can be found here.
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