“I don’t even like to take baths,” Ane Dahl Torp, the leading lady of “The Wave” joked before a screening of the Norwegian blockbuster in Los Angeles last fall. After being submerged at one point in 40,000 liters of water (that’s 10,500-plus gallons in US terms), it was incumbent upon the actress and the rest of the cast to learn how to hold their breath. By the end of shooting, Torp could for a whole three minutes, spending months training with a free diver (listening to Shaggy’s “Mr. Bombastic” the entire time) as she prepared to endure the physical challenge of Roar Uhtag’s uncompromising and massively entertaining look at what would happen in the director’s native Norway if the mountains collapsed into the fjords, creating a tsunami that would overtake the thousands of tourists that take in the extraordinary scenery in the Sunnmøre region and leave residents ruined.
Nearly a fifth of Norway’s population of five million have seen “The Wave,” which, as a box office juggernaut, has been a force to be reckoned with almost to the degree of the natural disaster that threatens the family at its center. Led in different directions by the geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) and his hotelier wife Idun (Torp), the two become separated on the day of tsunami, with each using their unique set of skills and experience to minimize the devastation for their fellow countrymen and protect their children. Filmed in a part of the world that has somehow eluded the destruction of the many other disaster films before it, Uhtag is able to illuminate the cold beauty of nature’s wrath in one of earth’s most magnificent locales, yet with writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and a game cast, he also uses conventions of the disaster film to upend them, finding a compelling and intimate drama in Kristian and Idun’s struggle to find their way back to each other amidst a grand-scale catastrophe that one can feel the magnitude of in every frame.
Remarkably, Uhtag accomplished this with just a €6 million budget (which converts to just under $7 million here), no doubt why he was recently lured by Hollywood to reboot the “Tomb Raider” series, but beyond his personal ingenuity, “The Wave” suggests the way in which special effects have democratized cinema across the world, a generation after the advent of digital cameras did, allowing filmmakers to dream a little bigger and actually pull off what they had in mind. While Uhtag was in Los Angeles last fall, he spoke about making Norway’s first disaster film, using gender equality between his two leads as one of “The Wave”’s strongest story elements and the difficulty of shooting in water.
How did this come about?
[Martin Sundland], the producer who produced “The Wave” is also the producer of two of my previous movies, “Cold Prey” and “Escape,” and he came to me with a news article about the tsunamis that happened in the fjords in Norway in the 1930s. Now, there’s a situation where there’s a giant crack in the mountainside that keeps expanding each year. At some point, the whole side of the mountain is going to fall down into the fjords, creating a 80-meter high tsunami that will hit the local community after ten minutes.
I hadn’t actually heard about that before, and I was just blown away by [the idea of] the people under this stress, so I thought that it was a really good idea for making a little bit of a different disaster movies than what we’ve seen before, grounding it in reality and in Norwegian culture and also getting closer to the characters than I feel sometimes [we usually are] in these movies.
It’s interesting to see Norwegian cinema in recent years make films with a spirit of adventure like this or “Ragnarok,” [a rollicking adventure that felt like a throwback fantasy of the ‘80s] which you were a second unit director on. Is that a product of cracking the code on special effects or is there something culturally going on there?
Yeah, I feel we are really opened up to more commercial movies in Norway. Earlier, it had been a lot of art house movies and dramas, and in the last ten years or so, we’ve started to make more commercial, audience-friendly movies. You see that also in Scandinavia where the Nordic crime genre.
Were there other disaster films that were influences? This would seem to use the audience’s expectations against them.
Yeah. I love American movies and I grew up watching movies like “Jaws,” “Twister,” “Dante’s Peak” and “Armageddon” — I watched all of those, and I’m sure that was an influence in the back of our minds somehow, but we also were influenced more by how modern action movies are told, like the “Bourne” movies where it’s more documentary-style shooting, and it’s not superheroes and everybody is cut out of cardboard. There’s humanity to it that’s more like independent family dramas, which was [an idea] mixing around in our heads while we’re planning, writing and shooting movie.
One of my very favorite things about the film is when you first see Kristian come home in the first scene, his wife Idun is the one fixing the sink, and he’s the one with no idea. How did that family dynamic come about?
We worked a lot on that in the early stages [of pre-production] and rehearsal to get that dynamic right. It was important to us that the main character isn’t a superhero, that he should be a normal guy that has weaknesses and doubts and fears and also that his wife is a person in her own right and she’s not “his wife.” She can be resourceful and mad at him when he does stupid things. We were just trying to create a modern family for the screen.
You use the natural environment to quite impressive effect since you’ve never really seen this part of the world as part of a disaster film before. How did you figure out how to shoot it?
We wanted to make it a threat in the movie, so we made it a place of darkness to give it a brooding feeling and an uneasiness because it’s the villain in the movie. We also didn’t want that kind of moonlit, Hollywood night look because we wanted to be there, experience it with the characters and be as close to them as possible to make it as intimidating as possible, so we worked a lot with very little light — just practical lights — to create that.
There’s an arresting scene when you see Kristian and others are racing up the mountain in their cars, but you show the threat of the wave in his car’s side window. Is it tricky to do an effect in miniature like that?
Not that tricky, really. We shot it in different plates to make it all fit together, but that was also important — our thoughts were always with how would the character experience this and how they would see what’s happening. For us, in that scene where he’s sitting in the car looking in the mirror, that was important to not take the eagle eye’s point of view, but to be experiencing it through his eyes.
Is water as difficult as I’ve heard it is for many filmmakers?
It’s not easy. [laughs] No way. It takes a lot out of you and the crew and the actors. It’s heavy moving the camera, it’s heavy for the actors moving their bodies and everybody gets really tired, and it’s difficult to communicate when you have people under water and on the water and there’s pumps going, so that [part] was really grueling, and it was an intense shoot, but I think it also shows on the screen that there’s real effort by the actors and there’s a truthfulness to how we perceive it.
You don’t make it easy on the audience, either, since there’s an end tag that explains the real threat that still exists. Why did you want that kicker there?
We put it there is to remind people that this could actually happen after they’ve experienced this fictional story or it will actually happen. The reaction in Norway has really raised your awareness of this situation, and hopefully it will also help in getting more funds for research and for monitoring [the fjords] so that we can make it as safe as possible for the people living under these threats.
This film has been your biggest international success to date. What’s it been like taking it around the world?
It’s been a blast, going to Toronto and showing it there, then at the London Film Festival. One of the things I love most about making movies is sharing them with an audience, and to be able to do that around the world is just amazing. It’s been an amazing journey so far.