Now you may not have heard of Norwegian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjærg, but his 1997 feature film debut Insomnia, was the source material for Christopher Nolan’s eponymous remake starring Robin Williams and Al Pacino. Only recently, Skjoldbjærg’s latest production Pioneer has also been confirmed to have a forthcoming Hollywood re-imagining, with word of George Clooney taking on the role of producer.
“I’d be more than happy for them to do that,” he told us, sitting back comfortably in during our meeting in a London hotel. “I made a film out of it. If they were to say ‘we want to make a remake and shelve your version, put it in a box and try and forget it ever existed’ it would be a different issue. But that’s not the way it works. I’m proud of the fact that Christopher Nolan went and made that remake, and actually did a good job of it. I think the original film benefits.”
Pioneer tells an incredible true story, set at the beginning of the Norwegian oil boom, when deposits were discovered on the seabed. A handful of courageous deep-sea divers then agree to head into unchartered territory, and dive deeper than anyone has before. Skjoldbjærg masterfully captures that feeling of isolation mixed with a breathtaking sense of eternity, and he welcomed comparisons to the Oscar winning Gravity in that regard.
“I’m so happy you said that. When we were looking at films before we started shooting, I looked for underwater films and I was mostly unimpressed. So I started looking at science fiction movies instead, because they do have this infinite depth. So that’s where we looked for inspiration,” he said. “It’s all about scale. I haven’t seen Gravity, but if you want to show this infinity, scale is important. I wanted to give the audience a sense of what would it really feel like to go down 400m, and what you have to go through before you can do it. Because nobody really knew at the time, I guess we still don’t actually.”
There’s a forbidding, disquieting atmosphere to Pioneer, and, in a similar vein to Skjoldbjærg’s previous work – his entry point is hugely unpredictable and volatile. In this instance it belongs to the renowned Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie. “I like the unexpected, and I like tension and not knowing where a film is going. Some of my more successful film have that intensity and maybe it’s something I’m drawn to because it inspires me,” he continued. “I don’t like predictability. It’s what I find interesting in the world. You meet people and you realise, oh, there’s something different to them. That’s what catches my attention. I like films that show you characters and worlds you aren’t expecting. A journey of discovery, which I like.”
Hennie, who starred in popular comedy caper Headhunters, is tipped for a bright future in Hollywood from his director, though he admits feelings back home in Norway can be somewhat conflicted. “He is a great actor, and he is close to the character, in personality. He was diving before this movie and he’s a real risk-taker, he likes to take a chance. That adrenaline rush is very much part of him. But in Hollywood it depends a bit on luck. It’s interesting because on one hand we’re obsessed with somebody gaining success abroad, because we’re a small nation. On the other hand, there is envy.”
Pioneer also features American actors too, given the nations’ involvement in the real life events, and one of which is Wes Bentley. While thrilled to have him on board, Skjoldbjærg admits the waiting game on big, Hollywood actors can be an arduous affair. “Wes had seen Insomnia, so was interested in doing this, despite the fact he’s playing a supporting role,” he said. “But what we did learn, which was nerve-nerve-racking, is the casting agent said ‘you’ve got to wait until the last couple of weeks, and keep your cool’ – because actors with a name in Hollywood will not do a supporting role in a smallish, European films if they stand the chance of getting a lead elsewhere. So we had to wait until three weeks beforehand.”
But how about himself? Would Skjoldbjærg ever feel lured in by the glitz and glamour of Tinsel Town? It seems that the rise in audience numbers may just be enough of a temptation. “As a filmmaker I’m drawn to a bigger market and bigger audience, because it will give me a platform to get my films screened. So definitely yes, English talking films are something I’ be interested in. But I’m also a family man and my family live in Norway, so it’s not a very easy decision. It needs to be very considered if it happens. I’m a filmmaker, but there’s a part of me that misses home. Mixing the two things is never easy, they aren’t compatible in many ways. You’ve got to make it work, but that’s never easy.”
Now seems as good a time as any for Scandinavians to make the move across to America – if they so desire – and Skjoldbjærg is fully aware that the European region is going through something of a golden era, and now it’s all about taking advantage of that fact.
“We are aware of it, and we try and benefit from it. That’s what you do as filmmakers, you try and look for opportunities. We also find some inspiration from other people in our region, success spurs us on. So it’s a good environment for filmmaking in Scandinavia.”
There would certainly be a place for this talented director, able to follow on in the footsteps of the likes of Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and Niels Arden Oplev (Dead Man Down) – though the Norwegian may go for a more naturalistic approach, as he tells us he finds great inspiration from bringing real life stories to the big screen.
“I love doing stuff which comes from real life. Or is inspired by real life. I love that. It brings an added dimension to a story, even if it’s fictional. I feel like, this could happen, I believe this. That to me is a great benefit and it’s something that film is perfectly suited to doing. I also like researching, feeding my curiosity inspires me.”
Pioneer is released on April 11th, and you can read our review here.