Director/Writer Joe Penna Talks ‘Arctic’ and Survival

ATM: How does a human being going into the unknown make them more comfortable with life?

JP: This is a great question. I like this and have never been asked this before. In the beginning, I tried to place our character Overgård in a place he was comfortable and where he had a routine. There was no energy to try to deviate from the routine. Any deviations could spell out his death. I did this a long as I could in the film and tried to set up this pattern in the beeping of the watch so that it becomes this rhythm of his life. We strip away his humanity. He does not get this back until there is a different human presence there. Until there is this chance, he is going to be saved. His emotions are what returns to him.

ATM: What is your perspective on the main character figuratively becoming his own authority figure?

JP: There is so much of this film that relies on his internal conflict inside of his own head. You see him wonder sometimes out loud. “Should I take the three-day path or the five-day path? The five-day path is somewhat closer. Should I do this, or should I do that?” There is not anyone to bounce anything off of. In fact, in an earlier version of the screenplay we did. We made him have his own internal dialogue where he was talking to himself out loud a little more, so you could kind of understand what is going through his head. This is not the version of the script we ended up because Mads does so much with just a look. To me, it is a little bit more interesting trying to figure out what he is thinking through his actions.

ATM: Do you believe this wondering stem from his internal or external side? Which do you think makes this decision?

JP: So many of his decisions are predicated on expending the minimal amount of effort. Especially since every step is treacherous in this setting. How does he get from A to B? He does not have anyone to bounce this off or any way to exposit out loud.  It’s interesting to me to have the audience try to figure out what is happening.

ATM: When a film has the two genres of drama and thriller intertwined with each other, how does this manipulate how the viewer sees the film narrative?

JP: It is interesting because I do not see it as a thriller label. I see it as an escalation of difficulty for him; more of a survival drama. I suppose it is riding the line, but far closer to the dramatic side of things.

ATM: What does the beginning scenes exhibit about the ways a human would move through life or what they would need to move through life?

JP: There is a moment early on where he is looking at a picture, he found on her. He sees that she is a mother and has a little child. I think he understands that hers is not going to be the only life he is going to impact. I can imagine a scenario where he waits for a rescue crew, they don’t come, and she dies. If he were to then be saved, no one would blame him. Everyone would say that it’s okay that he stayed in his plane… but I don’t think he could live with himself after this. He thought two or three steps ahead and thought, “I have to do this not only for her sake but also for my own.”

ATM: What is true in a person that makes it through a survival experience?

JP: Our will to live is our most basic instinct. This is the driving force behind everything that we do, not only humans but everything that fights to stay alive. Everything that is alive wants to survive. This is why I wanted to tell this story – because it is so easy to understand this instinct.

ATM: On the 18th day out of 19 days of shooting, what new epiphanies and findings did you have about the film narrative or the main character?

JP: We came up with a back story for him. I came up with one, and my co-writer came up with another. Mads came up with a completely different backstory. We did not use any of them. We never wanted this to come through in the film. We tried to impart as little characterization on him and to only judge what he does in the moment. As opposed to what got him there, or where he came from. It does not matter if he is a pilot, a co-pilot, a researcher, or if he was knocked out in San Diego and woke up in the Arctic. He is still somebody who is going above and beyond for someone he does not know. He is inherently a good person. This is what makes us care about him. Our character cares for someone he barely knows – and hopefully that’s how we feel about him, too. The audience doesn’t know much about his backstory, but hopefully they’re invested in his struggle.

ATM: As the writer and director, describe the internal feeling of falling in love with storytelling and depicting it?

JP: For this particular story, I think this film is not, or at least not only, a parable of man against nature. It is about the endurance of altruism even under extreme circumstances. When we first start watching this film, our immediate fascination leaves us trying to determine what we would do if we were in the same situation as our protagonist. After that, I hope Overgård inspires us to carry a bit of his courage out of the theater with us.

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