In many respects, Norwegian director Roar Uthaug’s film is a Hollywood disaster movie of the first order: You have your embattled protagonist who sees the danger coming long before anyone else does, but has a hard time getting anyone to believe him; his wonderful family and number of other innocent people put in peril by conservative bureaucrats; an epic environmental disaster – a massive, 80 meter, lake-bound tsunami brought about by the instable mountains of Storfjorden, a tourist destination whose main town, Geirenger, is directly in the path of the water’s fury, brought to convincing life via CGI that threatens to destroy everything in its path; and a harrowing climax that finds our protagonist fighting for the lives of his family members under extreme physical duress.
What sets it apart, however, from such big, desultory over-the-top action spectacles such as San Andreas and 2012, are all the ways it subtly subverts the genre: The hero, played by Kristoffer Joner, is anything but a Rock-like action hero, he looks like the sort of chap who brews his own beer and reads books about physics. His wife (Ane Dahl Torp), is the far more practical, capable one, and whose quick-thinking saves herself and her son after they are trapped in the hotel in which she works.
Like Jaws, a film Uthaug cites as a particular influence, the film is very careful about its slow-building tension. Midway through, you begin to fret about the oncoming danger, wondering just how it will first manifest itself, and when it will make its appearance on the deck of the boat, so to speak. Uthaug spoke to us via phone on the topics of the film’s careful execution, the ways he co-opted the genre, and the very real environmental apocalypse it portrays.
You have said that Jaws was a big influence on your film, and I can especially see that in the way it carefully withholds us from seeing the “monster” for so long.
You kind of get to know the family and the characters and you take your time with that and not just rush into it the destruction of man. We also tried to keep the shore and the mountains there in the background to keep them present throughout to kind of build that tension and that ease of not knowing when it’s going to hit.
It got to the point where the camera would linger on certain shots and I would think ‘Okay, we’re going to start seeing some tremors now’ or ‘We’ll see some rocks falling in the background’ and still nothing was happening. I assume that was entirely by design.
That, and also choosing the locations, and of course how we shot and placed some things.
What’s genuinely spooky about the whole premise is, not only is it not farfetched in the least, there is actually little to no chance of this cataclysmic event NOT happening, right? The film’s impending disaster is entirely factual.
Yeah, everything in the movie, in Geiranger, was based on facts and research from over here. I think here in Norway we create a lot of awareness for situations. And hopefully that will lead to more funding of monitoring these places even better.
I assume the locals who live year-round in Geiranger are well informed of this situation?
They are very aware of that but they also actually feel very safe there because of all the information that is being shared by the geologists monitoring it. They trust those guys and the politicians, and feel safe in that environment. I think also the geologists believe that they won’t ever be in that situation because the place will be evacuated weeks before that will happen, but then, again it’s nature and you never know.
Just out of curiosity, is ten minutes from when the actual mountain crumbles to when the tsunami hits the town a realistic timeline?
Yeah, that’s accurate.
We shot the movie in Geiranger, the actual place that will be hit, and the extras running for their lives up the hill, were all local people living in that area. After the shoot, they came up to me and said they had the time of their lives and thanked us for being able to be a part of it, so hopefully we didn’t give them nightmares.
You mentioned that this is a real place. In Jaws, they had to make up “Amity Island” because, understandably, no real location wanted to be associated with wild shark attacks. Was the town at all concerned about what this film might do to their tourist industry?
We have a lot of tourists going there. There are only about 300 people living there [year-round] but there are almost a million tourists going through there each year. When the news first broke that we were making this movie, there were some [negative] reactions from the local community, local politicians, but as soon as we started talking to them, explaining to them our take on this, I think we won them over to our side. They helped us during production. We arranged a screening of the movie before the nationwide premiere, we had a local screening there for the people who lived there and they enjoyed the movie very much.
To make one more comparison to San Andreas, the leading man is Dwayne Johnson, who is built like a gladiator superhero. Your lead, Kristoffer Joner, by contrast, is remarkably human looking. Even the way he labors when he runs, you can kind of feel the effort. That had to have been by design.
We wanted someone that felt like a real human being. I think Kristoffer is just one of the absolute finest actors here in Norway, so I was very happy he wanted to do this. And we had to put him through a boot camp to train him for mountain climbing. He also trained with a free-diving instructor so he could [stay] under water for a long time. I think his record in the end was three minutes holding his breath.
Some of the stunt work must have been grueling.
Yeah, there were times it was ten hours in and under water. That was a rough time for everyone. I think it shows in the movie the intensity of it. So, I’m very happy we put them through it.
I greatly enjoyed the way you made Idun, his wife, played by Ane Dahl Torp, so capable and strong. Is it fair to say this is something of a feminist action movie?
I’ve always been a fan of strong female characters in all my movies. I think it’s something that I gravitate towards.
She’s so strong, I think Hollywood would be afraid she’d end up eclipsing the male hero.
I guess we are more free in our handling of those kinds of things in Europe, in our most recent cinema, than you are over there. [laughs]