The subgenre of survival horror is one that can be incredibly terrifying in its realism. Whether it’s about someone who encounters a dangerous stranger that they must escape from or one in which a person has found themselves stranded and alone, the common theme running through these stories is one of survival.
In Joe Penna’s feature film debut ARCTIC, a man named Overgård, played by Mads Mikkelsen, finds himself stranded in the Arctic. After his plane has crashed, Overgård faces a decision on if he should remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or embark on a deadly trek in hopes of escaping the freezing tundra. For the release of the film, I had the chance to speak with both director/writer Jon Penna and acclaimed actor Mads Mikkelsen about survival horror and the frigid weather of Iceland
Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you both so much for speaking with me today! Joe, to start things off, could you tell us a little bit about your experience going from directing short films to a feature film?
Joe Penna: Initially I started with commercials and music videos, but I knew I wanted to tell bigger stories. I figured shorts would be where I would go, but eventually, I really wanted to tell this story as a feature-length one. I just knew I needed an incredible actor who could pull this off so I kind of got cocky and asked Mads to do the film (laughs).
Nightmarish Conjurings: What made you decide to choose a story about survival? Was it always your intention to show a more realistic theme as opposed to a more sentimental story of survival?
JP: I think that a survival story is very universal. Everything that is alive, whether it’s a dog, plant, or human, is trying to stay alive. The struggle is something that anybody can understand which is why I wanted to tell that story. My plan in any feature film, or in previous shorts, has always been to have a more naturalistic, realistic approach.
Nightmarish Conjurings: For you Mads, what was it about this film that interested you in the role?
Mads Mikkelsen: The script, and what you guys just touched upon right now. I thought there was an enormous honesty in the story. It also avoided the traps of going down memory lane and having flash-backs in order to provoke some emotions that we don’t necessarily need. I thought the honesty made it very poetic and very emotional. I had a chit-chat with Joe for a couple of hours over Skype about the film and we then said, “Let’s do this.”
Nightmarish Conjurings: The movie was filmed in Iceland, which I can’t imagine was easy. What was the most challenging aspect of filming there and how were you able to work past it?
JP: For me, it was the weather. Not only because I’m used to perfect weather all the time living in the tropics (laughs), but because of the lack of continuity. There were times when literally within five minutes, the weather would change and the sun would come out and we would have to stop our scene and start shooting something else. We tried as much as possible to shoot the film in order, but moments like that made it so that we had to shoot a quarter of scene or a half of a scene and then get back to it later. This was difficult for both myself as the director trying to maintain continuity of the film, but especially for an actor to remember what they were doing with their face when there was no dialogue.
MM: I gotta go with the weather as well. It was our biggest obstacle but also our biggest friend. It gave us so many free gifts but it also tried to kill us. Then the mere fact of just being alone in a film. It’s kind of brutal, you don’t have anyone to bounce off. Obviously, I have Joe, but you don’t have that wall, so to speak. You’re just throwing the ball out into the wide blizzard and it’s not coming back (laughs). That was something we had to learn down the road together in regards to how to approach that so that I didn’t start over-producing uninteresting things in order to please the audience.
Nightmarish Conjurings: In the film, your character Overgård doesn’t have an over-abundance of dialogue. Did any of your previous performances prepare you for that? Was there anyone that you looked to in terms of inspiration?
MM: I didn’t have any comparison to what I’ve done before. I’ve done one film where I didn’t talk at all but that wasn’t a real human being it was more like a myth or icon. This was a real person, so this was my first time doing that, so I didn’t have anything to compare it with. I think every scene was so logical and so emotional, emotional in the sense that this loneliness is just brutal, so I was just trying to lean into the story and lean into Joe’s eyes. His eyes are the ones that are going to tell me if we are doing the right thing. If I had to be inspired by anyone I’m going to always pick Buster Keaton. He didn’t talk a lot but it was such a miracle when his face changed to just a fraction and the entire sky would open up. Without copying him, I’ve always admired him.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last but not least, are there any projects that you both are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for? As a massive HANNIBAL fan, my fingers are always crossed for that to return.
JP: I’m working on another film that I hope to be shooting this year titled STOWAWAY, which stars Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette. I saw her in HEREDITARY and I knew immediately that she would be perfect for our film.
MM: I have a film coming up titled CHAOS WALKING and another one called POLAR. I can’t disappoint you, but I can’t make you happy about HANNIBAL, but I would love to go back to that.
Make sure to check out the survival thriller ARCTIC when it’s released in select theaters February 1st.