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How ‘Kon-Tiki’ made its way from page-turner to big-screen drama

AFP PHOTO

Call it the little raft that could.

With a crew of five Norwegians, one Swede, and a Spanish-speaking parrot named Lorita, the Kon-Tiki left the harbor at Callao, Peru, on April 28, 1947. One hundred and one days and approximately 4,300 miles later, after drifting through violent storms and shark-infested seas and enduring an invasion of small crabs, the Kon-Tiki landed on a reef off the island of Raroia, Polynesia, concluding an expedition that made its 32-year-old leader, Thor Heyerdahl, famous. Heyerdahl subsequently sold 50 million copies of his eloquently written book about the trip, and won a best feature documentary Oscar for the 1950 film account that he directed. Now “Kon-Tiki” is also a dramatic feature film, the English-language version of which will open in the Boston area on Friday.

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The Kon-Tiki was 45 feet long by 18 feet wide, consisting of nine big balsa logs that were lashed together by hemp rope and covered by fir planks and a bamboo deck. A bamboo cabin just big enough to shelter the full crew sat on top, and a bipod mast made of mangrove wood, holding a large square sail, rose above. Among its provisions, equipment, and personal items were enough food and fresh water to last for four months, a couple of movie cameras and canisters of film, a transmitting and receiving radio, a stove, books to read, a guitar to play.

Obviously, this was no joy ride. Heyerdahl, an anthropologist by training, set out to disprove the accepted scientific theory that the people of Polynesia came from Asia. He was convinced that they came from South America, and were carried there, pushed along by winds and tides, on balsa rafts. He was right. His Kon-Tiki voyage was, with the exception of the electronics and the military food rations, an exact replica of one he believed Peruvian natives would have taken to their new home across the Pacific.

Heyerdahl, and to a lesser extent his crew — Herman Watzinger, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby, Erik Hesselberg, and Bengt Danielsson — became famous overnight. He was a hero in Norway, his documentary would soon be a staple of elementary school classrooms around the world, his book would gain entry to pop culture when Sissy Spacek, sitting in a tree house, read a passage from it to Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film “Badlands.”

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Heyerdahl continued to make daring ocean trips, including one from Morocco to Barbados in a boat made of papyrus reeds in 1970. He died in 2002 at 87. Six years earlier, he met with British producer Jeremy Thomas (“The Sheltering Sky,” “Naked Lunch,” “Sexy Beast”) about turning “Kon-Tiki” into a big-budget feature. Different writers and directors came and went, and Thomas finally settled on the Norwegian filmmaking team of Joachim Ronning, 40, and Espen Sandberg, 41. Their “Kon-Tiki” was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar earlier this year (it lost to “Amour”). They recently spoke about the film by phone from New York.

Q. When did you first learn about “Kon-Tiki?”

‘Whatever your dream, whatever you want to explore in your life, you have to dare to do it.’

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Ronning: It’s a story we grew up with. We’re from the small town of Sandefjord, and Thor’s town, Larvik, was 10 minutes away from ours. There’s a high school named after him there, so he always had a huge presence.

Sandberg: They taught us about him in school, and that’s where we saw the documentary when we were kids. He was a big impression on us.

Q. You’ve made a number of features and shorts together. How did this project come to you?

Sandberg: We wanted to tell this story for years and years. We tried to get a hold of the rights and we contacted some Norwegian producers that have made a lot of documentaries about Thor, but we were told it was impossible because Jeremy Thomas had the rights and he was going to make it into a big American movie. So we forgot about it, then we went out and made “Max Manus,” our film about the Second World War. It did extremely well at the box office in Norway; 1.2 million people, almost 25 percent of the population, saw it. That caught Jeremy Thomas’s attention. Then he saw “Max Manus” and he figured let’s bring “Kon-Tiki” home. He asked us if we wanted to direct it, and we, of course, said yes, on the spot.

Q. Do you feel that Thor’s story will be inspirational to movie audiences?

Sandberg: I think so. Thor was terrified of water, and he could not swim, but he went on that raft and proved his theory. I think there’s great inspiration in that. Whatever your dream, whatever you want to explore in your life, you have to dare to do it. I think he’s very inspirational in that regard.

Q. When did you find out that he couldn’t swim?

Ronning: It was one of the first things that we learned in our research. It’s one of those things that makes for a very interesting character in the movie. It just showed you the desperation he had after having met so much resistance and skepticism to his theory over so many years. We can definitely see ourselves in that. When you make a movie, you fight for it for years and years, and you really never know if it’s going to happen. It’s easy to lose the sight of the goal. You focus so much on the day-by-day journey. Then suddenly one day you’re standing there on the raft, and you’re kicking off, and it just dawns on you that it’s the point of no return. This is it, we’re actually doing it. I think for many people, those moments are angst-ridden. But if you overcome them the reward can be wonderful.

Q. How did you actually begin this project?

Sandberg: We used the original documentary film and the book for reference, but after a while we put those away, and for that last two years before we shot the film, we were only working on the script with our writer Petter Skavlan. It was very important for us to be truthful to the story. But we also have a huge responsibility for the film, and the two hours of story that we are putting up onscreen. You can sometimes get lost in reality, because there are so many themes and so many moments you want to have in there, so I think it’s important that you distance yourself a little bit from that when you are writing a biopic.

Q. But you’ve added quite a bit of drama that wasn’t in the book or the documentary. Were there any complaints from Norwegian purists when it opened there last year?

Ronning: Yes, and of course, there will always be a little bit of controversy. Especially in Norway, where everybody has an opinion about Thor Heyerdahl. But our film is almost like a stage play, out on this raft. It has the huge backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, but nevertheless, it’s a psychological drama, in a way. Thor Heyerdahl directed the original documentary, and he wrote the book, and I’m sure this film would look very different if he directed it. We jokingly say that his true genius was probably in [public relations]. It was our responsibility to dig deeper, and in our research we found out that there was drama, and there were disagreements. And although that doesn’t come across in the book or documentary, they were there, so it was important for us to use that in the drama of the film.

Q. But you also made some significant changes in the story, including making Herman Watzinger into a very nervous character.

Ronning: One of our challenges was that Thor Heyerdahl, at least on paper, can be a person who’s hard to identify with for the audience. He was very strong-willed. He has the theory at the beginning of the film, and proves it at the end of the film. It was important for us to give him some doubts. But we needed a character on the raft to ask the difficult questions, to be afraid. We felt we needed someone on the raft that no one else could identify with. That turned out to be Herman. But that said, Herman was really the one that fell in the water. And Thor never forgave him for that, because they came this close to the whole expedition being a failure; if somebody would have died it would have been a disaster for Thor. So we knew there was definitely some drama there, even though it never came across in the book or the documentary.

Q. The scenes with the sharks around the raft are frightening, and the sequence with the huge whale shark is absolutely beautiful. Was any of that real or was it all CGI?

Sandberg: It was CGI. All of the sharks were Scandinavian [laughs], including the whale shark. This is sort of a spoiler, but when the actors were looking down at the sharks, they are really overlooking a parking lot.

Q. How much of the film was actually shot on the ocean?

Sandberg: We shot on the ocean for a little over four weeks. But the storm sequence was done in a tank. We were not allowed to shoot on the open water during nighttime because we filmed this on Malta at the same time the war in Libya was going on.

Q. The passage of time in the film is marked by the length of the crew’s beards. Was the film shot chronologically, and were those beards real?

Ronning: No, they’re fake beards, but I’m happy you asked that. We actually had a beard machine to make that happen. There wasn’t much trouble with the long beards, it was the stubbles that were hard to make consistent. But we had this electronically charged machine. Every morning the actors had to hold on to rods that would give them a charge, then we would smear glue on their faces, and we shot beard stubble onto their faces, and because of the electricity, the stubble stood out.

Q. Why is there a Norwegian-language version of the film as well as an English-language version?

Ronning: To get money from the Norwegian Film Institute, we had to make it in Norwegian. That’s why they give you money. But at the same time, Jeremy Thomas had made a deal with Thor Heyerdahl to make “Kon-Tiki” in English for the world to see. So there we were. We had to honor the agreement with Thor, and we really wanted the support of the Norwegian Film Institute to make it. So we shot the movie two times, but alternately, so to speak. We did a take first in Norwegian, then in English, then we turned around and did it in English and then another in Norwegian.

Sandberg: And we had to make sure the language was accurate according to the time. You know, in 1947 they didn’t say “cool” and stuff like that.

Q. Thor made quite a few other voyages. Would you be interested in doing another movie about him?

Ronning: It’s been an amazing adventure for us, and I do hope that the movie reflects that. We say that he didn’t sell 50 million copies of his book because people are so into migration theories; it’s because of the adventure. But I think that we’ve had our share. I think we’re moving on as filmmakers.

Interview was condensed and
edited. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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