He wrote an international bestseller about his perilous ocean voyage, directed a 1951 documentary of his adventures that won Norway's only Academy Award, and fueled the proliferation of Polynesian-themed tiki bars. Sixty-five years after his epic trip across the Pacific on the balsawood raft Kon-Tiki, the late Thor Heyerdahl remains a folk hero in his homeland.
"People regard him as a role model," said Norwegian director Joachim Rønning, whose biographical drama "Kon-Tiki" stars Pål Hagen as the intrepid explorer. "Kind of a hero. In academic circles, he's not a hero," he added with a laugh.
"I would say his true genius was P.R. He understood the media and the power and money that could give him."
Rønning leveraged his subject's fame to raise international funding for his $16 million project, the most expensive Norwegian film ever. "Kon-Tiki" balances admiration for Heyerdahl's courage and leadership with an awareness that globe-trotting adventurers don't make the best scientists or family men. Norwegian actor Hagen has a glint of messianic madness in his eye that flares at times of stress. "He would rather die out there than have his theory be wrong," Rønning said of his movie's hero. "That, and the fact he couldn't swim, all made for a great movie character."
Rønning and co-director Espen Sandberg have been collaborators since they began making movies at age 10. This was their first experience shooting for a month on open seas (with Malta doubling for the South Pacific). As a further complication, they filmed English and Norwegian-language versions on alternate days.
The biggest challenge of all was the computer-generated imagery of whales and marauding sharks, he said.
"All the fish around the raft were created in the computer. The raft's crash into the reef [at the end of its voyage] contained lots of effects. That was daunting because we had no idea how it would look. There's over 500 effects shots. For a Scandinavian film, that's unheard of. All that nature and adventure was such an important part of the film. He didn't sell 50 million copies of the book because people were interested in migration theories!"