Filmmaker Roar Uthaug gives Hollywood a run for its money in The Wave, this year’s riveting Norwegian entry for Best Foreign Film. The visually stunning Scandinavian disaster thriller keeps audiences on the edge of their seats as the action unfolds non-stop until the very end. The powerful story adeptly combines high action and terrifying sequences with realistic panic and deeply personal moments as a close knit family finds itself unraveling in the face of an impending disaster. The Wave never sacrifices emotional authenticity to spectacle thanks to Ana Dahl Torp and Kristoffer Joner’s impressive performances which always keep the human element front and center.
In an exclusive interview with Collider, Uthaug and Torp talked about how the project first came together, the thrill of making a disaster movie, researching and developing the story and characters, their reaction when they first read the script, how the actors trained to do their own diving stunts, shooting on location in Norway and in the studios in Bucharest, capturing the right emotional tone for the movie, the most challenging sequences, collaborating with D.P. John Christian Rosenlund and composer Magnus Beite, the cinematic influences, how the locals reacted when they saw the completed film, and what’s ahead for both of them.
Collider: Ana, what drew you to this project?
ANA DAHL TORP: I knew that I really wanted to work with Roar, because I had seen his other films and they were really good. I liked him and I knew he was really good at what he’s doing. And Kristoffer (Joner), the guy playing my husband, we’ve worked together several times before. I would do anything that he’s in and to be with him on camera. I love that. We really enjoy working together. Also, I liked the production company and it thrilled me the thought of making a disaster movie. The whole project attracted me with all the people in it and everything.
What was your reaction when you first read the script and realized the extent of diving and underwater action that was involved?
TORP: I wasn’t thinking about it. It was funny. I remember when we met with the Norwegian press a few weeks before we started shooting, and the producer said to the journalist who was interviewing him, “Yeah, these are the two bravest actors in Norway,” and I was like, “Oh wow, what is that?” Have you read the script? Yes, I have. But I hadn’t really thought about the content and what it meant to actually be in the water. I think that’s partly because I’ve always thought that in these kind of movies it’s just movie tricks and not for real. That was what astonished me during the shooting. It was that it was all for real. Everything was for real. The only thing that was not for real was actually seeing the wave. But, the wave hitting us, hitting the set, being in the water, all of that was for real.
Roar, Kristoffer and Ana are in some very powerful and physically demanding scenes. Did you have them do any special training to prepare for their roles?
ROAR UTHAUG: Yes, they both did, and so did Jonas (Hoff Oftebro) who plays the son. We had them with a freediving instructor. They met in a pool in Oslo, and they worked with a freediving instructor, and then got their home lessons in the interval training for holding their breaths. He had them hold their breaths and train for being underwater for long amounts of time.
TORP: That was so terrible for me. I’ve known Kristoffer for years. Normally, he’s afraid of almost everything. He’s an asthmatic, so I was thinking, “Oh, I can lean on him. He will be a weak link.” You know, that comfort. Then it turns out the guy is half fish, and he loves the water, and he has this natural ability. The diving instructor commented on it once, “Oh my god, he’s lying so high in the water. It’s impossible to make him sink.” The instructor told us to relax, hold our breath, and lie down in the water, which I can hardly do because it just freaks me out. They put weights on us so we wouldn’t float up. But Kristoffer is floating no matter what you put on him. I’m like a rock. I just go straight to the bottom. I usually like challenges and think it’s fun when I get to learn something new. I’m not afraid of very many things, but I don’t like the water. That was really rough for me, for real, but Kristoffer just did it. He was so good at it. It just came naturally to him.
Ana, I understand Kristoffer and you did all of your own stunts?
TORP: Yes. We had some stunt people there, but we were better.
UTHAUG: We were supposed to have stunt people do some of their swimming in the water, but they didn’t have a chance to accomplish what our actors could do. Our actors ended up doing everything themselves.
TORP: There was some very uncomfortable work connected to that whole sequence. I don’t like the water, and I really don’t like holding my breath because it feels like dying. So, lying in water, holding my breath, really freaks me out. I knew I had to do this work. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold my breath as long as we needed to get the picture. I rehearsed holding my breath several times a day. And each evening, while I was watching this TV series, I was doing this interval program and it was terrible. I’m very proud of my personal record. I ended up holding my breath for three minutes. It was so uncomfortable, and I swore I would never do it again. But then, I knew that I would be able to hold it much longer than I originally thought I could, so I felt safe.
Were there any surprises?
TORP: When I read the script for the first time, I realized that the scene where I’m killing the Danish guy was a bit of a problem. Kristoffer and I actually tried this in the pool. We found out it’s really hard for a woman who’s smaller to drown a man. The script didn’t say how. It just said that I drowned him. So, we tried it, but it didn’t really work, because he would push me under. We found out that if I used my thighs and I could hold onto something, then it actually would be possible for me to do this. We rehearsed this in the pool, and we decided that I needed something that I could hold onto on the set. For me, that was the most practical way to do it and it was necessary. I really had no choice.
Roar, how did this project first come together for you? How long did it take you to develop the story and the characters, and what kind of research was involved?
UTHAUG: The producer brought me a news article about what happened in the 1930’s where there were several instances of these rockslides into the fjord creating tsunamis, and then this situation now out in the Geirangerfjord where there is a crack that keeps expanding each year. At some point, the whole side of the mountain will fall into the fjord and it will create an 80-meter high tsunami that will hit the local community after 10 minutes. We started out from there trying to figure out what kind of story we wanted to tell and who these characters should be. We worked on it for a couple of years, going back and forth with the screenwriter trying to find the right timing for when the wave should hit. We went through many drafts of different main characters and different points of view before we ended up with this.
Did you spend time in that observation post up in the mountains that we see early on in the film?
UTHAUG: Initially, the screenwriter took a trip to this place and spoke to the people that were working where we were going. When we were in pre-production, we also took a helicopter up there, which is where we landed the helicopter up on the mountainside. That’s an actual monitoring station they were landing on. When we were there, we looked at the nature up there and spoke to the geologists. We also spoke to tsunami experts back in Oslo when we were researching and writing the script.
You shot part of this on location in Norway. How did the local people react when they heard you were making this film?
UTHAUG: Initially, when the news broke that we were making the movie, there were some skeptical voices like, “Is this truly necessary?” But then, we came there to shoot. And, all the people you see running for their lives in the movie, they’re local people. They were our extras. They loved being part of it. We also screened the movie there. Before our big Norwegian premiere, we had a small screening for the local community, and people applauded us and came up to us afterwards and thanked us for making the movie. That was a really powerful experience. The mayor of the town was also at our premiere when we opened the Norwegian Film Festival. The film has created a lot of awareness in people about this situation, and hopefully, they will get more funding for even better monitoring and also researching ways of preventing disasters like this from happening in the future.
From a production standpoint, what were the most challenging sequences for you to shoot in terms of dealing with the actors, the extras, the logistics, and the special effects?
UTHAUG: Filmmaking-wise, it was those scenes where the cars are piled up and the people are running for their lives up the hill there. We had the wave coming at night, and we had a very short window of light to shoot that scene, where it was dark enough so you see the cars’ headlights but still light enough so you would see the wave that we were putting in there later when it comes out of the fjord. That gave us about a three-hour window to shoot. We did that over the course of the first three nights of shooting. We set everything up in the afternoon and rehearsed. Then, we had to move everything out so the tourist buses could come through. Then afterwards, we put everything back the way we had it. As soon as the light was right, we ran with the cameras and started to shoot really fast. All those extras are local people that live in this place and they had to run back and forth. So, those people were in the first three nights of production. That was an intense experience. And then, of course, going into the tanks in Bucharest and having actors and camera and crew in water for 12 hours a day for several weeks also took its toll.
Ana, what were some of the challenges for you as an actor?
TORP: Sometimes the set would be covered so we couldn’t get up and get air whenever we wanted. That would have felt like a huge problem if I hadn’t done this work in advance, but it wasn’t really a problem. I was uncomfortable at times. That was okay being a bit uncomfortable. The day before we started shooting the water scenes, I was really nervous about them. I remember we had an underwater test and I thought to myself, “Yeah, I could start crying now, but I won’t.” I decided not to. But otherwise, actually, what was most challenging in a way from an actress’s point of view were actually the first scenes with the family, because it’s very hard to do scenes that have no conflict, portraying a happy, well-functioning family. It’s just small conflicts, but there’s not much real drama food on those plates. That’s actually more difficult than when you have the high drama. We were just searching for this texture of the family and that’s really hard to do. When we shot these scenes, we found out it worked best just to loop them. We didn’t do any beginning or ending on the text. We just moved the scenes and did it over and over several times to find how this family works.
How difficult was it capturing the emotional tone of a film that combines huge action sequences with deeply personal human moments and creating the texture and energy of a close and loving family caught up in an impending disaster?
UTHAUG: We worked a lot on that, on creating the bond of the family. But I think that’s what’s important. That’s what makes you invest in the characters when you watch the movie and makes you care about what happens to them.
TORP: It’s also a question of not making it too sweet. We discussed this a lot, because there are some barks and bites within a family, but how far can you go before it’s too much and you lose your faith in them as a good match. Where’s that line?
UTHAUG: It’s a balancing act. It’s something that you keep balancing through the edit, and even the ADR, to not make it too sugary and sweet, but still have that warmth and empathy between them.
Kristoffer Joner does not seem like your typical action hero, yet he’s so convincing. Why did you cast him and what did he bring to this film?
UTHAUG: I think he’s one of the finest actors we have in Norway, and he brings a lot of vulnerability to the character, and that’s exactly what we were looking for. It’s not about having this big muscled action hero, but rather a real guy that you can identify with. He’s a normal guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances. You’re not sure if he’ll make it. He would say it himself that he’s an unlikely action hero. We pushed him pretty hard. I think that makes it also more exciting to watch. Also, it’s part of the disaster movie trope where one guy has the truth and the others won’t listen. We tried to give our main character some doubts. He’s not that sure about it and he thinks maybe he’s overreacting. We wanted to give him some more humanity.
What was your budget for this and how many days did you shoot?
UTHAUG: It was roughly $6 million U.S. dollars and we shot for 37 days. We started shooting on the west coast of Norway in the place where it actually happened and then moved the whole shoot to Bucharest, Romania because they have these large stages there and also some large water tanks. The basement of the hotel was built in a self-containing pool. All the walls and the floor were welded in steel so we could fill it with as much water as we needed for each scene and then bring it down to the level of what we needed. The scenes in the crevasse were also shot on stages in Romania.
Are there any deleted scenes?
UTHAUG: Not that much really. Some have maybe been trimmed, but nothing that was taken out completely.
Can you talk about your creative team that helped you execute your vision? The lighting and composition are stunning and the score captures the film’s dramatic action and its quieter emotional moments equally well.
UTHAUG: I think so, too. I love working with Magnus Beite, the composer. He’s a Norwegian composer. He’s done all my features and also some commercials, because I also do commercials. He has a great balance. He can do the big Hollywood thing, but also the small intimate stuff and more quieter scenes. We worked a lot together on the sound and the music and not being too broad or hitting people in the head or overwhelming them, but keeping it subtle and getting in under people’s skin. With my DP, John Christian Rosenlund, it’s the second feature I’ve done with him. He has a great visual eye and manages to stay cool and levelheaded while all this stuff is going on. He worked on 1001 Grams which was the Norwegian Oscar contender last year. He’s one of the best Norwegian cinematographers.
TORP: He’s really good.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
UTHAUG: It was pretty close to what I imagined, but also much better. I think that’s the fun of making movies. You get all these great collaborations, and every one brings their knowledge and passion to the project. Some are actors or DP’s or editors, and I love that part of it. That’s what makes the movie even better than what I can see in my head.
What were your cinematic influences for this? Did you look at other action films for inspiration in terms of your approach to making a Norwegian disaster movie?
UTHAUG: For this movie, we looked at more modern action thrillers like the Bourne movies and those kind of movies that have a more realistic approach to action and characters and a dynamic approach to the way they tell their stories compared to maybe some of the big disaster movies that often are more glossy. We wanted to make it feel real and intense and worth it. So, it’s a combination of looking at modern action movies, but also dramas and other movies that have a more documentary kind of approach.
What’s next for both of you that you’re excited for people to know about?
TORP: I’m in the theater right now. Also, in December, Charlotte Sieling is starting a feature. She’s a Danish director and actress. She made Borgen and the first episodes of The Bridge. It’s a Danish film. So that’s next.
UTHAUG: I’m developing a couple of projects in Norway, and I’m also taking meetings here in L.A. I don’t know yet what will result in a movie first.
Is there an American film in your future?
UTHAUG: I hope so. I would love to do that. I’m a huge fan of American movies. I grew up on them, so I’m hugely influenced by them. I remember going to see Twister, and Armageddon, and that era of disaster movies from America. I love sci-fi and action and entertaining movies like that. I grew up with Spielberg and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lucas and Star Wars and those kinds of movies. I would love to do something like that.
The Wave opens in theaters and On Demand March 4th.