British producer Jeremy Thomas prides himself on sticking with his passion projects for as long as it takes to find a way to get them made. But even by his standards, the making of “Kon-Tiki” was a journey almost as epic as the story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage on a balsa-wood raft across the Pacific Ocean in 1947.
Thomas started developing the movie in 1996, at the suggestion of his friend Michael Douglas. Douglas urged him to get in touch with the Norwegian industrialist and publisher Johan Stenersen, who owned the rights to all the materials relating to Heyerdahl’s quest.
Thomas remembered from his boyhood the story of how Heyerdahl set out to prove that the Polynesian islands had been colonized 1,500 years ago by people from South America. Other scientists claimed it was impossible for such primitive people to have travelled 5,000 miles across the open ocean, so Heyerdahl embarked on a hand-built raft to show it could be done.Stenersen introduced Thomas to Heyerdahl, and although Heyerdahl had rejected many offers to dramatize his story as a movie, Thomas, armed with the credibility of his own Oscar victory in 1988 with “The Last Emperor,” won him over.
At the time, Thomas was hoping to mount “Kon-Tiki” as a feature on the Hollywood scale, with a $50 million budget. He recruited a succession of big-name writers from America and Britain to discuss the project with Heyerdahl. Melissa Mathison wrote a draft, and Phillip Noyce came aboard to direct. But for years Thomas simply couldn’t make any headway with the financing.
Those were the days before vfx imagery would make it much easier and cheaper than shooting on an ocean location. Thomas says that to tell the story properly required a larger budget “but I couldn’t get that amount of money for this story.”
Eventually Stenersen, who was aboard as an investor in the project, suggested Thomas should try a new tack, by making “Kon-Tiki” as a Norwegian film. They hired a new writer, Petter Skavlan, in an attempt to mount the film on a smaller scale. Noyce had been attached for a decade, but stepped aside for Norwegian helmers Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who had a hit with the 2008 WWII drama “Max Manus.”
Scandi distrib Nordisk came aboard as a partner, with Aage Aaberge as the Norwegian producer. “They were able to access many funds across Scandinavia that were not available to me,” Thomas says.
Over half the budget was raised from a collection of Scandi backers, including the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish Film Institutes. Thomas also brought in German distrib DCM as a co-producer, with his own HanWay Fims handling worldwide sales. The budget topped out at $19 million.
Instead of shooting in Australia and Fiji, as Thomas originally envisaged, the production took place last year in and around the Mediterranean island of Malta, fleshed out by around 500 vfx shots from Scandi post houses Important Looking Pirates, Fido, Stormstudios and Gimpville. Rather than having to build a raft, the team was given an authentic Norwegian replica that had previously been constructed to continue some of Heyerdahl’s researches. “I could never have got that if it hadn’t been a Norwegian film,” Thomas notes.
“Kon-Tiki” world premieres Aug. 19 as the opening film of the Norwegian Film Festival.