Taking a page from Hollywood, and vice versa

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

If sharks were camels and the Pacific was a desert, the Norwegian adventure “Kon-Tiki” could be “Lawrence of Arabia.” It has a dashing blond hero with penetrating blue eyes. And it has the kind of sweep and polish that David Lean — and Hollywood — would happily embrace.

But “Kon-Tiki” is just one of a number of contenders this season that boast not only the gravitas usually associated with the foreign-language film Oscar — like last year’s Iranian winner, “A Separation,” for instance, or this year’s Austrian submission, “Amour” — but also the luster of a studio epic. Chen Kaige’s “Caught in the Web,” the Chinese entry, is a cutting-edge parable about cyber-bullying that plays out against a slickly edited, upscale Beijing. Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” boasts the lush textures of a ’40s period melodrama. In Iceland’s “The Deep,” helmer Baltasar Kormakur, equally in demand in Hollywood, turns the North Atlantic into his soundstage. And except for some political incorrectness and a French accent, “The Intouchables” might have starred Bradley Cooper and Chris Tucker.

Cheaper, accessible technology, and a smaller planet, account for some of the changes in a category usually associated more with grit than gloss. As “Kon-Tiki” co-helmer Espen Sandberg says, producer Jeremy Thomas owned the rights to the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 story — about retracing the path of ancient Peruvians to Polynesia aboard a balsa-wood raft — and had wanted to make the movie for years.

“It was always going to be a very expensive movie to make,” Sandberg says, “but now the price of CGI has come down. Also, I think he wanted to bring the movie home, so to speak; we could do it in Norway for a considerably lower price.”

Sandberg’s co-director, Joachim Ronning, adds Thomas had seen “Max Manus,” their 2008 World War II action-thriller, “and realized that it was possible to make big, epic movies in Scandinavia.”

“Kon-Tiki” is a movie with 24 financiers, a $15 million budget (“one of the biggest ever in Scandinavia,” per Ronning) and 500 special-effects shots.

“The Deep,” another water-borne feature, was shot right out in the North Atlantic, where its story — the 1984 sinking of the fishing trawler Breki and the superhuman survival of one of its crew — had played out in real life.

“It’s a bruise on the national soul, which is one of the reasons I wanted tell this story,” Kormakur says. “Throughout the history of Iceland, men have been lost at sea; every family in Iceland is connected to that kind of story.” Which meant he felt a need to tell it in the most authentic way possible.

But with a $3 million budget, you can’t make “Life of Pi.”

“That film works because it’s magical realism or whatever you want to call that,” says Kormakur, who adds he’s been influenced by Russian cinema, Michael Mann and “early-to-middle Soderbergh.” “But you need $100 million just to create that sea.” With 80% of Icelanders living near the water, Kormakur’s principal audience was going to know what the real ocean looks like — so he had to sink a real boat, and get in the water alongside his principal actor Olafur Darri Olafsson.

“It was really crazy,” he says. “There’s footage of us swimming together.”

Kormakur’s 2012 Hollywood film, “Contraband,” with Mark Wahlberg, took place partly on water, but he adds that even with a budget of $25 million there was a certain amount of corner-cutting. “When I shoot in my own country, I’m more in control,” he says. “At the end of the day, the filmmaking is pretty much the same but there’s not an insurance company in the world that would have let us shoot the way we shot ‘The Deep.’ ”

For both Kormakur and the “Kon-Tiki” team — who claim not just David Lean but “Apollo 13” as influences on their film — national pride was a factor in making their effort as epic as they could manage.

Likewise Chen, who after having made a number of Chinese costume dramas that pulled out all the stops on production design, has now turned his taste for sumptuous detail toward a contemporary subject. “I think production values are very important,” he says, “but even if people say, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful,’ under the surface of the story there is something important to China.”

He says something about the phenomenon of Internet bullying — the plot of “Caught in the Web” involves an innocent young woman persecuted by self-righteous “journalists” — taps into something intrinsically, troublingly Chinese. “During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao used the majority of people to persecute minorities,” he says. “This is almost same thing. And it becomes entertainment.”‘

At the same time, of course, an Internet-themed movie should dissolve national borders as easily as the Internet itself. Which isn’t as simple a proposition as it sounds.

“There are two very different markets you have to serve,” says Kormakur. “In the case of ‘The Deep,’ because of the people involved, the talent and the real lives of people who died, I wanted to make the most honest film I could. And sometimes that’s the best way to go: Just make the best version of the film you can.”

At the same time, adds Kormakur, the balance is off between U.S. film importing/exporting and that affects how movies travel. “In Europe, it’s common to say Hollywood makes hamburgers, but I think it’s a generalization,” he says. “Here, we only see about 5% of European film; in Europe we see 90% of American film, the whole scale. The good and the bad.”

The upshot is that, for all the “progress” in production values evident in this year’s crop of imports, there’s a trade-off to be had: Viewers want a film from Iceland — or Norway, or China — to retain some terroir, as the wine connoisseurs would say. “If you make a film too American, it won’t travel,” Kormakur says. “It will have no life outside of its own country.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
How to tackle a tyrant | Taking a page from Hollywood, and vice versa | Berger’s own silent tribute | Director Haneke’s one from the heart

More Film

  • Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney

    Film News Roundup: Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Sets Awards Show for Jan. 11

    In today’s film news roundup, the 2020 awards season schedule gets finalized; AFM will cover immersive content; “Murderous Trance” and “7 Days to Vegas” get acquired; and Kate Katzman has been added to “The Comeback Trail.” AWARDS DATE The Makeup Artists & Hair Stylists Guild has set Jan. 11 as the date for its seventh [...]

  • Disney Pandora World Of Avatar, Lake

    The Piano Guys Play 'Avatar' Theme in Disney World (Watch)

    The YouTube sensation The Piano Guys have taken a trip to the world of Pandora for a performance of the theme to “Avatar.” Shot in the bioluminescent floating forest in Disney World, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and pianist Jon Schmidt put their spin on the score to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster. The video immerses the [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Billy Drago, 'Untouchables' Star, Dies at 73

    Billy Drago, who often played harming but chilling gangster roles and appeared in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” and Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider,” died Monday in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke. He was 73. The character actor played Al Capone’s henchman Frank Nitti in 1987’s “The Untouchables.” On TV series “Charmed,” he put [...]

  • Grant Sputore

    'I Am Mother' Director Tackles Margot Robbie-Produced Thriller 'Augmented'

    Warner Bros. has hired “I Am Mother” director Grant Sputore to helm the science-fiction thriller “Augmented” which Margot Robbie is producing, Variety has learned exclusively. Michael Lloyd Green is rewriting an original script by Mark Townend. Denise Di Novi and Tom Ackerley are also producing. Production companies are Robbie’s LuckyChap and Di Novi’s eponymous Di [...]

  • Miley Cyrus

    Miley Cyrus Teases 'Charlie's Angels' Collaboration with Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey

    Three of the biggest female pop stars have joined forces in a new song for the Elizabeth Banks-directed reboot of “Charlie’s Angels.” In a tweet posted Wednesday, Miley Cyrus hinted at a collaboration between herself, Lana Del Rey, and Ariana Grande in the forthcoming film. Alongside a 14-second teaser, originally posted by Sony Pictures, the [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Subscription Program Hits 860k Members

    AMC’s subscription service, launched in 2018 as a challenger to MoviePass, has reached 860,129 members in its first 12 months. Given the unwieldy moniker of AMC Stubs A-List, the service costs between $19.95 to $23.95 per month depending on where users live. The company initially said it had hoped to sign up 500,000 members in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content