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Jonas Akerlund on ‘Polar,’ Mads Mikkelsen, Working with Netflix

Released by Netflix on Friday, action-thriller “Polar,” a Netflix Original Movie starring Mads Mikkelsen (“Hannibal”), stands about half-way between OTT comic noir and big multiplex action-thriller.

It opens with an aerial shot creeping over woods towards a mansion somewhere in Chile as a motley squad of assassins moves in for the kill. The target, Michael (Johnny Knoxville), 50-ish, a former hitman himself, is now snorting coke and popping a pill before sex by the pool with babelicious Sindy (Rubu O.Fee).

Cut, after Michael’s dispatch, to Mikkelsen, playing Duncan Vizla, aka the Black Kaiser, the world’s No. 1 assassin, going through a pre-retirement medical checkup with an air of near zen-like calm. It’s as if he’s living in another world. Which is a way he is. As anticipated in the opening scene, in its blood-splattered film title, caricature of the hit squad as unconscionable psychopaths, and camera’s trailing Sindy’s sashaying posterior, “Polar’s” is one-part OTT kick-ass action-thriller, with a strong line in brutal violence. It’s another part a satire of corporate malfeasance as Duncan’s former employer – “Little Britain’s” Matt Lucas  – takes out a contract on Duncan himself, to slash pension scheme costs and massage the company’s bottom line.

Duncan has to fight back with the only weapons he has –  a body-heat detecting, night-vision sharpshooter rifle, a remote-controlled automatic rifle arsenal, as well as little tricks he’s learnt from assassinating people in 99 countries.

“Polar,” however, is third-part drama as Duncan, retreating to a cabin in snowy woods, has time to look back on his life, what he’s achieved and what that says about himself. Buried beneath its brutality, “Polar’s” is a movie about a man who’s given everything to his job, starting with his soul, and is trying to learn some humanity. The film’s contemplative moments, such as a Duncan’s brief conversation with his armory supplier, will for some people be those with most impact.

Co-starring“High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens as Duncan’s neighbor, who also has a backstory, and Katheryn Winnick, Lagertha in ”Vikings,” as fashionista Vivian, who might once have carried a candle for Duncan, “Polar” is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, best known for his music videos with Madonna, Lady Gaga, U2, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé and Pink, for example, and his critically acclaimed second movie, “Lords of Chaos.”

Carrying heavy-duty pedigree in the action-thriller world, “Polar” is produced by Constantin Film’s Robert Kulzer, Bolt Pictures’ Jeremy Bolt, Dark Horse Entertainment’s Mike Richardson, and Keith Goldberg, with Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz  executive producing. That yokes the talents of the producers of “Resident Evil,” whose franchise grossed $1.2 billion worldwide, “Hellboy” (Richardson) and “The Legend of Tarzan” (Goldberg).

“Netflix was just fantastic. It funded basically the whole movie but gave us filmmakers all the freedom to make this movie the way it should be done, without compromises. That hasn’t happened at least to me in many, many years,” Moszkowicz commented.

Variety chatted to Åkerlund a few days before “Polar’s” release.

Polar
CREDIT: Jasper Savage / Netflix

The film adaptation of Season 1 of Victor Santos’ webcomic series, “Polar: Came From the Cold,”, with Jayson Rothwell’s spec script, was announced by Constantin in 2014. When did you begin to be interested in the project, and why?

It must have been at least 2016. Martin and Jeremy from Constantine sent me the graphic novels first and right after the script. I’d be wanting to work with Constantine for quite some time. At first I was a little taken back, graphic novels to me are very specific in that they already exist in the world and I always wonder what I could add to the mix. After reading the books and learning more about the character and seeing the human and emotional sides to this graphic novel, that Duncan is a little older and he’s going through the retirement thing and like that, I instantly felt that this is something special and different from all the graphic novels that I’d seen or read before.

Victor Santos’ original is a comic noir, but drawn in just three colors – black, white, orange-red – and there’s no dialog. Bloody, but minimalist. One crucial decision as a director is what visual style you adopt for a movie. How would you describe your key decisions?

“Polar” is based on the first and a little bit on the second book and all the characters from those novels are in there. The story is based on the graphic novel, but when it came to the execution of the film I felt I couldn’t really make a movie without any dialogue. I didn’t want to make “Sin City,” where everything is stylized like a graphic novel. I wanted to find our own DNA for the movie and to be inspired by Victor’s fantastic work, then bring it to life as an action movie. As a director you get a bit of a free pass when you do a graphic novel, and that let us push a little further than we’re used to.

The graphic novels turns more on an ensemble of characters. The film focuses more on Duncan… 

I think they work hand in hand in a weird way. At times it felt like we were making two different movies because everything around the old world that Duncan is leaving behind is so colorful, noisy and disturbing. Everything in his new world I wanted to be as normal and maybe even borderline boring and grey. In his new world, we’re following his journey to try his hand at normality. He’s not very good at it, but he’s trying. You can see that he probably doesn’t want to retire. I think this is something that many of us can identify with. Then when he is thrown back into this colorful world again, that’s when we see him in his element. To be normal is out of his comfort zone.

Mads Mikkelsen is being honored at Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival, as you no doubt know. How did you direct one of Scandinavia’s most respected actors?

For starters, it was very different from anything I’ve done before. He’s one of the smartest actors, actually one of the smartest people, I’ve ever met in my life. He challenged me, but brought out the best of me. I knew that he would always outsmart me, so I had to stay on my toes all the time and try to be a step ahead of him. The good news is that we had a lot of time to work before shooting, so my goal was to have him in character and well-prepared so once we started shooting there would be no questions on what we’re doing.

When you say that he challenged you, was that in terms of talking about motivation or how he acted individual scenes?

It was very unpredictable. It could be a story point, or something I didn’t think of. It could be a prop that was placed in the wrong place, He was that extra eye, you know? I feel like we really helped each other, because we thought of things the other didn’t. It was also incredible for me to work with an actor who could revive the small things, really change the energy in the scene. Even though sometimes he didn’t have dialogue, it was in his eyes. We would do another take and he wouldn’t change much but it felt different, and when you looked at it again he did this small thing with his eyes, just the smallest detail that just changed the whole energy.

One theme of the film could be that retirement will kill you, but what are some other things you think this film is about?

Well, first it’s a revenge story. Also, I think it’s about this man coming to realize what his life has really been about. I don’t think he ever had any morals throughout his career as an assassin, but it’s sneaking up on him when he finally sits down to think about it. Then he meets this girl and she’s probably the first thing he’s ever cared about in his life and he doesn’t really know why until the very end. And to get there it’s a crazy ride with a lot of comedy, a lot of fun and a lot of action. I didn’t want there to be one dull moment.

Did you try in any way to channel your expertise in music videos into “Polar”?

I’d never really shot action scenes before, but I realized early on that is very much like shooting choreography and dance. I realized in preparation when I worked with the stunt coordinator that he’s very much like a choreographer, and the stunt guys are very much like dancers. I was trying to put my fingerprint on it like I do in my music videos.

What else did you try to bring to the film as a director?

I felt the original script was very serious, and I wanted to bring a bit of wit to it. I felt like I pushed the characters in different directions and made them like a little bit more. I really didn’t let anything go. On this movie I was into pretty much every detail, and I feel like it paid off in the final movie. I’m very proud of it and I think it works really well.

When did Netflix board, and what did they bring to the table?

Netflix was on board pretty early on and that should be recognized. When I was working on it, I didn’t think much about it, I was just happy to do it. Then as things got going I learned about Netflix, what they do and what a great opportunity it was for this movie. As a music video director, I have about 4 billion hits on my music videos on YouTube, and I’m really proud of that. That’s what it’s all about for me as a director, and for me to be given this chance to have this amazing platform on Netflix, fits what this movie is about perfectly. It’s great to put in all this work and have a big audience see it. This movie deserves the backing of Netflix. As far as I’m concerned they’ve been the greatest partner we could have on this movie.

Jonas Åkerlund is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.

Polar

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