Erik Skjoldbjærg on 'Pioneer'

Paul Weedon

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg may not be the most instantly recognisable name, but his distinctive body of work certainly is. His debut feature, brooding crime thriller Insomnia, was famously remade by Christopher Nolan in 2002 and his latest film, Pioneer, is a similarly twisted conspiracy thriller, which charts Norway’s chequered history with the oil industry. We caught up with him at the London Film Festival to discuss his work, Norway’s rise to prosperity and the experience of watching his work remade.

GFW: For many of the men involved in the diving trials in the '70s the court cases are still ongoing, aren’t they?
Erik Skjoldbjærg: Yes, for the North Sea divers, it is.

Was this something that compelled you to make the story?
As a Norwegian it’s been known to me for quite a few years that the North Sea divers have become, somewhat, a symbol of what it took to create the wealth that we are all enjoying at the moment in Norway, which includes me as a filmmaker. I wouldn’t be able to do this type of budget movie without an oil economy in such a small nation. But it goes beyond that.

Did you speak with the divers who were involved in the original tests?
We talked with some of the divers who actually went through very similar experiments. They hallucinated in the same way and we also spoke with the physiologists and the supervisors who were involved in the original tests. And I spent a lot of energy trying to research written material and documentary material to get an idea.

It turns out that in the '70s in the North Sea, 99 people died in accidents. That’s not counting the people who later committed suicide because of the neurological after-affects. And a lot of these cases are a little bit hard to trace because the conclusion to why they died may be a little bit mysterious at times and it’s hard to find the exact materials. But we looked through a lot of that, yeah.

The underwater sequences are particularly striking. Can you explain a little bit about the process of shooting underwater?
The divers who actually did these tests told me that it’s weather dependent down there, but on certain days you can see infinity. It’s dark, they said – like space. But we had a Finnish diving team who researched it. We disregarded dry for wet – we just thought it would be too expensive and perhaps not organic enough. We considered going out to the North Sea, but it was too risky ... The best solution we worked out was water in a lake in Iceland, which comes from a glacier and it’s filtered by lava sand and the current means that it’s always clear. And we shot there at night. And that’s where we shot all of the wide stuff. I was sort of inspired by science fiction films. Obviously it took a lot of effort to make the whole thing work and then we shot more close ups in a diving pool in Germany.

And what about the testing equipment that’s used in the film? How much of that was reconstructed?
There were a lot of reconstructions because we couldn’t trace the actual equipment. It’s either been shipped out to Asia or somewhere, and the local oil industry wasn’t being very helpful.

How did they feel about the depiction of the trials?
I haven’t been in touch with them since we finished making the movie, but they were very… they were playing a vague game of never answering our requests. Or overpricing them so we wouldn’t be able to get the information. That’s my take on it. And I think they were sort of worried about how they were going to be painted in the film and how they might react after the film had been released.

It’s been released in Norway now and I don’t know… I haven’t seen many reactions from the oil industry. I think they benefit from saying nothing and doing nothing, y’know?

How have the families of the men who were involved responded to it?
They’ve been to see the film and some of the men involved went to see the film and I’ve only had a positive response from those people. They feel very pleased with both the accuracy of all the technical aspects and the experience, because I put a lot of effort in to trying to convey the experience of going down that deep and what it takes, physically and mentally. Obviously, there are quite a few fiction elements in the story, because we made it into a conspiracy thriller and part of the plot we cannot account for. But I haven’t seen them react to it, because in their mind they feel manipulated by the government anyway and the gist of how the state sort of acknowledged at the start that they didn’t have the knowhow to do this – they were very dependent upon whatever the international oil community knew at the time. So they invited them in and ended up nationalising it and doing it themselves. 

Air’s soundtrack compliments the film’s tone perfectly. When did your relationship with them evolve?
This production actually grew as we were shooting it, more or less. It was a European co-production, so we realised, quite late in the process, that we had to get France on board too, to keep the project afloat, as it were. And at the time, we didn’t have any creative points to give to France other than post-production, so we started looking for a composer, mixer or sound designer – these roles that were left. And I didn’t know any French composers, but a music supervisor suggested Air. And I said “yeah, but we’ll never get them.” I didn’t think we’d get them because, from what I’d heard, they’d done work with Sofia Coppola and then they came back later on and said they were interested.

I think they were really drawn to this underwater world, which is somewhat a contrast to their name, or whatever, but it goes beyond that. I think they’re really in to elements. They were a real inspiration to work with. They’re obsessive about sounds, which is always a good sign in any creative. And they also know a lot about film, both from the period and film music, so they had a rich knowledge. And they were adamant that it needed to have a simple theme.

As you’ve been through the experience yourself as a director, it would be interesting to get your take on the current wave of Scandi-American remakes. Hollywood seems to have really embraced Scandinavian stories of late. What do you think it is that audiences and the studios find so appealing about these stories?
I think Scandinavia has had a culture of crime fiction which has been going for quite a while, so it’s not something that, in our culture, started five years ago, or whatever. So it’s been cultivated and I think there is an economy to the position in storytelling, which lends itself to filmmaking. I think that’s a general rule and I also think there is a tradition to bring in social aspects and character driven elements in to crime, which I think is probably appealing to American production companies.

And how is it, as a director, to see your work re-interpreted by another director?
Well I haven’t seen it for quite a while, but when I first saw it it was a very strange experience because it was quite close, stylistically, to the original. I felt lucky that it’s such a well crafted, smart film and that it had a really good director handling it, because as a remake I think it did really well and it doesn’t hurt any original if a remake is well done. So I felt I was lucky that Christopher Nolan took it upon himself to do it.

'Pioneer' is released on DVD on 4 August.

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