Director's Chair: Baltasar Kormákur — <i>Adrift</I>
Issue: June 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Baltasar Kormákur — Adrift

Baltasar Kormákur seems to be obsessed with sea-faring tales, which is hardly surprising as the Icelandic director and producer was born in Reykjavik, and grew up surrounded by the ocean. He first made a name for himself with his 2000 feature film 101 Reykjavik, which he wrote, directed, acted in and produced, and which became an international hit and earned the Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then he’s made films both local and international, including The Sea, A Little Trip to Heaven, Jar City, White Night Wedding (which were all successful in Iceland and won numerous international awards), and The Deep, the tragic real-life story of the lone survivor of a capsized fishing boat off the frigid Icelandic coast, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and was shortlisted for the foreign language Academy Award. 

Kormákur has also directed and produced several features, which have nothing to do with the ocean, including the hit epic adventure Everest, which grossed over $203 million worldwide, actioner Contraband, starring Mark Wahlberg, and the action-comedy 2 Guns, which starred Denzel Washington and Wahlberg, and grossed over $131 million worldwide. 

Now, he’s headed back to sea again with Adrift, a harrowing survival story starring Shailene Woodley (the Divergent films) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games films). Based on the inspiring true story of two sailors who set out to journey across the ocean from Tahiti to San Diego, it charts the ill-fated voyage of Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) who unwittingly sail directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins. With no hope for rescue, Tami must find the strength and determination to save herself and Richard in a story about the resilience of the human spirit and the transcendent power of love. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Kormakur, who was still fine-tuning VFX on the eve of its release this month, talked about making the film and his love of post. 

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I loved the fact that it was this true survival story with a woman as the hero, and women have always faced the same problems as men in dealing with extreme elements and so on, but their stories are not told that often for some reason. And for an extreme survival story, it also had a bit more levity as it’s also this beautiful love story, and I always wanted to tell one but could never find the right one. And this was real, not some rom-com. And love can be the best of times and the worst of times, and this had all that. And I loved that it was all set at sea, as I love the water. I used to sail competitively when I was younger and I thought, ‘This is great! I can sail and make a film at the same time. It’s perfect for me!’”

Jim Cameron famously said after Titanic, “Never, ever shoot on water.” Didn’t you get the memo?

“No, I didn’t, and my first film was shot at sea — in really cold water — and I just keep doing it, although at least we shot this in Fiji so it was warm water. I’m getting old so I make it easier for myself now.” (Laughs)

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“Obviously, the big thing was shooting at sea, and from the start I made it clear I was going to shoot on the ocean as much as possible. And post was a big part of that because for me, it’s always there to augment the reality. I want to build on the reality, not create it in post — and it’s impossible to totally fake the ocean through a whole film, however brilliant all the VFX are. It always seems a bit unreal and cartoonish to me. So on this, we stayed out at sea for six weeks, and doing that also bleeds into the actors and their performances. It changes the way you move and breathe — everything.” 

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Right away, and I’m very fortunate as I have a genius by my side — my VFX supervisor Dadi Einarsson. He was one of the leading guys at Framestore in London, and worked on Gravity, Sherlock Holmes, Salt and he’s done a lot of my films, like  Contraband, 2 Guns and Everest. We immediately plan out what shots we need, the budget and the best way of achieving them.”

The great DP Robert Richardson, three-time Oscar winner for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo, shot it. Talk about how you collaborated.

“He was amazing and really pushed himself and all of us. We worked on storyboards along with Dadi, building shots together from very early on with a storyboard artist and mapping out the whole shoot. And on the shoot, if we had a problem, like our Techocrane on the boat breaking down, he would just shoot handheld. So we got really great footage.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was pretty tough, and me and Bob were the lucky ones, because when you’re focused on directing and shooting, you don’t get sea-sick. You’re too busy. But for everyone else, having to wait for set ups, that’s when they got sick. I’d say it was similar to Everest in that you’re dealing with nature in all its variables.”

Where did you post?

“In Iceland at my company, RVK Studios. I did my director’s cut there and a lot of the work. Then we moved to London and did the grading there, at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld, and then all the sound with Glenn Freemantle at Sound 24 at Pinewood Studios. So I have this great post team I’ve worked with a lot, and it makes post a very smooth process.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love it. I love all aspects of filmmaking — the prep, the shoot, the VFX. Some directors don’t like shooting so much, or all the prep work, but I enjoy it all, and especially post where, of course, you actually make the film. The big thing for me is having enough time in post, as then you can allow the movie to be what it wants to be. It needs to be an organic process instead of trying to force it into a preconceived idea. You need to have the time to allow the creativity to come in. Then post is truly wonderful and magical.”

Talk about editing with John Gilbert, who won the Oscar for cutting Hacksaw Ridge and who was nominated for The Lord of the Rings. 

“He’s based in New Zealand, so he came to Fiji and was with us for the whole shoot. Then we went to New Zealand to do some green screen work for the hurricane scenes in a tank, and then he came to Iceland for 10 weeks to do my director’s cut. So he was there the whole time and he’s a really experienced editor and a great collaborator.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“Finding the right balance between the two stories — how they first meet, and then the survival story. And we intercut constantly between the two, so there’s a reveal each time — and sometimes it’s a reverse reveal, like when we first see the boat intact and undamaged before they set off, and after some of the storm scenes. So we relive all her memories and the more the two stories can inform each other, the better it works, I think.” 

All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?

“Not as many as you think — about 225. We had some clean up, like land popping into frame, but the hurricane was the main thing and we had several companies — Cinesite, Milk, Vitality and our company RVX working closely with Dadi. And as we speak, he’s still working on some storm shots.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music on this. 

“I love working with Glenn and his team at Pinewood, and I wanted to keep the sound in perspective — not only naturalistic, but making it personal. It’s how you experience it. You want to have it grounded and realistic, but with a true sense of what they heard and experienced. As for the music, it took me a very long time to find the right thing. I just couldn’t make up my mind. I listened to so many people and in the end I didn’t hire Hauschka, the German composer, till I was well into the director’s cut. But when I found him, I knew he was the one. There was just something about the journey and his music that fit perfectly. It’s simple but emotional. I didn’t want tons of strings and a huge sound, and he gave me this very personal score.”

How involved are you in the DI and how important is it to you?

“I’m as involved as much as I can be and it’s huge for me. My father’s Spanish and a painter, and my mother’s a sculptress, so I grew up very aware of color and form and it’s always been important in my life and work. And of course Bob is very involved, even though he’s now very busy prepping Tarantino’s next film, and together with Stefan I think we found a great look. Bob was also grading as he went and we’d send dailies back to the editor using EC3, but that was a rough grade and changed quite a bit in the end. And of course, the sea is always changing, so we had to match a lot of stuff that was meant to be the same day, but which was shot on different days. The main thing was to keep it subtle, and find the right tone for the movie so it didn’t distract from what you’re watching.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It did. I didn’t want to force anything in post, and I feel it all came together very organically in the end.”