Freeze frames

Director Asif Kapadia talks about finding the arctic location and cast for his latest film Far North.

by Paul Griffiths

Michelle Krusiec and Michelle Yeoh in the film - a dark fable

Michelle Krusiec and Michelle Yeoh in the film - a dark fable

This year the London Film Festival welcomed back British director Asif Kapadia, who first screened his praised debut The Warrior here in 2001. This time he presented his new film Far North, a dark fable starring Michelle Yeoh, Sean Bean and Michelle Krusiec, set and filmed amid the barren and epic icescapes of the Arctic tundra. After a sojourn to the Hollywood behemoth last year to helm The Return with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Far North is a welcome return to form. After the screening he explained why Tinsel Town had come first.

“We were actually trying to get this film [Far North] together," he explained. “So we already had this project and the script but it was quite hard to get the money together.

“One of the other problems shooting was we only had one window, a month in the autumn that we had to shoot the film in. In the winter there’s no daylight, in the summer there’s no snow and in the spring it’s minus 40 and the sea’s frozen. We had to work towards being ready to go at a particular time and date or there’s no way you can shoot – and a couple of years we missed it and weren’t able to get the film cast or ready.

far north
Michelle Yeoh, who picks her films depending on who the director is
"Eventually I got offered a project [The Return] and did a film in the US.”

So how did the Hollywood experience compare to working on his other films?

“The positive? I made another film. You learn from it. The negative? There were quite a few. It was a tough experience,” he admitted.

“It was a studio film, I was bought in and got paid just as the director. Well… I’m sure what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! It nearly killed me.”

Talking of tough situations, Far North is set an august but incredibly inhospitable environment…

“The location was a big part of the story for me,” Kapadia said, “because wherever we shot it we had to find somewhere where it felt extreme, so you could believe that they [the characters] couldn’t just go off and find another tribe to live with. We had to find somewhere that, to me, felt like the end of the world.”

I wondered how he went about finding and choosing his locations.

“It really came about by accident,” he explained. “The Warrior was showing in one of the most northern film festivals in the world in Norway, in the Arctic. So I went along to show the film and I saw the Northern Lights, went on a huskie ride, ate reindeer stew and … I didn’t really see that many films on that trip!

"I used it as a sort of scout and got a car and just went out. This student I was with said, ‘You’ve got to go to this place, Syalbard.’ It was this mythic place also known as Spitzbergen and that is where the two women end up. So I did a bit of research and went there quite a few times. It’s basically about the size of Ireland with only 1000 people and about 3000 polar bears, with only one road of 20km. The rest of the country has to travel by boat around the edges or on snow mobile. I really felt this extreme world we were in there.”

And how was it then taking a cast and crew there to film?

“It was quite cold,” he said, with not a little understatement. “It was pretty extreme. We had a hotel, but when we were shooting we were based on a Russian icebreaker, living on a ship whilst doing the principal part of the location shoots. The crew and cast lived on the ship.

"The ship would park itself and we’d go off on a dinghy run and shoot and at the end of the day get back on the boat. As we were eating and sleeping the boat would go to the next location. That was for six days and on the seventh day we would go to land and we’d go crazy and then go back on the boat. It was quite an intense experience.”

So of all the imagery he captured, does he have a favourite scene?

“In a way I’m too close to the film. I suspect I have to walk away from it for a few years. It took me a long time to re-watch The Warrior again."

He added: “The Northern Lights shot. When I first saw the Northern Lights there was something about seeing this magical thing that made me think that I would love to try and film that and capture that. So that was quite amazing to be able to get a scene of the real Northern Lights.”

How difficult was it to cast people for such an experience?

“When I go to do a film like this you do spend half your time trying to talk people into doing your movie and the other half trying to talk them out of doing the movie,” said Kapadia. “Give them all the bad news, everything that can go wrong. There will be no hotels, it’s going to be cold, there’s no nice food - it’s going to be harsh so don’t do it if you’re not ready to do it for real, it’s not going to be easy.”

Did Michelle Yeoh need much persuading?

far north
Michelle and Sean Bean, who was cast over the phone by Kapadia
“My casting director does films for Ang Lee and Lars Von Trier and she said, 'Michelle Yeoh will be the person for you',” he explained. “She’s a fantastic actress but also very strong. She comes from martial arts so physically she’s strong but mentally she’s also a very strong personality, and she has a very wonderful heart.

"I met her in Sundance a few years ago and she said she picks her movies depending on who the director is and we got along very well. The cameraman had been up to the Artic a year before we shot the film and the composer had done some music so I showed her some footage of the place and explained what it was going to be like - and she decided to jump on board. It took a long time for the film to get together and she had a huge movie waiting to go and she kept saying, 'no I want to do this small independent film'.”

And Sean Bean?

“I met him met once and had a chat in London and then he went off to do various other movies and in the end I actually cast him over the phone,” he revealed. “He was in New Mexico and I was at an Ethiopian restaurant in Kentish Town, waiting for him to read the script. I was in the car park trying to talk him into doing the film and then we didn’t actually get to meet again.

“It was that peculiar thing when you say, ‘Ok. I’ll see you in the Arctic. On a ship!”

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