TIFF 2007

"Far North" (True North)

Exclusive: Asif Kapadia on "Far North"

On January 19 2007, director Asif Kapadia gave a special presentation on "True North" (which has been remaned "Far North" ) at the Tromso International Film Festival. It was at a special session organized by RUSHPRINT.

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Host: Kjetil Lismoen
Video by: Karl A. Roman


Asif Kapadia at Tiff

Host Kjetil Lismoen: Welcome to the Tromso International Film Festival.

Kapadia: Is it three years now? Three or four?

Host: We're not going to show takes from the film. We're going to show different footage which you have taken from behind the scenes and so on and...

Kapadia: A big multimedia experience.

Host: Yes...

Kapadia: Possibly.

Host: So I think we're going to screen something from The Warrior first to remind people of where it all started, when you were here with The Warrior back in 200... 3?

Kapadia: 2. Or 3.

Off camera: 3.

Both: 3.

Host: First to build upon those mountains... (Kapadia: Yes)... for the first time. So we'll show a little... (video cuts past The Warrior bit)

(talking about True North)

Kapadia: Two women who live in the middle of nowhere on ice. An older woman and a younger woman. And they're indiginous people -- they survive on whatever they can kill. One day they're out hunting and they see this little dot on the horizon, and this dot comes closer and closer and collapses. They're pretty much afraid, they don't know what it is, and they go closer and see it is a man. They have the decision to leave the man on the ice to die or to save him and bring him home. And they decide to save him and bring him home and there becomes this triangle between the two women, who compete for the attention of the man. And it ended in this pretty shocking ending, a little twist in the tale. So it's only about four pages long. We had this idea and we had the rights. Tim and I had started writing but we hadn't really cracked the script yet and I had no idea how we would film it or in what way we would film it. And actually I was coming to the festival and coming here in the winter and seeing the Northern Lights and having a car from the festival... I didn't see that many films that year. I basically used the trip as a bit of a scout. I went outside of Tromso and went on a husky ride and stuff like that, and I thought, maybe we could shoot it here, maybe just outside of Tromso. And that's how it really began. The driver was this young student who drove me around just before I went off to the airport and mentioned Svalbard. I'd never heard of Svalbard before. He had never been there, but he said it was this amazing place and that I should have a look at it. So I quickly went off to the bookshop at the museum and bought a book and went back to London and said to my producer, "We have to go here!" (laughter) "You have to pay for me to go there first, of course." It was literally about a month or two months after being here at the festival -- March 2003 -- I went up to Svalbard and started researching it. It has taken 3 years to get to this point where I can't show it to you. We haven't finished it yet.

Host: We're going to show some other stuff, and... what kind of research did you do, actually, when you went to Svalbard? I think we're going to see some of it.

Kapadia: Yeah. What I... the system that I found to do my own stuff is, while I'm writing the script -- because I'm writing and directing -- I like to know where I am going to film, shoot the film. Because the place, as in The Warrior, the place has a big part in the story. There's not a lot of dialog in the things that we write, and there's essentially very simple stories or fairy tales or folk tales, and so they're normally set within an universe. And the universe crosses over into the story. So I don't know how to write [while] in Kentishtown in North London, how to write about a place if I've never been there. So I spend a lot of time going there, taking photographs, and actually having an idea of where we're going to shoot everything before I finish the script. And then when I try to raise the money, I can show them where it's going to be shot. In the case of The Warrior, I showed them some of the actors, showed them the way some people would look. If it's not exactly the actual cast, they'll get a sense of the texture. So for the money people, they read the screenplay and have these images and so when they see the finished film, hopefully if you're lucky it comes out just as you imagined it. That's because I've already shown them it -- you know, you've shown as much visually as you can beforehand. That's the idea.

Host: Should we look on something... ?

Kapadia: A year ago, my cameraman and I came up here. We were worried about shooting... I'd been to Svalbard in the winter, in March time when it was all frozen and it was minus 40 and traveled around in snowmobiles and my glasses froze and I thought, "I don't know how we're going to film it." And I'd also been in the autumn a couple of times and I really liked the way it looked in autumn, but a big thing is always if it snows in Svalbard in the autumn, what's the chance of having snow here on the mainland? Because we needed reindeer as well, and there was always this balance of how are we going to do it and how are we going to pay for it. Because England's expensive, but you guys... (laughter) So that's the big thing. A lot of people were saying "Go to Canada, go and shoot in Canada. It'll be a lot cheaper." But I'd fallen for this place, and I wanted to go there with the polar bears. So what we've got here, I came here to do a bit more research in the autumn about two years ago, and I said, "If I'm going to go there, I've already know what it looks like, I thought I should bring along the line producer, bring along the cameramen, and have a look at how we're going to be able to shoot, because everyone was very worried in London. All the money people had decided it wasn't really possible, and I was "No, we'll be able to do it, we'll be fine." And since we're going we might as well bring a camera, bring a video camera, bring a film camera and bring some film. And bit by bit, I tried to get my producer to pay for shooting without telling it already. We didn't have any actors, but we shot a bunch of stuff which we've edited a bit together. The quality isn't great because been edited on an NTSC in America and downloaded and this that and the other. But a lot of this stuff is actually in the movie funnily enough. Yeah, a lot of this imagery. I mean, the film opens with some of this stuff, so we can have a look at it.

Host: We'll have a look at it.

Kapadia: And what I also was able to do is when I'm writing, I get my composer to do some music as well, so he was practicing what the film was going to sound like.

(Showing film clips)

Kapadia: ... it was minimal...

Host: A lot of it was Near East. Was that the music you want to use?

Kapadia: Yeah, that's part of the score. I like the idea that some of that music's been written before we've shot the movie essentially. Using that creates a certain mood. There's a different type of score on some of the stuff now. The reason we're showing that is the quality's not great because that's been downloaded over a lot but I was able to show that to the lead actress Michelle Yeoh when I went to meet her...

Host: From...

Kapadia: She'd read the script and liked the script, hadn't agreed yet to do the movie, so then I flew into Sundance this time last year -- I think Sundance is on right now --

Host: Sundance Film Festival?

Kapadia: Yeah, I think this time last year I flew to the Sundance Film Festival and showed her this on my laptop to sort of give her an idea of what we're going to go into because it is this kind of fine balance of saying it's an amazing place but it's going to be really cold and hard. You don't want to scare them off but you don't want to underplay that. We're going to be living on a ship and there are no hotels where we're going and there is no way you're going to have your five star treatment. Normally you know they'd say, "Fine, I'll do the film if you can guarantee me this, this, this and this" and we're "No, no, no and no." (laughter) There's no way you're going to get a bar or a gym -- well, there was a gym, I think, on the boat, but yeah, that was the deal. So in a way that helped us get a lot of the crew and the cast together to get a sense of what it was going to be like.

Host: Your breakthrough movie, The Warrior, a lot of critics compared you with, or the film with films by John Ford -- his shots from Monument Valley -- and Sergio Leone. There's a lot of huge empty spaces, and in True North there's a lot of huge space we saw just now. How are you going to use it in the film? Because it seems to me the landscape is going to be a little bit... alienating to a certain degree.

Kapadia: I think on this one... I mean, The Warrior was my attempt to do a type of Western, in which to me the big landscape is a big part of it and that's...

Host: ...a Western in India?

Kapadia: Yeah, an Eastern (bit of laughter) I suppose. I grew up in London, a city with tall buildings. I'd never see the horizon, I'd never see a sunrise or a sunset. So I think part of it is I like something different from what I see every day at home. This one is actually a big contrast between big landscapes and a very intimate situation inside of a tent. Because a lot of the film will take place inside of where the women live, which is similar to a sami or a lot of the references are from the Net people from Russia type thing. So we have people inside a very enclosed space and it's harsh outside. And so that's what speaks to this, and I suppose that idea of people being out in the middle of nowhere is what makes them in a way act the way they do, makes their situation pretty desperate. That plays a part in the story because whatever happens in the film comes from the fact that there isn't anyone else around.

Host: Do you think you would have been able to actually shoot the film in Malselv and Svalbard if you hadn't had certain successes behind you like The Warrior?

Kapadia: I think it would have been harder to do it. I think I would have had to find a way to make it much, much, much, much cheaper, and really we were stretching what money we had. I've got a lot of the crew and the cast here and they'll tell you it wasn't a particularly luxurious project when we were shooting. I think I would have had to shoot in Super 16 or find another way to save money rather than do it... we shot it in anamorphic, which is a huge camera. It was my first time shooting on a certain type of format, which is just bigger and heavier and actually in the long run, probably more expensive. So I don't know -- that was a bit of a learning experience. The lenses are that big (holds hands out a certain distance) and the camera is like that big, and I wasn't the one carrying it but it was heavy - I was watching people carry it. (laughter) It kind of made my own heavy looking away. It was tough to have done it... I mean, you get obsessed with a project, it's your own thing and you've been writing it and working on it for so long, it came to the point whatever happens if we had to shoot on DV, I would have shot on video and turned away.

Host: It must have been quite tough, because I think when I checked out Michelle Yeoh's website, and she lost, I don't know -- 20 pounds during the shooting... (NOTE: it must be an error. Michelle lost nearly 3 kilos which is about 6.6 lbs in the early Svalbard filming)

Kapadia: Yeah...

Host: She said it was a wonderful experience but it was one of the toughest...

Kapadia: She is tough as nails. Michelle Yeoh, you know, can beat you up with her little finger but she... only when we finished shooting, we went for a meal in London, she didn't say it to me actually, she's said to the cameraman Roman and to the art director Victoria that after the first few days she was like, you know, she wanted to go home. She wasn't sure how she was going to last, she didn't understand how she was going to deal with it because it was demanding. It was physically and mentally very demanding. And there's always difficulties on a movie, but living together on a boat when you're having these difficulties and being in a tiny room with bunk beds and everyone sharing -- well, she wasn't sharing a bunk bed but most of the crew were. People did get a little crazy, and we have quite a few people didn't make it till the end. A lot of the crew walked. A lot of them just... couldn't take it. It wasn't for them. And they actually left the movie. So it was quite complicated in some ways.

Host: Another director was here yesterday and he talked about some difficulties with the reindeer. Did they behave? (laughter)

Kapadia: I think in our case we didn't have that much reindeer as they did on that film. I think the reindeer, in the end, the reindeer were great. Some of the organizing of getting them there every day -- I don't deal with the money, thank God -- but I think all of that may be still being discussed as we speak. So it's complicated. Nothing's ever straightforward. But the actual animals, they weren't the problem. The problem was getting the camera in the track and getting us there on time because we'd set aside an entire day where we were going to do a certain sequence and we'd got this huge length of railway track to put the camera on to do a certain thing. But I was doing this intimate scene between the two, the lead actress and the guy that she meets and I wasn't sure I'd got it. And so everything was ready to do the big reindeer scene, and I had to go back after lunch to re-shoot something I wasn't sure I'd got which was this closeup, and then by doing that suddenly we lost the light so we've got one take of the reindeer and we didn't get it. The next day, the second camera -- we had to shoot something else and someone else had to come and shoot it so it was quite, quite difficult. We didn't necessarily have enough time in the daylight -- it was getting shorter and shorter and shorter. So the reindeer I'm hoping will look pretty great. But it's not actually about that as much as some of the other stuff.

Host: I'm not quite sure what we're going to show now...

Kapadia: I think we've got some stills I believe, that were just... so we can carry on yakking, and you might see some images from behind the scenes of the film.

Host: Okay.

Kapadia: Is that it? Okay.

(Slide showing began)

Kapadia: These are just... you can just whiz through them, I don't know. Anyone has any questions, this might be the point also. ... Something comes toward them, they feel they're in danger so then they leave. And so we've got two Michelles there. We've got Michelle Yeoh and Michelle Kruciec, who is from America actually. So it's an amazing thing -- Michelle Yeoh is right now shooting in Prague, and Michelle K., the younger one, was in Australia, and the cameraman right now is in Canada, and what's amazing about when you're making a film you just try to get all of these, these creative people, in one place at one time for a matter of days and then suddenly everyone's gone. And you never know when -- it's like lining up the planets or something. You never know if you're going to get them again. Okay, we can whiz on... I suppose... you can keep going through them, I don't know... keep them about eight seconds each. Part of it is to show the madness that goes on behind the scenes to make it look like very naturalistic when actually it's, you know... when we were trying to set up this location, you can't drive any vehicles on Svalbard, so we had to helicopter everything in. So we were living on a Russian ice breaker, and then a helicopter would be brought in from the Coast Guard or something to lift all our equipment off the ship onto the land, and it felt like we were doing a James Bond film or something which is actually a fairly small British movie. Eston here was in charge of the dogs. Very well behaved dogs. They play a very big part in the movie actually. Very strong characters. Eston also did a lot of the training to get Michelle and Michelle used to working with dogs and hunting on seals and things like that.

Audience member: How many shooting days?

Kapadia: We shot for... what did we have? 50 days? I think we had shot for about 8 weeks. We had about a month in Svalbard and then we came here and shot for just under a month in FilmCamp and then a week inside a studio in London. We had the classic problem of we were hoping we'd have snow on Svalbard and not have snow here. So they left the mainland and they went to this place and of course it was the opposite: we had no snow in Svalbard and then we came down here to the mainland and everything was white. So the usual thing -- the best laid plans, everything we had planned absolutely went wrong. Sean Bean, who plays a man that they find... (describing slides on the screen)... and then the next day it snowed. Actually, that's before it snows. It snows coming up in a bit. ... So this is Temple Fjords. This is where most of the location takes place, which is, I don't know, a couple hours north from... that was what we were doing just to get into the mood at the beginning of the film. I think we shot the first week with no snow and then suddenly it snowed on a Saturday, on our day off. So we had to reorganize the whole schedule to shoot the end of the movie, because we weren't sure if the snow was going to stay. And it only stayed a few days and then melted and went away again. So we had to leave the helm and shoot the whole end of the movie. ...That's the boom guy. He likes motorbikes, and no matter where he was he managed to get his magazine sent to him on the ship in the middle of nowhere. Anyone else have any questions? ...Michelle Yeoh's assistant. ...I suppose you guys live here so this all probably quite normal to you, but if you live in London it isn't.

Audience member: Can you tell us a bit about the mix of the film crew? The different nationalities?

Kapadia: Yeah, we had... there was a British crew, a Norwegian crew, we had a lot of people from Sweden on the Scandinavian unit. Michelle Yeoh is from Malaysia, Michelle Krusiec is from California, Sean from the north of England, a French producer, the composer is Italian, the editor who is working right now is Swedish, Roman the cameraman is half Nigerian, half German, and there's a few others. So a kind of typical British film. (laughter) And the gaff is Indian, and there they are (a shot of the entire crew).

Audience member: There were forty nations. (Kapadia: Forty?) Forty.

Kapadia: Forty nations. And a Russian crew on the boat, obviously. (slides continue) That's Roman the cameraman.

Audience member: Were there polar bears there?

Kapadia: The thing about film crews is you make too much noise, there's too much... stuff. So I saw polar bears on the reckees (?) when we were preparing the movie, I remember seeing a few polar bears. When we got there with the film unit, I think we scared them off. So the problem with that is -- a lot of the crew didn't believe it -- how dangerous it was in Svalbard to just go off on your own, because we had to have people with guns going everywhere we went to make sure we didn't get attacked. On the final day in Svalbard, the second unit -- some guys who went off in smaller groups -- saw a polar bear in the distance. We never got one on camera.

Member of the second unit, in the audience: Actually, we, ah... it was a lie. We didn't... we never saw one.

Kapadia: Seriously!? (general laughter) Really? Because I had... ah, see! Well, I saw one. Really? Was that made up?

Same second unit guy:: It was made up. (general laughter)

Kapadia: That's our camera department, there you go. (slides continue) He's our shaman, he's here today. ... Ah, I think that's it. We're back where we started...... (now describing a film clip of men working in a crevasse)... and then the day before we shot it snowed like hell. So to me, it never looked dangerous when it was white because you can't see all the crevasses. But then inside that crevasse, they're building a platform for us to shoot. ...our sponsors. You'll have to forgive me, I'm still busy editing the movie and this is behind the scenes footage I haven't even seen. Our mountaineer chaps were the guys who did Touching the Void -- don't know if you ever saw that film. Everyone was very worried in production about how the hell we were going to shoot on glaciers, so we brought these guys in from the UK and we had a lot of experienced people from Svalbard and from here, who were doing behind the scenes, trying to help everyone out, but also acting in the movie. (clip continues) Don't let go. We had actually... when we were shooting the sequences, I think some of the coldest weather we had. I can't remember what it became, but on the glacier we were something like minus 25 to 30, which again to you guys is nothing but to us is bloody cold. And a couple of crew did... by the time you get to this stage of a shoot, you're not necessarily eating so well and you're so tired. I think one of the camera crew, one of the focus pullers - whose job is to make sure it is in focus -- collapsed. He'd been inside of the crevasse, and I think he was on the edge of it and he fell over. His blood sugar level was pretty low, and thank God he didn't fall that way, into the hole. And Michelle Yeoh also had a moment here while we were shooting. So the physicality of the place does get to you eventually, but quite a few people were not. (new scene -- helicopter bringing something in by tether): This was while we were setting up. We were trying to get prep we had to unload. All of our logistics base blew away when the helicopter came with the equipment -- the toilets and everything. There's always a moment -- I think, I don't know how it directs... we used to have a way where we used to think "there you are one minute, at your desk, writing the script, daydreaming about wouldn't it be nice to make the film and the next moment you've got a helicopter and a ship -- you've got all these people and these reindeer and you think "this is quite dangerous what we daydream about." How many people here who live here have been to Svalbard? Have all of you been there? A lot of you have, so you know what... okay. (more shots of the helicopter hovering and dropping stuff off): That helicopter is essentially looking out for people who aren't troubling to see what we've been at for half an hour. ...The Russian boat we lived on. So we slept on it, we ate on it, and then at night while we were asleep the ship would go to the next location and we'd wake up in a new location and we'd get off the boat and shoot again. We didn't have any trucks or any vehicles or anything like that. That's it. You can end it -- you've seen enough of these in your lives. So this must be around the FilmCamp then.

Audience member (part of the crew?): Yes.

Kapadia: This is older stuff -- this is Counter Canan (sp?)

Host: Okay... I think we'll stop there... okay, we hope to see you again soon...

Kapadia: When I finish the film.

Host: Yes. Okay, next we'll screen a short film...


[Special thanks to Karl A. Roman for taking and sharing the video]
[Thanks BAM for converting the video and Dean for the help with the transcript]
[Photos scanned from the video]

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