In 1947, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl crossed 7,000km of Pacific Ocean on a primitive raft, the Kon-Tiki, to prove that South American peoples could have settled Polynesia. Heyerdahl’s great adventure became a bestselling book, an Oscar-winning documentary and made him a Norwegian national hero. Like many kids growing up in the 1950s, British independent producer Jeremy Thomas had been a Kon-Tiki fan, little suspecting that 40 years later he would have several audiences with the man himself.
“I got a note from Michael Douglas saying, ‘do you know Thor Heyerdahl? We want to make a film, we need a producer, will you go and meet him?’” Thomas recalls. “His publisher took me to the Canary Islands where I met with Heyerdahl and I persuaded him to let me have the rights to the movie.”
At the time – the early 1990s – the plan was to tell the story as a big-budget Hollywood epic, but it never got off the ground. Thomas put the project on ice and eventually digital technology improved to the point where an impressive Norwegian film could be made on a relatively modest budget.
While the film has similarities to Life of Pi the visual effects are designed to be convincing rather than fantastical. CGI sharks, whales and seven-metre waves look astoundingly real even though most of the shooting was done in a studio tank. “In the original film we were thinking of building the Kon-Tiki around a big motor boat,” Thomas says. “In fact, the raft you see is blagged from a museum in Toronto.”
The film was directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg in both Norwegian and English-language versions – the latter will be released in Australian cinemas and the former was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Oscars (losing to Amour). “You never expect such a thing – you’re mad if you do,” says Thomas, no stranger to the Academy since The Last Emperor won nine statuettes in 1988. “The oxygen it will pump into the body of this film is fabulous.”
Thomas, 63, is speaking to Time Out in Sydney, where he spends several weeks each year on his annual holiday. He has been visiting since the 1970s when he moved to Australia to produce his first feature, Mad Dog Morgan – a production whose difficulties are the stuff of Oz film legend. (“It’s amazing nobody died,” Thomas marvels.) The son of UK director Ralph Thomas, Jeremy grew up with movie stars as frequent houseguests – Dirk Bogarde was his godfather – and trained as an editor. His producing credits now include some 50 titles for filmmakers including Cronenberg, Bertolucci, Nicolas Roeg, Takashi Miike and Phillip Noyce.
Heyerdahl died in 2002 aged 87. What was he like? “He was very vital, walking up hills, talking about missions he was going to do, he had a very beautiful wife, and he was living the life of a young man still. He delivered the myth.
“He was a powerful character because as a young man he made people put their lives in his hands. Not only did he take them on a journey back to nature with no medicine: he wasn’t a sailor! He was playing god. They went out from South America and crossed the Pacific – you don’t want to do that on Wild Oats, let alone on a balsa wood raft tied with rope.”
Kon-Tiki screens from Thu Apr 11.