With Arctic, first-time director Joe Penna does far more than survive to make his second, with the great Mads Mikkelsen delivering an astounding performance in this survival tale with minimal dialogue and maximal impact. Penna, took an unconventional route to making feature films, starting with his youtube channel MysteryGuitarMan over a decade ago. The channel currently has 2.8 million subscribers (in the top ten for the site) and has amassed over 400 million views. He’s well known for his quirky music-based videos, once of which has even been screened in the Guggenheim Museum. From there he moved into commercials and shorts, including the Ron Howard and Brian Glazer produced Instant Getaway (2014). We caught up with Penna at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival.
Can you tell us about your origins as a youtuber?
I started doing YouTube 12 years ago, just doing it for fun. I was going to school and was planning to be a doctor. I was working really hard, but was always thinking “there must be something to this YouTube thing”. When I moved on and quit school, I really thought my father was going to kill me. I’d decided to try and make YouTube a job, even though at that time that wasn’t really possible. I started doing branded videos for stuff like phones, water brands things like that, well over a hundred of those. Then I moved into commercials for companies like Coke and Sony, which naturally progressed into music videos. Over time these became more and more narrative-based. After making some shorts, I felt ready to move to features.
What was the inspiration for Arctic?
I found an image of what Mars could look like one day. It was half-terraformed with trees and so on, but it was still a desolate-looking place. I thought it was an interesting setting for a movie, a survival movie. Myself and my writing partner Ryan Morrison wrote a screenplay and took it to our agents. My agent said, “This is great, but maybe go on YouTube right now and check out a trailer for The Martian!” So we ended up changing the location to the Arctic, with the same exact story.
Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic in the film, as usual. How did you go about casting him, and what was it like working with him?
It was tough finding the right person, we had to find an actor who was right for me creatively speaking. I mean, to me, there were only five people in the world who could pull this off. So we made a list, Mads was the first one on that list. We knew the executive producer of Hannibal, and that’s how we got him. The shoot was tough, he’s in every frame of the film, so there was no time for him to rest. We only had 19 days to shoot this film and the winds were as high as 40 mph. Everything Mads experienced in the film, the crew did too.
There’s a great scene in the movie with a Polar Bear, how did you film that scene?
It’s funny I saw a review, it was auto-translated, but the review seemed to be complaining about the digital polar bear. I wanted to send him an email and say: “Hey! Here are some pictures of our shoot with a real polar bear!” Her name is Aggie, she’s 22 years old. She’s the only semi-trained polar bear in existence. Mads was shooting a movie called Polar at the time, so I had to be the stand-in for him. We shot 3 hours, then she went back to her 40-foot trailer and swam in her little pool. She’s a loving bear!
As someone who started off making YouTube videos, what would you say this taught you about filmmaking?
My producers didn’t even know I had the channel until we started pre-production. They came up to me and said, “what’s this magic guitar thing you have on Twitter?” What I found was that taking things from conception to upload gives you an understanding of your audience, especially audience retention. YouTube gives you a graph so you can see when people leave. Touching every aspect of production was so important for me to learn.
What’s your next project?
It’s called Stowaway. The leads of that film are Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette. It’s set in a ship on its way to Mars. I’ll get there somehow!
Arctic is at Cinemas and on Digital from 10th May