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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Director Jonas Åkerlund on Mads Mikkelsen and going to Polar extremes

By Tony Timpone
Polar, Mads Mikkelsen

Retirement doesn't come easy for legendary hitman Duncan Vizla, aka The Black Kaiser. Vizla — as played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, the memorable villain of Casino Royale, Doctor Strange, and TV's Hannibal — finds himself caught in the crosshairs of ace assassins when his former boss decides that his prize employee is too much of a liability to quietly collect his pension.

Adapted by Jayson Rothwell from Victor Santos' Dark Horse graphic novel Polar: Came from the Cold, the project fell into the lap of acclaimed music video director Jonas Åkerlund. For Polar, the Swedish filmmaker has carried over his frenetic style and rapid-fire pacing that won him countless awards and international praise for his musical shorts. SYFY WIRE spoke with Åkerlund, who also helmed the films Spun and the upcoming Lords of Chaos, about the making of the now-streaming Netflix release and the nuts and bolts of the movie's gruesome finale.

This is a movie about professional killers, so you know it's going to be violent. That said, were there any restrictions placed on you in terms of how violent the film could be?

No, not really. Obviously, it was a discussion like everything else is when you make movies. The fact that it's a graphic novel gives you a little bit more freedom, a little bit more flexibility. You can always say, "Well, it was [in] the graphic novel," so that helps. Over-the-top violence was part of what Duncan Vizla's world was all about, and I wanted to show the extreme contrast between his new life that he was trying so desperately to establish and what his old life was all about. These contrasts were important to have in the movie.

There is a lot of dark humor in Polar. Was this to help the bloody stuff go down easier?

Did it? I dunno. We're asking a lot from the audience. It's a long movie. Lot of stuff is happening. If you can have a laugh once in a while, that's good. And again, it's a graphic novel, and it's supposed to be fun, as well as [have] all the crazy stuff in there. If you put in a laugh, you get away with a lot.

You said that once you agreed to do the film, you put your fingerprints all over it. What are some of those fingerprints?

In many of my cases, it's the development of character. Editing is definitely one of my things that I do put a lot of effort into, and music… A lot of people tell me that Polar is an [Åkerlund] film. And I often wonder what that is! But it's a combination of all those things.

Polar, Mads Mikkelsen

Could anyone but Mads Mikkelsen have played the Black Kaiser?

No, not in my head. He was on my mind the first time I heard about this project, and I could never think of anyone else. Like, seriously, who would that be? No, he was always the Black Kaiser for me.

Was he a good sport during those torture scenes?

He's incredible. What else can I say? He comes without any baggage. He's very raw, very real. He's there for the right reason, and he doesn't have an entourage. But he comes with a lot of opinions. He even told me when we started the project, "I'm going to come with a backpack of notes." And it wasn't really a backpack of notes. It was more like a backpack of challenging me on a daily basis. Mads is probably the smartest actor I've ever met in my life. And he did challenge me on many levels. But the torture scenes, being naked in the snow… [Mads would say], "No problem." I don't know any other actor who would do that and be so cool about it. It was like 22 below, and he was naked in the snow! "No problem."

Could you give an example of something he challenged you on?

It was a lot with the story. We had the basic story, but we did a lot of script work throughout the whole process. So, I was writing almost every night figuring stuff out, and now when you watch, it feels like a pretty simple story. But it was very complex to get to that point, and Mads challenges you. He saw things that I didn't think of, and I saw things he didn't think of. So, we were like a very good couple in the way that we challenged each other. He was fantastic. For this kind of movie and for me, Mads was everything I could ask for.

With all the bullets flying, was it tough to find an emotional core to the film?

Yes, but luckily, we had the whole structure of the side story with Camille [Vanessa Hudgens], which builds up throughout the whole film. But also, I'm thinking about Duncan himself because there's something really sad about his life. It would be hard for normal people to identify with [someone] coming out of killing 2,000 people and trying to retire and adapt into normality. Even when I wrap my work and come home or whatever it is I try to do, I can identify with that feeling of being a little outside, of struggling to get back into normality. And there are two sides to [Polar's] emotional part: Duncan's journey, and then Camille's story.

Polar, Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens

Talk about choreographing Duncan's final assault on Blut's lair and what went into shooting that action highlight.

To get it right, we rehearsed forever the torture scene, the escape and the [action in] the tunnel where he fights himself out of the Blut mansion. And Mads insisted on doing everything himself. Of course, we had two young stunt doubles ready to go, all in makeup, but they didn't work. They were just waiting around [because Mads wanted to do everything]. But my approach was very much like when I do my music videos. I go for a lot of coverage. I was joking with my team, saying, "If we get quantity when we shoot, we get quality in the edit."

That was what I was going for. Even though we did such long takes, especially in the tunnel scene, we broke it up into three pieces. So, it was very long parts. I could have probably done a different edit where I stayed longer on it because it looked very good. But I wanted it to be really intense and fast and boom, boom, boom, like that. So, if you analyze it, you'll see that there's a lot of angles that I use even though we were handheld. And the tunnel wasn't wider than this [spreads arms out]. It wasn't like we had a million ways to do it, but I did my usual wides, mids, and close-ups on every angle. I had all the different sizes so I had it in the edit. And then it was a big edit.

The ending screams sequel. Was Polar always viewed as a franchise starter?

Because Victor wrote five books, there is more to give if the audience likes it. We liked it! We had a great time making it, and we're very proud of the movie. We thought it was cool to have a little cliffhanger at the end. You know, "What's going to happen next?" I don't know what to expect really at this point, but Victor did a great job with the books and they're there, so why not?

So, you'd be happy to come back for another adventure.