By Anees Aref.

I wanted the environments to feel real and the people to feel real. As a director it’s a chance to take, because the audience is so used to seeing there has to be a bad guy, to create the classic conflict there has to be some idiot. I basically said “there will be no idiots in this film”….

The Burning Sea is a new environmental thriller from Norway about a series of oil platforms that collapse and threaten huge oil and gas spillovers into the surrounding ocean. It’s directed by John Andreas Andersen, who brings a strong sense of realism to a pretty chillingly possible scenario amidst the ever-worsening climate crisis and continued drilling for fossil fuels. Andersen brings a uniquely Norwegian context to the film, whose plot is the stuff of many standard Hollywood disaster movies. I talked with him about the film’s environmental themes, shooting underwater, and the oil business in Norway.

How was the reception to the film in Norway, and anywhere else you’ve shown it?

John Andreas Andersen - IMDb

So far we had the premiere in Rome where the reception was very nice. And in Norway, of course it came out when some theatres were still closed due to the pandemic. But the reception has been quite good, we got nice reviews from the newspapers. I guess it’s a film that feels more personal for Norwegians because the oil industry is just so intertwined in the way Norway is run, and It’s the main income for the state of Norway. At the end of the film, when the character says that “10,000 billion and then nature said stop,” he’s actually referring to the Norwegian oil fund, because that’s all the money that has been salted into this huge oil fund that Norwegian government has for future generations.

Like he said “it’s an oil nation, but really we’re an ocean nation.” That was a nice line.

Yeah, 1,000 years ago we were Vikings, and we’ve always lived by and for the sea, so that was kind of the idea.

Did you shoot the film during the pandemic?

Definitely, we shot it when the pandemic was probably about peaking. It was very difficult. Originally, we thought about having some of the shooting taking place in studio or building some stuff, but in the end we realized we had to shoot everything in Norway and on-location. Even without the pandemic it’s very difficult to get access to these oil rigs and supply ships and all that stuff, it was even more difficult because of the pandemic. I have to say the production office did a great job getting us onto these rigs…It’s just so much better for the actors also you know, they can stand on the oil rig and feel the wind in their hair and smell the sea. It’s just different than standing in a dry studio.

So the country, or the local authorities, were they supportive? Because you are critical of the (oil) industry.

Oh, exactly. I was like pinching my arm, but they were actually very supportive. I think they were also adamant that they wanted the industry to be portrayed in a realistic manner, even though you could say it’s critical to the oil industry. We also didn’t want to show any disrespect to all the oil workers that have come before and done their job in building the wealth of this country. I mean, Norway used to be a much poorer country, then in the 70s along came the oil and brought a lot of wealth to the country, and a lot of sacrifice was done by the early oil workers and divers doing stuff that they were absolutely not supposed to do. So we wanted to show respect to that heritage of all the people that had come before but at the same time really raise the question “should we really be doing this anymore now? Shouldn’t we stop doing this drilling now?” The film came out at the same time there was a Norwegian election, and also part of the discussion during the election was some political parties now are calling for Norway to set an end date for when to stop drilling for oil in the North Sea. So it came up as a political discussion as well. So this film is supposed to be entertaining and be an action thriller foremost, that’s number one, but also in the Norwegian context it had a couple more layers.

So there’s actually progress being made (in dealing with the climate crisis)?

That discussion has of course gone for several years. It’s a paradox, Norway is one of the biggest oil exporters in the world but at the same time we’re the country with the highest share of electrical cars. Nine out of ten new cars sold now in Norway is an electric car, and at the same time we’re still drilling for oil. And I’m sure after what happened in the world today that oil is going to be even more in demand. It’s sort of this paradox for the country that’s also trying very hard to get onto the environmental bandwagon.

I think you don’t make them (the oil executives) easy villains. You still look at them in a realistic, pragmatic manner. If there was a similar movie made here in the states critical of the oil business, I can’t imagine ExxonMobile and Chevron going along so willingly, putting the production on their oil rigs…

On my part that was done entirely independently of any practical considerations, that wasn’t because, you know, I wanted the oil companies to let us in or anything. It was just, in the Norwegian context, to villainize those guys, it wouldn’t feel real. I wanted to have this reality going through the whole film. I wanted the environments to feel real and the people to feel real. As a director it’s a chance to take, because the audience is so used to seeing there has to be a bad guy, to create the classic conflict there has to be some idiot. I basically said “there will be no idiots in this film,” there will be people making bad decisions, yes, wrong decisions at the wrong time, but not really evil idiots.

I like the actor who plays the William Lie character…Bjorn Floberg.

I think he’s great. I started as a cinematographer, and some of the first films I shot was with him, and he’s just like a grand old man of acting in Scandinavia. He’s a great guy.

Typically this type of movie would be in the genre of the “disaster movie”, I almost feel like today, I’ve heard it referred to as an “environmental movie”, “environmental thriller”, I feel like that’s a sign of the times that we even have to call it now an environmental movie instead of a disaster. Did you have any filmmaking influences or were there any types of movies that influenced the style and approach you had to this film?

In terms of the visual language, we knew that we wanted to sort of build a little bit on that heritage of having it feel real…It was shot on film, on good old-fashioned celluloid film, it was not shot digital. Part of that was the choice, I wanted to when we shot it, to get that real feel, to not have the overly designed lighting setups in every room, but more being able to just walk into the room with a camera. When we did the tests, film just has this way of making industrial environments, it just looks cool to right off the bat to just turn on the light on the ceiling and it looks pretty cool. You don’t really get that from digital I think, so that was part of the visual approach for sure. But I think, in terms of references, we looked at something like Captain Phillips (by) Paul Greengrass. Paul my DOP on this film, who actually used to be my camera assistant in all this, he has also worked as a DOP for Greengrass.

There’s also moments that are like some of the classic World War II submarine movies, in the underwater sequences and in the boats.

Oh absolutely. We definitely looked at James Cameron movies, like The Abyss, and we looked at the opening of Titanic and all those films as well, as inspiration. It’s like we’re sort of walking into this Hollywood territory with this genre, but still we wanted to have this Scandinavian angle of attack, so hopefully it would be a little bit different.

How much was shot with practical effects versus special effects, digital effects?

A lot of the underwater stuff was digital. It was also mixed, the snake robot you see in the film, that actually exists, that is a physical thing. When we started doing research for the film, we knew it had to go underwater. We just found this company, this small startup company in Norway that has been developing this snake robot for the oil industry and for the fish industry for a few years… Some of the shots when it’s going deep down undersea, that is a mix of digital and real. I would say that a fair amount of the underwater stuff that is digital, like when the robot is going into the oil rig…There’s also a fair amount of practical effects, like the lifeboat they’re escaping in…

Obviously you’re dealing with an environmental theme here. What’s the biggest message or theme you want audiences to get out of a movie like this?

I guess, if you put it in a very banal way, I would just say that if you push nature too hard, nature will push back. That’s why we should really think about what we’re doing.

Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.

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