Arriving exclusively on Netflix this Friday is Jonas Åkerlund’s adaptation of Polar, the Dark Horse graphic novel series that follows an assassin named Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) who is set to retire, but his boss deems him a danger to the future of his criminal organization, and dispatches a gang of killers to eliminate Duncan by any means necessary.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Åkerlund about his approach to adapting Polar for his latest feature film, and he also chatted about his experiences working with Mikkelsen, the close collaborative process involved while establishing the visual language of Polar, and much more.
When you were coming into this project, I'd love to hear about what it was that appealed to you initially, where you knew you wanted to take on adapting Polar into a feature film?
Jonas Åkerlund: Well, I think it's a graphic novel that has an extra layer to it that I haven't seen before. It has a human side, it has an emotional side that I haven't seen before in a graphic novel. I felt like I really connected to that, and I connected to Duncan's struggles into normality after a lifetime of killing people. There was a lot of potential in it for me when I saw it, when I saw the strong characters and all the crazy stuff in the movie as well.
And then, of course, working with Mads was something that I've been wanting to do forever. For me, it was just like reading the graphic novel, reading the script, knowing that Mads was gonna play Duncan. To me, it was just a home run, I really believe that as a director. So, it was appealing on so many different levels.
You mention Mads, and of course, who wouldn't want to work with him? He's a fantastic actor who brings a lot, especially to a role like this because it's not an explicitly “talky” character. There's a lot going on inside of him that comes out in these little bursts, and then sometimes it doesn't. But yet, somehow Mads gets all of that across. Can you talk about working with him on this character, and pulling back the layers on who Duncan was?
Jonas Åkerlund: Mads is probably one of the smartest actors I've ever met in my life. Not only is he a smart actor, he's like the smartest guy overall, too. He challenged me from day one, in a good way. He kept me on my toes and he really made me perform at my best. We had a really good collaboration on this. I felt like I pushed him to places he hasn’t been before, and he pushed me to places where I haven't been before. It all happened during pre-production. We worked on the script, we worked on the dialogue, we worked on everything together, so once we were shooting, it was like a walk in the park. Technically, it wasn't a walk in the park, because it was a brutal shoot and it was really cold. But all the character stuff had been figured out before, so we knew exactly what it was we were doing all the way through. So, Mads was just a joy to work with.
You mentioned the challenges of this. As somebody who's been following your work, it does seem like this is probably, and I don't mean to take anything away from anything else you’ve done, the most ambitious film you’ve tackled so far—in terms of the action, the style, the pacing, the different locations and everything like that. Were you looking to put yourself out there in ways we hadn't seen before with Polar?
Jonas Åkerlund: Of course, I was. There is a ton of stuff in this movie that I hadn't done before. I always try to find, especially with my movies, things that I haven't done before. I am fueled by making different types of things and different formats, and different types of artists and working in different countries. So, this was obviously something very different for me, but I wanted to make the movie rich, and I wanted to make every second of this movie feel fun and crazy. I wanted to be generous to the audience. I didn't want to make it boring. I didn't want to be too arty with it, either; I just wanted it to be “in your face” crazy and fun. We had to be very smart with our time and very smart with what we had to work with, so I feel like we got maximum out of everything we were given to make this movie.
Can you talk a bit about working with your DP Pär [M. Ekberg] on this, because there's a really great visual style to Polar, where throughout the assassin's world, everything is really bright and very bold. And when we pull back in Duncan's Montana life of seclusion, you guys use a very cold and natural palette, making for a great juxtaposition with the visuals here. I know you guys have been working together for a long time now—how much does that shorthand that you two share help coming into a project like this?
Jonas Åkerlund: Pär and I have worked together for a long time. I think we worked together for the first time 25 years ago. We had a lot of discussions about how we were going to approach this film. And one of the things you pointed out was that we wanted to have a visual language that really pushed and helped the story as well. So, we wanted Duncan's cabin world, which we call his new world, to have muted colors, where it even moves story-wise at a slower tempo—there are less edits, less music, less noise. And then every time we pushed back into his old world, we wanted to have a more colorful look to the film with all these crazy edits, and more music and more sound effects. We also had the graphic novel to use as our reference point, but Pär and all the other departments were the ones who helped me figure out just how we were going to get the visual language right here.
Before we go, I wanted to ask about the involvement of Netflix in Polar. These days, it can be so hard to get audiences into theaters for mid-budget type of projects, but Netflix has become a great supporter of those kinds of stories, and they do it exceptionally well. Were you excited to be teaming with them for this film?
Jonas Åkerlund: To be honest with you, I didn't take it so seriously in the beginning. When my producers came and told me that Netflix is on board with this movie, I thought it sounded cool because I like Netflix. But I didn't really know what an amazing platform this is, and what an amazing opportunity this is for me as a director. I've been working for so many years. I was there before MTV. I was there before the internet. I was there throughout all these different developments the last 20 years that's been just giving the audience a better chance to see stuff, and a better chance to decide for yourself when you can see stuff and all that. It's just amazing for me to be part of this and I'm so pleased that Netflix is the one behind Polar. As a movie fan, I just like being able to say you can watch it on Netflix any time you want. That's amazing. I couldn't even think about a better scenario for this movie. So, I'm very pleased with their involvement.