A Frazetta Painting Come To Life: CBR's "Pathfinder" Set Visit

Did you ever play Cowboys and Indians as you were growing up? Most people would probably answer "yes" to this question. After all, running around with cap guns and whooping it up in an un-PC manner is almost a rite of childhood. Now, can you imagine getting the opportunity to do it again as an adult? Better yet - try upping the ante: how about Vikings and Indians?

CBR News had the fortune of witnessing such a battle during a set visit last December to the 20th Century Fox film "Pathfinder." Directed by Marcus Nispel (helmer of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake), the film is a remake of a 1987 Norwegian film called "Ofelas." It tells the story of a Viking expedition to North America that ends in tragedy. The only survivor of the trip is a little boy that a local Indian tribe takes in and raises as their own. When the boy grows older, another group of Vikings arrives and plans on raiding the villages. It's then up to the young man to protect the Indian tribe and save his adopted family. Karl Urban ("The Bourne Supremacy") plays the young man, and is joined by a cast that includes Clancy Brown, Ralf Moeller, Russell Means, and Moon Bloodgood.

Upon arriving at the set with other journalists, we see Vikings walking around and taking smoke breaks. These Vikings, however, don't look like your normal historical Norsemen. We are informed that Nispel is going for the look and feel of a Frank Frazetta painting (famous for his fantasy works). As a seven foot Viking walks by leading a huge Clydesdale horse, I have no doubt that this goal will be achieved.

We head to a soundstage located at the BC Research & Innovation Complex. Technically, this place's primary use isn't for filmmaking; it has a wave tank which is used for ship model testing. However, when a film needs a location where they can shoot actors around a controlled body of water, the complex is mighty handy.

The main tank holds 520,643 gallons of water and is 100' long. At the moment, a large part of the tank is covered with styrofoam cut to look like ice. There is also a gimble underneath this styrofoam-ice floor, which causes the ground to break in pre-determined areas when the director commands. As many of the actors and crew members will be hanging out in the tank for much of the day, the water is fairly chlorinated (which is apparent from the strong laundry-like odor).

On one end of the tank is a forest setting. There is a dirt shore, trees (big ones!), and some sort of campground dwelling. This is where the Vikings are coming from before heading out onto the ice, and where they will retreat to when the ice starts breaking (thanks to the gimble). Several Vikings standing are there, along with a few large Clydesdales, awaiting their cues.

On the other end of the tank is Nispel and his crew. They are operating several cameras in order to capture all of the action which will take place. Under Nispel's direction, Urban and several of the Vikings get on the styrofoam ice. They are given last minute instructions, and the snow is ordered to start falling (and, to all the journalists' surprise, it begins to snow - albeit artificially - inside the stage). The cameras begin to roll, and Nispel yells "Action!"

The gimble breaks the styrofoam ice and tosses several Vikings into the tank. Tall spouts of water shoot upwards as a result of the gimble and the large Vikings falling into the water. Urban is in the water and fighting off a Viking while trying to make it to "shore." Other "drowning" Vikings are just trying to get themselves out of the icy water. The director calls "Cut!" after he's seen enough, and they set up for another take of the shot.

After this process repeats itself a few times, Nispel and Executive Producer Brad Fischer take us to a tent during a shooting break so we can view some of the footage that they've shot for this movie (which is close to wrapping). From what is displayed on the monitor, it's clear that Nispel is achieving his objective of bringing a Frazetta painting to life. As the footage continued to roll, Nispel and Fischer were kind enough to answer our questions.

Marcus Nispel: I call [the movie we're making] a pocket epic, or the anti-epic. Actually the story, which is the story of the Norwegian movie, "Pathfinder," when you look at it, it's exactly the same story as "Witness." Somebody from a corrupt society comes to a very naïve, very loving society and finds himself at odds when his past catches up with him.

You see, when you do your first movie, I always felt, coming from Europe where it's sort of "auteur" cinema, that it has to be something that's very personal. A remake of the Tobe Hooper movie is the least personal thing I could have made! So I felt that I owed it to myself to do something that I feel very much right now.

So this guy [Urban's character] got shipwrecked with a Viking war party as they came to America in a recurring ten-year rhythm (an idea which had some grounding in actual historical facts). They would show up three parties in a row at least, and then they got their asses kicked. So what really happened is the decay of paradise before Christopher Columbus finally showed up.

When we set out to do this, literally, two weeks after finishing the first draft, the Smithsonian Institute came out and said "We found irrefutable proof (of the Viking visits to America). We found a metal door hinge in a wooden frame that carbon-dated way before Christopher Columbus." And they found a grass covered hut, and they found proof that traced Vikings down as far as Boston and New York City.

Then we were like, "Oh wow, maybe Frazetta-style is not the most accurate way of doing this." But because that is how I set out - to do something as a Frazetta homage in a way - it then changed actually quite a bit from the "Viking fantasy" to be something that was much more [historically] motivated. Then Karl Urban came in, who I had originally intended as a kid in the film. I saw him in "Bourne Supremacy" and I said, "What about this guy?"

I called Brad up and he said, "It's a coming-of-age story, he's way too old." And I said, "Yeah, forget about it." He's a Russian anyway, and at the time, the way it was written, there was no dialogue. I wanted to make the movie entirely without dialogue, because really, an Indian boy and Vikings don't have that much to say to each another. And then, Karl got excited about the script and drove this movie into quite some changes. Taking it away from the coming-of-age story and writing it to suit him.

Then [screenwriter] Laeta Kalogridis came on board and she turned something that was sort of like some boy's fantasy of mine into a very, very good love story. The studio talked me out of the hard "R," and hopefully we came up with a watchable movie that's just like a fun ride.

Brad Fischer: The other interesting thing about the history of it - it is interesting that so few people actually know about the Vikings in America before Columbus, as they were the first Europeans to come across and really pillage and take over. This is one period in history that the Indians actually won, and it wasn't until 500 years later that another round of Europeans came across and succeeded where the Vikings failed. So there's a lot of interesting aspects, and a lot of interesting angles, and I think Marcus's instinct to not really be beholden to the details of that specific group is the right one, because…we don't know what they looked like, we don't know how they behaved, but from what we do know - and from Marcus's imagination - we think we've got something really great.

Nispel: Well, when I read all these Viking scripts [before settling on "Pathfinder"], I wanted to find something that did what I wanted to do - a small movie with big elements. Something I can do for a price, and I don't have to compromise it to be right for everyone. "Texas Chainsaw" just came out and there was sort of like a brief window where I could meet pretty much anybody I wanted to, and I said "I'm interested in meeting Mike Medavoy," because he did all the movies I cared about when I grew up in the '70s. My favorite movie of all time was "Rocky," and he did that. He also did "Dances with Wolves."

He then talked to me about this project he had in mind of doing, and I didn't tell him anything about my plans, and it was a story set in the Ice Age. And he tells me how the story goes, and I said, "That's the story of 'Pathfinder.'" And he said, "Yeah, I got the rights." And I replied, "Well, let me tell you something, I wanted to rip this (film) off for the Viking movie I have in mind." And we made a deal, essentially that day, to do this movie this way.

As we talked about it some more - and you have to realize when I met the man he had a shitload of Oscars on his table - and he goes, "I think it's such a unique story, I really smell Oscar potential." And I'm going like, "You know what, I want a spoof in 'Mad Magazine.' I want little action figures! You know, that go like this with hatchets [Nispel mimics the patented GI Joe Kung Fu chop]." This kind of shows you my aspirations. We're sort of like strange bedfellows. But what he really did, and what I really appreciated, is he pushed me from my wee aspirations to really crafting a story that I want to sell as American mythology.

When people think about American mythology, they stop thinking at Westerns. And this is sort of like bringing a little bit of something that we have in Europe. It's all about culture clash. They found a Viking ship awhile ago in Newfoundland, and it had little Buddha sculptures in it. These guys went to the gates of Paris, they went to Saudi Arabia, where most likely the only true Viking helmet was found. This is some of the stuff that we shot. It's like a grab-sack of things that we're trying to put together.

Who plays the Pathfinder?

Nispel: Russell Means

What is the budget and what rating are you going for? You mentioned the hard "R," and we saw on the way coming in here that you've got a couple of dismembered prop bodies…

Fischer: Well, we know we'll have an "R" cut for the DVD. And then I think we'll take a look at the movie when it's done and see what makes the most sense. At the end of the day, it's what version is the best movie, as opposed to shooting for, "Let's make it 'R'" or "Let's make it 'PG-13'."

Nispel: I went with [the possibility of a "PG-13" rating] because I want dads to bring their kids to this. They really care about this the most, and as it comes to violence in this movie, in order to understand this movie you have to understand the Eastern idea of a master. A master is not somebody who tells you what to do and how to do it - it's somebody that helps you find your own path. And if we don't listen to our masters and try our own shit, you bang your head a couple of times, and that's part of the process. So [Urban's character] gets to make a whole bunch of mistakes and learns from them, so every "action bead" is actually a lesson and it all buttons up this approach of how he's essentially fighting in the army.

In terms of the budget, usually directors want more, the difference in this movie is that I wanted less. I'm actually still hell-bent on ending this movie 3-4 days earlier than I have to. The main reason why I want to do this is because I think that inflated budgets have worked to the detriment of Hollywood. I watch a lot of movies that have great special effects, and they're everything to everyone and I quite frankly don't care. What I want to go back to is something that has big elements, but it's not driven by special effects or celebrity, that kind of stuff. Hopefully that will give me some liberties and some freedom, with the type of story this is. But (regarding) this type of story, ask anybody, "Do you want to make a movie about Vikings?" And the response is, "Well, what's the last one that made money?"

Geographically, where does it take place?

Nispel: It takes place, technically, in New York City, 1000 years ago. Actually, the original version that I wanted to do started in New York City at an archeological dig and goes back. But as I worked on it, I said, "You know what? I don't want to claim that we're doing a little part of history here, this is mythology. And I don't want to bookend it into something that claims a docu-like authenticity, because you see it's not."

We said, "We have contrivances in this, but they will be our contrivances. They won't have horns like Hagar, they won't have wings like in some Wagnerian opera, but we'll have as much fun as we can have with it." But the [Viking props and costumes] are all sort of pieced together with junk they found on the battlegrounds around the world. What you see of them now [on the set] is way more than you see in the movie, because, if anything, they strike like aliens. They are very, very hidden and silhouetted and quick, and it's pretty much told from [Urban's character's] point of view, so they're not going to be chummy and we don't see a lot of Viking folklore.

Tell us about the love story in the film.

Nispel: Well, as I said, the basic narrative is very similar to "Witness," and there's a responsibility if you become an intruder in an uncorrupted society and you realize that you brought evil to town. In a way there's a responsibility - how do I handle this now? And I think [Urban's character's] first instinct would be to take them head on - to become human bait and throw himself right at it. But what he has to learn is to be smart at it, and to protect his lover. Ultimately she comes along, and I don't want to talk too much about the ending, but she actually plays a very, very important part. Because if you are hate-oriented and revenge-oriented, the Pathfinder would say it's the way of the heart that gets you back on the proper path or you just become like your fathers.

Nispel: [Laughs] Well, yeah, it's the stuff you grow up with and I didn't want to say "no" to that. I didn't want to say, "Well, what were they really like?" There's an interesting book that came out in Iceland right now which is one of those anti-revisionist books called "Vikings, Verse and their Reputation." And how this stuff got put on the screen then - I was just talking earlier about how I did some research on how they really fought, what they were really doing - and one of the methods I heard was that they would only fight for two or three minutes because they have all this heavy armor on. Then they would retreat, sit on a bucket, take a huff, and then somebody else would come in for awhile. I'm not interested in that, so I said, "We go the mythology route." But we still show something that, when I did research, I never really found - I never found one image of a Viking and an Indian in the same picture.

How did you approach the Indian culture as opposed to Viking culture?

Nispel: It was interesting. When we were looking for somebody to play the Pathfinder, at the same time we were looking for an Indian consultant, and we started to talk about Russell Means. People said "Be careful, because this is the guy who started AIM [the American Indian Movement]." And I said, "You know what? That's exactly the guy I want, because he's going to watch over us and he's going to make sure that we're respectful."

Now, he understands that we're not doing complete reality. In fact, he made some interesting comments. He said, "Indians didn't wear these dark kind of outfits, they were white. They had deer skin and it was white." On the other hand, it was 1000 years ago and they're East coast, so they had seal skin and they have grease over them, so surely there would've been some kind of stain. So there was an on-going dialogue that also had a lot to do with Indian cultures and the terms we would use. Like at some point, we call them the Wolf People, and he said, "Well, Wolf is very much rebirth in Indian culture."

There was a lot of dialogue like that. Now they're the Dragon People, and sure enough, Indians didn't know about dragons, but it's something we've included. So on one hand, we're trying very much to be respectful, and on the other hand, we welcomed contrivance if it helped us be symbolic and tell the story.

Fischer: If you look at some of the stuff that was written about the Vikings, there's a series that's sort of a travelogue almost, called "The Vinland Sagas, The Norse Discovery of America." When Marcus talks about the Vikings, they are almost worse than their reputation. I mean, you read some of this stuff…like they referred to the Native Americans as 'skrellings', which means wretched ones, and would cut off their limbs to see if they bled red blood because they weren't sure if they were human. It's pretty incredible. But I actually think we probably made them a little more tame.

Nispel: It's funny, I actually…here, I got this yesterday. [He pulls out a little Kinder toy.] Ralph Mueller is a German and knows I love Kinder chocolate. He got me this and I looked on it, the Kinder chocolate, and it says "Voyage with Vicki into the land of the Vikings." Do research on Vikings and, in America for sure, 99% of what you will find is this - it's for kids! It's a promotion for a seafood restaurant, so it's completely untread territory if you want to do something halfway serious about it.

In the scene we saw filmed with the fake ice, what's the biggest challenge in shooting it?

Nispel: Not making it look like shitty Styrofoam - that's the biggest one. [Laughs] Well, the trick with that kind of thing is that I can't have them break in a real ice lake, so I need] to do what everybody else does: to shoot from below, from above, from beside, from wax, show some inserts, have some real snow, have some fake snow and then take stuff that doesn't suck and boil it down to the scene. So you shoot a lot and hope to get away with it. Most of the scene actually happens underwater, and there Urban has a conversation with the Pathfinder as he's essentially drowning. And we have Russell Means - who I should mention is coming close to 70 now - underwater with Karl having a conversation, and we will digitally remove all of the bubbles so it will be very surreal, like they're in weightlessness somehow, and (Urban) gets another lesson.

Do you have a personal mentor?

Nispel: Yeah, I have a master. I have a spiritual master, and what attracted me to the script, besides the metaphorical significance of it, was to do a movie about a master-disciple relationship. So there's a lot of that in it.

There's also, essentially, a conflict between a spiritual culture and a materialistic culture.

Nispel: Very much so.

Is there Viking dialogue?

Nispel: It's all in Scandinavian and Icelandic, and it's great. I was really afraid when I asked for that. All I know in Scandinavian is "Vere-bor-deer-bork-bork-bork!" - like the cook from the Muppets. [Laughing] If it sounds anything like that, we're fucked. I called the translator up, and I said, "Just give me any line, and tell me how that would sound." And I gave her a line that said, "I'm not your kind." And she goes something like, "Horto!" I replied, "It's great! Continue."

So the Vikings will be speaking Icelandic. What about the Indians and Karl?

Nispel: They speak English, so we know what's going on. Again, in the original version, I didn't want any dialogue - I didn't even want Icelandic. It was just very internal, and most likely, by all means, weird. But what it did do is you set off to write a film completely visually. You can turn the sound off on this movie and know completely what is going on, and then later it's just like the cherry on top. We actually get to hear a little bit and not feel completely detached to the characters. But [from the visuals alone], you can plug along and turn the sound off. That was actually one of the main things I wanted to do, which I couldn't have done with any other movie.

David Fincher [director of "Seven" and "Fight Club"] - I have heard this story from several people - was supposedly offered "Air Force One." And he went into the initial meeting and said, "You know, I'm different than other directors." And then he said, "I want to do the whole movie without any dialogue." And the producers who were telling this story later were laughing, like "How crazy is that?" And I go, "He's a genius!" Because you know there's no reason why Harrison Ford has to talk to the subtitled Russians, and I don't remember learning anything worthwhile from what the Russians were saying. You know he's down there in the [airplane's hull] and they're up there, and he strikes from there. Like "First Blood" - again, it gets you back to that. When I saw that when I was a kid, I went like, "Well, that's a great B-movie, but it's also true cinema to me."

Fischer: Marcus always talks about that - when we were originally thinking about dialogue or no dialogue - he said this movie should be able to be shown on a big sheet in Senegal and everyone should know what's going on.

Did you really think you could do two hours with no dialogue?

Nispel: Oh yeah, absolutely. "First Blood" did it and it worked great. I think people liked it best where he wasn't talking. [Laughs]

Tell us about actress Moon Bloodgood (Urban's romantic interest in the film).

Nispel: Ironically, when we were looking for somebody to play this part, somebody said Moon Bloodgood and I said, "Great." Then, suddenly, I looked at her and said, "I shot you before." I shot her for a coffee commercial like eight years ago, and she made me feel really old. I remember that because she said, "Oh, you did all those C+C Music Factory Videos. We danced to them when we were kids." Oh my God, time to move on from music videos! [Laughs]

Then I found out that she is about to get married to Eric Balfour, who played Kemper in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." So the two actors right in front of the camera are actually getting married, so it was perfect. It's funny, what I've really changed from the first production to the ones I'm doing now, is trying to will [the film] to be something it isn't. You know, you go out and people talk about how their editorial vision has to be like this, and has to be like that, and then for the rest of the production, they regret everything where it differs from the original vision, and they drive everybody bonkers trying to get it exactly like that.

I have a pretty good idea of the story I want to tell, but then the elements come together and they start to speak to you, and then you just go, "It just has to be this way." That's how the meeting with Mike came about, and how Moon came about, and how Karl suddenly, well, he was always excited about doing something with the script - and that right away made me say, "It's not a coming-of-age story." It all adds to it, and pretty much, you just sit there like a stiff and retain what you like and let fall through what you don't.

[A scene plays on the monitor behind Nispel. He turns and points out some elements of the sequence.]

That was from the Indian funeral ground where Karl's facing the Vikings for the first time. Actually, there's some interesting stuff come up. When we started out, we got really unlucky with the horses - they were really skittish. I later found out that the horse wrangler we had at the time bought them literally a week before production, and they had never been on a film set. So Moon would fall into a puddle, acting her little heart out, and then the horses would freak out and never come back.

Then we got a new horse trainer, and my editor called me up and said, "You know what? The animal rights people will never let you get away with this. I can't use this in the movie." And I said, "You know, [the animal rights people] were there." The trainer has horses that tumble and fall into mud and into water. One broke into the ice later, and they loved it. So we have horses colliding into each other! The last time I've seen this kind of stuff is when they still put car batteries into saddle bags!

What kind of horses are they?

Nispel: God, I don't even know what they're called, but they're saving my life almost every day right now. I was just, "See this - those are real horses!" These horses are really hard to find trained because they are usually pulling stuff. You put our Vikings on them and they look like they're riding a pony, so you have to use a wide angle lens and go low to make them look somewhat substantial.

It should be mentioned that Karl does almost all the stunts himself. He really threw himself on a horse, he jumped over a guy and cuts his throat. He got so many bruises, it's unbelievable. That's the only way we can do something like this, especially when it gets so cold and numb. It slows down the crew to have an actor who's in the trailer all the time being pampered. You know, the "tell me when you're done" kind.

That's all Karl on rearing horses. When we finally got Karl, we were essentially a week away from shooting - same for Clancy and Ralph. We were really fortunate that one did "Gladiator," the other one did "Lord of the Rings," and the other one did "Highlander." So they knew swordplay, they knew horses, and we didn't have to do any extra boot camp stuff. They just came "baked."

That was great because we had two or three days in a row where we did between 60 and 70 set-ups a day, so the average would be 20 with two.

So the use of four cameras today was unusual?

Nispel: What we did today actually is…well, there a lot of moments within this scene that the three or four cameras are fishing for. We just don't do it like other films do it. Now we shoot this, then we shoot that, then we shoot that, and that's actually how this movie could have easily been done for 20-30 million dollars more. And that's how I could bring it down to wherever I wanted to be - just changing the style of shooting, which I think works for it. Because, if I would go about it and do an action sequence like in a Bond movie…yeah, I can do that with some extra money, but I don't think it's a movie you would want to see here. This is much more shot like a documentary - it's dirty.

When you say 60 set-ups, is that 60 setups with 4 cameras?

Nispel: Yeah, we have four cameras, and we have them all going at the same time. There is no second unit in this one, but they're working in tandem. I can see it. Like today, there's another unit just in the back of the stage over here behind the wall, and I can see on the monitor what they're doing against green screen. But we also have things happening right next to us while we're watching this. I just go from one place to the other, so while one is lighting I can roll with the next. We just keep it all nearby.

There's no single Indian tribe that this is based on?

Nispel: Actually, there is - the Wampanoa. The Wampanoa came from the area that would now be Martha's Vineyard, and they were whale hunters. All the hairdos, all the styles, and the wardrobe is from there…I should really talk about this a bit. You know, you come to Canada and go, "Oh my God!" I've come out of the comfort zone of the people that have helped me so far, and I don't know any of these people. And the first person I knew I had to hire because of all the armor and all the Indian outfits was a stylist. And [after looking at several samples], I said, "This is it - that's the person we have to get." And that was Renee April.

She's French-Canadian, and I had her scavenge just like the Vikings did. "Go to Europe, find a lot of uniform parts, a lot of armor parts, put them together, weld stuff over them, add bones and whatnot, and then bring to the party all the great stuff you did for (the film) 'Black Robe.'" She just was fantastic! You put that stuff on anybody, and they walk in and parade around in front of the crew, and it just commands respect and skews everything towards a certain level of perfection. I just love what she did! And again, I don't do it justice, because I'm showing you way too much of this (on the video monitor) in very quick moments.

Are the bows in the film something the Vikings appropriated from the Indians? Is it the other way around? Or is there a mixing of this idea?

Nispel: There's some mix of that, absolutely, and there's a lot of learning from each other. Because what we've learned as we grew up was that Indians were savage, I wanted to attribute a lot of that towards the Vikings and vice-versa. There's some stuff in the Indians you'll find that is almost Viking-influenced.

Where do these particular Vikings come from?

Nispel: Well, they're speaking Icelandic, but we keep it pretty nebulous. If you look at them, of course, they're sort of a conglomerate of ideas. That's the same thing I should say about the Indians - certainly nobody should look at them with a magnifying glass in a historical sense. The idea really is that I see an American saga, and something that is filled with metaphor about a larger story that I am interested in. Being German, and looking at today's political climate, there's definitely a lot of thought that went into it in that regard, and that was always more interesting to me.

So is that the theme being carried through as well - that maybe they shouldn't be here?

Nispel: Yeah, kind of. It's interesting that everybody's so afraid of an invasion on American ground right now, and we were the original invaders. I read after 9/11 something in the "New York Times" written by an Indian Chieftain, and he said, "You guys are all so scared of smallpox. Isn't that poetic justice?" It's all cyclical, isn't it?

It's interesting, there are a lot of scripts floating around town, and people come and say, "Surely, you would like to do science fiction." Or "Surely, you would like to do a horror movie." Or…whatnot. And I have a really hard time relating to most of it because it's just another yarn in a way. So unless I find something in it that tells a larger story, I can't think of one science fiction I like that doesn't have some sort of a metaphor to it.

And when you look at the epics - especially some of the recent ones - you may ask, "Why do they speak this way?" And at some point, somebody agreed that an English accent in Shakespearean lingo is befitting of that time. To me, this is a fairly modern idea. So I wanted the characters to speak as little as possible. I don't think we actually rolled sound in many of the scenes you are seeing here. And then right away you get hypnotized because it's odd - you don't have the comfort factor of somebody constantly yakking.

Is it true that none of the characters have names?

Nispel: Yeah, nobody is being called by name. We have names that we gave them for the characters, but nobody is being called by them…

At this point, Nispel is informed that break time is over and he has to head back onto the set. It's time for more Vikings on ice! (Wouldn't that be a twisted Ice Capades show? ) We thank him for being so generous with his spare time, and look forward to seeing his vision on screen. Indians vs. Vikings - we can hardly wait!

Look for "Pathfinder" to arrive in theaters on September 8, 2006.

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