‘Arctic’ Interview: Director Joe Penna Discusses “Turning Point” Of Filmmaking Journey

Director Joe Penna works behind the camera on the set of his film, ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Helen Sloan SMPSP / Bleecker Street
Writer/director Joe Penna cut his storytelling teeth with his MysteryGuitarMan YouTube channel, and with over 250 videos to his name, Penna has taken that experience and applied that Arctic. Critically praised and featuring a first rate performance from Mads Mikkelsen, Arctic is a survivalist film that is an eye catching journey on the silver screen (try catching this one in theaters).
During my one-on-one with Penna, he talked about how failure has been part of his success as a filmmaker and why this film is part of an expansive universe that he and co-writer Ryan Morrison have created. Before watching Arctic, try catching his short Turning Point (it’s a wonderful primer to Arctic).


Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgårdin ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Helen Sloan SMPSP / Bleecker Street

That theme of surviving even through a seemingly hopeless situation was also explored in your short film Turning Point, which you also worked with your Arctic co-writer Ryan Morrison.

Turning Point was a little bit of a – I won’t call it a proof of concept for Arctic – but a proof of ability is what I’ll say. We wanted to make a short film that was not only visually striking, that’s why we made it all with a motion control camera, but also something that is in the same vein of where our Arctic and Stowaway projects were landing. (It is) this theme of altruism in the face of these dire conditions. We wrote this little trilogy which was Stowaway and Arctic and another project called Grounded, and we’ve still yet to write that third one.

It’s all around that same central theme. That’s a theme we’ve approached and funnily enough we have been sent a lot of different projects from Hollywood sending us all that same kind of thing. Survival on a flight. Survival on quicksand. Now I’m looking to branch out and not only do that.

What is the key, from your vantage point, to a successful collaboration?

I make it a point to only hire people that are better than doing something than I am. Then the project is better than what you could have ever imagined. For some things, it’s not so hard. For example, (hiring) people who can draw really well. I can’t draw to save my life. I’ve come up with doing everything myself with the YouTube Channel and these short films eventually hiring bigger and bigger crews and doing commercials with huge crews and music videos that were somewhere in between. So I eventually learned that’s the best way collaborate.

Trust the people that you’re hiring from the beginning. To me, it’s not necessarily hire the best person. It’s to hire the best collaborator. For Arctic we had a different cinematographer and it was an Academy Award nominated cinematographer who was there in Iceland with us and I fired him two weeks before the shoot because he wasn’t jive-ing with the rest of the crew and not willing to do what the rest of the crew was doing, which was to be on your toes. He wasn’t comfortable with working in a way where call sheets where never going to be sent out basically (laughs) and if they were, there would be three or four versions depending on what God gave us the next day.

So that’s where we ended up. It was with a crew that was very willing to be (there). Mads called it “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård in ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Helen Sloan SMPSP / Bleecker Street

Did you and Ryan go by the “life is short” mentality with Arctic, since shooting this type of project as your debut feature film was ambitious.

I think a lot of what artists do is to just ignore everyone telling you what you’re trying to do is stupid. We were told by so many producers that this film was going to cost so much money and that it’s going to be incredibly difficult. That we were going to have a hard time finding an actor who wasn’t going to be pampered. That this film would end up costing $200 million because eventually you’d end up having to shoot in Patagonia when you run out of snow in Iceland. (note – the film was shot over 19 days in Iceland)

We had to find people who were equally crazy as us and I’m glad that we did.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård in ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release.Credit: Bleecker Street

Can you talk about your film’s score which thankfully wasn’t heavy handed and ended up being effectively subtle.

That’s another thing that I talked about with hiring somebody that knows way more than you do. Joseph Trapanese is one of the best composers I’ve ever worked with. He is so seasoned. He has done so many huge blockbusters and amazing indie films and yet every time I would go back to him, he would interject a comment (saying) this is one of the hardest projects he had ever done if not the hardest. The bags under his eyes would be slightly darker every time I would see him because of iteration after iteration after iteration of him trying to do something until you get it just right. 

That is what we did with the edits. That is what we did with the rehearsals with Mads. This film is not something that you can go in with a vision and then get it done. It is a film where you have to find it and you have to find where the film lands. Thankfully the edits, the final piece of the film, is very much what we had on the page. We had an inkling of what it was but all of the intricacies in between, the little things that show up in the script, those are the things you have to try and if it doesn’t work, then you’ve go to try it again and again.

Yeah. You fail so much when you have 250 videos up on your YouTube channel. Some of them are not going to work. Sometimes you spend a lot of money and a lot of effort and a lot of your brain capital on a video you think is going to hit something and that people are going to like and then you end up with a stinker. Sometimes you’re like ‘I’ve got to put something up on Thursday’ and then you start worrying about it on Wednesday and then you just put it up and it gets 16 million hits. So you start to learn that you can’t call every shot. The audience reaction is part of process. Because I can’t replace a video on YouTube. 

What’s interesting about YouTube is it gives you the analytics to tell you exactly where you lost them. (For example) this at 58 seconds people left your video. And then you look at the graphics and say ‘Okay, I know what I did here and then you try something different’ and then you lose even more people. And then you try a third version of it and you start figuring out what works and doesn’t work. You start creating these rubrics and these rules about what works well for that medium. 

I would venture a guess that is the same for a feature film. What I was doing, when I was screening the film for friends and family. I wasn’t watching the film. I knew the film – I knew every single frame. I was watching them. Every time they shift in their seat, I’d wonder ‘okay, why is this shot running too long’ or ‘what can I do differently here?’

Mads Mikkelsen and director Joe Penna on the set of his film, ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Helen Sloan SMPSP / Bleecker Street

Can you name one of of your favorite films and what makes it unique movie?

Children of Men for me is a film that . . . it’s not only extremely watchable, it’s just a fun movie. But it’s also a film that every time (I watch it), I catch something different and I see something that I missed the last time around. There’s so much intention behind it in almost every single frame of that film, that I can just watch it over and over again. If you’re looking for a more recent one, I think Arrival does something very similar.

***Penna’s next project is the aforementioned Stowaway, a feature that’s toplined by Anna Kendrick.

**Arctic is now playing. For tickets and showtimes, go here.