'Amundsen' Explores the Life of the First Man to Reach the South Pole
April 7, 2021
He beat the British to the South Pole, then studied the ocean streams in the Arctic Ocean for nearly five years. He’s one of the most daring, prolific explorers in modern history, and he's finally getting the film he deserves.
Written by Ravn Lanesskog and directed by Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Amundsen follows famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen as he makes history by becoming the first person to travel to the South Pole, along with his rocky life stemming from the traumatic death of his parents to his final exploration.
The story's origins started with a stroll around a museum in Norway.
“I have always been intrigued by Amundsen,” Sandberg says. “I learned about him in school and live close to the museum.” Sandberg recalls walking around the museum with his kids and being intrigued by spectacular expositions and the imagery of it all. Like any curious filmmaker, he started reading more about the life of Roald Amundsen and found a mystery he had to solve.
“Even though he accomplished so much in his life, he was angry and frustrated at the end of it. There was something strange going on,” Sandberg says, adding that he wanted to determine why this meticulous explorer’s life ended the way it did. “Why did the man known for being so prepared, go on a strange mission without preparation?”
Telling Amundsen's story
Considering Amundsen has a museum dedicated to his life, there was plenty of material to dive into. Cutting it down to a two-hour film was a task unto itself.
Sandberg spent two-to-three years working with screenwriter Lanesskog (The Last King) to sort out the material, which included countless books, museum artifacts and material, and the translated diaries from all of the people on the expeditions.
“It took a while to crack what we wanted to say, which was so much, and then finding the ideal structure for it. We went back and forth a bit before ending up where we did,” Sandberg explains.
For Sandberg and Lanesskog, they found the emotional through-line between his love interest, Bess (Katherine Waterston), and his brother, Leon (Christian Rubeck). It starts with Leon reading that his brother has gone missing and, when he walks to Roald’s house, finds Bess there. As we learn about Roald’s life from their perspectives, we see two different versions appear.
Sandberg states, “When we started figuring out the movie, the brother was not so prominent. It was more a story about Roald (played by Pål Sverre Hagen in the film). Then we quickly realized that the brother was an interesting way in and also that telling the story in a linear way from beginning to end was a little too ‘boring’.”
Leon became an interesting tool in the telling of the story because he knew his brother in a unique way. That uncertain period in Roald’s life when he went missing was also an emotional time for Leon, motivating him to talk to someone; so who better than Bess?
Having these two characters discuss who Roald was and giving them the capacity to jump to all the highlights of his life allowed the filmmakers to play with the structure of the film.
Lessons in filmmaking
Sandberg has always taken everything he’s learned on previous films into his current projects.
“You have to keep exploring and keep challenging yourself, and even though the script is written and there, you can make it better,” Sandberg shares, adding, “And this goes with the edits and everything.”
He also found that he works best when he keeps the writer close and in the process, so they can work the ins and outs of every character and talk it through with everyone. “When you get to be more experienced, you learn a lot of writing and directing from editing,” he says.
Sandberg’s directing career has taken him from intimate true stories to franchised pirate adventures, but there isn’t one he prefers over the other. Both present different challenges. In the case of creating the true story, he recognizes that you have to fictionalize a lot of little things in the story to make it work.
Overall, it’s about the characters and seeing why people do the things they do — the biopic genre really highlights that.
“It’s really about trying to find the one thing about that character that makes or breaks them – that’s really what it’s about.”
For Roald Amundsen, we can see his success and hear about it from the surrounding family, friends, colleagues and adversaries. One lesson we learn from Amundsen is that the price of success is almost always paid by others.
Sandberg relates to this in his own life, as his directing career means traveling the world at the cost of the people around him.
So maybe a viewer can take away from the film this lesson: Not everyone is Amundsen though, and success doesn’t always mean neglecting those you love. Remember, the origins of this particular story started with a busy director strolling around a museum with his family.
Amundsen is now available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, where he was the assistant to the director of development. His screenplays have placed in a variety of competitions including 'Fatty Arbuckle', which was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.