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On open sea, recounting trek of the Kon-Tiki

Directors Espen Sandberg (left) Joachim Ronning were hooked during boyhood visit Kon-Tiki museum.

Directors Espen Sandberg (left) and Joachim Ronning were hooked during a boyhood visit to a Kon-Tiki museum.

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Updated: May 29, 2013 6:41AM

Director Joachim Ronning doesn’t believe in a calm, collected life.

“I think life is about perseverance,” the Norway native says. “It’s about that strong thinking that you can cross the ocean even if you’re terrified of water. You just go in and do it anyways.

“I think most of us want to live a more adventurous life. We just need to dare ourselves.”

It was that adventurous spirit that he brought to his new film “Kon-Tiki,” co-directed by his childhood friend Espen Sandberg. Earlier this year it was nominated for the best foreign film Academy Award.

Set in 1947, “Kon-Tiki” (opening Friday) is the story of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal and his epic 4,300-mile trek across the Pacific Ocean on nothing more than a small balsa wood raft. He made the journey to prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in the pre-Columbian era.

The story, subject of an Oscar-winning 1950 documentary, might not be familiar to American audiences.

“Being Norwegian, we grew up with this story. Thor is from a neighboring town,” says Sandberg, who adds, “When we were 10, we went to the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo and saw the real raft. If you go into the basement of the museum, they even have the big whale shark [that menaced the crew].

Says Ronning, “Our imaginations went off. We knew that this story needed to be made into a film.”

It just wouldn’t be an easy movie to make under any budget. “This seemed like an impossible story to film,” Ronning says. “It’s daunting because it’s a big story to tell. It’s a biopic. It’s set on water. “

“Plus,” Sandberg adds, “a lot of people in Norway have an opinion about what Thor did. They think they know him.”

Once they got funding for their film, there were additional challenges. “We shot in six different countries and had four weeks of shooting on the open ocean. On top of that we shot the movie in two languages,” says Ronning. “You could say that it was nerve-wracking to say the least.”

Even “Titanic” director James Cameron has spoken about the hazards of ocean filmmaking. “Everyone really warned us against shooting on the open sea,” says Ronning, who adds, “Rightfully, so.”

“Out there is where the magic happened,” he adds. “We were a small crew trailing actors on a raft. The actors had to learn to sail.”

“Looking back on it, it was wonderful. Of course, we only remember the sunny days.”

His partner says that a few days in a studio tank to do storm scenes were tougher than the open ocean. “We thought, ‘Wow, we should have stayed out there,’ ” he says. “It was easier dealing with Mother Nature vs. wave and wind machines.”

The finished product eventually was shown to Heyerdal’s son and relatives of other Kon-Tiki crewmen. “What a day filled with anxiety,” Sandberg says. “But they really liked it and responded in the most marvelous way.”

More than 60 years after Heyerdal’s trek, some naysayers still doubt his theories. “People will always ask, ‘Did the people of Polynesia come from the East or the West?’ ” says Sandberg. “You can’t dispute that Thor proved that South Americans could sail to Polynesia.

“He didn’t sell 50 million copies of the ‘Kon-Tiki’ book because it was about migration, though. He sold it because it was about this idea that we could all go on a big adventure someday.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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