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How a Youtuber got the chance to pit Mads Mikkelsen against a polar bear

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And a real polar bear, at that

Mads Mikkelsen and director Joe Penna on the set of Arctic.
Mads Mikkelsen and director Joe Penna on the set of Arctic.
Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. If you give a polar bear an Oreo, she’ll smile on command.

In case there was any doubt about it, the polar bear that Mads Mikkelsen faces off against in his new drama Arctic — which wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival last year and arrives to theaters this weekend — is very, very real. The film, which follows a stranded man named Overgård (Mikkelsen) as he braves the Arctic, is a stunning portrayal of survival that never overplays its hand, is beautifully shot, and is a perfect showcase for Mikkelsen’s talent, who comes face to face with an actual polar bear (her name is Agee).

Arctic is also the feature debut of writer-director Joe Penna, who had originally intended to attend medical school to become a cardiothoracic surgeon before finding his way into film. After realizing that he wanted to be in a more creative field of work, he carved out a YouTube persona, MysteryGuitarMan, and doubled down on the videos he’d been producing on the side. One of his most successful videos involved him solving a Rubik’s Cube.

“I had been doing YouTube back when YouTube was a weird name, still, and people wondered, ‘What is this YouTube thing?’” Penna told Polygon, shortly before Arctic’s release.

From there, Penna began making commercials and music videos, and eventually short films. “I started making music videos that had way too much of a dramatic aspect,” he laughs. “Eventually I had an artist come up to me after I pitched this huge, 20-minute long drama, he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, man. When does the music come in?’ And then I realized I should be doing short films instead, and not encumbering my poor musicians with my tendency to tell stories.”

One of the resulting shorts was Turning Point, which Penna describes as a proof of concept for Arctic. That it has more of a sci-fi bent is a nod to the fact that Arctic was, in fact, originally meant to be set in space. “Frankly, I wanted the film to take place on Mars, but because of The Martian, which had come out shortly after we had written the screenplay, we had to tweak things around,” Penna recalls. “The Arctic is the most desolate place on Earth, and we needed to feel that desolation. For some reason, the Sahara Desert doesn’t really feel survivable for that long. It doesn’t give you enough time to become an animal, to lose your humanity [...] and that was the biggest theme that we wanted to explore: can you really, truly be a human if you are alone?” And so the film, initially titled On Mars, became Arctic.

Penna — whose YouTube channel now has over 2 million subscribers — looked to Pixar’s WALL-E and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped for inspiration while co-writing the film with Ryan Morrison. The former was an example of telling a story without dialogue; the latter, an exercise in trusting the audience to put the pieces of the puzzle together on their own. “We never say where Overgård comes from, we never say how he crash-landed there, what he was doing up there, who else was with him,” Penna notes, as to just how sparse Arctic is. “The audience is creating that story in their heads, and the story that you’re creating is better than the story that I can create for you.”

That sparseness, however, led to problems when trying to get the movie financed. Among the comments that Penna received: “How are you not going to show the plane crash? You need to show him learning how to fish, that’s going to endear us to that character. You need to show him trying to make fire, you need to show him speaking to himself. I need to know what’s happening in his mind. This is going to be a boring film.” But then, along came the right producers — Chris Lemole, Tim Zajaros, and Noah C. Haeussner — who, as Penna recalls, said, “You know what, none of that’s necessary. You find the right actor and then we’re in.”

Penna on the set of Arctic.
Penna on the set of Arctic.
Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street

The very first person that Penna went to was Mads Mikkelsen, and, as luck would have it, they hit it off immediately. What was meant to be a brief Skype call turned into a three-hour discussion as Penna and Mikkelsen dissected the entire script and Penna’s storyboards. That back-and-forth flowed directly into the rehearsal process — and even shooting — with Mikkelsen, Penna, and Morrison continuing to pare fat from the script. “Sometimes Mads would say, ‘You know what, this piece of dialogue, do you need it?’ And I’d say, ‘We don’t need it,’” Penna says. “And then on set, sometimes I’d say, ‘Mads, let’s try the same exact scene, but don’t say anything.’ And 90% of the time, we’d use the version where he didn’t say anything.”

The only instance in which anything was added is, in fact, the polar bear. “At first we weren’t going to do it,” Penna explains. “So much of the movie — all of the movie, really — takes place from Mads’ perspective, and by seeing the polar bear, we’re breaking that perspective. So we shot it like Jaws: let’s not see her. But then, afterwards, we wanted to throw in a little bit more spectacle, and I went to YouTube and I saw this guy [Mark Dumas] swimming with a polar bear, and I said, ‘I’ve got to track this guy down.’ Turns out that he was a Mads Mikkelsen fan, so he was very much willing to work with us.”

There was, however, a hitch. Scheduling meant that Mikkelsen was unavailable at the same time as Agee (ironically because he had gone to shoot Polar), so Penna himself had to act as Mikkelsen’s stand-in. “[Mark] said, ‘You’re going to have to be the one wearing the parka, and you’re going to have to pretend to be scared.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to have to pretend.’”

Fortunately — and at the risk of spoiling a little movie magic — the effect of being just three feet away from the bear was mitigated by how Dumas got Agee to roar. “She’s not really roaring,” Penna admits. “[Mark] is saying, ‘Smile, smile!’ And then she opens her mouth wide. And he says, ‘Good girl, good bear,’ and she gets an Oreo cookie after that. He says that he spends more on her dental care that he does on his own house.”

As for what comes next, Arctic is meant as the first part of a trilogy of “survival and altruism in very difficult situations.” To wit, the second film, titled Stowaway, is set on a spaceship headed to Mars. (“I’m going to get to Mars somehow!” Penna declares.) After an accident leaves the crew without enough oxygen for everyone to make it to the Red Planet, the question of what to do hangs heavy on the commander’s head.

The big coup, that Toni Collette is set to play the ship’s leader, is one that Penna had teased on Twitter for a few days prior to the official announcement by only using reaction GIFs that featured the actress. When asked who else will be going to Mars (Anna Kendrick has also been announced, but a mystery third crew member also needs to be cast), Penna just has this to say: “It’s still secret, but maybe keep an eye out on Twitter.”

Arctic is in theaters now.