Thor Heyerdahl was a childhood hero of mine, but it was only in 1996, when I met the Norwegian publisher and industrialist Johan Stenersen through my friend the actor Michael Douglas, that I began thinking about a film.
Myself and Stenersen, the publisher of Thor's work, traveled to Thor's home in Tenerife to meet the adventurer. A filmmaker himself, who had won an Oscar in 1951 with his documentary on the Kon-Tiki voyage, Thor had previously refused to allow anyone to make a film about his exploits. I gave him copies of The Last Emperor and a few of my other films and built a relationship with Thor and his wife Jacqueline, who was keen that I made the film. Thor was still living the life of a young man, walking up hills, talking about his next mission. Nobody had the film rights to his work or life story. Other people had tried to get them, but after three visits I finally managed to persuade him to give me the rights. Thor was keen that any film was large-scale, international in scope and in English, and became involved with the film's development, which also drew on the wealth of material he had written about the voyage. Before Thor died in 2002, he signed off on virtually the finished screenplay.
Kon-Tiki was initially developed as an English-language Hollywood-scale film with a budget of around $70M but finding backing proved tricky, especially as I wasn't able to get support in the UK. Around 2001, Stenersen suggested that I meet with Norwegian writer Petter Skavlan. After working with Skavlan on developing the screenplay, in 2009 I decided to make Kon-Tiki as a Norwegian film, albeit one that had been developed in the UK. Skavlan helped me look for Norwegian directors and at Cannes that year I met with directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, successful commercial directors whose first film, the World War II epic Max Manus, had become the biggest film ever at the Norwegian box office. I was impressed by the directors, who had a fresh vision and wonderful skills with digital technology that could finally allow the sea creatures in the film to be realized convincingly.
I decided to make Kon-Tiki in dual Norwegian and English-language versions, and in doing so was able to keep a promise I had made to Thor that his story would be seen worldwide. He was a powerful character because as a young man he made people put their lives in his hands. Not only did he take them on a journey back to nature with no medicine or modern navigation, he wasn't a sailor and couldn't even swim! He was playing God. He and his crew went out from South America and crossed the Pacific on a balsa raft tied with rope, an act that and inspired countless others to adventure. Though itself a long voyage, making this film, like The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky -- films made in epic proportions and in difficult locations -- became one of my own adventures. Cinema as I like it.