Roar Uthaug interview: directing Tomb Raider and more

We chat to Roar Uthaug, the director of Tomb Raider, about reimagining Lara Croft, action, and lots more...

Most up-and-coming film directors might dream of making a movie that can serve as their ticket to Hollywood, and for Norway’s Roar Uthaug, it was The Wave. Released in 2015, it was a rare instance of an effects-heavy disaster movie made well outside the studio machine – and on a lean budget, Uthaug made a tense, entertainment thrill-ride that just happened to be set in a Norwegian tourist spot.

Then again, Uthaug’s movies have long had a populist slant to them, whether they’re horror (his 2006 slasher, Cold Prey) or survival-adventure (2012’s Escape). It seems like a natural fit, then, that Uthaug was hired to direct a new take on Tomb Raider. Unlike the Lara Croft films starring Angelina Jolie, which tapped into the more cartoonlike style of the videogames, Alicia Vikander’s take on the videogame heroine is far more vulnerable to the stresses and strains of her adventures. 

Taking its cue from the rebooted videogame released in 2013, Tomb Raider is more of a survival tale than a two-fisted action-fest like the old Croft movies. While there are still plenty of high-wire stunts and fights, this film has a bit of dirt under its fingernails – a refreshing change from the polish of your typical videogame-derived blockbuster.

As Tomb Raider makes its cinema debut, we caught up with Uthaug to talk about moving from the Norwegian film scene to Hollywood, working on his first studio picture, and what movies influenced him along the way. Indiana Jones makes his shortlist, as you might expect, but there’s a surprise appearance from an early Rambo flick, too…

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Congratulations on the film – I enjoyed it. But did you enjoy the process of making your first Hollywood movie?

Yes, very much so. I had a lot of fun. I’ve always been a big fan of Hollywood movies like this growing up, and to be able to make one is a dream come true.

I’ve seen a couple of your earlier films – I saw The Wave and Escape – and they both have quite an American feel to them.

I’ve always tried to do that with my movies, to mix the Hollywood genres with Norwegian folklore or Norwegian reality somehow.

I was just talking to Graham King, the producer, and he was saying that he picked up the rights to Tomb Raider in 2010, and then things really got rolling in 2013. So at what point did you come on?

I came aboard about two and a half years ago. So after the 2013 [videogame] reboot. My agents in LA screened The Wave for industry people there, and one of the executives at MGM saw it. She thought of me for Tomb Raider.

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Your style of filmmaking aligns quite nicely with the style of the videogame, because the game took the franchise from something quite cartoony to something more gritty. Lara Croft is a lot more human.

Yeah. I try that with all my movies, to try to create an authenticity and create characters that have some depth to them. That you really invest in as an audience. That’s also what they did to the 2013 reboot – create a very relatable Lara. Fallible. That’s definitely something we wanted to bring to this big-screen, new origin story.

What films influenced you as a young filmgoer before you became a movie-maker yourself?

I loved the Indiana Jones movies. I watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark so many times growing up. So it was really those big Hollywood movies at first, and then I got drawn into horror movies – my first feature was a horror movie. My first stab at filmmaking was called the X-Killer, which we made in eighth grade. So I think through that, some of the filmmakers that inspired me were Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson; to watch them go from small horror movies to Spider-Man and Lord Of The Rings was really inspiring.

With regard to the action sequences, I get the impression that quite a bit of it was in-camera.

Yeah, we wanted this kind of authentic take on the whole movie. We wanted to do as much as possible in-camera, with our actors in the middle of it. Partly to make an immersive experience for the audience, where you really feel that you’re in there with them, and they’re really in there. So we built huge sets, and big gimbles, like the ship sequence, we had that boat built on top of a gimble, and they were hitting it with water cannons and wind machines and rain machines. We had Alicia [Vikander] in the middle of that.

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So there’s a lot of logistics to make that work. Both to create that spectacle, but also to do it in a safe way, of course. 

Which was the most challenging sequence to pull off, do you think?

I think the one that took the most planning, and breaking down of each shot, was when Lara’s chased by some of the villains, falls off a log into a river, and grabs onto the wing of an old Japanese bomber. That collapses, and then she’s in the fuselage… that was shot on location in South Africa, on stages in South Africa, on the backlot with a collapsing wing, with a bit of fuselage that could turn 180 degrees. Finally, in London, at the tank in Leavesden, and then at Lea Valley White Water Rafting facility, which was built for the Olympics.

That’s crazy. So when you’re conceiving that, I’m guessing there’s a lot of pre-visualisation that goes into a scene like this.

Yeah, so that was one of the scenes we pre-visualised. Then of course, you previsualise, and then when you’re on set and have an actress like Alicia in front of the camera, then you always end up adjusting things and playing a bit in the moment. But it was an important part of the process to break it down and work out how to achieve each shot.

Do you think of yourself as quite a spontaneous filmmaker, then? Do you make a lot of decisions on the hoof?

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Yeah, I think you have to. You have to go in with a plan, but you have to be open to what the actors bring to it, the sets that have been built, the lighting, the camera operating, and try to make it as organic as possible in that moment.

Have you ever seen First Blood? It reminds me a bit of that movie, the rough-edged atmosphere.

Yes! Yes. I love that movie. I love the grittiness of that movie. 

Do you think there’s a tendency with big films to lose some of that? Where they almost become too slick?

I think there are pitfalls when making these movies. What we tried is to really give the film a heart and emotional depth. To make the audience invest in Lara and understand where she’s coming from. In movies like this, if you don’t care about the people running from the explosions and hit by all this spectacle, then it gets numbing. The key is to make the audience invested in the character. It’s through the character that they experience all the mayhem.

How difficult is it to keep your own voice as a filmmaker when moving to a Hollywood film?

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I’ve really felt that I was given free reign to make the movie I wanted to make. I feel that’s what I’ve done. Of course there are lot of voices in the mix, but I felt that we were all pulling in the same direction – we were all agreeing on what kind of movie we wanted to make. I think that’s key, that collaborative part of the movie-making process: everyone’s pulling in the same direction. I can see that, if you’re not, then that could lead to trouble. But I felt really lucky on this one. This is the Tomb Raider we all wanted to make.

Were there many conversations about the tone of it? How violent it could be and that sort of thing? The games can be quite violent, but then there can sometimes feel like there’s more leeway in videogames.

I guess there are different rating systems for games, but I think the game has a higher rating than our movie has. But I felt that the tone of this movie is the tone I think a Tomb Raider movie should have. I don’t think we’ve compromised on the violence. I didn’t want to make a very violent movie – yes there’s action and fights, and all that stuff, but I wasn’t interested in making it violent for violence’s sake.

You said you were a big fan of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, so it must’ve been quite exciting to see the set of the tomb going up.

Oh yeah. When I walked onto that tomb set for the first time, I was just blown away. It was so huge, but also the level of detail that the art department had put in to it was just incredible.

When you came on to make this, did you have to put the videogame origins out of your mind?

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Yeah. Anytime you’re adapting an existing property into a film, you have to take your inspirations and then put them aside a little bit. You have to think, “Okay, what’s the best way to go about this for the big screen?” Then we kind of crafted our own origin story of Lara Croft, and then went back to the games. What can we put in here for the fans? They’ve done some really great set-pieces in the games, so what can translate onto the big screen? 

I thought it was an interesting storytelling choice to make Lara a delivery cyclist. She’s part of the gig economy, isn’t she?

Yeah, that was there when I came in to pitch on the movie. But that was how I envisioned Lara – we meet her in a very kind of daily life. She’s struggling; she’s not this rich, spoiled brat. She’s trying to make it on her own. I think there’s something fascinating about these bike couriers that zip through cities like London and New York in between cars. I thought I could make some exciting imagery without making her the action hero from the start, but you still see she has this thirst for excitement and adventure.

So obviously, The Wave was a big film in your career, and that was a film I discovered at a film festival. So how important are festivals to up-coming directors outside Hollywood?

They’re important to showcase your filmmaking, and also to meet other filmmakers – making contacts across borders. I’ve always been very grateful to the festivals that have shown my movies. I’ve made lots of friends and contacts. Coming from a country like Norway, the chance to show your movie outside the country to other audiences… people react very differently sometimes, to movies from other cultures.

I should imagine that’s a challenge now, for filmmakers – not just getting your work out there, because as well as festivals you have Vimeo and YouTube, but it’s rising above the sea of talent.

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When I grew up, we used to have youth film festivals in Scandinavia. You could meet other filmmakers your age, and it was really inspiring to see what other people were doing. Now you can just go on YouTube and see movies, or short films, from across the globe. It’s also easy to get lost, as you say, because there are so many things available. It can be challenging, I think, for young filmmakers to cut through the mix. But if you make something truly unique, then people will take notice. 

Did you find, when you were making your earliest films, that it was easy to get them funded, or was there a certain amount of surprise that you were making a horror film or an action film or an adventure film in Norway?

I’ve been pretty lucky with my movies. I don’t think I’ve been struggling to make them I think that’s a combination of having producers that are good at people excited for the projects, and also in Norway, we have government financing that makes it easier than a lot of other countries. And in Norway, those government financing models have opened up for more commercial movies like the ones I make. Before, if you go back 20 years, it was a lot more like arthouse movies. They were keyed into the tastes of the consultants hired by the institute. Now there are financing models that are aimed at bigger, more audience-friendly movies.

Yeah. I know in the 80s, a director like Renny Harlin in Finland, he struggled to get his first film financed. Or even David Cronenberg in Canada – the government were up in arms when they discovered he’d spent their money on a horror movie.

[Laughs] Yeah. They see that the taxpayer’s money shouldn’t just go to the few hundred people that go to see arthouse movies! They finance more commercial artforms that are also movies. It’s nice to give the audience in their own language, that can appeal to a wider audience.

I wonder if that’s part of a more wider acceptance of genre filmmaking in the industry at large. I mean, Shape Of Water’s a monster movie, Get Out’s a horror movie. They got awards.

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Yeah, it’s definitely become more accepted now than it was before.

Roar Uthaug, thank you very much.