Los Angeles-based writer/director Joe Penna has made a name for himself in the YouTube world with his popular channel MysteryGuitarMan. Combining his passion for music and stop-motion animation, the channel, now over ten years old, boasts 2.8 million subscribers and over 400 million views. Videos such as “Guitar Impossible” have screened at the Guggenheim Museum.
In addition to his many commercials for top brands, the native Brazilian gained further attention for his short films, including Instant Getaway, that was produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and Turning Point and was selected to play at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Penna is also known for directing the video “You Make Me” for the recently deceased Swedish artist Avicii — something he credits with providing him the opportunity to make his first feature, Arctic, which had its world premiere out of competition in the Midnight section on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival. Starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, the dialogue-light film is receiving praise for its stark depiction of a man attempting to stay alive in the Arctic’s relentless terrain and the powerfully emotive performance from Mikkelsen. Co-written by his YouTube producing partner Ryan Morrison, Arctic was picked up during Cannes by Bleeker Street Films, who will release in U.S. theaters.
Not bad for someone who dropped out of a pre-med Master’s program with not a penny to his name. But the assured Penna chalks up his success to determination and his sheer desire to make films. The prolific director spoke to Filmmaker in Cannes, discussing both the challenges and rewards of making a man-against-the elements survival drama, indie style.
Filmmaker: How did the concept of this film come about, particularly when it is such a departure from the content on your YouTube channel?
Penna: The original idea came from this picture that I saw on the internet — a terraforming Mars with some plants and trees. I thought, what an interesting, horrible place for humans to survive. I went to my co-writer [Ryan Morrison, his producing partner for MysteryGuitarMan], and told him I could visualize a city in ruins, and we both landed on the idea of someone trying to survive in this place alone. We wrote a script called On Mars and sent it to our agents. They said, “This is wonderful. But have you heard about this Ridley Scott film coming out soon called The Martian?” That was it. We had written a full script in around two to three weeks, and we had to change it.
So Ryan and I moved it to the Arctic. It went from, “He can’t breathe,” to “He is really cold.” That took around maybe a month, and then it took me weeks and weeks to refine the script. For example, I added some haikus. There was one page where we go from a long sentence, to a shorter one, to just one word. That created a bit of a triangle, I wanted to do something that was visual and interesting with very little dialogue. I broke every screenwriting rule I could.
Filmmaker: Some people are comparing this to All Is Lost. Did you gain inspiration from that film, which also has little dialogue?
Penna: People are calling this All is Frost — I’ll take it. I watched every film I could to gain inspiration: All is Lost, The Grey, Castaway, The Red Turtle. In particular, we studied The Red Turtle inside out — we dubbed it “Little Mysteries” because there are many shots where you see the survivor looking at something, he has a reaction, but then you have no idea what he is looking at. You, the filmmaker, are withholding that information as long as you can to build suspense. We did that in Arctic when you see Overgård [Mikkelsen] building a pyramid of stones, and you, the viewer, have no idea what he is doing, until we zoom out and you can see a large SOS sign built in the snow. We withheld as much as we could — even his background. He has no wedding ring, no pictures, no backstory. The plane is already down when the film starts, he already has a routine. It’s like starting Castaway about halfway through.