Showcasing an enthralling protagonist who’s relentlessly searching for a truth, which harrowingly threatens their ability to understand their actual reality, is often the most intriguing way to chronicle the gripping real-life true story of brave and heroic pioneers. That chilling fine line between the hero completely giving into their paranoia, and their ability to discover the true conspiracy, is also often highlighted in their interactions with a number of potential antagonists. The protagonist’s persistent quest to uncover the true moral and ethical dilemmas during the Norwegian Oil Boom 30 years ago is intriguingly presented in Norwegian co-writer-director Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s new thriller, ‘Pioneer.’ The filmmaker worked with Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, who played the movie’s hero, to uncover the truth about the divers who participated in the country’s oil boom. The two also closely collaborated with Wes Bentley, who portrays one of the story’s antagonists, to chronicle how working at the bottom of The North Sea together during a time of blooming wealth grippingly changed everyone involved.
‘Pioneer,’ which is now playing in New York On Demand and iTunes, follows the launch of the Norwegian Oil Boom that began in the early 1980′s. After enormous oil and gas deposits are discovered in the North Sea, authorities aim to bring the oil ashore through a pipeline 500 meters deep. Petter (Hennie), a professional diver, becomes obsessed with reaching the bottom of the water, in an effort to obtain the oil. Along with his brother Knut (André Eriksen), he has the discipline, strength and courage to take on the world’s most dangerous mission. But a sudden, tragic accident changes everything. Petter is then sent on a perilous journey where he loses sight of who is pulling the strings. Gradually, he realizes that he is in way over his head and that his life is at stake. Along the way, the Norwegian diver is also forced to contend with the conflicts and difference his diving crew experience with a group of American divers, including Mike (Bentley). The Americans also want a stake on the recently discovered oil, and both sides refuse to give up until they garner control over the natural resource that has the potential to change their lives forever.
Bentley generously took the time recently to talk about playing Mike in ‘Pioneer’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actor discussed how he did as much reading as he could about Norway’s history and oil boom, and also spoke with the real divers who visited the set, to help him understand his character’s mindset, as well as the dynamic between the American and Norwegian divers; how he enjoys performing his own stunts for his films, but since he’s not familiar with diving, he immersed himself in training before filming began; and how he enjoyed working with Skjoldbjærg, as he thinks the writer-director has a fantastic eye for filmmaking, as he’s thorough and focused on every moment being both genuine and effective.
Question (Q): You play Mike in the new thriller, ‘Pioneer.’ What was it about the character, as well as the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Wes Bentley (WB): I think that Scandinavian films are in an excellent place right now. They’ve always been good, but there’s a new sensibility that I’m drawn to overall. Everything’s very realistic, and comes from an honest place. I’m always interested in their characters, and there’s also a natural dark tone to the film that I was drawn to.
Q: The thriller is set in the early 1980′s, during the beginning of the Norwegian Oil Boom, and how authorities strived to bring the newly discovered oil in the North Sea ashore. What kind of research did you do into the oil discovery before you began filming? How did you prepare for the role overall?
WB: I did as much reading as I could about Norway. I didn’t know about the country’s history, and how recent its oil boom was, and how much it changed the country.
As far as the diving went, we had a couple of the real guys on set. They were very helpful in setting that world up for us, and explaining how dangerous it was. I was particularly interested in the dynamic between the American and Norwegian divers. There was also a real diver I was loosely based on. So I took a lot of information from them, and they were very informative.
Q: At times, Mike is presented as an unlikable character in the film, as there was tension between the Norwegian and American divers after the oil discovery. What was the process of working with you co-stars to showcase that disconnect between the divers?
WB: Talking to the real divers on set was helpful in showing what the Americans were holding back from the Norwegians, so that they could advance. But at the same time, they also participated in Norway’s development of the oil.
Aksel’s a very thorough actor, in that he did his research and worked hard all day and night on set. Off set, we had a lot of conversations about the whole process of making the film. Aksel did a lot of work, and I actually got a lot from him. Since he’s Norwegian, I got a lot of useful information from picking his brain. We traded a lot of information between the cultural differences, and how we might play those out. But the writing did a lot of the work for us.
Q: What’s the process of approaching the action sequences in your films, including the diving sequences in ‘Pioneer?’ Do you prefer doing your own stunts in your movies?
WB: I like performing stunts a lot. I’ve always been a somewhat athletic person, so I get a kick out of things like that. But diving was a particular challenge for me, because I almost drowned when I was five-years-old. So it took me a long time after that to put my head under water, or even my face in the shower. So even though I was over it once we started filming, diving is a whole other animal.
So we did some five-meter pool diving, where we started with a full suit. We would go underwater to get comfortable down there. We then worked our way down to basically just using goggles and maybe a mouth piece. That was challenging for me, as I’ve never done anything like that.
I tried to do as much as I could. But a lot of the full shots of them diving near Iceland were real Finnish divers, because I never could have done that. (laughs) I didn’t even get the chance to do a proper compression chamber. But I believe Aksel and a few of the other Norwegian actors did before I got there.
Q: What was the process of filming ‘Pioneer’ independently in Norway with a primarily Norwegian cast and crew like overall, especially compared to the bigger Hollywood studio films you have starred in, like ‘Interstellar’ and ‘The Hunger Games?’
WB: It was very similar to filming a low-budget, independent film here (in America), as far as the number of people on set. It’s the same guerrilla style approach to your day of shooting. But I find there’s a wider participation from everyone in different departments into each scene. It was truly very collaborative on this set, and it was a very fascinating process to be a part of.
Q: The film opens in America (this Friday, December 5) in theaters, as well as On Demand and iTunes. Do you think the VOD platform is important and beneficial to smaller, independent films like ‘Pioneer?’
WB: Well, number one, you want your film to be seen. So the fact that more people will see it, with the help of the VOD platform, since people are going to the theaters less now than they used to, is a good thing. But personally, I like to go to the theater and see movie in the form filmmakers planned it out. I try to go to the theater as much as I can, as I also like to watch movies with other people and eat popcorn. (laughs) I only watch films On Demand when they’re not in theaters at all, or not in a theater near me, so that I can still fully experience them.
Q: What was your experience working with ‘Pioneer’s director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, who also co-wrote the script? What is the process of working with a helmer who also worked on the screenplay?
WB: Filming with Erik was a great experience. He has such a fantastic eye, and is so thorough and focused on every moment being genuine, while still being effective.
But sometimes with a filmmaker who’s also the writer, they’re deeply in love with their own words, which is a natural thing. Sometimes that makes it hard for them to see it in any other way. But I’ve rarely seen that; a lot of times I’ve seen first-time directors grow out of that in the moment. But that’s the only issue I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, you get a really passionate person who’s proud about their work, which is a good thing.
Q: Speaking of first-time helmers, you have produced several films throughout your career, in addition to acting. Would you also be interested in directing in the future?
WB: I’m very interested in directing. But all the directors I’ve worked with have been technically informed. They know their tools and how to use them. I want to have that in my back pocket before I try to direct a film. So I’m doing everything I can to ask questions on set, and get my head around all of these tools that I’ve never understood before. That may take years, or even a decade. (laughs) But at some point I will direct a film.