Young Woman And The Sea | Director Joachim Rønning on practical filmmaking, jellyfish and TRON: Ares

Young Woman And The Sea Joachim Ronning
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Director Joachim Rønning talks to us about his new biopic Young Woman And The Sea, Daisy Ridley, TRON: ARES, and filming on the ocean.

Having previously made the period drama Kon-Tiki and the similarly ocean-bound Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Norwegian director Joachim Rønning has again taken to the water with the upcoming biopic, Young Woman And The Sea. Starring Daisy Ridley as pioneering swimmer Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Ederle in her attempt to cross the English Channel in 1926, it’s an upbeat and handsomely-crafted and acted drama.

In fact, the movie was so popular with test audiences that Disney decided to give the film a limited cinema release rather than put it straight on its streaming platform; it’s a deserved bit of early recognition for a movie that has clearly had a lot of care and effort put into its making.

As Rønning himself explained when we met him earlier this week, Ridley spent several weeks training with Olympic swimmer Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, and did much of her swimming sequences for real in open water (albeit in the Black Sea rather than the English Channel).

As Young Woman And The Sea opens in cinemas, here’s what Rønning had to say about practical versus digital filmmaking, the complexity of one particular race sequence, and how making physical sets impacted his next film, TRON: Ares.

You’ve made films at sea before. So where does this rank in terms of complexity?

I think any movie is a challenge. Any endeavour involving a lot of people is going to be challenging. But experience helps. And as you say, I’ve been out on the ocean filming before, and it gives you certain experience that you can bring with you. But I’ve still never done anything like this before – having your actor in the water, so exposed, face down [chuckles], trying to tell that story, exposed to the currents, it’s a very complex production.

It wasn’t a massively long shoot was it?

It wasn’t. We have three weeks, I believe, out on the ocean. We ended with that, and everybody was very motivated, I think. The crew, the cast, to tell the story. To tell the story of Trudy Ederle, and wanting to honour our legacy in some way by exposing ourselves to the elements. And try to be out there and somehow, maybe informed us a little bit. Not that we were out there risking our lives like Trudy was, but still, it gave us a lot of inspiration.

I hope that the audience can feel that when they watch it – that this is as real as we could make it.

I think there has to be that visceral power, doesn’t there, for the story to work?

Exactly. I didn’t want to do that in a heated tank or with blue screen. I warned Daisy Ridley when we were so lucky to get her to do this role. “This is gonna be a very physical role.” And again, she was very motivated to tell this as true as we could.

I learned later that Daisy’s actually scared of swimming in the open water and had to work to overcome that fear. Obviously she trained for months and months with Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, the British Olympic swimmer. She did such a marvellous job. I was lucky having her as a partner, honestly. I don’t think many people could have done what she did, actor or no actor, man or woman.

She was in 15, 16 degree water until her lips were blue. Never complaining, just going back in. No wetsuit, because she’s in her costume. Obviously, we had boats around her so she was safe, but it’s stressful.

But at the end of the day, it’s very rewarding, because we got things we’d never get in any other way. And you drive home, the sun’s setting, and your hair’s caked from the salt water, and you feel, ‘Wow, we did something out there.’ We were channelling Trudy Ederle somehow.

Read more: Young Woman And The Sea review | Daisy Ridley excels in family friendly biopic

It’s a terrific performance. Were those real jellyfish?

Thank you for asking! No. They were one of the few VFX elements we had in the movie. But we worked really hard to make them as real as possible. Especially when you make a period film based on a true story and all that; it puts more pressure on VFX. It needs to look and feel real because otherwise you’re instantly taken out of the story, so we spent a lot of time planning that, because I knew it was going to be an important scene.

It says a lot that I had to ask! How much planning went into your shot choices in general? Say, the early race where you have a tracking shot that follows Trudy. It goes across the water then under seamlessly. Is that really all one shot?

Yes! That’s one of the first shots I spoke to my director of photography Oscar Faura about. How can we create that? How can we crane down… not to get too technical, but it was hard. A lot of people having to push it, because the weight changes so much when you get the camera into the water with the drag and everything, so it was really hard to make that shot.

It’s funny you bring it up, because it was one of those shots I wanted, that was really designed and rehearsed to try to make it happen. It’s such a pivotal moment in the story when she, for the first time, takes the lead. So with Emilia Warner’s music, it builds up there. I imagined that from the first moment I read Jeff Nathanson’s script. It was one of the things we were really planning, and obviously, we didn’t have that many days to shoot the film, so you can’t do too many shots like that, but that was one of them.

Credit: Walt Disney Productions.

I think it’s the same sequence, where you have the exhilaration of the race, but then you cut to her mother in the crowd. You see her expression of pride. Was that important, too, to include the human element in with the excitement?

No, definitely. For me, this is very much about the family and what they go through. When you make a biopic about a person that is so focused on one thing, it can be a little bit hard for the audience to identify. So that’s why it’s important to see Trudy through the eyes of those around her – her family, especially her mother.

They kind of represent the different views of society of the time. The father being the sceptical man who didn’t want her to do this. The love of her sister; the strength of her mother. So that was very important.

Importantly, even the least likeable characters have clear motivations. Even Christopher Ecclestone’s coach – as despicable as he is, you can sort of understand.

Yeah, it’s his pride, it’s tradition. It’s the beliefs that his father before him [had]. It’s almost hard for us to imagine how it was 100 years ago, but at the same time, I think it’s important for us to know our history and where we come from. We’ve come a long way, but I don’t think we’re fully there yet in terms of equality, but back then it was brutal. Women weren’t allowed to do any form of recreation or sports. It was sexism on every level. That was important to tell also, to put everything in perspective, to understand why Trudy did this – why she risked her life to prove a point.

Was it vindication for you, too, when Disney decided to give this a theatrical release? How did it feel to have this seen on a big screen?

Not to sound pretentious, but I feel like my artform is cinema. That’s what I grew up with, that’s what inspired me to become a filmmaker. I like to tell a story in a cinematic way, and paint on a big canvas. I really believe in experiencing a movie – it should be moving, but it should be a physical experience. You should feel the bass go through you. It should be a social experience; you should laugh with the people around you or cry with the people around you. And it’s a challenging and interesting time that we’re living in now, because we just don’t know exactly [what will happen next].

But I really believe in cinema. I think we need to keep making good movies. There’s been a couple of obstacles, to put it mildly, in the last couple of years, for cinema. We just have to overcome it, because this is our artform, and I’m optimistic. I have to be optimistic. We saw some of it last year with Barbie and Oppenheimer, where you see there’s room for all types of movies. People want to talk about movies. People want to experience something together, you know?

I’m just thrilled we’re getting a chance to be seen on the big screen, and I hope that as many people as possible will see it in a theatre, because that’s where it belongs. It’s an epic story, also on an emotional level.

Credit: Walt Disney Productions.

You’ve worked on some huge films and some small ones. I think I remember reading that on Kon-Tiki you designed the posters. So I wonder what it’s like to transition from indie cinema to big-budget filmmaking? What qualities do you need as a filmmaker?

The mechanics of it are kind of similar. You have to tell a story in two hours, you know? That’s my number one job. To tell it as emotionally as possible. There are always going to be challenges in different levels of budget or whatever like that. That’s pretty much it.

Some of my favourite films didn’t even cost $10m or $5m. At the end of the day, it’s easy to get a little blinded by budgets, but for me it’s not what’s important. I don’t think people really care about budgets – it’s about what can transport them somewhere.

The pressure is always going to be there, but I’ve been extremely lucky, working with some of the best people in the business. Like Jerry Bruckheimer, for instance; he’s extremely supportive and filmmaker-friendly as they say. He was a great mentor. He was there when I made my first Hollywood movie, and always so supporting and relaxed. I don’t understand how he can be – he’s the hardest-working man in showbusiness, but he has such a confidence in you that really carries you forward. That was a tremendous experience, to be thrown into that circus.

It’s such a treat to be able to do movies. And all kinds of different movies. I just wrapped TRON: Ares. I’ve just been inside a computer for a year! Now I’m coming out on the ocean with Trudy and you. It’s fantastic to be able to move between those vastly different worlds.

There’s only so much you can say about it, I’m sure, but I was interested to read that you built a lot of physical sets for TRON: Ares, which is interesting for such a digital film.

Certain filmmakers have always done it – Nolan and all that. I think any filmmaker, if they could, would build as much as possible, real for real. But I think there’s an upward trend a little bit, away from relying only on blue screens. It’s a little bit of blue screen fatigue maybe, out there, you know? I discovered on TRON there was a willingness to spend money on sets, even though they’re futuristic. And in the practicality of it, they could have been shot on blue screen, but what we get is a realness to it – a texture to it.

Not that there’s anything bad about blue screen or VFX or anything; I mean, there’s probably 2,000 VFX shots in TRON, you know? So there’s definitely a lot of that. But it gives us, the crew and the team, more to be inspired by on the day. Not to mention the actors – to actually be in some sort of real volume to play the scenes. It’s a gift and a luxury. But I see a little bit of a trend there, so we’ll see if that’s correct! [laughs] That’s my experience at least.

I think that makes sense. We saw that with another Bruckheimer film, Top Gun: Maverick. People want something that at least has the feeling of verisimilitude.

Yeah, Tom Cruise is an example of someone who wants to do it real-for-real. In that case, people go and see it because they know it’s real. That’s what we did with Young Woman And The Sea as well – we were out there on the ocean doing it for real, having her swim. And I like that we’re leaning a bit more into that again.

Credit: Walt Disney Productions.

There’s another project you’ve been working on – Here There Be Monsters…

Yep, another sea-faring [film].

Ah is it? I knew it was a genre film.

Yeah. As a filmmaker, you have to be developing many projects, because any movie being made is a miracle, big or small. But yes, that’s another story that I would love to do. It’s inspired by The Thing and Jaws – it’s a mixture of that. It takes place on the ocean again. I am drawn to the ocean – I love being out there. I grew up by the ocean. It’s important, I feel – we have to take better care of it. I don’t mind showing the beauty of the ocean in my films.

It’s an original project isn’t it?

Yeah, I wrote it with my brother, Andreas. I don’t call myself a writer – I have way too much respect for that [profession]. So hopefully someone can come in and help us. But it would maybe be a natural progression in my career to do a film that originated with me, the story. I’ve done a couple of sequels, biopics. I do feel that would be an interesting challenge, to have such control over the story in a way. That would be super cool to do…

Would that be next then, do you think?

I don’t know. I have a year in editing on Tron now, so we’ll do that first. I have to really focus on that. Then we’ll see. Like I say, it’s important to have several things [going] in this business, because I can only do one at the very max every second or third year, so it’s a lot of moving parts. And strange times!

Young Woman And The Sea is out in UK cinemas on 31st May.

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