First Contact: The Story Of 'Pathfinder'; In theaters Nationwide April 13
The legend-like story of survival begins with a Viking child who becomes the lone survivor of a shipwreck, after his marauding Norse clan raids a coastal Native American village for slaves. Despite his blonde hair and strange language – and concerns that evil will follow the boy wherever he goes – the ten year-old is adopted by the local Wampanoag Indians, who raise him to become a skilled hunter and warrior.
But fifteen years later, the pale young man known to his tribe as Ghost (Karl Urban) is still trying to escape his past. Now, as the Vikings return to storm America again, this time they will carry out a barbaric attack that will annihilate Ghost's beloved tribe and endanger the woman he loves (Moon Bloodgood). Once again a survivor on the run, and thirsting for blood vengeance, Ghost comes under the guidance of the Pathfinder (Russell Means), a powerful shaman who foresees the enraged young man's unexpected destiny: as the hard-won hero who will wage a one-man war against the Vikings and becomes his people's savior.
The latest forensic evidence suggests that centuries before Columbus was born, Viking warships from Northern Europe landed on American shores, and the infamously fierce Norse explorers roamed what is now modern-day Boston and New York City. It's a stunning vision to imagine: Vikings attempting to settle on the lands that Native Americans had already called home for some 25,000 years.
Known for their brutal, plundering raids, and already embattled in Europe, the Vikings were likely seeking fertile new lands to conquer when they set out into the New World for the first time. Yet in America they would meet their demise. No one knows for sure what became of the Vikings who attempted to settle here, but instead of thriving, they disappeared and their civilization soon teetered to collapse. Viking sagas speak of violent battles with the people who lived in America – yet what really happened when these two warrior cultures met remains forever shrouded in mystery.
It is this unexplored story that comes to the fore in Pathfinder – an action-adventure story that re-imagines the explosive first contact between the Vikings and the East Coast's native Wampanoag Indians through a stylish tale of personal revenge and redemption.
"I always felt that the idea of Vikings and American Indians together in the same world, and the epic clash of cultures that might have occurred between them, would make for a great cinematic story," says the film's director, Marcus Nispel. "But although I am fascinated by Vikings, I've never really liked historical films. What I do like are hard-driving tales of one man's survival against the odds. So Pathfinder is not only about Vikings in conflict with Native Americas, but is also a timeless story about a man who has to make a change – from blindly seeking vengeance to really using his head to save his people."
The tale of Pathfinder began not only with astounding historical discoveries but with a 1987 Norwegian film – Ofelas (Pathfinder) – which won the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Film and impressed critics with its evocative and dream-like take on the action-adventure genre. Set in Lapland, the film recreated both the gritty brutality and the mythical magic of ancient times with the story of a boy who survives a brutal attack on his peaceful tribe and rises to become a heroic leader. Producers Mike Medavoy and Arnold W. Messer of Phoenix Pictures were impressed enough by the picture to immediately seek out the rights to remake it.
Medavoy and Messer had attempted to develop the project in various incarnations over a period of years but no magic happened until the producing team had lunch with Marcus Nispel, a rising young director who, after winning acclaim for his innovative work in commercials and music videos, made a promising motion picture debut with the hit re-imagining of the cult classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel mentioned to Medavoy and Messer his long-percolating idea for a film about Vikings colliding with Native Americans – and that was the spark.
"Marcus was very passionate about doing a movie on the subject of Norsemen coming to North America, and we had the rights to Ofelas – so it quickly became clear that the two were really a perfect fit," comments Arnold Messer. Adds executive producer Bradley J. Fischer: "We had been talking about a lot of different ideas on how to re-conceive the original film and what new ideas we could bring to it as a remake – yet it always ended up moving away from what we loved about it. Then Marcus came along and he knew exactly how to update Pathfinder. He said 'You take the existing story and make it a gritty adventure with Vikings and Indians.' And we were blown away because this was the key that unlocked it."
For Nispel, the film was a chance to bring together all of his skills – from illustrating graphic novels to carrying out commando-style productions with an emphasis on visceral action. Now fired up to create a unique movie experience, Nispel began to focus on how he could bring his own distinctly renegade style to it. He was influenced not only by the original Ofelas but also by the latest wave of fantasy epics and any number of action classics about a one-man war for justice – but most of all he was fired up by his own vision of a film that would look and feel like a spectacular graphic novel set against two mythic warrior cultures.
"Ultimately, our film is completely different than the original Norwegian film but it gave me a template for how you can make a very fascinating movie about Viking times, and then we jumped off from there," comments Nispel.
Nispel began by collaborating with screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis. For Pathfinder, Kalogridis dove into intensive research, digging up the shards of what is known about Vikings in North America, a maze-like historical puzzle that is still being pieced together. In 1960, centuries of conjecture were put to rest when archeologists discovered a 1,000 year old Viking encampment in the small town of L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland – proving beyond a doubt that Vikings had made it to North America. The question since then has become just how far they may have journeyed beyond that and what the consequences were, with debates over the evidence continuing to rage.
With so many unsolved mysteries remaining, Kalogridis and Nispel quickly realized they would have the freedom to use quite a bit of imagination on top of authentic information.
"One of things that most interested us about the history is that wherever Vikings went, they stayed. It was only in America where they didn't stay. It seems they landed and got their butts kicked. So what happened when they met the Native Americans? That was the big unanswered question that stoked our imaginations and fantasies," Nispel explains.
Kalogridis was especially intrigued by the way in which the conflict between these two opposite but equally proud cultures would have impacted an orphan such as Ghost, who goes through a major change of heart as he begins to understand that it is the obsessive quest for blood that will lead to the Viking's final end. Writing more in heart-stopping scenes of battle, conflict and survival in the elements rather than in long chunks of dialog, Kalogridis saw the film's intense action hanging on a skeleton of rich themes.
"This is really a film about survival in the face of impossible odds and what it means to be a part of a culture," says Kalogridis. "I always felt that getting the interaction right between Ghost and Pathfinder was especially crucial because that is what makes this such a great story; there is so much conflict within Ghost as he struggles to figure out who he is."
When Kalogridis started writing, there was still much controversy about whether Vikings had ever reached what would become the East Coast of the United States; but, remarkably, by the time she finished, history was catching up with the tale. "What was so exciting is that two weeks after we finished the screenplay, we read in the Smithsonian Institute magazine that new evidence had been found of Vikings on the East Coast of the United States," recalls Nispel. "The news came just in time."
Even as the story of Pathfinder was coming together, Nispel faced the daunting prospect of recreating on film a primal American wilderness no one has ever seen in photographs or paintings – and for which there is no real creative frame of reference. The challenge inspired him. Not surprisingly, he decided to take an unconventional approach – to recreate the period when both Vikings and American Indians roamed the land as if he were creating a mythic fantasy realm right out of a storybook.
"North America at that time was so different from what we know now, it was basically an alien world," the director explains. "The animals, the wildlife, the trees, the environment were all from another reality, so I decided we weren't going to attempt to do straight history with Pathfinder. Instead we were going to do our own version of mythology. There are theories about this time and there are certain things that we know, so we built upon all that. But mainly we put our own creativity into it. At the end of the day, we wanted to create something that would be truly fun and exciting for the audience."
Pathfinder hits theaters April 13.
-More on the film here.
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