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Photo:Thomas Ekström
Photo:Thomas Ekström

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On the waves of success - meet Roar Uthaug

After the success of his movie The Wave, Norwegian director Roar Uthaug is moving to Hollywood to ­direct the Lara Croft reboot. He’s so excited about the move, he’s taking the whole family.

The rain is pouring down as Roar Uthaug drives his car into the lot of Norway’s old film studio, Filmparken. The weather doesn’t worry him though. It’s a smiling man who steps out of the car, where a child seat is visible through the rear window. Five days after our meeting, he is moving his family to Beverly Hills for an indefinite period, where (hopefully) there will be constant sunshine. He looks up at the dark gray sky, smiles and says, “I’m going to miss Oslo. But not this.”

Uthaug is not a man to shy away from water. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s his film The Wave, Norway’s first disaster movie, that has brought about his temporary move to the US. The Wave is about a devastating tsunami that hits the towns around a Norwegian fjord. It was a great success at home and was also shown in the US. And as all things Scandinavian are hot over there and skilled directors are in demand, Uthaug was soon offered a job he couldn’t refuse – to direct Tomb Raider, the Lara Croft reboot, with Swedish Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander in the lead role.

“I actually tried to get Alicia to play a minor role in The Wave, but it didn’t come off”, says Uthaug. “She doesn’t look like Angelina Jolie, who played Lara Croft before, but we want to make Lara Croft more human, something closer to the Bourne movies. Angelina had incredible strength, but our Lara will be more human.”

Filmparken is revered by Norwegian movie buffs. It was once the home of the Norwegian movie industry. It is located in Jar, the suburb of Oslo where Uthaug lives with his family, wife Ingrid and baby daughter Hanna. Nowadays, Filmparken looks a little run down, and apart from the filming of the occasional movie and commercial, activity here has almost ground to a halt. It’s rumored that the site will be sold for housing.

“That studio over there is where I made Magic Silver”, Uthaug says, pointing to one of the buildings. He’s on familiar ground as we walk around looking for suitable loc­ations for our photo shoot, which is not easy when the rain is pouring down incessantly.

He made children’s film Magic Silver in 2009. Three years earlier, he had made his breakthrough with horror movie Cold Prey, one of several horror movies made by young Norwegian directors over a productive few years. It was no coincidence that it was a horror movie that gave him his breakthrough. The genre has always been close to his heart.Roar Uthaug shooting a commercial for agricultural cooperative Felleskjøpet with his director of photography. Photo:Thomas Ekström

“I saw movies like The Shining and The Omen when I was little”, he says. “The Omen was on TV late at night and I watched it without the sound on so my parents wouldn’t hear. That was when I was in the eighth grade, and it inspired me to get a video camera and start shooting horror movies in the school hallways. I was interested in special effects early on, how to create the illusion of something.”

At the age of 19, Uthaug started taking jobs on film sets where he did everything from “cleaning up vomit after the extras to digging for arrowheads.” At this time, he lived in a commune in Oslo, which taught him, “how to be with other people and to think about others.”

Name: Roar Uthaug
Age: 42
Lives: Jar, just outside of Oslo, but he is moving to Los Angeles
Family: Wife Ingrid, daughters Lilja, 13 (from a previous relationship) and Hanna (born in March this year)
Previous movies: Cold Prey, Escape, The Wave
Coming soon: Tomb Raider

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He attended film school in Lillehammer from 1999 to 2002. His graduation film was nominated for a student Oscar. He began directing commercials while at the same time working to develop Cold Prey. The movie was released in 2006 and attracted an audience of more than a quarter of a million in Norway.

And now Hollywood awaits, something Uthaug is very much looking forward to. “It has always been my dream”, he says. “I grew up with American movies.”

He has no doubt that the Lara Croft movie will be much bigger than anything he’s done so far. “There’s a much bigger budget and it has to entertain a lot more people”, he says. “It’s all about making the most of the best. There’s always a focus on earnings, whether you’re making commercials in Norway or a Holly­wood movie. But there will be more to play with, and a bigger audience. It will have a higher status too, no matter what the budget is. Sleepless nights? Yes, a few. There are lots of thoughts whizzing around my head.”

Uthaug’s wife Ingrid is a casting director. With the family’s move away from their homeland, she will take a year off work. “Yes, she’s making a sacrifice”, he says. “Maybe she will have the opportunity to work in America a little later on, but to start with she’ll be taking care of the home and the children.”

Los Angeles will be the base during pre-production of the new Lara Croft movie but it’s still not clear where filming will take place. It could be Australia or some other faraway land.

“Sure, it’s sad to be leaving Norway, with all my friends and family there,” says Uthaug. “And I like the Nordic seasons. I’m happy when spring arrives, and there’s always something special about walking into the house on a chilly autumn day. On the other hand, this is an exciting adventure. To start with, we’ll be living in Beverly Hills. But I hope that once we’re in post-production, we’ll be able to stay somewhere where you don’t need a car, such as Venice or Santa Monica.”

Photo:Thomas EkströmUthaug grew up in suburban Oslo. “It was great growing up like that”, he says.“We used to go into town and watch the movies. I saw things such as Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. And I went into town to buy LPs. In those days, I was totally into hard rock. Nowadays, it’s more or less everything. I like listening to the Swedish band Kent.”

When Uthaug was growing up, there were no iPads or smartphones, so people mostly watched movies at the cinema, an experience that Uthaug still values highly.

“Movies are best at the theater, both visually and socially”, he says. “You can’t watch a comedy or a horror movie with the same satisfaction on your own. When Cold Prey was playing in Oslo, I sometimes sneaked in, hoping to see when those watching it became terrified. It was very satisfying.”

Effects and action apart, Uthaug’s films also stand out for the way in which he creates believable characters within the genre formulas.

“Roar Uthaug being given the job of rebooting Tomb Raider is mainly down to his success with The Wave and Cold Prey – classic genre movies,” says Geir Kamsvåg, Editor of the prestigious Norwegian film magazine Cinema. “Although he makes genre movies, the human aspect is always central. He gets in close to the characters and creates people we can relate to as an audience. So even Lara Croft, under Roar Uthaug’s direction, will become a person we can all recognize ourselves in, in a completely different way than before.”

Tomb Raider is being co-produced by movie company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which has a roaring lion as its logo. Being called Roar must be a source of amusement then? Uthaug laughs. “Yeah, I do meet some Americans who say “you’ve got the most awesome name.” And then I have to explain to them that it’s not nearly as funny back home in Norway as it is in America.”

Text: Gunnar Rehlin 

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