The North Water: Keeping it real

International 25 October 2021

Behind the scenes filming chilling period drama The North Water in the high Arctic

The North Water: Keeping it real

If you’ve ever stumbled across a film set in the wild with its multiple trucks, trailers catering, cables and tables, you’ll know that even filming a 30 second advertisement is a massive production. Now imagine taking all of that and moving it to the Arctic circle, so you could film on the pack ice itself.

The man in charge, director Andrew Haigh, had set himself a whale of a vision! “Ian McGuire’s novel (of the same name, published in 2016) vividly evokes the brutal beauty of the Arctic environment and I knew I had to try and bring a similar realism to the show. Despite the obvious challenges, shooting in the Arctic seemed the very best option. I wanted us to feel the biting wind, the bitter cold. I wanted to capture that fear that comes from being so far from civilization,” says Andrew, who worked with Jason Roberts from the Polar X team to manage logistics on the set.

Production designer Emmanuel Frechette agrees that authenticity was invaluable. “I knew, having done a lot of winter films and filming in the Arctic before, that it's really, really hard to recreate this environment anywhere else. If we weren't in the Arctic, we couldn't get this kind of lighting and these textures. If we chose to do it on a sound stage, it could be interesting, but it would be a completely different look,” he says.

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10 ways to film in the Arctic

  1. The North Water filmed at 81 degrees north (just 35,5 km from the North Pole itself), which is the closest to the poles that a TV drama has ever been filmed. Throughout the 3-week shoot the cast and crew lived on two service boats, battling freezing conditions and sea sickness, with no access phones or internet. At times they were 24 hours away from any land. “By the end everyone was desperate to get off that ship,” says Andrew. “Someone was taken ill on our crew and a helicopter had to come in and take them away.”
  2. The disreputable whaling boat, named The Volunteer in the series, is a real-life steel-reinforced sailing ship, The Activ, which has been captained by Jonas Bergsøe for the past 17 years. The Activ was specially dressed for the series in Nova Scotia before being sailed across the Atlantic to join the production in Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago. The Activ’s crew not only became background actors in the show, they helped the cast to learn their shipboard roles.
  3. Filming on the pack ice meant adapting to constant change. "The challenges were that you're in the wilderness and that you're in an environment that changes all the time, that's incredibly volatile. It is ice, it is not stable. Particularly in the pack ice, we had sets that spun 180 degrees in the night, and we had sets that broke up three hours into filming, and we would have to reconfigure where we could shoot,” reveals Andrew.
  4. The production took pains to represent the Innuit people encountered in the story as authentically as possible. During pre-production the North Water team visited the Iqaluit and Pangnirtung communities to speak with local filmmakers, actors and artists. All the Innuit actors had to be fluent in Inuktitut, which is spoken on screen and deliberately not translated. Local actor Ipeelie Ootoova guided action on set using his own knowledge of traditional hunting methods, which were passed down to him. And in creating and replicating Innuit artefacts, the art department consulted with archaeologist Tim Rast, who has spent 25 years in the field.
  5. Jack O'Connell, who plays The Volunteer’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, rates seeing the polar wildlife as one of his highlights of the shoot. “One night a polar bear came right up to the ship. It was like three in the morning, and we all had to be up at seven. I’ll quote Colin (Farrell, who plays The Volunteer’s psychotic harpooner, Drax). He was up watching this bear and a couple of us were on the stern, and he said: ‘Look man, you can’t go to bed while this is happening. The chances are that we’ll never experience that again.’” Stephen Graham, who plays the Volunteer’s captain, Brownlee, adds, “We saw polar bears, walruses, seals, all these beautiful creatures in their own habitat, that was amazing.” But Andrew quips, “Blocking a scene can be disconcerting when you need crew stationed around you with rifles to scare away any approaching bears.”
  6. Stephen reveals that the environmental dangers of filming in the polar seas were no joke. “There’s one bit where Brownlee is going across to another ship, and I’ve got this great, massive fur coat, with my hat and gloves on, and obviously the big wig. They are rowing me across to this boat and I’m out in the open water, and all the ice, the glaciers are right there. All of a sudden, a massive bit of ice just fell. I was looking at it and thinking ‘I hope that they’ve got this on film as well’. Then you heard shouting and we had to stop, all of sudden, because there’s a massive wave is on its way to us in this little boat, and I’m thinking ‘I’m going to die in the middle of the Arctic in a fake fur coat’.”
  7. Andrew prepared his cast thoroughly. Sam Spruell (First Mate Michael Cavendish) reveals, “Andrew Haigh sent out a brilliant pack of stuff: a reading list, music to listen to, images, a whole series of things to read about whaling ships themselves and all the tools on board, how life would’ve been, where people went to the toilet, what they ate, how they washed or not, the different levels of the hierarchy at play on a whaling ship.”
  8. Part of the story was set in the British city of Hull, but those scenes were actually filmed in Budapest. “We have created the back streets of Hull, by the docks, and the tavern, the crucial locations for the first episode. We have also been the interiors of the Volunteer on a stage in Budapest,” reveals producer Kate Ogborn.
  9. Colin reveals that being up North did a lot to help him to get into Drax’s mindset. “The environment did so much, it instantly created a sense of tension and pressure. Your body, physiologically, is responding in a way and with an aggression that my body has never responded to the environment with before because it’s never been in an environment like that. Even that, instantly, whether you like it or not, removes you from what is familiar in your reality”
  10. There’s a Sherlock Holmes connection to the story! The North Water author Ian McGuire reveals, “I was planning to write a novel about Herman Melville and his life, and I got slightly side-tracked when I started researching the whaling part. I came across a diary kept by Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, when he was a surgeon on a whaling ship that went to Greenland. That clinched it for me.”

Watch The North Water S1 from Thursday, 28 October on M-Net (channel 101) at 22:30 

M-Net (DStv channel 101) is available on DStv Premium. To upgrade your existing package, click here. Or if you'd like to Get DStv, find a service that suits your needs here.

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