‘Polaris’ Cast and Crew Talk Freezing Temperatures And Working With A Polar Bear
Aggie the polar bear loved croissants.
Director KC Carthew’s new film Polaris is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road but in the Arctic. In a post-apocalyptic future, a young girl must survive feral nomads and freezing temperatures. And, on top of that, the film barely contains any dialogue. It’s a fascinating take on the post-apocalpyse film.
Read the full synopsis for the film below:
Set in 2144 against the harsh backdrop of a frozen wasteland, Sumi, a human child raised by Mama Polar Bear, narrowly escapes capture from a brutal Morad hunting party and sets out across the vast winter landscape. When Sumi stumbles across Frozen Girl, an unlikely friendship is forged and together they race ahead of the vindictive hunters towards the only guiding light Sumi knows, the Polaris star.
Dread Central spoke with Carthew and actors Viva Lee and Khamisa Wilsher out of Fantasia about world-building, acting in a movie with minimal dialogue, and a special polar bear named Aggie.
Dread Central: My first question for you, Kirsten. is where did the idea for the movie come from?
KC Carthew: So I made a short film that feels like a hundred years ago called Fish Out of Water. And it was set in the north in a frozen wintery world. It didn’t have much dialogue and it had a fictional language. It also had a character who removes a body part from another character. And so there were elements from that story world that really inspired Polaris. The way that came about was the film premiered at Fantasia, and then toured the festival circuit. Fans genuinely reached out and said, could you make this into a feature? And I didn’t act on that right away. I was doing other things. But then it just sort of came to me as a, “Hey, I would like to make a feature version.” And I took a really intuitive approach in terms of really just kind of asking the world how should this be?
What came up really came from inspiration from Greek mythology and this idea of the little dipper, the big dipper, with Ursa minor being the little water bear, or polar bear, and then the big dipper, the big polar bear. I was trying to figure out this world a little bit. And it was a little bit like I have a question and then the universe felt like it had an answer or an option. Then it just kind of felt a little bit channeled and the treatment happened right away. I think I wrote it in a couple of days. The first script didn’t take very long. It was not a very long script. It was 15 pages.
As we were developing it a little bit further, I expanded it out a little bit more so other people know what you’re talking about. So that’s what I tried to do. I added the little bit of dialogue that we have at least add what the intention we created a fictional language, but it added the intention of from the English. Just so basically you get a longer page count.
DC: I was gonna ask about that with the script. There’s very minimal dialogue. Yeah. So I was curious, the two of you especially you Viva, what was that like to read that script?
Viva Lee: I got the role and I read it, it kept saying chuffing. I was like, how the hell does a human chuff <laugh>? And so I had to do lots of research on that <laugh> and I finally came up with my own version. Yeah. I had a practice growls. There’s a scene where I had to eat and I studied how polar bears ate and stuff. So it was very like, ‘Oh, how do I do this?’ <laugh>
DC: I was wondering about the chuffing. Did you make those noises or were they added in later? You really did sound like an animal.
VL: That is very kind of you. Yes, that is me
DC: What was that like for you to tap into animal side and to get into that head space?
VL: At first it was a little scary because it’s very different. But then it was really fun and exciting because it was something new. I’m an actor, I need to create this art. I have to not be afraid. Yeah. I jumped into it <laugh>
There’s this really funny story. In the Yukon where we were staying there are these little villages. And there’s this big hill and every night I would practice running up and down screaming like I was getting shot by arrows. It was just me and my aunt. And then one day at nighttime, this guy came out. And he was like, ‘Hey,’ and we’re like, ‘is there something wrong?’ And he was like, ‘Can you guys keep it down? You’re scaring my kids’ <laugh>
DC: And that’s how you know what you’re doing a great job. Khamisa, what was it like for you to form your characters relationship with Sumi, especially with almost zero verbal communication?
Khamisa Wilsher: Absolutely. Well, when I first read the script to do my audition, like Kirsten said, there was the intention of what was supposed to be said. The script said if you know another language to use that language or make one up. I’m not fluent enough in another language, and I thought that it was more appropriate to kind of make a language up. I do some voice work and whatnot, so I had some fun with that and made that into my audition. When I was doing the audition and then the chemistry test with lovely Viva over there, it just came to me as like this older sister sort of connection. Like I think originally it was more meant to be like a friend, another younger girl. But it just kind of came more naturally to have this sort of protective sisterly energy. And so I fell more into that. This introduction of the two of them and this crazy world and this sort of protection between the two, it really just hit with all of that energy.
DC: Were you inside that [coffin-like thing]?
KW: Yeah, there were a lot of times I was in it and the other times that I wasn’t <laugh> and gotta say, I’ve never had that sort of experience before. I’m kept thinking, “I’m not claustrophobic. Am I claustrophobic?”
DC: <laugh> you’re about to find out!
KW: After probably a few takes, I was like, “OK, I’m in here, breathe, there’s people on the other side.” There’s just like this irrational sort of aspect to it. But after the first few takes, I’m like, “okay, I’ve got this, I got this.”
DC: The production design and costuming in Polaris are absolutely incredible. What was that like working with production design and costume design departments to create this very specific post-apocalyptic scary look for all of your characters?
KC: I really have to give credit to every department, especially on this one because of COVID we were all quarantined. Our sort of leader in that area, Monica, she found an amazing artist locally in the Yukon, Leslie, who found these metal pieces and they’re all unique. I think some of them were distressed, but she found these elements and put them together. Really that’s her gift. She’s an artist. And she was able to really embrace the world that I keep calling it sort of Mad Max. It really has that, you know, resource-poor world quality where a lot of the elements, they have to be things that survived the freezing.
And then for example, with Khamisa, you literally can just tell by looking at her that she’s clearly not of this part of the world. You see her starting out, you know, probably where she comes from, it’s not so cold because I think people, if she were in her costume the whole time, they would just be worried about you.
DC: What was that like filming in the Yukon?
VL: It was so beautiful. Everyone was super nice. My aunt got a flat tire and every person who saw always was like, ‘Hey, do you need help? What’s going on?’ <laugh> ‘You have a flat tire if you didn’t know.’ And the scenery, everything was so beautiful. It was like a winter wonderland. There was this one time where we were filming and this wind was just picking up the snow and it just looked like glitter. Oh, it was so wonderful. It felt like I was living in a snow globe
KC: I paid for some very expensive warm clothing <laugh> When you’re filming outdoors, it’s always a negotiation of you just have to make it work. And on our budget too, we didn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘OK, well it’s a too cold, we’re not gonna film.’ I mean, had it been -40 degree celsius. That’s minus a billion for any American <laugh> It was always sort of cold enough to allow for the filming, but there are a lot of logistics. You have to transport people with snowmobiles, which is a very long process because we don’t have a fleet. Our fleet is on a good day with five snowmobiles.
DC: Oh wow.
KC: They’re expensive. They only carry a couple people, you know? And we have to tow all the gear. Because we moved around all the time, sometimes there was a washroom onset or near set. Other times you needed to get a snowmobile ride to a washroom and these are not glamorous washroom.
KW: I was lucky enough that the armor was all strapped into the wetsuit. So it could kinda come off as one, but it was a long process having to get all the pieces off.
DC: There’s so much world building and things you’re inferring through context clues and visuals. What was it like as a cast and crew to come together and world build together?
KC: I think one of the great advantages of filming in the Yukon. We had an abundance of snow, so you don’t have to imagine too much. It looks like the world that you’re trying to create. So I’m not an actor, but I imagine as an actor, once you put your costume, you feel a lot closer to that character. Location is such a character in the film. So I feel like we’re all kind of actors in the sense that the cast and crew are on location. And we’re putting on our costume of our story world by virtually going to these locations and seeing what they look like. You don’t have to say imagine all the snow. So I think that’s a huge win when you have the ability to really be immersed in that story world 20 minutes from an actual city. It’s just this beautiful, massive expanse of land and it’s very snowy there.
VL: Like so much. So, so snowy <laugh> so much snow.
KW: As an actor, you know, I didn’t work very much with a lot of the morads. But we were there on the same day and being on location and seeing them does really put you in this place of understanding what the world is, even from the viewer’s perspective. And then also knowing my space as frozen girl. There might be something out there and the rest is a bit of a question mark. So it creates this nice little mystery and allure.
DC: Did you mentally have a backstory for the frozen girl?
KW: Definitely. I think once we were working as well, talking about the language and what frozen girl meant to the story, and then based off of her costume, I created this sort of world that she comes from, this sort of civilization in this frozen world. And I mean, her armor is so beautifully crafted and her language has a little bit more to it. So we almost think that she she’s from this place that might have different kinds of studies and people of different professions perhaps.
DC: I want to hear more about the polar bear Aggie [seen in the film]. What was it like working with a bear?
KC: When you’re working with animals, especially a bear and a polar bear, it’s absolutely important to always have safety. The trainer is the only person who interacts with the bear. Originally, he was gonna wear a green suit. So we could just get him out of the picture later, But we didn’t end up needing to do that. We rented a small airport hanger. We created a stage that we filled with snow. Then we basically had some actions that the trainer had been asked to work with on Aggie before she came to set. <laugh> It really is like working with an actor and, and the trainer is sort of her coach.
So they would work on behaviors. Because of her age, there are some behaviors that he said, ‘You know, we’ll try, but I can’t guarantee that she’ll do.’ And she’s your only option, you know? So it’s not like you can get another bear or something like that. But also it’s just a real privilege. Aggie, you know, came into the industry as a cub and she’s somewhere around 27, 28 years old. She really is a veteran. She’s been around and she’s always been working. Also like an actor, she was affected by COVID. She wasn’t able to work during that time.
She had a number of shows booked and, according to her trainer, you know, she was bummed [they were canceled]. When you’re on set, you get the food, you get all the attention. Apparently you get croissants, you get girl guide cookies, you get salmon. It’s a good payday to be on set. Aggie has a clear personality and I think she really enjoyed filming. She was great to work with.
DC: My final question is if you could schedule your perfect double feature with Polaris, what film would you pair with it?
KC: I mean, I do love Road Warrior as a movie. I think it’s a great, great movie. And it’s kind of the opposite story world just because it’s like deserty. So I think it’s a nice contrast. There are also similar themes about the environment, a resource-poor kind of world, and the kind of cultures and political dynamics at place. So I think for me, it’s a really great pairing.