Joe Penna never thought that seeing his debut feature in Cannes’ Official Selection was “a remote possibility”, but here he is with a primo spot as a Midnight Screening with a film starring Mads Mikkelsen. Arctic sees Mikkelsen’s character stranded after a plane crash. As he is finally about to receive a long-awaited rescue, the opportunity is lost, and he must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his camp or embark on a deadly trek through the unknown for potential salvation.
Initially written as a sci-fi film set on Mars, Penna reconfigured Arctic after Ridley Scott’s The Martian exhausted the potential of the red planet. “It was a bit of a shame,” Penna says, but once the setting changed to the arctic it eliminated the need to be over-expository. “It’s easier when it goes from, ‘You can’t breathe,’ to, ‘You’re really cold,’ because people can understand that.”
Penna first moved to the US from Brazil when he was 13, and saw the parallels with this story. “I didn’t fit in. I might as well have been in the middle of the arctic.”
He began his film career in a roundabout way, making “rudimentary” YouTube videos as a hobby while studying for the MCATs. But he knew going to medical school wasn’t really what he wanted to do. So he made a pact with his dad to give the videos a chance and ultimately began a successful career making commercials, then music videos and short films—one of which got into Tribeca. A screenplay he wrote was in the Top 50 for the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. “That gave us enough interest for CAA to start sending me scripts.” That’s when he started work on Arctic, which shot in Iceland.
Penna has also toiled as an actor but says he uses the term “acting” very lightly. “I would rather stay behind the camera. I often acted in my own thing just in order to understand what it’s like to be on the other side.”