The Great Guns director tells Laura Swinton about creating a Lara Croft audiences can root for, shooting in South Africa and why he loves mixing it up with commercials and features
Comedy. Horror. Action. Heart. Roar Uthaug is a director with a lot of strings to his bow. Which is kind of apt, given that in his new movie, the ‘bow’ is his hero’s new weapon of choice.
And that hero just happens to be Lara Croft.
The Norwegian director (represented for commercials by Great Guns) has built himself up on a foundation of beautifully crafted and often hilarious commercials as well as indie horror flicks, is finally getting global, mainstream recognition. Tomb Raider, which is hitting cinemas this week, has thrust Roar into the limelight.
“It’s been a bit overwhelming – walking out on the red carpet on Leicester Square in front of the paparazzi and doing the junket with a new journalist every five minutes is definitely a new experience,” says Roar, who has been wrapped up in an international whirlwind of premieres and interviews over the past few weeks. “It’s been really fun and it’s been fun to see all that excitement out there, both from the press and the fans. It’s wonderful to finally be able to go out and meet people and talk about the movie.”
Based on the rebooted game series, the movie tells the tale of how Lara Croft came to be the iconic badass adventurer and earned the moniker ‘Tomb Raider’. But, unless you’re up to date with your gaming history, this may not be the Lara that your familiar with. Gone is the larger-than-life polygonal pinup of the ‘90s and in her place is a more relatable, gritty Lara who’s new to the adventuring lark and yet to cultivate her trademark ironic wink.
And, crucially, this story is told from Lara’s point of view. “I think what I try to do in all my work in commercials as well as films is to bring a lot of heart and humanity to them. That’s what I wanted to do with this; create a Lara that the audience can engage with and root for and to make her strong physically and vulnerable,” says Roar. “When she stumbles and falls she gets bruised and hurt but she picks herself up and keeps going.”
This contemporary Lara is very much in tune with the wave of well-rounded yet aspirational female action figures we’re starting to see more of on the big screen, from Wonder Woman to the amazing cast of women soldiers, spies and inventors in the recent Black Panther. Roar himself is no stranger to directing strong female protagonists. All three of his previous features, Cold Prey, Escape and The Wave, feature incredibly strong female characters. The idea that Lara’s courage and determination could make her a role model was important to Roar. “I feel like Lara can be an inspiration to young girls and boys, to really [show them] not to let anyone put them down,” he reflects.
While Lara’s onscreen adventures are a real thrill ride, Roar’s journey is the stuff that commercial directors dream of. Unusually, he’s been able to build a great commercial reel in tandem with a feature film career. Over the past 12 years he’s directed four Norwegian features as well as shooting spots for the likes of Doritos, the Norwegian Post Office and margarine brand Bremykt.
“I feel very lucky to be able to do both. A feature allows you to focus over a long period of time and delve into the material deeply and then you spend years creating a world and then there is something really nice about doing something for three weeks and then it’s out there. And it’s great to be able to meet new people and tell stories over a short amount of time.”
Roar’s most recent indie film, The Wave, caught the eye of an MGM executive when his agent held a screening for the LA movie crowd. What followed was one of those huge Hollywood three-ring circuses and a 100-day shoot.
“There is a balancing act to all of that [the moving parts] but I really enjoyed the process – I had a lot of creative freedom when it came to making the Tomb Raider that I wanted to make,” he says. “To me it was a privilege as a director to have all those resources and all that talent available to really help you create the images you have in your mind.”
Roar is also full of praise for his cast – particularly star Alicia Vikander and the always-electric Walton Goggins, who plays the movie’s antagonist. “I feel very lucky as a director to be working with that kind of talent. They bring so much to their characters and I really feel they elevated the material to make something that is a stand-out in the genre.”
The production allowed Roar to play with all sorts of crazy toys. He speaks fondly of the shoot in South Africa, where they had five or six different stages running and, at one point, built a giant ship for the cast to clamber around. With wave machines, water cannons and lightning effects to juggle, Roar was calm at the centre of a storm of action.
Action and special effects aside, the movie is also striking because of its contemporary feel. When we meet Lara, her London is not the London of cheesy tourist spots and plummy beefeaters. We see her whizzing about the streets of Shoreditch, working as a bicycle courier. We see her training in grimy East End boxing gyms.
That 21st-century authenticity was also key to the film’s score. “I am really proud of the music made by Tom Holkenborg of Junkie XL; I’ve tried to give the whole movie a contemporary feel and with the music he’s created a beautiful blend of the big Hollywood orchestral score with his electronic sound,” says Roar. “It makes for a very contemporary and interesting sound.”
Once the publicity circus has died down, Roar plans to spend some time recovering in Norway and hopes to work on some commercial projects – short, sharp bursts of creative energy – whilst figuring out his next feature. As for the future of Tomb Raider, Roar won’t be drawn on whether he might be tempted to reunite with Lara in the future.
“It was important that this movie work as a standalone movie, a new origin story for Lara Croft that can be enjoyed by hopefully the fans but also people who have no previous knowledge about Lara and Tomb Raider,” he says.