Roar Uthaug has worked in his native Norway for many years, most notably for the 2015 disaster movie The Wave. Warner Bros. picked him to helm their new version of Tomb Raider, a reboot-as-prequel designed to tell the original story of beloved video game icon Lara Croft. He approached the challenge with a surprising devotion to plausibility and reality, helping to separate the movie – and its star Alicia Vikander – from previous incarnations of the character. He spoke about the project and the challenges it brought at a recent press junket for the film.
Question: You’re looking at a project that has been a staple of video game culture for decades, along with the Angelina Jolie movies. What do you use as a starting point for this film, and how do you use that to make a compelling story out of a video game?
Roar Uthaug: The fans are the starting point. There’s such passion for this character, there are fans all over the world. So what you do is you tap into that passion. You find the character of Lara that they love so much. And you use that as the basis for the movie.
In our case, we looked at her relationship with her father, and how that propelled her into this life. With that as the basis, we could then tell the story we wanted to tell. Video games are so kinetic That was the basis of it, the father-daughter relationship. That was what we based our story on. It was a great start to a film, no matter what the film is. I can go into a studio and pitch that, above and beyond the title “Tomb Raider” above it. Relationships are the essence of storytelling. They provide context for the action. They give us a rooting interest in the fights, beyond the simple good guys/bad guys nature of it. If you have that relationship, then you can tell the story.
We add a lot of little touches that gamers will appreciate. There are plenty of nods and references to the original video games. But those need to be a seasoning rather than a main course. If you use them as the purpose of the exercise, it’s going to get pretty boring, and fans can always go back to the games for them. You tell your story, you make sure it fits with what the fans expect, and then you start adding those little details.
Q: When did you realize that Alicia Vikander was your new Lara?
RU: I have never seen anyone with so much dedication or so much energy as Alicia. She was in the gym every day. She would get so excited when we talked about different scenes. She took the fight choreography as seriously as the dialogue, as an expression of character. She has to carry this movie, and Angelina Jolie set such a high bar. Alicia was ready for the challenge from the beginning. She understood the reality of the character, which we needed.
We wanted some reality here. We didn’t want her to be the effortless champion. She needs to be real. We see her as a bike messenger and doing simple jobs the way a normal person would. That was a key part of what we wanted to do with her. She couldn’t just be this unstoppable heroine. We had to feel for her and root for her, and that means she had to have this reality.
Q: How did that translate over into the action sequences?
RU: Mostly in the way we used CGI… and we used CGI as sparingly as possible. We wanted this to feel authentic and gritty. We didn’t want that bluescreen unreality if we could help it. And obviously, there’s times when you have to turn to those tools. There’s simply no other way to realize the vision. But you don’t want to lean on that if you can do it more practically. It helps the actors and it helps the audience.
My favorite moment was the Endurance, the boat. It was built on this giant gimble, so we could tilt it around. And we had water cannons and these wind machines. Poor Alicia was in the middle of all that, and the rest of us were all on solid ground. But it does give you a package of reality to base the story on.
Check out Rob's interview with Alicia Vikander here on AFJ.