Case Study: How Adrift filmed in Fiji

(Image: Kirsty Griffin)

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur talks to Melanie Goodfellow about shooting Adrift on the South Pacific island of Fiji.

Director Baltasar Kormakur has shot in some of the most inhospitable locations in the world, heading to the icy North Atlantic waters off his native Iceland for sunken fishing boat tale The Deep and the Mount Everest base camp for doomed expedition drama Everest.

His latest production Adrift took him to the island of Fiji and its archipelago of some 300 islands in the South Pacific ocean. Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin star as a couple whose idyllic life on the open seas takes a turn when their boat is damaged in a hurricane. It is based on a true story of a woman who was shipwrecked off the coast of the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, which is the setting for the film.

Kormakur, who is also producing through his RVK Studios with the US’s STX Entertainment, opted to shoot in Fiji and New Zealand. “We looked at the Dominican Republic, Malta, all kinds of options but the combination of Fiji and New Zealand worked best,” he says.

The decision was driven partly by the fact Fiji’s idyllic desert island vistas are similar to those in Tahiti, combined with its relative proximity (compared with Tahiti) to New Zealand. “Part of the story takes place in Tahiti but it’s very far away from everything and quite complicated to shoot there,” Kormakur says of the island, which lies 6,575 kilometres from the US coast, and 4,300 kilometres from New Zealand. Fiji is nearly half that distance from New Zealand.

The other main inducement was the 47% Fiji film tax rebate for qualifying costs. These include flights for cast and crew on Fiji Airways, insurance, location scouting trips, costumes, make-up and set design and crew salaries for work done on the island. It is the most generous financial incentive of its kind in the world. “It helped us make our budget,” says Kormakur, simply. “When everything is taken into account, it comes in at about 41%, which is still very good.”

The production did not access New Zealand’s incentive because it did not hit the $10.9m (nz$15m) minimum spend for international productions.

Fiji has a long history of welcoming film and TV show shoots, from the 1932 early talkie Mr Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks, in 2000 and the reality TV show Survivor. Adrift is the first feature to shoot on the island since the tax rebate was introduced.

Know your limits

Film equipment and crew are limited on the island. “You need to bring in equipment and key people for a big production like ours,” warns Kormakur. The warm welcome the production received more than made up for these shortcomings. “The Fijians are wonderful people. The cast loved it, absolutely loved it,” enthuses the director, who spent five months on the island. “The prices are always very fair and there’s still a freshness to the place that you don’t find in other popular locations.”

He employed as many local people as possible. “We had Fijians running the boats. We used local people as much as possible, especially on the water, tapping their knowledge of the reefs and sea.”

One of the biggest challenges was finding a suitable shooting location on the water. “We had a scout for the ocean because there are a lot of reefs. We needed to find an area where we could work without constantly getting into trouble,” says Kormakur. “We also had to take into account that the reefs and waters are owned by different tribes.”

Once in the location there were further hazards to be navigated, including sunburn caused by the reflection on the water. “There was also a lot of seasickness, especially in the beginning,” he says. “They were carrying up buckets of puke from the galley. One minute Sam Claflin would be throwing up, the next I’d be shouting, ‘Action!’”

The waters around Fiji are also home to a sizeable shark population, in part due to the territory’s conservation efforts at its Shark Reef Marine Reserve. Their potential presence did not, however, affect the shoot. “Shailene, who did all her own stunts, was diving off and under the boat,” reveals Kormakur.

He went on one of the shark diving tours on offer in the waters off Fiji. “I was surrounded by 60 sharks. Nobody else wanted to join me but I loved it. I was blown away.”

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