If you find yourself taken aback by The North Water‘s stunning setting, it’s for good reason: you’re not looking at a set or a green screen, but the truly extreme conditions of the Arctic.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh made the brave decision to take the full cast and crew 81 degrees north in order to capture the same gritty realism that made Ian McGuire’s novel such a success.
Likewise, the team also wrangled an “old school” ship for the project, living aboard the vessel in close quarters for almost a month in those testing early days of principal photography.
“When I first read the book, I knew that I wanted to shoot it in the real environment,” Haigh explained. Most people do not shoot these kinds of things in the real environment, but for me it was 21 fundamentally important. I didn’t really want to do it if I couldn’t do that.
The filmmaker added: “It was not an easy experience. It was very cold, sometimes terrifying, and really challenging, but to me that was what was so exciting about it. Luckily, we had a bunch of crew and actors who also thought this was exciting, so we could all do it together.”
Where were the Arctic scenes filmed?
The production team utilised three locations for the arctic scenes, travelling more than 1,000 nautical miles around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, shooting more scenes at Lilliehook Fjord, as well as venturing out into the pack ice, with as little as 22 miles separating them from the North Pole.
At some points the team were a full 24 hours away from land, which is enough to make even a seasoned traveller feel rather daunted, with star Colin Farrell admitting he had some concerns during the trip.
He said: “I did feel that death was just around the corner at any given time, that we were just one mistake away from someone falling into the Arctic sea and either very quickly getting hypothermia or sinking under the weight of the waterlogged costume. There were also polar bears around, that are beautiful and elegant and majestic but also apex predators.”
Indeed, the perilous nature of the environment became clear when Line of Duty star Stephen Graham – who plays The Volunteer’s Captain Arthur Brownlee – had a brush with death during a scene shot on the open water.
“The lads are rowing, then you heard shouting and we had to stop, all of sudden, because there’s a massive wave is on its way to us in this little boat,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to die in the middle of the Arctic in a fake fur coat’.
“The lads are paddling as fast as they can to get away from it, and everyone’s a bit worried and a bit panicked, and we just missed it, but it was high. The whole experience was unbelievable.”
That wasn’t enough to stop several members of the cast and crew from doing what became known as the “polar plunge” i.e. stripping down to boxer shorts and jumping into the icy Arctic water. It does not come advised.
“God, it was cold – to state the obvious – a dip in the Arctic ocean, but it was terrifying,” Farrell said. “I only went in the once, but I think Jack O’ Connell went in a couple of times. He got the bit in his teeth. I was in and out fast. It was cold.”
Co-star Sam Spruell also revealed that the team had some “difficulty” finding ice to film on, with at least one instance of the surface breaking in two before they could see out the day.
Where were The Volunteer scenes filmed?
The North Water’s production team took an “old-school” ship to the Arctic to film scenes involving whaling vessel The Volunteer, with the cast and crew living aboard during the exhausting three-week shoot.
The real name of the ship was The Activ and you’ll be relieved to hear that it did at least have an engine installed, although Haigh admits that “everyone was desperate” to get off by the end of their time away.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, the cast enjoyed some once-in-a-lifetime experiences from the safety of the The Activ, including some close encounters with Arctic wildlife.
“One night a polar bear came right up to the ship,” revealed Jack O’Connell. “It was like three in the morning and we all had to be up at seven. I’ll quote Colin. He was up watching this bear and a couple of us were on the stern, and he said: ‘Look man, you can’t go to bed while this is happening.’
“The chances are that we’ll never experience that again.”
Where were the Hull scenes filmed?
The North Water opens with an extended sequence set in Hull in 1859, with a magnificent set built that recreates the period with great care and attention to detail.
With Hull looking rather different now than it did 150 years ago, production designer Emmanuel Frechette recreated the city in Budapest instead, including key locations such as the docks and the tavern.
Some of the interior scenes set aboard The Volunteer were also shot on stage in Budapest, which has become a very popular location for film and television production in recent years.