Oscar-winning UK producer Jeremy Thomas tells Leon Forde about his mission to bring epic adventure Kon-Tiki to the screen.

The story of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s attempt to sail from South America to Polynesia on a raft of logs in 1947, Kon-Tiki was the highest-grossing film overall in Norway last year, earning more than $14m, and has been nominated in the best foreign-language film category at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

For veteran UK producer Jeremy Thomas of London-based Recorded Picture Company (RPC), bringing the project to the big screen was also a lengthy undertaking. “It has been the longest development of any project I’ve ever had in my life. And it’s all been for the best of the film.”

Heyerdahl had been a childhood hero of Thomas’ but it was only in 1996, when he met Norwegian publisher and industrialist Johan Stenersen through his friend, the actor Michael Douglas, that he began thinking about a film. Thomas and Stenersen, the publisher of Heyerdahl’s work, travelled to meet the adventurer in his Tenerife home. Heyerdahl, whose documentary on the Kon-Tiki voyage won an Oscar in 1951, had previously refused to allow anyone to make a film about his exploits.

Thomas gave him copies of Oscar winner The Last Emperor and a few of his other films, and built a relationship with Heyerdahl and his wife Jacqueline, who was keen that Thomas made the film. “Nobody had the film rights to his work or life story,” says Thomas. “Other people had tried to get them but I managed to persuade him to give me the rights.”

Heyerdahl was keen that any film was large-scale, international in scope and in English and became involved with the film’s development. “Before he died [in 2002], he signed off on a version of the finished screenplay,” Thomas says.

Kon-Tiki was initially developed as an English-language Hollywood-scale film but finding backers proved difficult. Around 2001, Stenersen suggested Thomas meet with Norwegian writer Petter Skavlan. After working with Skavlan on developing the screenplay, in 2009 Thomas decided to make Kon-Tiki as a Norwegian film, albeit one that had been developed in the UK.

Skavlan helped Thomas look for Norwegian directors and at Cannes that year the producer met with Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, successful commercial directors whose Second World War epic Max Manus is the highest grossing Norwegian film ever. Thomas decided to make the film with them, and began to look for a Norwegian partner. Scandinavian giant Nordisk Film joined the project as a backer in 2010, with the company’s Aage Aaberge producing alongside Thomas. RPC and German financier and distributor DCM backed the film. The UK Film Council and MEDIA had also backed the project’s development, while it has had continued support from the Norwegian Film Institute.

After Johan Stenersen’s death, his son Johan Stenersen Jr continued to back the project, keen to see his father’s dream realised, and his backing proved key. “That enabled us to be free - he plugged the gap,” says Thomas. “Every time there was a problem, he came to the rescue.”

Budgeted at more than $15m, the shoot got underway in 2011 and took in locations in Norway, Sweden and Thailand, with plates shot in the Maldives. Kon-Tiki also shot extensively in Malta’s water tank. The New York sequences were shot at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. The film-makers used a replica of the Kon-Tiki raft which had sailed the same route as the original in 2006 on a voyage led by Heyerdahl’s grandson. The film shot with the ARRI Alexa camera and used digital technology extensively, with Thomas noting the directors “are very, very experienced in the area of digital technology because of their work in commercials”.

Thomas opted to shoot two versions of the film - a Norwegian-language version for the Scandinavian market and an English-language version for the rest of the world. Says the producer: “It was an unusual idea but it worked.”

Kon-Tiki screened at Toronto, and in November The Weinstein Company (TWC) picked it up for North America, the UK and Italy from Thomas’ sales company HanWay Films. TWC will open the English-language version in the US on April 19.

“This is an independent movie… and to get all that recognition, beginning with the Globe nominations and the nomination for best foreign-language Oscar is absolutely great for the film’s career,” says Thomas.

And why is it connecting with audiences? “It is an intelligent adventure that can be seen by a great age group… It’s very evocative and moving and it’s a man proving a theory and men conquering something beyond imagination.”