The Joy And Agony Of Making A Movie About Skateboarding On Frozen Sand

People who love board sports are known for manipulating their surroundings. A swell that brings perfectly rolling waves, a storm that creates a layer of fresh powder, or a city full of curbs and stairs originally intended for for life’s urban efficiencies. They’re sports that teach us to snatch the opportunities the world presents, while also encouraging creativity. Rather than being driven by awards, those that practice them are mostly motivated by discovering places untouched. They’re satisfied simply by pushing past the expected and finding themselves in new and unique locations — first to make a mark.

For Norwegian filmmaker Jørn Ranum, northern Norway seemed interesting for multiple reasons. After surfing on one of the coldest days of the year, he noticed the sand on the beach had frozen into a thick layer, making it a perfect surface for skateboarding. He saw that the constant twilight offered vibrant colors — a dreamy lighting setup during the short winter days. He began to develop a vision of combining urban elements with a natural environment, wanting his viewers to see how skateboarders change our interpretations of our surroundings.

I had the chance to speak with ambitious 27-year old in between his snowboarding sessions about his film Northbound — which received a special jury mention in the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. I was also lucky enough to speak with one of the skateboarders featured, Henrik Lund, in between his time shadowing in schools, studying to become a teacher. We discussed Ranum’s vision, weather-dependent challenges, and the painful struggles of building and skating a mini-ramp out of sand.

How did you exactly dream up this idea of skateboarding on frozen sand and ice?

Jørn Ranum: The first time I got the idea was actually after surfing in this area. I had been out surfing one of the coldest winter days out there. When I came back from the surf and came up on the shore, I noticed that the whole beach had been frozen. It was just rock solid and we tried to jump on it. Right before this happened, there had been a big storm so all of the sand was wet — that’s the reason why it froze solid. It doesn’t happen that often, it’s actually very rare that it happens.

When you love surfing and snowboarding and also started skateboarding you kind of, I don’t know, you’re always on the lookout for new places to do all those things, and it just popped into my head. Then I just started to think about inviting some really good skateboarders and making a film about it with the special light you have in northern Norway. The setting is so perfect if you can skate it.

Can you tell me a little more about that area? It seemed like it was remote and in the middle of nowhere, like it was a place that nobody actually goes to to skateboard.

JR: This whole region is like the island group and it’s a lot of fishermen living there. It’s not as remote as you see in the film, but some of the idea in the film was to show the urban skateboarding clashed together with the nature.

Was your mission to make more of an artistic piece or do you think it was to create more of an inspirational film?

JR: It’s kind of a bit both, but I think it’s more in the inspirational side of it, for me at least. I think it was because so much attention went into actually just making the project and trying to do it because it was really difficult to do. All the thinking and all the planning that went into making the project happen, you don’t have so much time to think about the artistic part because you’re so focused on just pulling it through.

Henrik Lund: The first conversation with Jørn I was a bit skeptical because that’s just an automatic reaction for a lot of skaters because I knew that he hadn’t done any skateboard stuff that I knew about. I didn’t know how it was going to look at all. As a skater you always want the filmer to understand how to film skateboard tricks. He had made some example bits of videos of the frozen sand. I met him at the café, and we sat down and I immediately liked the guy. I thought it was going to be fun.

How about the weather conditions? They seemed pretty harsh for everyone involved.

JR: We had a lot of different kinds of weather, and we were so dependent on it. We had, actually, made the skateboarders and all of the crew be on standby the whole winter and, they were just waiting for my call. We had the agreement that they would leave, at the latest, two days after I called them. So everyone was just waiting the whole winter and we were just hoping for cold weather.

So we pushed the button, and everyone jumped on the plane and the skateboarders and everyone arrived. And then the weather started to change and it just went up and down and up and down. One day it was much warmer, and we had a lot of warm winds and storms coming in. So it was really frustrating sitting there and you couldn’t do anything, you just had to wait and hope for the best.

I think it was more special for especially the skateboarders. They had never been in this area before and the winds can be so strong that it’s impossible to stand on your feet if the wind is really strong. And they had never experienced that before.

I think for them it was pretty cool, you know? To really feel that force of nature on your body.

HL: We tried to do different stuff those days when it was too windy. As soon as you pop your board it’s going to just fly away. We tried to be smart on how we could fill the days. The wind changes really fast there. It could be blue and pink sky and really nice weather and then suddenly it just blew up and became a storm.

You have this hauntingly beautiful mini ramp in the film. Can you tell me how you built it exactly?

JR: First we built the frame out of wood and then we just filled it with sand and a lot of water, and then you could just scrape off the top layer so then you got this smooth surface. Then it was just sitting there waiting for the weather.

HL: It was really smoothly done. It was like a perfect mini ramp. It was a bit hard to grind and slide on the edge of the ramp, but skating the ramp was the funnest part of the skateboarding experience there.

What would you say was the biggest challenge of the project?

JR: Our biggest challenge was maybe to just go and do it, because when I told people about the idea in the beginning people thought it was a great idea but they were like, “Do you think it’s gonna work?” Also, to trust yourself and just go out and do it.

It took me four years to build up to that courage. That’s the boring answer.

And then while we did the project it was building the mini ramp was really difficult because the weather was just changing too much, and the first plan was to have perfect-shaped mini ramp. When it fell a bit apart on the sides because it wasn’t cold enough, it was kind of, “Aw, f*ck, the idea is not working,” you know? It didn’t work 100%, so to switch your mind into taking that as your advantage, that was difficult. But in the end, I think it looks so much cooler when it fell a little bit apart.

HL: The skateboarding part was pretty challenging in many ways. We don’t like to do easier tricks or we don’t like to show our skating if it’s not on the top level, you know? All of the guys were a bit frustrated because it was really hard to do tricks. Like the surface looks good, but it was really gritty. It was really hard to do tricks when you rotate. You could just go straight. That was challenging. Also, the cold weather because I’m used to skate really loose trucks. I remember I was really frustrated and we were throwing our boards. That was a bit stressful. Another big problem was that we had constantly a lot of sand on the grip deck. After every try we had to brush our boards. We used a couple of days to get the feeling, and then suddenly we started having some good tricks.

I viewed the mini ramp as kind of the merging of the two worlds: you showcased the urban world and the natural world, then all of a sudden you have a mini ramp in the middle of nowhere, but it’s still not that perfect urban landscape and it had this more natural erosion so it was kind of like you see these skateboarders and you see this environment and, all of a sudden, you see this thing that kind of brings them together in a way. So I thought it honestly worked in your favor symbolically even though that wasn’t your mission, necessarily.

HL: I was actually a bit happy when it fell apart back there. It looked way more natural. If not, it would have been perfectly formed with vertical walls, but when it broke it looked as it almost was made out of the waves.

What kind of camera gear were you using in these conditions?

JR: We used the RED cameras and something called Ultra Primes because we needed some camera that could handle the difference between very light sky and dark sky, that you can have a lot of the spectrum of the light. Also, we used really fast lenses because it’s almost dark all the time. The sun never came over the horizon because it’s the dark period. That’s a cool thing about northern Norway. In wintertime it’s really, really dark. I think we had light from 9 in the morning until 2:30 [in the afternoon]. So we had quite short days to film, but then you got this beautiful sunset light all day. It’s perfect.

All the skateboarders looked silhouetted. Was that a stylistic vision that you thought about beforehand?

JR: We didn’t plan so much for it to be the silhouettes, but I think that really worked out but the plan was to have dark clothes so they would kind of be separated from the beach, bright sand and also fit into the nature, in a way.

HL: Yeah, we had to skate with a lot of clothes on because it was cold. I prefer to skate with a t-shirt and some shorts, you know? It was really the opposite.

Can you tell me a little bit about the other skateboarders and how you connected?

JR: All of the skateboarders that you see in the film were really eager and they thought it was a great idea. I think with skateboarders it’s so much about creativity and not so much about contests and being the best. It has this artistic side of it that is really important, and to go to new locations, try out new stuff, do stuff that no one has ever done before… It’s something really tempting about it. And then you push in some direction where something new can appear. I think all skateboarders and snowboarders and surfers are really eager to do these kind of projects because it’s something new and creative.

HL: I think he called Karsten which is one of the most famous names in Norway for skating. Jørn just called telling me about the project and when he hold me that he had also talked to Karsten, I knew that it was going to be fun. We’re good friends.

Asphalt already hurts enough. All I kept thinking was, “Ow” at how many times everyone probably fell. Did anyone get really hurt falling on ice?

JR: Things they could do with their eyes closed were almost impossible to do up there. They had to have 10 or 20 tries to stomp a trick they really were safe on in normal conditions. Then, of course, they fell quite a lot and they said it was like falling off onto a rock hard and, like, sandpaper. It was just like [makes scraping noise].

HL: It’s like falling on sandpaper basically. It’s really gritty. We had a lot of clothes on so we didn’t get that many bruises, but it wasn’t as cold as we wished. Salty water it freezes at a lower degree. There were some spots where the sand was soft, but you couldn’t see that so once every 10 minutes you were just pushing full speed and suddenly just got thrown on the ground.

Ugh. Ouch.

JR: For me, this project was kind of split in two because one part was to actually just do the project and see that it was possible. The other side was the film because we couldn’t do the film if the project didn’t work. I really love to just see what happens and film what you see when you are there. The only thing that you decide is probably where you’re going to film. We just wanted to capture all the stuff that happened in between, but focus on the skateboarding part.

HL: Jørn had this vision and everybody was working together to fulfill that. That was a cool feeling to be able to help him.