Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

Tagline: Two worlds. One war. The ultimate battle begins.

An action-adventure set in the time when Vikings tried to conquer North America, Pathfinder tells the heroic story of a young Norse boy left behind after his clan shipwrecks on the Eastern shores. Despite his lineage, the boy is raised by the very Indians his kinsmen set out to destroy. Now, as the Vikings return to stage another barbaric raid on his village, the 25 year-old Norse warrior (Karl Urban) wages a personal war to stop the Vikings’ trail of death and destruction. Forging his own path, his destiny is revealed and his identity re-claimed.

“Pathfinder” tells the story of a young Viking boy left behind by his people in North America (which the Vikings had visited hundreds of years before Columbus). A stranger in a strange land, the boy is raised by a tribe of American Indians – the very people the Vikings had sworn to destroy.

Pathfinder (also known by the alternate title Pathfinder: The Legend of the Ghost Warrior) is a 2007 American epic action film directed by Marcus Nispel, distributed by 20th Century Fox, and stars Karl Urban, Clancy Brown, Ralf Möller, Moon Bloodgood, Russell Means, Jay Tavare, and Nathaniel Arcand.

Pathfinder opened theatrically in the United States on 13 April 2007, in sixth place on its opening weekend and had some big competition at the box office with 300, Blades of Glory, and Disturbia amongst others, and although Pathfinder earned over $5 million in its opening weekend at the box office, this quickly tailed off. Overall, worldwide the film earned just over $30 million at the box office, failing to recoup its $45 million budget, though it eventually made back its money through DVD sales.

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

First Contact: The Story of Pathfinder

The latest forensic evidence suggests that centuries before Columbus was born, Viking warships from Northern Europe landed on American shores, and the infamously fierce Norse explorers roamed what is now modern-day Boston and New York City. It’s a stunning vision to imagine: Vikings attempting to settle on the lands that Native Americans had already called home for some 25,000 years.

Known for their brutal, plundering raids, and already embattled in Europe, the Vikings were likely seeking fertile new lands to conquer when they set out into the New World for the first time. Yet in America they would meet their demise. No one knows for sure what became of the Vikings who attempted to settle here, but instead of thriving, they disappeared and their civilization soon teetered to collapse. Viking sagas speak of violent battles with the people who lived in America – yet what really happened when these two warrior cultures met remains forever shrouded in mystery.

It is this unexplored story that comes to the fore in PATHFINDER – an action-adventure story that re-imagines the explosive first contact between the Vikings and the East Coast’s native Wampanoag Indians through a stylish tale of personal revenge and redemption.

“I always felt that the idea of Vikings and American Indians together in the same world, and the epic clash of cultures that might have occurred between them, would make for a great cinematic story,” says the film’s director, Marcus Nispel. “But although I am fascinated by Vikings, I’ve never really liked historical films. What I do like are hard-driving tales of one man’s survival against the odds. So PATHFINDER is not only about Vikings in conflict with Native Americas, but is also a timeless story about a man who has to make a change – from blindly seeking vengeance to really using his head to save his people.”

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

The tale of PATHFINDER began not only with astounding historical discoveries but with a 1987 Norwegian film – Ofelas (Pathfinder) – which won the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Film and impressed critics with its evocative and dream-like take on the action-adventure genre. Set in Lapland, the film recreated both the gritty brutality and the mythical magic of ancient times with the story of a boy who survives a brutal attack on his peaceful tribe and rises to become a heroic leader. Producers Mike Medavoy and Arnold W. Messer of Phoenix Pictures were impressed enough by the picture to immediately seek out the rights to remake it.

Medavoy and Messer had attempted to develop the project in various incarnations over a period of years but no magic happened until the producing team had lunch with Marcus Nispel, a rising young director who, after winning acclaim for his innovative work in commercials and music videos, made a promising motion picture debut with the hit re-imagining of the cult classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel mentioned to Medavoy and Messer his long-percolating idea for a film about Vikings colliding with Native Americans – and that was the spark.

“Marcus was very passionate about doing a movie on the subject of Norsemen coming to North America, and we had the rights to Ofelas – so it quickly became clear that the two were really a perfect fit,” comments Arnold Messer.

Adds executive producer Bradley J. Fischer: “We had been talking about a lot of different ideas on how to re-conceive the original film and what new ideas we could bring to it as a remake – yet it always ended up moving away from what we loved about it. Then Marcus came along and he knew exactly how to update PATHFINDER. He said `You take the existing story and make it a gritty adventure with Vikings and Indians.’ And we were blown away because this was the key that unlocked it.”

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

For Nispel, the film was a chance to bring together all of his skills – from illustrating graphic novels to carrying out commando-style productions with an emphasis on visceral action. Now fired up to create a unique movie experience, Nispel began to focus on how he could bring his own distinctly renegade style to it. He was influenced not only by the original Ofelas but also by the latest wave of fantasy epics and any number of action classics about a one-man war for justice – but most of all he was fired up by his own vision of a film that would look and feel like a spectacular graphic novel set against two mythic warrior cultures.

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior

“Ultimately, our film is completely different than the original Norwegian film but it gave me a template for how you can make a very fascinating movie about Viking times, and then we jumped off from there,” comments Nispel.

Nispel began by collaborating with screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis. For PATHFINDER, Kalogridis dove into intensive research, digging up the shards of what is known about Vikings in North America, a maze-like historical puzzle that is still being pieced together. In 1960, centuries of conjecture were put to rest when archeologists discovered a 1,000 year old Viking encampment in the small town of L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland – proving beyond a doubt that Vikings had made it to North America. The question since then has become just how far they may have journeyed beyond that and what the consequences were, with debates over the evidence continuing to rage.

With so many unsolved mysteries remaining, Kalogridis and Nispel quickly realized they would have the freedom to use quite a bit of imagination on top of authentic information.

“One of things that most interested us about the history is that wherever Vikings went, they stayed. It was only in America where they didn’t stay. It seems they landed and got their butts kicked. So what happened when they met the Native Americans? That was the big unanswered question that stoked our imaginations and fantasies,” Nispel explains.

Kalogridis was especially intrigued by the way in which the conflict between these two opposite but equally proud cultures would have impacted an orphan such as Ghost, who goes through a major change of heart as he begins to understand that it is the obsessive quest for blood that will lead to the Viking’s final end. Writing more in heart-stopping scenes of battle, conflict and survival in the elements rather than in long chunks of dialogue, Kalogridis saw the film’s intense action hanging on a skeleton of rich themes.

“This is really a film about survival in the face of impossible odds and what it means to be a part of a culture,” says Kalogridis. “I always felt that getting the interaction right between Ghost and Pathfinder was especially crucial because that is what makes this such a great story; there is so much conflict within Ghost as he struggles to figure out who he is.”

When Kalogridis started writing, there was still much controversy about whether Vikings had ever reached what would become the East Coast of the United States; but, remarkably, by the time she finished, history was catching up with the tale. “What was so exciting is that two weeks after we finished the screenplay, we read in the Smithsonian Institute magazine that new evidence had been found of Vikings on the East Coast of the United States,” recalls Nispel. “The news came just in time.”

Even as the story of PATHFINDER was coming together, Nispel faced the daunting prospect of recreating on film a primal American wilderness no one has ever seen in photographs or paintings – and for which there is no real creative frame of reference. The challenge inspired him. Not surprisingly, he decided to take an unconventional approach – to recreate the period when both Vikings and American Indians roamed the land as if he were creating a mythic fantasy realm right out of a storybook.

“North America at that time was so different from what we know now, it was basically an alien world,” the director explains. “The animals, the wildlife, the trees, the environment were all from another reality, so I decided we weren’t going to attempt to do straight history with PATHFINDER. Instead we were going to do our own version of mythology. There are theories about this time and there are certain things that we know, so we built upon all that. But mainly we put our own creativity into it. At the end of the day, we wanted to create something that would be truly fun and exciting for the audience.”

A Driven Warrior with a Viking Past and an American Future

As production began in earnest, Marcus Nispel set out to find an actor to play the hero of PATHFINDER – the orphaned Viking child who grows up to become the Indian warrior named Ghost and a divided man ready to wage his own relentless war against his brutal former countrymen. Nispel wanted a fresh persona for Ghost, rather than someone who came with an already set-in-stone image. After seeing Karl Urban in supporting roles in the hit thriller The Bourne Supremacy and in the epic Lord of the Rings, Nispel was struck with the feeling that he was staring at a leading action hero of the future. Urban clearly had personality to spare and none of the drawbacks of a blockbuster star.

“We were looking for someone who could really make you believe in our David versus Goliath story,” explains Nispel. “And when Karl came along it was very apparent that he was a guy who could elevate every element of this tale. As a painter, I was fascinated by his face and eyes, which have so much depth to them. He also obviously knew how to use a sword and ride a horse, so we wouldn’t have to spend months training him. Equally important, he didn’t have any kind of cookie-cutter image already attached. A lot of well-known young actors I talked to about the role were worried that running around in a loincloth would effect their image – and I was thinking about what a tragedy it would have been if Peter O’Toole had felt that way about the outfit he had to wear for Lawrence of Arabia! With Karl that wasn’t an issue.”

Urban was attracted to the role because it was so different from anything else he’d ever read. “This is an action-adventure story,” notes Urban, “but Ghost is also a unique and complex character. Having been shipwrecked at a young age and adopted by Native American Indians, he has tried to assimilate and fit into their culture. But there’s something within himself that just won’t shift. He’s not all Indian and he’s not all Viking; he’s somewhere in between. In a sense, he’s the first melting pot American. And now he has to face up to his past demons – almost literally – to prove his loyalty and his worth both to himself and to his new people.”

Urban was especially attracted to the gritty, primeval nature of the role – one that would take him deep into the fiercest forms of forested battle and the darkest zones of a warrior’s divided heart. “I like that the character is a natural survivor,” he continues. “Throughout the course of the film, Ghost is relentlessly hunted and pursued and he has to make it through this arduous test of his body, will and soul. In the end, the story becomes about how he transforms himself into a true warrior – and a man worthy of his culture.”

To go deeper into the role, Urban not only had to familiarize himself with Viking lore but with the early Wampanoag Indian cultures, which fascinated him. “One of the things that attracted me to doing this film was the opportunity to better understand American Indian culture because I feel a real affinity with them,” he says. “They were the people of the dawn, the first people in America and they had such a holistic view of their place in the world and how everything functions. I think it’s a view that modern man could really take to heart.”

He also thought a lot about the ideals that make a true warrior. “One of the themes of the film is that you can’t really win simply by using blind rage and fury to deal with your enemy,” he observes. “You have to use your smarts. You have to know your enemy from the inside and figure out how to use their own weaknesses against them.”

Yet nothing could prepare Urban for the intense physical challenges he would face as Ghost, from climbing treacherously steep cliffs to engaging in one-on-one combat against savage Viking weaponry. “This was by far the most grueling, dangerous film I’ve done,” he admits. “From day one I knew I would be fighting a constant uphill battle against pain and injury the whole time, but like Ghost, I was determined that nothing would stop me from doing my job.”

Even as Ghost is physically ravaged by his battles, he is emotionally changed by his growing feelings for his equally strong comrade in battle, the Native American woman Starfire, played by Moon Bloodgood. Urban sees their love story, unfolding as it does in the middle of violence and chaos, as a turning point in Ghost’s development. “I think Starfire is really instrumental in saving Ghost from this journey of blind vengeance he’s on,” comments Urban. “She shows him another way, and reveals he has a different choice he can make. Moon did such a fantastic job of portraying a gutsy, intelligent, feminine woman who is also a fighter and a leader.”

On the set, Urban also found that working with Marcus Nispel was a perfect match for the film’s non-stop suspense and action. “Marcus works at a blistering pace that I’ve never encountered before,” he explains. “He works fast and loose and I really liked it. Some days we did as many as 60 shots so you never had time to overanalyze or get into your head too much. Overall, it was a very invigorating experience. Visually, Marcus is just incredible. He paints pictures on the screen.”

Moon Bloodgood is Starfire

One of the warriors in PATHFINDER is a woman: the current Pathfinder’s beautiful daughter, Starfire, whose passion for Ghost drives her to help alter the course of his future. To play Starfire, Marcus Nispel turned to Moon Bloodgood, an actress he had worked with nearly a decade ago in a television commercial, and who has since evolved into a strong and alluring screen presence in her own right. She recently appeared as a bush pilot in the adventure Eight Below.

“The chemistry between Moon and Karl worked really well, which was so important,” says Nispel. “Beyond that, Starfire was a very tough role to play because she has to wind up being strong enough to surprise everyone and truly become the leader of her people. Moon was great at making this really come alive.”

Bloodgood immediately responded to the script. “To me, it’s not only an action film but a love story and a story about the choices you make in life to take one path or the other,” she says. “I felt that Ghost is a man who, like so many people, is torn between his bad side and his good side, and Starfire is very important because she sees his potential and helps him to become a better human being.”

She also loved the idea of re-imagining unwritten parts of history. “The notion of a fierce struggle between Vikings and Native Americans is mesmerizing,” comments Bloodgood. “We may never know what really happened during those times, but it’s a great fantasy to ponder. Thinking about what might have happened when these huge, foreign Norsemen came to America and the different cultures clashed – that really drew me.”

Bloodgood believes that Starfire is a rare role for a woman, in a story filled with wild action and a journey that ends not only in love but in leadership of an entire people. Bloodgood realizes some will be surprised by her character’s hidden destiny but she felt it all made perfect sense, especially given the matriarchal status of women in native societies. “Starfire has a lot of strength and intuition and I think she’s learned a lot from her father, who was the Pathfinder before her,” says the actress. “I think the fact that she helps Ghost to move beyond vengeance and to become a better man is very important in her being chosen as the next Pathfinder. I just hope the audience really feels she has become worthy of this honor, and that Ghost has become a vessel for her to find her own strength.”

As with Karl Urban, on the set, Moon Bloodgood found herself thrust into an intense series of outdoor adventures and breathtaking action sequences. “It was an incredible roller coaster ride making this film, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so physically demanding,” she says. “One minute I was freezing, the next minute I was exhausted, and there were so many scary stunts that I had to do. It was such a whirlwind and yet it was also so exhilarating. In the end, I loved every moment of it.”

The Shaman Who Shows His People the Way

As Ghost, Moonfire and the entire Wampanoag tribe move towards their inevitable destinies they are guided by a mysterious and powerful force: the Pathfinder himself, the wise and skilled shaman whose role is to help his people survive through all kinds of trials and tribulations. To play this richly mythological and even mystical character, Marcus Nispel felt there would be no one better than Russell Means, the renowned American Indian activist who has also become an acclaimed actor with roles in dozens of films. The Los Angeles Times once described Means as the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and he exudes all the larger-than-life qualities of a natural leader.

“Russell Means doesn’t play this character, he is the character,” says Nispel. “He is a Native American, he is an activist and he truly gives off that authentic feeling of leadership and clout in the world.”

Adds producer Arnold Messer: “Russell always brings such great dignity to the screen, and he has all the characteristics you think about when you think of someone who could be responsible for his people’s lives. He has also a rare ability to be imposing and at the same time very gentle and caring, which I think serves the movie very well.”

Means enjoyed the role, especially because he believes that, long before Europeans arrived, America was always led by human beings like the Pathfinder. “I’m 66 winters old and those are the kind of people I grew up with,” he says. “They were people born in the 19th century, and they had been born to people who had been raised free. Even though they had been raised on reservations, they still maintained a traditional lifestyle and these are the role models I had growing up.”

Although Means points out that there is much more to know about the complex Native American and Viking cultures than could be revealed in an imaginary action-adventure such as PATHFINDER, he was impressed with the film’s storytelling style. “As an artist, what I loved about this movie is the entire scope of the way it was shot. I understand that there’s an artistic expression in the fictional depiction of the Wampanoags and the Vikings,” he says. “To me, PATHFINDER is about the lack of understanding of one culture to another. It’s about ignorance and it’s about triumph over ignorance.”

Of Natives and Vikings

Surrounding Karl Urban in his quest for justice is a group of both Native Americans and Viking characters – each of whom has their own agenda for his future. Another key Native American role is that of the headstrong Blackwing, who vies with Ghost both for Starfire’s love and for control of their people’s future. Jay Tavare, an actor of White Mountain Apache, Navajo and mixed European heritage – and whose long list of credits includes The Missing, Cold Mountain and Adaptation – approached the role with enthusiasm.

“When Marcus came to me about me about playing Blackwing, I immediately saw the character as a kind of peacock. He’s the guy who starts out with it all – he’s got the girl, he’s supposed to be the next Pathfinder and he’s one of the tribe’s strongest warriors. But then he loses everything and has to come to grips with the tough lesson that life has other plans for him,” observes Tavare.

Although Tavare is intrigued by history, he enjoyed getting the chance to use some playful imagination to bring to life a period about which so little is known. “Usually, if I’m playing any First Nation people, I like to be as accurate as I can. But with this film, there is such a fantasy element to it, that I felt it was a good place to try something a little more wild and take some dramatic license,” Tavare explains. “You know, Vikings meeting Indians – it has a great comic book element to it right from the start.”

Yet the physical plight of Blackwing would become harrowingly real for Tavare. “Blackwing gets captured, hung upside down over a fire and shot with arrows . and that’s just in one day,” he notes. “It was an incredibly tough shoot, but luckily, Marcus works so fast that you never are suffering for long!”

Meanwhile, the role of Gunnar, the fierce leader of the Viking clan, is taken on by a true action film favorite: Clancy Brown, who was recently seen in dark turns as Brother Justin Crowe in the award-winning HBO series Carnivale, and as a mysterious American military officer in two episodes of Lost. Like his castmates, Brown was drawn to the screenplay’s broad range of themes inside a searing saga of a one-man war for justice. “It’s about identity, it’s about loyalty, it’s about the evolution of culture – it’s about a lot of things if you want to read into it,” says Brown.

While getting ready for the role, Brown read up on the volatile history of the Vikings in the 9th Century, and came up with his own vision of what drives Gunnar. “Gunnar is one of the disenfranchised Vikings of Iceland who have recently had to adopt Christianity,” Brown explains. “I fancy that Gunnar and his band are from the `old order’ of Vikings who revel in the lifestyles of their forefathers where they’d just go out and take what they want.”

Indeed, Gunnar leads the Vikings on fiendish attacks of Native communities, until catching Ghost becomes his blinding obsession. He’s a character with a definite cruel streak, yet Brown sees Gunnar’s devilish actions as a part of his times and his culture. “Vikings aren’t wiping out these peaceful people because they hate them; this is just what they do. They go in, wipe out a village, take the people and sell them into slavery. It’s commerce for the Vikings,” Brown observes. “It’s just a part of life, and there’s no malice. Gunnar is not inherently evil; he’s just 100% Viking.”

The biggest challenge for Brown came when Marcus Nispel requested that the character speak entirely in Icelandic, the ancient language of Norsemen and not a simple tongue to master. Somehow, though, Brown became so fluent that he impressed everyone on the set. “Clancy spoke the language like he was born in Iceland,” remarks Karl Urban. “Whenever Gunnar’s speaking there’s this great sort of earthy, whiskey resonance he gives to the character.”

Adds Marcus Nispel: “We all quickly came to the realization that Clancy Brown is a born Viking. You could hear him in his trailer thundering his lines and there just was no doubt.”

Joining Brown as Gunnar’s merciless deputy, Ulfar, is German actor Ralf Moeller, who sees his character as having a one-track mind. “Ulfar has only one mission right now, and that is to kill Ghost. I think Ulfar was raised from a child to only know how to conquer and fight so that is what he does. He is brutal. You would not want to meet him anywhere, at anytime,” Moeller warns.

Like Brown, Moeller had to dive into intensive lessons in Icelandic, which at first he found ironic. “As a German actor working in America, it took me ten years to get my English right, then Marcus casts me in this movie and says, `Hey I want you to speak Icelandic,'” he laughs. “It’s a hard language to learn but I think it was a good decision for us to speak in it because it adds to the atmosphere of strangeness and fear that the American Indians would have felt when the Vikings were in their midst.”

Creating a Mythical America

Right from the start, director Marcus Nispel knew that he had an opportunity to create his own unique visual style with PATHFINDER that would set it apart from other tales of adventure and survival. Since the story unfolds in a time that is beyond historical reach, Nispel felt he had unlimited creative freedom.

To begin, Nispel collaborated with artist and illustrator Christopher Shy on a set of vividly-detailed storyboards. Shy is one of the hottest artists working in graphic novels today and is renowned for drawings so rich and textural they look like they might jump off the page. Rather than just illustrating a few key sequences, they created gorgeous depictions of every single frame in the film. “We decided we would paint the entire movie before shooting it,” explains the director. “Christopher and I had a great collaboration. We both love heroes, we both love the same kinds of movies, and we had a fantastic time working together.”

The resulting images – by turns brutal, ethereal and emotional – impressed everyone who saw them. “We could see that PATHFINDER was going to be like a graphic novel come to life,” says executive producer Bradley J. Fischer. “Marcus is such an amazing visual stylist, and he was able to create a world that is very different from reality, yet which operates by its own clear rules.”

The details began with how to bring to life the two clashing cultures of the Wampanoag Indians and the Vikings. The Wampanoag were the original inhabitants of the area that today is Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where they lived for at least 10,000 years as fishers, hunters and warriors who fostered a harmonious way of life with the natural environment. They are also the same tribe who would later, in the 1600s, famously befriend the Pilgrims before succumbing to a wave of disease and violence that the British brought with them.

Although there is considerable research on the colonial-era history of the Wampanoag, much of life in the 9th century will forever remain an enigma. This gave Nispel a chance to take some creative liberties. “We’re talking about life a thousand years ago, so there’s very little proof of anything,” he notes. “And when you talk to Native Americans or historians, everyone has a different idea of what it was like. Did they really have tree houses? Well, maybe if they originally came from Asia, they did. I went to every department head and asked them to think about what things might have been like and let the look sort of come together as a hybrid of many different theories and ideas.”

When it came to creating the Vikings, Nispel was determined to overcome centuries of comical clichés. “As we were doing research, we realized that in America, 9 out of 10 books about Vikings have these cute little guys with horns,” he laughs. “Here, they have mostly been seen as cartoons, whereas in Europe we still remember them as pillagers! In Europe they are still seen as a major historical force.”

The reality of the Vikings is that they were a complex society which thrived on aggressive warfare, yet were also masters of the sea, as well as farmers, traders and skilled craftsmen with a unique way of life. In a quest to increase their worldly influence, the Vikings began raiding towns and villages across Europe, earning a reputation for heathen slaughter and evil that has stuck with them ever since.

Nispel wanted to emphasize the latter and avoid any kind of dry, strictly historical interpretation. He envisioned his Vikings as men raised to believe in the glory of violence and conquest, which ultimately led to their society’s collapse. He also developed a unique look for them, avoiding the standard clichés and the less intriguing suggestions of recent historians that Vikings never wore the famous horned helmets with which they are usually associated.

“We weren’t creating a history lesson, so we were willing to create a certain amount of contrivance with the Vikings,” says the director. “The important thing is they are our own contrivances. They’re not any sort of depiction you’ve seen before.”

In bringing his vision to life, Nispel worked closely with production designer Greg Blair, who previously collaborated with Nispel on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “From a production designer’s standpoint working with Marcus is always a dream mission,” Blair says, “because the man is a visual genius. He has such care and love for the art of film and the look of everything. From my point of view, he’s just a constant inspiration.”

Like Nispel, Blair began with intensive research, supplemented with imagination. Blair notes: “We wanted to remain faithful and respectful to Native American culture but at the same time give the film a great look. We did a lot of research and one thing we knew is that we did not want to continue the stereotypical depiction of American Indians where they all live in tipis. These are Wampanoag people that live on the East Coast, not on the Great Plains, so the audience is going to see different images of American Indians than what they usually see.”

After long nights flipping through Native American history books, Blair found himself building entire villages of Wetus, the unique, woven grass mat structures that the Wampanoag used for homes. “American Indians had all kinds of different structures,” says Blair. “The Wampanoag lived in two types of buildings: one that was called the long house and was a long, rectangular structure and then smaller, domed family units. And what we did for the film is similar to those real historical designs, but we added a bit to it, building them more in sections – like the Sydney Opera House! We also constructed them out of steel and foam, rather than wood, for speed and stability, and then covered them in moss and bark later.”

One of Blair’s favorite creations was the Pathfinder’s tree house, which soars above the forest, giving the Pathfinder a broad view of the world he oversees. “After talking with Marcus, we wanted to give the Pathfinder something very special, something that really sets him apart from the tribe, so we decided to put him in a tree,” Blair explains. “We can’t be sure if that would be historically accurate or not, but it was an amazing and fun design, and it felt like something that could have happened. Once we found the location, the design emerged with a really organic feeling. Then, for the interior, we filled it with an assortment of dream catchers and wind chimes and all kinds of fantastic shamanic symbols.”

When it came to the Vikings, Blair faced the task of constructing a realistic “dragon ship,” in which they crossed the Atlantic. Also known as “longships” or “drakkars,” these foreboding, carved wooden vessels were driven by as many as 60 oarsmen and could carry as many as 400 warriors to distant shores.

“The dragon ship was a really a blast to design,” Blair comments, “and it was based on historical depictions of what the Viking ships really looked like. Since the ship was wrecked, we had to build this forty foot high structure and then flip it upside down. Then we craned the whole thing into the middle of Buntzen Lake.”

To depict the carnage of the Viking campaigns, Blair created another chilling set. This time the production used the expertise of a prosthetics department to display such gruesome sights as massacred bodies splayed across spears, decapitated remains, crows pecking out the eyes of a dying corpse and dogs feasting on a disemboweled man.

Throughout, Blair worked in tandem with costume designer Renée April, a two-time Genie Award winner whose credits include The Day After Tomorrow and Confessions of A Dangerous Mind. April created a new look to cinematic Vikings. “We wanted to find a line between the cartoon barbarian with fur, the actual complex and mythic culture, and the sheer, beastly evil they’ve come to represent,” she explains. “But we definitely wanted them to look huge, tough, metallic and bad, bad, bad.”

The costumes began with chain-mail and were layered with leather, fur and sharp metal until they had grown truly imposing. “I went very much by instinct,” explains April. “We weren’t doing a documentary so I asked myself what looks cool and what looks fun. For the Native Americans I used a more historical approach, but with the Vikings we just went as far as we could.”

The costumes might be spectacular to the eye but they were definitely burdensome to the actors. Notes Clancy Brown: “The toughest part of playing Gunnar had to be wearing the costume, because it’s very, very heavy. We have steel breast plates, shoulder pads and bear cloaks that have to weigh at least thirty pounds. By the end of each day I felt an inch shorter!”

For Karl Urban’s outfits as Ghost, Renée April started out with typical Wampanaog outfits but slowly began to shift him towards his own blend of Viking and Native American styles. Urban was impressed with the way the outfits worked in sync with his character’s development. “The hybrid look he adopts becomes a kind of metaphor for who this character is,” says Urban.

Arnold Messer was especially impressed by the costumes. “The American Indian costumes are fabulous; they have authentic touches and are very functional. And with the Vikings, Renée accomplished two very important things at the same time. She shows the great bulk and strength of the Norse civilization and also the roughness and aggression that is so much a part of the story.”

The significant task of capturing Nispel’s carefully elaborated designs and visuals on film fell to cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl, ASC, who adds his own stamp to the film’s mythic look. Pearl previously collaborated with Nispel on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and also shot the classic 1973 original. For this film, he worked under the most extreme and shifting light conditions, with the Canadian weather often forcing him to change his lighting strategies mid-stream. Nispel credits Pearl for giving PATHFINDER the edgy and foreboding atmosphere he sought. “Daniel Pearl did the most amazing job,” says Nispel. “When you watch the film you’ll never appreciate just how great the challenges were of getting shots at night, at day, in the rain, sunshine and overcast sky, and yet making it look like one completely integrated story.”

About the Shoot: 53 Days of Rain, Rocks and Adventure

To immerse the audience in the environment of PATHFINDER, Marcus Nispel chose to shoot the film almost entirely outdoors in and around the craggy, forested beauty of Vancouver, British Columbia. Working at his trademark lightning pace – “I just like momentum” says Nispel – the shoot was a blistering 53 days, many of which involved an astonishing 40 to 60 set-ups in a single day. With only two days of shooting inside sound stages, the production found itself in near constant motion – shooting in the middle of waterfalls, while hanging off perilous escarpments and on the run through dense woods. For Nispel, the whole point was creating a hardcore, realistic environment that would be completely believable and truly visceral to the audience – rather than relying on technology.

“I liked the actors to do their own stunts whenever possible and when it says on the script `eighty people fall off the mountain’ – they are not digitized in this film, they are real,” he states. “We painstakingly tried to make every scene as authentic as possible, because I believe that when people watch a movie, subliminally they register it is something that is painted in. I don’t want the audience to feel cheated be distracted by some CGI effect. As good as effects are, I think you still realize that, well, this didn’t really happen. But if you’ve got actors and crew hanging on a rock wall getting banged around and the camera can actually move – then it’s true, authentic experience for the bottling.”

Authenticity often comes with a heavy price tag – namely constant danger and discomfort. Drenching rains, ankle-turning terrain and bone-chilling temperatures were just some of the hardships that the team faced. Some of the most difficult days on the set came at the mighty Stawawmus Chief Mountain, a sheer, granite rock face in Squamish National Park. “The Chief was especially dangerous because there were a lot of mossy rocks that got wet and it is pitch black there even in the middle of the day because the trees are so big,” says Nispel. “It proved to be brutal terrain for shooting.”

Yet Nispel felt there was no other choice of terrain if he was to capture the raw nature of life amid the elements in a Pre-Columbian America of 1000 years ago. “I warned everyone in advance that there was going to be wind and weather, rocks and stones at all times,” recalls Nispel. “The great thing was that everyone rose to the occasion and got into the grit of it. We were lucky because we found a tough cast and crew who were ready to work in rain and water and mud with no complaints.”

On the contrary, the rain, wind and risky mountainous terrain only seemed to amp up the atmosphere and dare the performers to push even harder.

Sums up Nispel: “The climate became another participant in the film. I think when actors are sweating or shivering, when the adrenaline is truly flowing, they stop acting and they start being real. They start to become Vikings and Native Americans and everything about the story starts to fall into place.”

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior Movie Poster (2007)

Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior (2007)

Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Karl Urban, Moon Bloodgood, Russell Means, Clancy Brown, Jay Tavare, Nathaniel Arcand, Ralf Moeller, Michelle Thrush, Nicole Muñoz, Burkely Duffield, Duane Howard
Screenplay by: Laeta Kalogridis
Production Design by: Greg Blair
Cinematography by: Daniel Pearl
Film Editing by: Jay Friedkin, Glen Scantlebury
Costume Design by: Renée April
Set Decoration by: Lin MacDonald
Art Direction by: Geoff Wallace
Music by: Jonathan Elias
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence throughout.
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: April 13, 2007