‘TOMB RAIDER’ director Roar Uthaug cracks the code to capturing a clever, capable heroine

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Not only does filmmaker Roar Uthaug have one of the best names in the business, his films all contain one common through-line – a strong female heroine. His latest, TOMB RAIDER, is based on the 2013 video game reboot (one of the most successful in the franchise’s history) and has one bad-ass, kick-ass, thrilling heroine at the heart of the action.

In the action-adventure, fiercely independent 21-year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) goes in search of her long-lost father (Dominic West), who’s possibly stranded on a mysterious, cursed island. With not much but her physical prowess, wit and gumption tossed into her backpack, she sets about on a rescue mission, pushing her beyond what she thought she was capable of doing.

I spoke with the affable director about everything from the film’s genesis, to how many hours of game play he logged before taking on the challenge, to how to get the best performance from a soaking wet cast.

Let’s talk a little about modernizing this character. I know you took most of the inspiration from the video game reboot, but were there any qualities you pulled from the existing films or other games?

When I started working on the movie, I looked a lot at what they did with the 2013 reboot of the game, which I think they brilliantly make her more contemporary. That take on Lara Croft felt very grounded. That’s something I really wanted to bring to this big screen origin story.

This is such a labor intensive, physical film for the cast. Did you try to break down the schedule in order to give them breaks in between these bigger, action-driven sequences?

You have to do that when you schedule it. Alicia’s in it for basically every scene so you don’t want to put two big fights against each other. You have to portion it out a bit. But the way we started the shoot was in the tent with Walton Goggins having Lara wake up on Yamatai, coming out in this whole new world. I think that was a good way to throw them in there, but also to start that journey off. It kind of starts a new chapter in the movie. I was happy I was able to start it that way and expand from there. It also gave us more time to prep the action scenes. We started it in Cape Town and did all the island stuff there and then we moved to London to shoot the stuff at the start of the movie.

What are the logistics like on these sorts of days? Do they last longer than you expected or go quicker?

What you try to do is get them wet really early in the scene because then they’re wet throughout – then they don’t have to go back to drying hair which takes forever.

You want these days to go as quick as possible because they’re uncomfortable.

Yeah. The trick is to get them wet and uncomfortable early so they can stay that way. There are a lot of moving parts where they’re on this big gimble and moving sets. They have to be safe. And the camera crew is up there with them and they have to be safe as well. We have all these big water cannons, pummeling gallons of water in their faces. There’s a lot of logistics to it. You shoot very small amounts of film on days like that. We had a great crew down in South Africa, which really made it a lot easier than it could have been.

Tell me a little about finding the balance between what will please the die-hard gamers,  the video game company, and the studio while at the same time also appealing to the people who don’t know anything about the game.

Making a movie, first and foremost, you need to care about making the best possible movie.

And the characters are so great – so well-written!

Thank you! I feel very lucky working with such great actor on this. First, you have to crack the story and the arc of Lara and the emotional connection. If you don’t care about the character, it doesn’t matter what kind of spectacular set pieces you put them through. You really have to engage with the character to make that connection work with her. That’s what we started on and then you can sprinkle in a little Easter Eggs for the fans, which we’ve definitely done. First and foremost, we made this for the big screen and for an audience that doesn’t necessarily know Lara Croft, or the games. We also put stuff in there that will make the fans excited as well.

Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Did you play the game, and if so, how many hours of game play did you log before you felt comfortable sprinkling in these references?

[laughs] I used to play the original game when that first came out. I’ve been a fan of hers for many years. I’d play a little bit [of the new game] and if you go on YouTube, you can see the cut scenes, so we also watched a lot of that to see what we can pull from it. Mostly it’s about creating this movie version of it. Although we can draw inspiration from the game, we are trying to make our own story.

This was a long shoot. How do you keep that passion, momentum and morale from the cast and crew going? I would imagine it could take its toll or winds down.

Yeah, but at the same time, each day has its new set of challenges and I try to focus on…Of course you have the bigger picture in the back of your mind, but today’s work is the focus of today – and you try to make that as good as possible. We had a great crew and great atmosphere on the set so it was a lot of joy in the making of this movie even though it’s hard work.

Were there things you learned from making a film like THE WAVE that you applied here?

Stuff like getting to know your characters and making the action scenes come out of the characters – to put the camera in there with them and really feel that you’re with them to make it as immersive an experience as possible.

I’m curious if you’ve noticed a through line between the films you’ve done prior to this. You’ve done a family film, a disaster picture and a horror film, which this has a little bit of a horror-thriller aspect to it.

If I look back on the movies I’ve made, the biggest common denominator is that they’ve all had really strong female characters. I think that’s something that really appeals to me as a filmmaker. Growing up, I loved films like TERMINATOR 2, ALIEN, like those movies. To now be able to make a movie about one of the most iconic strong female characters in popular culture has been a real blessing.

I know this film leaves the door open, but do you have ideas for a sequel? I wanted to see another immediately after this ended.

We haven’t really talked about that yet. We’ll see. We’ve just been focused on making this movie- and I’m really excited about sharing it with an audience.

TOMB RAIDER opens on March 16.

Header photo: Roar Uthaug directs Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.