Master of Puppets

Noah C. Haeussner came home to NEFla last Friday, a conquering hero, to oversee the premiere of a new film he’s produced, Arctic, which stars the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen as Overgård, a man stranded near the Arctic Circle. When the helicopter sent to save him crashes, he has to care for the sole survivor; together they’re forced into life-and-death missions to find a way home from the frozen north.

“Growing up, especially as a gay youth in the South—it wasn’t easy,” he says. “But Jacksonville is such an incredible city. It’s grown a lot over the last 15 or 20 years, but for me as a youth, there wasn’t a lot going on within that city that I felt could creatively push me in a greater direction. So, it was a matter of taking a chance, because life is short.” But as any local will tell you, no matter where you go, Duval is never far away. To wit: Haeussner’s next project is a TV series produced with Levi Holloway, a friend from high school who lives in Chicago and had a play produced by the great Michael Shannon.

Haeussner moved to LA right after college. “I had just turned 21,” he says. “The whole idea of the hard life, it’s true. I think LA forces you to learn a lesson about struggle and about fighting for something you’re passionate about. [For] a good two years, I could barely save enough money to go see a movie, but I was never negative about it.” His early years were spent behind the scenes with National Lampoon and Maverick Films, before contributing to classics like The Dark Knight, 300 and I Am Legend. He soon started his own company, Union Entertainment Group.

He cites Martha DeLaurentis (of the legendary family) as a key mentor, along with Lori Romano, his instructor at Douglas Anderson, who helped him start that school’s film program. When asked about his favorite film, Haeussner has two answers, which are about as far apart as two films can be: Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now. This diversity of interests is reflected in his curriculum vitae, which encompasses everything from commercials and short films to features and TV. His best work could be considered two documentaries: Buffalo Girls (’12), which deals with pre-teen Muay Thai kickboxers, and Janis: Little Girl Blue (’15), probably the best Joplin biopic yet conceived.

Once he found his groove, the work proceeded at a breakneck pace, with Haeussner producing one or two films a year; even he has trouble keeping track. “I’m normally on a film for three years,” he says, “so I’m currently juggling about 11 films. At the end of the day, everything falls on my shoulders, in terms of the entire package.”

Arctic was filmed in conjunction with Iceland’s Pegasus Pictures. “I give them 65 percent of the credit for making this movie,” says Haeussner. “We shot the whole thing outdoors, in the middle of the worst winter in Iceland’s history. This was a film of true collaboration.” With no CGI or special effects, the environment is almost as a character itself, a formidable antagonist, always with new surprises for our hero. “Iceland is such an amazing backdrop,” he says, “I think not only for other worlds, but as a reference for the Arctic. This was as close as we could get to the Arctic without going to Greenland.”

Directed by Joe Penna, Arctic was shot on a scant $2 million budget, but they definitely got their money’s worth. Its sparse dialogue leaves the film oriented around the stunning polar visuals and the always-compelling facial expressions of its lead, creating a mood of palpable tension throughout. Arctic screened at Cannes in 2018, officially released Feb. 1.

All involved played key roles in the production, but it was Haeussner who served as impresario of the whole affair. “I’m the puppet master,” he says. “I am nothing without the puppets, and the strings. Very much how Arctic was: Finding this young director, finding this script, taking a string, connecting that script to Armory Films, our incredible production company, and taking another string and connecting it to Pegasus Pictures in Iceland, and taking all of those strings and connecting them to an incredible crew, finding that financing. It’s bringing the best of the best people together for the right project, and then following it through to the very end.”

Watching the finished film, it’s clear that this is a case in which the end certainly justifies his means.