Norwegian director Joachim Rønning on his film ‘Young Woman and the Sea’ and helping Daisy Ridley conquer her fear of open water

By Tina Jøhnk Christensen

Photo: Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Nordics

We speak to Norwegian director Joachim Rønning on helming the Daisy Ridley-starring biopic Young Woman and the Sea

Joachim Rønning does not think it is worth mentioning how far he can swim. The Norwegian director of Young Woman and the Sea – a biopic about Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926 – understandably does not want to be compared to his film’s subject.


“I love swimming but it is only recreational and very sporadic,” Rønning admits. “But I do like the water. I grew up by the ocean in a town called Sandefjord and I prefer to swim in the ocean outside the coast of Norway on a warm summer day. I am not a fan of cold water.”

As we speak to Rønning via Zoom, he is travelling between his short-term rental apartment in Vancouver and the Bridge Studios in Burnaby, a suburb of the Canadian city. Here, he is on the 77th day of shooting the science fiction film Tron: Ares on a fabulous new sound stage, however, he much prefers the challenging outdoor shoots of Young Woman and the Sea. “It is always hard to shoot a movie and you make it even harder when you add water, but I think it is so beautiful,” he says. “I grew up sailing and water was always around us, so I am drawn to it. I love even talking about it now with you… I love that in my mind I can go to the ocean, be in the element and feel the wind and the spray of the ocean water. Of course, when you are in the middle of it, you hate it and it is so hard. But when you see the final result, it is so real.”

Rønning is no stranger to making films on the water. In 2012, the now 51-year-old director made Kon-Tiki with his directing partner Espen Sandberg, who is also a native of Sandefjord. The movie, which was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Feature, portrayed the Thor Heyerdahl expedition crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft. Young Woman and the Sea, however, takes place primarily in the English Channel and was shot on location and in the Black Sea. Ederle is played by Daisy Ridley, who, ironically, had an aversion to open-water swimming. Ridley overcame her fear by training rigorously alongside Olympic medalist Siobhan-Marie O'Connor for four months before shooting.

Photo: The Walt Disney Company Nordics

“I think she was a decent swimmer before,” says Rønning about 32-year-old Ridley’s talent in the water. “But she had to learn how they swam all those years ago and it is also very different to be an open water swimmer from swimming in a pool.” Rønning insisted that they shot on the ocean and not in a tank. Ridley was game. “The Black Sea temperature was around 15-degrees, which is cold when you are in the water all day,” he says. “But she just kept swimming till her lips were blue and never complained.”

I was looking for an inspirational story because I have done big family movies, fantasy and fairy tales, which was great when my daughters were young, but now that they are teenagers, I would like to create something that will inspire them.

Joachim Rønning

At the age of 21, Ridley was plucked from anonymity to prominence as the Jedi Rey in the Star Wars sequel trilogy: The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Ederle, whose nickname is Trudy as well as ‘Queen of the Waves’, was 20 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. At the time, she was the most accomplished swimmer in the world and inspired a wave of confidence and emancipation for women. “I think it is important to be reminded of these stories and that subject of suppression is still going on,” says Rønning about the feminist element of the story. “I was looking for an inspirational story because I have done big family movies, fantasy and fairy tales, which was great when my daughters were young, but now that they are teenagers, I would like to create something that will inspire them.”

Photo: The Walt Disney Company Nordics

Rønning, who is primarily based in Los Angeles and whose big fantasy and fairy tale films include Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), is a father of two teenage daughters aged 17 and 19 (his wife is American activist and socialite Amanda Hearst). He instantly related to the father of Ederle, played by Danish Kim Bodnia, who was a simple butcher in New York and initially unimpressed by his daughter’s accomplishments.

“I am probably more of a modern father, where you are much more supportive of whatever your kids want to do. Maybe too supportive,” says Rønning. “But he is a product of his time as a German immigrant and it is probably very hard to imagine where he was coming from and the tough love that he was brought up with. I think that was one of the most important parts of the story – to show the father with his daughters and how it is changing him and bringing him in to a more enlightened world. He becomes her biggest supporter.”

Photo: The Walt Disney Company Nordics

Ridley was costumed in 1920s swimwear – a two-piece swimsuit – which at the time was considered scandalous because women were supposed to swim in gowns. “I wanted to show some sort of progress in the story,” says Rønning about the swimsuit designed by Ederle’s sister Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). “Why should men decide what women wear? Or what women do at all? It was also from a practical point of view. They were modernising a sports outfit to be more efficient. It is all part of progress and it happens every year that there is some new invention. So for me, it was an important comment on that too.”

The film depicts how Ederle, who grew up in New York and survived measles as a child, did not only overcome the patriarchal society’s suppression and proved that the statement ‘no woman will ever swim the English Channel’ was wrong. She also broke the previous record by two hours. She swam from France to England, which had only been achieved by 5 men before her, in an impressive fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes. “It was an unbelievable true story,” says Rønning. “I have done some biopics in my career and I am a sucker for that. I really love history and I love to learn from history and it was such an exceptional story that I had never heard of.”