In watching Rokk í Reykjavík, I got the impression that this film was a lot of fun to make.
“It was. At that time, there was this volcano of culture in Reykjavík. The music scene was so lively and that seems to be coming back. Although it’s hard for an old dog like me to keep up with it all, I still try. Most of the people I documented are still good friends of mine.”
The mentally ill and the holy
So what got you interested in film making in the first place?
“I guess I was always on the way there. In the 60´s I was interested in art and wanted to be a painter or a writer but I knew I was never going to be either, so I aimed for film. There were hardly any Icelandic films at that time, mostly documentaries. I felt that making a film wasn’t as difficult as people thought, that I could make a film for very little money. I decided to learn the hard way. Theory can´t teach you how to make films – either you know how to do it or you don’t. I could teach someone how to tell a story with a film in four or five days but making a good film is something you just can’t teach. You can, of course, learn a bit by watching good films. You know, in my day if I wanted to see Kurasawa I had to order it from overseas. This is why I don’t pity young people today. They have such easy access to many great films. They can learn from the best.”
One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between your early films and your more recent ones is the lighting – there seems to be a lot more light-play in your later films.
“Films are all about light. When you’re filming a documentary, you ask yourself, ‘Why am I catching this atmosphere?’ That atmosphere is all about the lighting. I think it’s good for every filmmaker to have a background in documentaries, because you learn how to capture a certain atmosphere in a feature film with light. In my first film, Blacksmith, for example, we dealt with the light of the hot iron to capture the atmosphere of that film. In Angels of the Universe we used lighting to convey a kind of holiness – a long time ago people considered the mentally ill to be holy people – so we backlit the main character a lot, creating a kind of halo effect. I suppose all visual art deals with light.”
The US occupation
Your most recent film, Niceland, is a real departure from your usual work. What inspired you to take this script on?
“It was mostly for personal reasons. The woman I lived with at the time had a brother with Down’s Syndrome who died around the time I got the script. These people give so much; they´re so pure, so dignified. With this film, I saw that I could make a small film with a lot of tiny nuances, which is something missing from my films because I’m a storyteller. It was a pretty easy film to make. Usually, there are a thousand problems surrounding directing and producing but in this film, I was only directing so I could really concentrate on the details. But of course I always do films for personal reasons – Angels of the Universe was very personal to me because I knew the main character.”
I suppose there were also personal reasons behind Devil´s Island?
“There were. The neighbourhood consisting of old army barracks where the film took place was, for us, a symbol of US occupation when I was growing up. We were ashamed of them and tried to wipe them out and replace them with good houses as soon as we could. Devil´s Island was based a great deal on memories from my own childhood. When I was a kid I lived in neighbourhood called ‘Skindurnar’ which was right next to the barracks neighbourhood. My neighbourhood was pretty rough, but even I was scared to walk through the barracks neighbourhood at night. I would always hear screaming and fighting. I associated that place with a great deal of anger.”
“It´s better when the actor doesn´t know what he´s doing”
How did you come about doing a movie version of Beowulf?
“The director, Sturla Gunnarsson, brought the script to me and was very passionate about making this movie. The story’s been changed a bit to make it more suitable for film, but it remains more or less intact. I don’t know why no one’s done the film this way before. It’s a great story.”
How do you get what you want from an actor?
“The people I work with are almost always friends of mine for about two or three years before I work with them. It’s just easier working with friends. When you’ve been hanging out with someone a lot, they get to know who you are and what you’re made of. I want the actor to bring something extra to the story, to surprise me. I welcome it. I like taking chances. One of the best ways to get that something extra from an actor is to make them responisble for the role. It’s also good if the actor isn’t entirely sure what their doing. When an actor is totally sure of themselves and their role, it just becomes too theatrical.”
And on to Bollywood…
What´s the difference between directing or producing?
“Well, it’s more fun to direct but if you’re proud of a film you’ve produced it’s a great thing. I’m especially proud of the children’s films I’ve produced because if Icelanders start watching Icelandic films as children, they’ll grow up appreciating them and maybe want to make some of their own. It can be a real pleasure to produce but when people aren’t behaving it’s really boring, you know, having to tell someone that they’ve finished the budget for a film. But I now have the know-how to avoid stupid people.”
What projects have you been thinking of for the future?
“I’ll decide on that after Beowulf. It’s been a pretty bulky production and I know I’ll learn a lot. I don’t talk about the future, so I can change my mind later. Maybe I’ll want to go to India and direct or produce a Bollywood movie.”