Baltasar Kormákur just could be to Icelandic film what Björk is to Icelandic music. In the same way that Björk made Icelandic music known outside of the country, Icelandic film has slowly been reaching out to an international audience
—and nobody has made it farther than Baltasar.
Baltasar is currently in Berlin, filming the pilot for an HBO series called “The Missionary.” The story commences in East-Berlin in 1969 and continues into the ‘70s. The director himself actually visited East-Berlin once in the ‘80s. “I was on a trip with my drama class, just before the Wall came down. We had been partying and I was very hung-over when we crossed the border and looked nothing like the picture in my passport. I was arrested in customs and the whole class had to wait while things were sorted out. When we finally entered East-Berlin, it seemed as if the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the food tasted kind of strange,” he says.
Love in the ‘90s
Sometime after his release from East German detention, Baltasar started his career in earnest, playing Romeo on the Reykjavík stage and then becoming the leading man in several Icelandic films. Born to a Spanish father and Icelandic mother, he had a whiff of exoticism about him and was one of the major heartthrobs in Iceland in the ‘90s. His first film as director, ‘101 Reykjavík’ from 2000, starred Spanish actress Victoria Abril and became an international success of sorts.
It was around this time that he sold his shares in Kaffibarinn, the bar which he owned with Damon Albarn of Blur and where much of the film is set, and turned to domesticity, marrying supermarket chain heiress Lilja Pálmadóttir. He also largely abandoned acting and turned full time to directing. This means long periods away from home. “My son Pálmi is here with me on set, so I try to bring these things together. It’s not always easy to be away for four or five months at a time, but you cannot complain about being able to do what you want to be doing,” he says.
Nr. 1 in America
Baltasar’s first English language film was ‘A Little Trip to Heaven’ in 2005, starring Forest Whitaker, which he made in between Icelandic films such as ‘Jar City,’ based on the book by best-selling crime fiction writer Arnaldur Indri›ason. His first American-produced film was ‘Inhale,’ starring Diane Kruger, but his big breakthrough came with ‘Contraband’ in 2012. This was a remake of an Icelandic film that he himself starred in, with Mark Wahlberg now in the leading role. Despite receiving mixed reviews, the movie went straight to number one at the American box-office on its opening week.
In a position now to do what he wanted, Baltasar decided to return home to make ‘The Deep,’ a film based on a play about the true story of an Icelandic sailor who spent a night in the freezing ocean swimming to land after his ship went down. His next film is ‘Two Guns,’ starring Wahlberg again, along with Denzel Washington. The film will premiere in the autumn, but before that, Baltasar has his Berlin story to complete.
The return of spy films
Parts of Karl-Marx Allee have been made up to look like they did in 1969, with period cars and people in period dresses. The sight is considerably different than what one is used to seeing in other period pieces from the shiny ‘60s. “When you remake a period, you are not just remaking that period but also the one that came before,” says screenwriter Charles Randolph. “Not all the cars in 1969 were new, and in some ways East Berlin at the time looked more like the 1940s.”
The series starts with a failed escape attempt over the wall itself, which has been rebuilt in Budapest on the site of the show’s main set. “There were four generations of Berlin Wall and they all appear in the series,” says Randolph, whose father was a missionary who helped to smuggle people to the west. “My father wasn’t involved with the CIA, but I know the atmosphere well. This was the time when spy organisations were no longer only gathering information but also taking direct action,” he adds, and agrees that the ongoing “War on Terror” might be one reason why spy films seem to be making a comeback.
Vikings in space
Baltasar’s next film after all this will be ‘Everest,’ about a real life mountaineering expedition that went tragically wrong. This will also allow him to spend time at home: “We can probably shoot most of it on Icelandic glaciers; I don’t think there is enough oxygen on Everest itself to make it there.” The film will star Christian Bale, who was last seen in Iceland in 2005 when he was making ‘Batman Begins’ (where Iceland also stood in for Tibet).
Among his other planned projects are a sequel to ‘Jar City’, a television series based on the popular Icelandic computer game EVE Online, and a long awaited epic set in the Viking Age. “I want to show the Viking world in a way that it has never been seen before. No Icelandic director so far has had the budget to do this properly. At the Viking Alﬂingi, or Parliament, for example, thousands of people came together but so far we’ve only gotten to see a few tents on screen.”
Turning down more money than you’ll ever make
Other projects he has declined. “I was offered more money than many people get in a lifetime to do ‘Fast and Furious 7,’ and it is more difficult than I would have thought to say no when these kinds of offers start coming in. What is appealing is to be able to get the budget to make big films that also have content, such as “Everest,” even if you get paid less. I want to make interesting films that also appeal to an audience. I never wanted to make just hardcore arthouse films and when I direct for the theatre I also want to reach people, rather than do a political one man show in a basement that no one sees.” Baltasar indeed still directs for the Icelandic National Theatre, which is where he started his career over 20 years ago.
“When I was growing up in a Reykjavík suburb in the ’70s, I had some dreams that hardly seemed likely to come true. People would have laughed if I told them I wanted to be a director in Hollywood,” he says. Producer Steve Levinson adds: “Perhaps Baltasar will make it fashionable to go to Iceland to look for directors.”
Which is more or less what Björk did for Icelandic music.