From Iceland — More At Stake

More At Stake

Published October 3, 2011

?Volcano' director Rúnar Rúnarsson interviewed

More At Stake
Atli Bollason
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?Volcano' director Rúnar Rúnarsson interviewed

Rúnar Rúnarsson is a young Icelandic director who became somewhat of a starlet when he was nominated for an Oscar for his short film ‘Síðasti bærinn’ (“The Last Farm”) in 2006, before even entering the Danish Film School whence he has now graduated. His first feature-length film, ‘Eldfjall’ (“Volcano”), premiered as part of the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes in the spring and was nominated for the Camera d’Or award for best debut film. After the premiere, the film and the director have travelled widely, drawing tears and applause from audiences in places as far apart as Kazakhstan and Toronto. It only reaches the shores of Iceland this September 29, when it will premiere in Háskólabíó and open to the general public the following day.

‘Volcano’ tells the story of Hannes, a 67-year old janitor who retires at the beginning of the film. An old-schooler defined by his job, the retirement leaves him restless, and the estrangement from his family becomes clearer than ever. His children only ever come around to see their mother, and they scold him for his cold, brusque and distant manners. Once in a while his wife and he manage to rekindle their flame, but she soon suffers a stroke, leaving Hannes all alone and unloved. He decides to take care of her at their home, in a sense to atone for all the years of neglect, and this proves to be somewhat of a challenge, forcing Hannes to take a deep, hard look at himself.

We spoke briefly to Rúnar about the film, filmmaking and being anal in your preparations.


Your shorts, ‘Anna,’ ‘Smáfuglar’ (“Two Birds”) and ‘Síðasti bærinn,’ have been very successful ventures, gathering awards at film festivals and even an Oscar nomination. One could say that you’ve mastered the short form. Did you find the jump from shorts to feature filmmaking hard?
Yes and no. I am a control freak and I do a lot of preparation before I start shooting. I guess the biggest difference between those two forms of filmmaking is time consumption. The feature tells a story on a much bigger scale than a short. It is easier to have oversight over a film of fifteen minutes, whereas it is actually quite hard to maintain control over every detail over the space of ninety minutes or more. Everything takes so much longer. The preparation time was very long, the shooting and the postproduction took a long time.

You are a young man making your feature film debut, yet you have made a film about people who have recently retired. Why were you attracted by the lives of seniors?
Most of the time, stories that interest me and stories that I want to tell are about people who find themselves at some sort of crossroads in their life. You could call it a transition period; a child becoming a teenager, a teenager becoming an adult, and then, like in this film, senior adults facing their last stage in life. Most films are about some kind of development of the main character, and in a late stage of life the opportunities in front of you could be your last. So there is more at stake.


The effects of the Vestmannaeyjar eruption of 1974 lingers in the background of the film, is of course in its title, but the theme not extensively developed. Would you care to comment on the relevance of the eruption for Hannes and for the film?
The volcanic eruption serves as the backdrop of Hannes’ life. Because of the eruption, he had to leave his home and that became a big influence on the person he has become at the time of the film. Hannes is an old-fashioned kind of guy that finds it hard to express love or emotions, but underneath his cold surface he is boiling with feelings. So the title of the film is also a metaphor for the main character.

The camera work in ‘Volcano’ is absolutely stunning at times. What can you tell us about the co-operation between you and cinematographer Sophia Olsson?
I was so lucky to meet Sophia when we studied together in the National Film School of Denmark. During our time there we did many productions together and developed our mutual way of narrating a story. She has an exceptional eye and good dramatic understanding. We plan the shootings in a very detailed manner by creating a photographic storyboard of each and every scene of the film that we act through ourselves. This, if you will, anal preparation gives us a visual narrative overview that makes it easier for us to improvise and capture moments during the actual shooting.

The star of the film, Theodór Júlíusson, despite his old age, has never played a leading role before. Why did you decide to cast him?
When I wrote the screenplay I had him in mind for that role already. I think he is an amazing actor, and I don’t know why he has never had a main role before. As a person and as an actor, he can be the softest and sweetest man, and in the very next minute be a very tough guy, and this paradoxical quality gives an extra layer or added dimension to the characters that he plays and is the foundation of the depth of the main character of the film.


The film has already done well at renowned festivals such as in Cannes and Toronto. Now, when it is about to open in Reykjavík, how important is the reception at home for you?
Even though it has been well received abroad, it’s a film about Iceland and Icelandic reality. Therefore I am of course curious to see the reactions of the Icelandic audience. Also, the film was made here, my crew was almost entirely Icelandic and therefore the premiere here means harvesting and celebrating with the people that made it possible.

What is your opinion of Icelandic filmmaking?           
In terms of the size of Iceland, and how late we began funding film productions, relatively, compared to many other countries, it’s unbelievable what we have achieved in that field. But the industry is young and fragile and therefore the cutbacks to the Icelandic Film Fund have resulted in productions here becoming smaller and fewer, and skilled filmmakers leaving the country to earn a living. I hope that those cutbacks will be reversed before it is too late.

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