On the very day marking the beginning of summer in Iceland, one of the biggest film studios in Europe opened its doors to the future about twenty minutes away from downtown Reykjavík.
“In five or ten years it‘s going to be the coolest place in town,” Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur exclaims, and it’s hard to doubt him with such confidence in his voice.
A creative village
Best known for internationally acclaimed movies like ‘Jar City’ and ‘Everest,’ as well as TV show ‘Trapped,’ Baltasar has notoriously shared his talents between national and international projects. His latest homecoming, however, brings along a forward-thinking dream that might change the future of filmmaking in Iceland.
“It’s going to be a creative village,” Baltasar explains. “For now we’ve only opened the interiors, but we plan on building an entire village around it.” Set up alongside RVK studio and the patronage of the municipality, this is an ambitious project.
It envisions the construction of 250 apartments and the creation of a network of local and international film and sound companies, as well as musicians and creatives, located only a quick boat-ride away from the city centre, on the shores of one of the least densely populated areas of town. “Central town has been taken over by tourism,” Baltasar says of his choice of locale. “So I think now there is an opportunity to build something away from it, where the creative people can move and settle.”
The appeal of a love story
Baltasar’s new creative baby is different from any project we’ve seen him dealing with before, and it comes only months before the release of his latest Hollywood movie ‘Adrift,’ a thrilling drama that sees Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin sailing through one of the most catastrophic storms ever recorded.
“I had wanted to tell a love story for a long time, and it’s hard to find something that is not a rom-com. But I thought this was different,” Baltasar explains. “It‘s a love story but also a survival movie, where you have this element of nature and the vastness of the ocean being the actual obstacle in the love story itself.”
The power of nature
It’s not the first time the ocean or the raw, crushing power of nature come into play in a movie directed by Baltasar. ‘The Deep’ recounted the true story of an Icelandic man who has to swim back to safety in the midst of a storm after his fishing boat sinks kilometres away from the Southern coast of Iceland. In biographical adventure movie ‘Everest,’ instead, a group of climbers tries to survive during a storm atop the highest peak on Earth.
Baltasar mostly attributes these stylistic choices to his personal experience with Icelandic nature, recounting childhood memories of walking through blizzards all the way to school or to his mother’s stables to feed the horses, as well as ghoulish cases of travellers getting lost in the ominous lava fields.
“And that’s exactly where you draw those choices from,” Baltasar says. “I’ve been called an enemy to Icelandic tourism for making Iceland dark and dangerous, but I think people aren’t interested in postcards. I just try to be as honest about it as I can and in some way, I think it makes it more interesting.”
Peeling off the layers
But there is more to these choices than mere recollections. In a way, the central role of nature in movies like ‘Adrift’ serves as a trigger for the inevitable existential struggle within oneself in front of the overpowering force of nature.
“A journey through nature peels off all the layers, and it makes you raw. That’s how you manage to understand people around you,” Baltasar says. “When you’re in nature, all these things we hide behind, from computers and telephones to makeup, are all gone. You‘re just there—wet and raw.
So you end up seeing people who think they‘re superheros eventually breaking down, while those you wouldn’t think of as strong becoming incredibly resilient. They become the raw versions of themselves, but it’s not physical. It’s in their head.”
A desire to be true
Capturing that roughness, that natural state of things, seems to represent an incredibly appealing task to Baltasar. No frills, no hiding behind masks; instead, he offers the possibility to embrace that animalistic side of humanity that makes a story more authentic. “I like stripping things away,” he admits. “We can be cultured and educated, but deep down we are all animals. We have to have sex, take a shit and so forth—and that becomes really apparent when you are in a natural state of things.”
This desire to be true in his stories, however, isn’t only relegated to setting. True stories like the ones behind his previous movies are anchored into reality, which is precisely what makes them so appealing to Baltasar. In particular, he seems to rejoice at the opportunity to weave a strong connection with his own emotions and experiences, as well as with the audience.
“You always try to make things that resonate with you, that tap into your psyche or your experience,” Baltasar explains. “Because making a film is such an ordeal, when I find something that has a connection I build on it. Then my passion starts flowing and it all becomes easy. Otherwise, without the passion, this is the worst job in the world.”
A thousand possibilities
Luckily, passion is something that Baltasar doesn’t seem to lack. On camera, it translates both to intense performances and heart-wrenching stories, as well as to an ever-changing interest in growing as a director and exploring different aspects of filmmaking.
The fact that the lead in ‘Adrift’ was a woman, for instance, made the script even more interesting, if not somewhat challenging. “When I read the book the script was based on, I thought Shaileen [Woodley] would be perfect for it,” Baltasar says. “Survival stories with a woman lead are very rare, but I think it‘s about time that they are told.”
This meant that Baltasar had to both dig into his own understanding of the ocean and his love of sailing, as well as to grab the possibility to finally explore a single, complex character from all angles. “It’s hard to tell a story about so many people at once like we did in ‘Everest,” Baltasar recounts. “But this is Tami’s story so you have to tell it from her perspective. In some ways, that’s what I’m trying to do—allow you to learn about the characters and why they like the seas as things are moving forward.”
Much cooler than Hollywood
While ‘Adrift’ will premiere in cinemas in June, the new season of ‘Trapped’ is already in the making. Knowing how much popularity the TV show has acquired internationally, it was particularly important to Baltasar to convey the reality of contemporary Iceland as authentically as possible.
“If you do only movies that are for the few, and you start fulfilling an ideal people have about you instead of telling the truth it becomes a bit too monochrome,” Baltasar explains. “But if you can tell authentic stories you can reach out to a large audience, and I’m proud of that.”
Trapped is one of the projects that have already found a home in Baltasar’s new film studio in Gufunes, but various foreign companies have also expressed interest in shooting here in the future. So will it become a Hollywood of the North? “Oh no, it will be much, much cooler,” he concludes with a laugh, and we can’t help but hope with him.
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