From Iceland — Don’t Mess With A Chamber Orchestra

Don’t Mess With A Chamber Orchestra

Published March 4, 2024

Don’t Mess With A Chamber Orchestra
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Supplied stills

Sigurjón Kjartansson reunites with his “brothers in comedy” for a debut feature film 

“It’s taken me a lot of time to grow into films,” smiles Sigurjón Kjartansson as we sit in the lobby of Reykjavík’s old cinema Gamla Bíó, which coincidentally serves as the setting for his film debut. Having shaped the Icelandic comedy and TV scene for years through the Fóstbræður sketch comedy show that has become a cultural phenomenon and popular series like Ófærð (Trapped) and Katla in his portfolio, one might have expected him to make films years ago. Sigurjón admits he was at peace with the idea of never making a movie, until everything fell into place just right for Fullt hús (Grand Finale) to take shape.

“It kind of just happened,” says Sigurjón. While television has always been more of his medium, he had an idea of making a TV series around the subject of a chamber orchestra for years but somehow never developed it. “I just loved the idea. A friend of mine who worked with a rock band once went on tour with a classical orchestra,” he says. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? It was no different in classical music.”

When producers Örn Marinó Arnarson and Þorkell Harðarson from Markell Productions, approached Sigurjón with the idea of him writing and directing a film, it didn’t take him long to decide. In fact, it only took one car ride. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

“I got the whole idea for the movie as I was driving to my hometown of Selfoss,” he says, specifying that it was during the drive over Hellisheiði. The producers’ only wish was for the movie to take place in a confined space — their own trademark. That’s when Sigurjón’s old idea came into play. “I then thought about the old chamber orchestra idea, but a movie this time, so I needed a plot. And I plotted it on my way home. It’s a 50-minute ride.”

Laughing through chaos

Fullt hús takes a viewer on a 92-minute laughter-filled journey; a delightful farce skillfully crafted by Sigurjón. “You could look at it as an episode of The Muppet Show,” he says. “It doesn’t take itself seriously at all. But if you want to dig, it is a movie about an abuse of power. We see this cellist who’s abusing his power left and right. And then something happens,” Sigurjón pauses and smiles. “Then you could say his power is being abused. But only for the chamber orchestra to realise that they had the power all the time.” 

“You could look at it as an episode of The Muppet Show.”

With the cast featuring Helga Braga Jónsdóttir, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, there are plenty of familiar faces for Icelandic cinephiles to enjoy. “I am very proud of this casting and I’m grateful that all these great artists wanted to be in my film,” says Sigurjón, not shying away from the fact that the cast is composed of his long-time friends and collaborators, including his comedy partner Jón Gnarr. “These are the people I know. We have had creative dialogue so many times, so it felt like a comfort zone for me and all of us to walk into this and figure things out together.”

Stills from Fullt hús

Music has played an important role in Sigurjón’s life — he’s been a member of rock band HAM since 1988 and continues doing music until now. Despite his heavier roots, classical music also has a special place in Sigurjón’s heart. But besides dabbling in violin at the age of 7, he’s not classically trained and neither are most of the actors. It turns out pretending to be a member of a chamber orchestra is a doable feat, though it did call for some training. “We had classically trained musicians on set with us and at least some of the actors got some training from professionals,” Sigurjón explains. “But during the shooting, it was very funny to hear the actual violins being played, it didn’t sound very nice at the time. Of course, they had the playback, but if you take that out, it sounds kind of crazy.”

A TV veteran takes on directing

The director refers to the shooting period of Fullt hús as “cosy.” With most of the scenes shot in one venue — using multiple locations inside Gamla Bíó and a shooting timeline of 22 days, this project seems a little different from what Sigurjón knows from TV. “I never felt that I was being pressed for time. Of course, I come from television, where we shoot like crazy — seven to 10 pages a day. There was no pressure like that here,” he says.

“I wanted to thrill the audience with laughter and suspense.

Despite being a first-time director, Sigurjón admits that working on a big team for a TV series has many similarities — both are very collaborative in nature. “Showrunning TV series is not very different from what I’m doing here,” he says. “You always have the freedom — whether you are working with other people or yourself.” Sigurjón speaks of working with the producers and the team as highly productive. “When I came up with one draft, they [the producers] came up with notes and some really good ideas that I could use. We were all together — the producers, the editors, the cameraman and the actors, of course. I’m used to collaboration, so I welcome it when I’m working on my stuff.”

A movie fan himself, Sigurjón refers to himself as being raised in Ísafjarðarbíó — the local cinema of Ísafjorður in the Westfjords. “With this movie, I am making a movie I wanted to see. Like everyone should do.”

Stills from Fullt hús

 A careful eye might see a lot of influences in Fullt húsfrom Brian De Palma to Alfred Hitchcock. “Of course, there are influences that have shaped me since I was a kid. And the comedy thing is just something I have known — it’s in my blood. It is a farce and there’s no shame in making this movie a farce.”

One thing that Sigurjón points out, without giving much away, is a shift in the third act of the movie. “It turns into a kind of thriller,” he says. “I wanted to thrill the audience with laughter and suspense.” 

Comedy strikes back

Fullt hús (which translates literally to “full house”) lives up to its name and has been performing impressively at the box office, with over 12 thousand tickets sold in four weeks — a notable achievement for Iceland. “We premiered in the most terrible time ever, the end of January, which is almost unlivable here,” laughs Sigurjón. “I’m very happy to be able to give people some joy during those tough months.”

Stills from Fullt hús

The film’s hilarious plot, cringe-worthy suspense with a hint of deeper issues could be one reason Icelanders have been flocking to the cinema. Another factor might be the audience’s desire to reunite with their favourite characters from Fóstbræður, the show that captivated Icelandic comedy in the late 1990s. “Of course, a lot of the old Fóstbræður “brothers” are working with me on this movie. But no, it doesn’t have to mean that we are getting back the old Fóstbræður,” Sigurjón clarifies. 

“It’s a kind of comeback for me in comedy,” he adds. “I have the feeling that this one is gonna be a keeper. It has legs, I hope.”

See Fullt hús in cinemas around town: Bíó Paradís, Sambíó, Smárabíó and Laugarásbíó.

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