Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for uncomfortable laughter
“Never underestimate the power of anxiety,” says director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson from the stage of Háskólabíó on the premiere night of Northern Comfort, his latest dark comedy, co-written by Halldór Laxness Halldórsson and Tobias Munthe. It feels like half of Reykjavík is here today, particularly the creme de la creme of the local film industry. The lights dim and, soon enough, one of the main characters realises he’s about to take a flight to Iceland. “The lump of volcanic rock in the North Atlantic?” he says and the room bursts into laughter.
“It’s always fun to show the film to the crowd you know,” says Hafsteinn a few days later as I meet him at the office of Netop Films, the production company housed just one floor below Grapevine HQ. He’s much more relaxed when there’s no line of people eager to shake his hand or pat him on the shoulder. “It’s nice to come home and show it to the cast, the crew, friends and everybody here.”
While the local audience welcomed Northern Comfort, it wasn’t filmed in Icelandic. The decision to produce the film entirely in English was primarily driven by financial considerations. The film had a complex production with the need to shoot in multiple countries and build elaborate sets. “We realised that this would be hard to finance in Icelandic, because Icelandic films can only cost a certain amount,” Hafsteinn explains. This decision has already proved successful. Following the film’s global premiere at the SXSW film festival in March, Northern Comfort has been sold to a number of key territories, including Benelux, Australia and New Zealand, the Baltics, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland, to name a few. In the UK, the film will be available on Netflix in January.
The film’s premise centres around an aerophobic group of travellers who become stranded in Iceland while undergoing a course on overcoming their fear of flying. What starts as a trip to a “lump of volcanic rock in the North Atlantic” quickly turns into a humorous examination of human behaviour under pressure. Interestingly, in the original version of the script, a group of Icelanders got stuck in Germany. “It made the story stronger in a way,” Hafsteinn speaks of the change in the script. “It made the circumstances more intense, somehow, for this group to get stuck in Iceland rather than getting stuck in Germany.”
An ode to surrendering control
Hafsteinn explains that the idea for the film goes back 15 years, when he was a student at Columbia University and heard about fear of flying courses. “There’s someone in my family who is terrified of flying,” he says. “I immediately thought that this would make a great premise for film – to sort of expose human behaviour and fears and pose some existential questions in a funny way.”
The idea stayed with Hafsteinn until he brought co-writers Halldór and Tobias on board. Despite not being aerophobic himself, Hafsteinn admits that anxiety has been present in his life. “I have gone through it, but it’s something I didn’t really have very much until I had children,” he admits. “I had to learn to adapt, but I think anxiety can be helpful in a way because it makes us want to do better.” According to the director, the fear of failing can be so strong, it keeps you alert, “You can use it as an important force to do better.”
Even though Northern Comfort centres on the fear of flying, Hafsteinn reassures that the message is universal. “It’s about our fears. The fear of flying is only one representation of that,” he says. “It’s about letting go and accepting that we can’t be in full control of things. We live in stressful times with many things to be anxious about or worry about, but when it comes to it, we need to try to be in the moment – let go and enjoy.”
Northern Comfort was filmed from January to March 2022, starting in Mývatn, Iceland. Hafsteinn shares, “We were shooting at the end of COVID and when we began two out of five main actors were in quarantine in different countries.” This posed challenges and reduced rehearsal time before shooting. An actress fell ill and had to be replaced after the first day, which Hafsteinn manages to say with a smile – a bit ironic given the film’s theme of anxiety over lack of control. “Luckily, it all turned out well.”
The production of Northern Comfort faced complications due to many scenes set in airports, requiring numerous extras. COVID somewhat aided the crew; for instance, Gatwick Airport had half its facilities shut down due to the pandemic. “What’s fun about filmmaking is that you’re always confronted with a new problem that maybe people haven’t solved before,” Hafsteinn says.
However, a more unfortunate incident occurred involving Hafsteinn’s wife, who’s a dancer and choreographer and played one of the flight attendants. She dislocated her elbow after performing a stunt. This happened just before the crew was set to travel to London for three weeks of shooting. Hafsteinn had to leave her with their two children, which he recalls as a dreadful experience for him, “She recovered. We have a great family who stepped in to help with the kids. But the feeling of guilt was terrible.”
Icelandic take on “eating the rich”
Hafsteinn admits that Northern Comfort aimed to critique “first world” problems in its own way. The film’s cast, which includes Lydia Leonard, Timothy Spall, Ella Rumpf, Sverrir Gudnason, Simon Manyonda, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Rob Delaney, successfully brought this vision to life.
“What’s exciting for me as a director is to access a wider selection of actors,” says Hafsteinn, reflecting on working with this diverse group, “You have to love your children the same. But they’re different; I love them for different reasons.” He mentions that none of the actors knew each other before the film. “Luckily, we all really clicked and I thought they all have their individual strengths. I’m very happy with it; with this ensemble.”
With its narrative involving a group of well-off travellers whose trip takes an unexpected turn, Northern Comfort reminded me of Triangle of Sadness and The White Lotus.
“A lot of people mentioned Triangle of Sadness. I, of course, hadn’t seen it [at the time],” remarks Hafsteinn when asked about the inspiration for the film. “Often ideas are just sort of in the air. One film that I often thought about was an 80s comedy by Martin Scorsese called After Hours, about a guy who gets stuck downtown Manhattan, experiencing a night of events that go really wrong. Some people find some resemblances to Östlund films; I like his work very much. But then again, you’re just making your film, believing in your characters and your story, and hoping that it will turn into something original in a way.”
Looking into the future
As Hafsteinn looks ahead, he expresses a desire to avoid becoming confined to a particular style or genre. “I want to keep exploring. I just finished a TV show called Afturelding that was very popular here in the spring. I’m writing a sequel to that and developing another TV series and a couple of movies,” he says. “You never know what’s gonna get financed and picked up so it’s hard to tell at the moment. Hopefully I’ll be shooting something in 2025.”
While Hafsteinn agrees that it hasn’t always been easy to persuade Icelanders to go to the cinema, especially for a film in English, he encourages people to experience Northern Comfort in a theatre setting. He says, “It’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it raises some questions about being a human. You should see it on a big screen with people.”
Northern Comfort is screening at Bíó Paradís, Laugarásbíó, Sambíó and Smárabíó
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