Are you a better director now than when you made Nói Albinói?
No, not really. The period between takes is always so long – three, four years– that you forget everything in between. It’s almost impossible to bring any luggage from your last film to your next. Also because the films are so different … it’s more like debut film no. 2.
You’ve said that Iceland is too small and produces too few films for there to be a specifically “Icelandic cinema”. Is debut no. 2 an eternal national fate, or is it changing?
The size of the country makes this a perpetual situation, I think. It will never be possible to make sense of big waves or common tendencies, when you only have four or five films a year. It makes it all arbitrary and dependent on individuals. But you can notice some developments, still. There are these phases. For a while, audio was the main issue, the audio had to get better. Then, lately, there has been an emphasis on making better scripts. And I think we’re doing OK in scripts now.
And now you are the first Icelandic director to make a film with no mountains.
Yeah, probably. Hm … Nói ends with a natural catastrophe, but Denmark is such an innocent and toothless country that this is the closest you get: A bascule bridge goes up and down.
It is tempting to see influences from various directors in Dark Horse, even direct citations …
I am very much nodding my head to one film, Masculin, féminin from Godard (1966). It’s my favourite film. There’s this spirit floating all over it – of course there are many boring scenes in it, like in all Godard’s films, but also an incredible amount of brilliant scenes … that film is always where I start, when I make a film, it’s a guiding light. I always show it to my cinematographer, even if we then end up doing something very different. But this is the spirit I aim to work in, this sort of benign carelessness. And this time I wanted to finally refer to it explicitly.
But then when you watch films from the period, you wonder if something like that can be done today, at all … or if it was just the sixties. Everything is so beautiful, the clothes, the cars … so I’m trying to capture both, our times and some element of those times, the innocence and joy of simply telling a story. Cinema has become such an oversexed slut, it’s hard to accomplish this virginal effect. I don’t make commercials or music videos. Getting behind the camera is like sleeping with someone, and in that sense I’ve only had sex twice.
Godard spoke very strongly to his times and even became an epitome of those times. How do you perceive the role of cinema and filmmakers today?
I’m not especially fond of Godard, even if he made my favourite film. He works too much with his brain. He was a film critic and he always remained a film critic, only he started criticizing with a camera instead of writing. The ultimate goal of a film is to speak to the emotions, directly, surpassing the brain. Like music, it should be experienced.
A good film has many layers, so if you can find criticism or social analysis in my film … I didn’t put it there consciously, but you’re always in society. And you’re functioning within that society, of course. So this can be one layer. Another layer is humour. To entertain your audience. Fool around.
Religion and Christian symbols were a very apparent layer in Nói, as well as your short films, but they seem absent in Dark Horse. Are you done with religion?
The biggest identity crisis of the Western world, or the Christian world, is this doubt as to whether God exists or not. Many things would be easier if that could be conclusively proven or rebuked … but this doubt is interesting, even if I am in no way religious. It’s fun to sneak that dimension into films, but it cannot become too obvious. Must be an undercurrent. It was very definite in Lost Weekend (short film, 1999) and Nói Albínói and I was aware of it, very clearly. Then, I actually tried to find something of the same sort for this one, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
Also, because I was writing with someone else. As soon as you mention these things out loud they become too obvious. It has to be as unconscious as possible.
Can you save someone with a film?
Naah … you don’t save anything except perhaps a day or a week … a film is part of a cultural chain that can matter to some people or a community. But my premise or ambition is not to save or change or teach people … I do films that I would like to see in the cinema, films that would cheer me up.
I’m finishing a script now. It’s always hard to write a script, it’s scary, fills you with anxiety. Text and images obey such separate laws. The image demands less logic than words do … the classic example is, you know: a character knocks, walks in, says good morning. In a film you don’t need all that, the character just stands there and says: good morning. Making a script work is very different from making a film work.
You co-wrote Dark Horse?
Yes, with Rune Schjött. We started with nothing in our hands, and the whole process was an experiment, finding out how to work together. Mostly we wrote separately and then sent what we had to each other, and worked on each other’s writing. And this spins off humour, I know that he is going to read what I write, and he’s my friend so I want to amuse him. And he me.
The day’s order was to permit a certain degree of carelessness, life, to be open for the unexpected. Rather than see it as a disruption. It’s the biggest challenge of directing a film, perhaps, to know what you want, and see where you are going, but remain capable of accepting gifts.
A decade ago it was a recurrent theme in discussion of Icelandic films that they were under the heavy burden of the written narrative tradition. Is it a problem, is it a gift or is it irrelevant now?
Iceland’s literary tradition is not irrelevant or problem-free, no … the advantages are in the blood, maybe. But the disadvantage in Iceland is the language – people take it too seriously, with this awe, I do it myself. There are words that everyone uses in speech that you cannot write in a script because they look silly in print. And this is a challenge, something to work on and fight your through.
My last film was in Danish, the next one will be in English … but that’s rather just how it happened than any planned course of events. There is freedom in working outside your mother language, but that doesn’t mean I’ll chicken away from doing films in Icelandic.
Dagur Kári’s film Voksne Mennesker (Dark Horse) is currently showing at Háskolabíó with English subtitles.