by Valur Gunnarsson
Is Gerard Butler worth 900 million krónur?
Visitors to Skógar have up until now usually come in small groups and go there for the stunning Skógarfoss waterfall or visiting the Skógar Folk Museum. These days, however, hovering around the waterfall you will find hundreds of people dressed in full Viking regalia. They are not, as you might at first think, employees of the tourist board there to attract visitors. They are, in fact, extras for Beowulf and Grendel, the most expensive film shot exclusively in Iceland. The Icelandic producers Anna María Karlsdóttir and Friðrik Þór Friðriksson have managed to secure funding to the tune of 900 million krónur, which equals roughly the advertising revenue for the government radio and TV stations for a whole year. A lot is at stake, but the producers are confident that the investment will pay off. The ace up their sleeve is the star potential of Gerard Butler. “Who’s he?” you may well ask, but by Christmas, when his starring turn in Phantom of the Opera hits theatres, his name should be on everyone´s lips. If he is, it´ll be a major boost for Beowulf. If not, it will face a more uncertain future. But who is this man on whom everything depends? …
Gerard Butler: From Attila the Hun to Angelina Jolie’s love interest to acting in Iceland
“One of the best things about acting is that women help to undress you,” says Gerard Butler, often mentioned as one of the most beautiful people in the world. And who are we to argue? He is, however, not referring to his evergrowing legions of female fans but to his costume and make up people. It just so happens that a woman is currently taking his belt off, on which hangs a rather massive sword.
“I´ve always thought that in those days they must have had help to get their clothes off. It´s hardly a job for one man.” This is true, certainly for Iceland. A part of a woman’s duties here was taking a man’s boots off when he came home from fishing. But his reference to “those days” takes us further back, to times before the settlement of Iceland. The original poem probably dates from the 7th century and was first written down in what is now England, although the story itself takes place in Denmark. The Beowulf website claims it is being filmed in places untouched since the times of old Beowulf himself. I don´t know what the roughly 600 inhabitants of neighbouring Vík í Mýrdal, where most of the cast and crew are staying, would say to that, but the surroundings certainly are befitting of a fairytale.
Would you slap this man?
In the background looms the 62 meter Skógarfoss waterfall, in front of which actor Ólafur Darri is dragged into the river for his baptism. Outside of shot, a large truck serves as a bridge over the river, driving cast and crew back and forth. Stellan Skarsgaard, formerly the mathematics professor in Good Will Hunting, most recently the badass Saxon chief in King Arthur, seems to be back in mean mode. “Slap me or be done,” he says to no one in particular. Unsurprisingly, no one takes him up on this. He is a big man with a big sword, and it´s easy to forget that he´s just rehearsing his lines.
Other cast members include Sarah Polley, who survived longer than most in the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake and was last seen in Iceland filming Hal Hartley´s No Such Thing, and Ingvar Sigurðsson, who plays the other titular role as Beowulf´s nemesis, Grendel. Ingvar may be best known to foreign audiences as the guy who died from radiation saving Harrison Ford´s submarine in K-19: Widowmaker, but here he is one of the country´s best known actors of stage and screen. But where have you seen Gerard Butler before? Applying the Haukur Már test, his name gives us 209.000 responses on Google, whereas Beowulf gives us 756.000. He is thus roughly a quarter as well known as the legend itself. This is, of course, assuming the search engine didn´t return any other people named either Gerard or Butler.
Where the women drink as much as the men…
“Icelandic women are friendly,” he says. “They don´t use their beauty as a weapon. There is a grace and purity about them. I´ve been reading Njáls´ Saga and it seems women have always played strong roles here.”
It is not surprising that he finds Icelandic women friendly, for here is the man who played Angelina Jolie´s love interest in Tomb Raider 2, out-hunked super hunks Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey in Reign of Fire and plays an archeology professor prone to taking his shirt off before debating with colleagues in Timeline.
The women of Iceland, however, have not had much opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of his company, for he has spent most of his time here on set.
“I´ve only been out once. I don´t drink anymore. I used to get terrible hangovers. There´s no time for those anymore. But I like having people around me enjoying themselves for me. People here love to drink and celebrate. There´s something Celtic about them. And it´s fun here seeing the women drinking as much as the men. They can do whatever they want here. It reminds me of Scotland.” Gerard was born in Glasgow, Scotland and grew up there, in neighbouring Paisley and in Canada. He is the youngest of three and was raised by his mother, only being reunited with his father at age 16, after which he developed a close relationship with him.
Lawyer, vampire, hun.
It is almost a contractual obligation to state that the ridiculously beautiful are more than just that, but let us examine the evidence. His most lauded role so far is probably that in Dear Frankie, about a mother running away with her son from an abusive husband. The mother, instead of telling her boy the truth, writes him letters made out to be from the father. When the two are finally set to meet, she gets our man Gerard to pose as the old man. He made his acting debut in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, having been discovered by veteran actor and playwright Steven Berkoff. But before this, he almost became a lawyer. One can only wonder whether this was good preparation for his roles as Attila the Hun and Dracula.
“I had been studying as a lawyer for five years and training for an additional two. I was dux and president of the school law society. But I became disillusioned with law, there was also a lot of partying going on and I dropped out just two weeks before I was set to graduate.”
So, leaving the bench, you decided to become an actor?
“The very next day. I had always wanted to study drama, but at the time there was nothing going on in Scottish acting. The only time you´d see a Scotsman in a film was as the town drunk. That day in August 1995 when I dropped out was one of the worst days in my life. I´ve usually found that a crisis will lead you on to something better. I remember hearing once that you can´t have any regrets until you die, then it all falls into place. So a year later to the day, I was on the stage in Edinburgh playing Renton in Trainspotting, which became the hit of the festival.”
Did Trainspotting influence Scottish actors a lot?
“It was gobsmacking. That movie´s a masterpiece. It brought to light a whole new culture that hadn´t been seen before. And Ewan MacGregor is an amazing actor.”
MacGregor is one of the people most talked about as taking over from Pierce Brosnan as the new James Bond. Gerard Butler is another.
So far, the role has been filled by a Scotsman, an Australian, an Englishman, a Welshman and the current Bond is Irish. Is it time for a Scottish Bond again?
“Well, its time for a new Bond. And the best Bond was Scottish. The Scots have a darker quality to them, something more animalistic.”
Viking or Celt?
Butler sees a lot of the Celtic mentality in Iceland. Does that make me dark and animalistic too, I wonder?
“There´s a bond that develops on the set between the Celts and the Icelanders. They have the same sense of humour. I don´t know if it´s got to do with the weather. I think it may be genetic.”
According to the latest research, about 50% of the women settlers of Iceland were Celts.
“50 percent?,” says Gerard. “They must have taken all the best ones then. In Glasgow you see an astonishing woman every now and then but here, one walks past you every five minutes. But it’s not just Celtic influences here; there are a lot of Nordic influences in Scotland. In the highlands there are a lot of clan names that are always assumed to be Celtic but are actually originally Nordic. There was a lot of swapping. Which is perhaps why I was right for the part of Beowulf.”
But is Stellan Skarsgaard more obviously Swedish, then?
“Stellan is very un-Swedish; he´s slightly insane in the best possible way. He loves a drink and a smoke. I have a very strong bond with him in the film, as well as offscreen. He was the person I wanted for the part of Hrothgar and I´m very glad we got him. When I´m acting with him, he brings up my game, too.”
The weather may or may not be a reason for Icelanders and Celts bonding, but it certainly has influenced the film.
“I´ve never seen locations like this. You have to deal with the extremes of weather. We´ve spent whole days in the rain. I was stressed out at first but I´ve been brightening up lately.”
So, perhaps, has the weather.
Trolls, Loch Ness monsters and Grendels
There are no digital effects in the film. Everything is done the old fashioned way, up to the Viking ship Íslendingur being moved from its home in Keflavík to a lake inland. In fact, one of the advantages of the old Viking longships is that they could be moved across dry land between rivers, giving them more manouverability for raiding and trading.
“You can´t beat conventional special effects. We´re always trying to find out what it would have felt like. The story is based on real events, when man had a closer relationship with nature. This is not a Lord of the Rings type fantasy world. It´s the least familiar script I´ve seen in a long time and people are brave to do it.”
Gerard will be going on a two month whirlwind tour around the world to promote Phantom of the Opera, the film of the musical that´s now been showing for 18 consecutive years in London´s West End, the UK´s second longest running musical. Gerard plays the titular role. His next film is Burns, where he will star as Scotland´s national poet along with fellow Scotsman Brian Cox. So what´s this Beowulf fellow like?
“Beowulf is a reluctant hero who sees another side of Grendel, whom everyone else sees as an evil force. At the end of the film you feel a sadness that man has destroyed something. It´s as with every other life form he´s encountered. Our writer Andrew Rai Berzins has done a lot of research on links between Yeti´s, Sasquatches and the like. In Scandinavia there were certain areas people would not go because they were designated troll country. What would we do if we would ever find one? We´d probably pull it out of its environment and poke it with something rather than just leave it be.”
But the Loch Ness monster, apparently, does not exist.
“Ah, you never know,” says the Scotsman.
Will the 900 million krónur investment pay off? You never know. It just might.
ICELAND´S HISTORICAL EPICS
The Saga of Gisli (1981)
The first medieval film made upon these shores and remains the best, despite a very small budget. Director Ágúst Guðmundsson wisely decides to pick a Saga and stick to it, rather than attempting to do a “best of”. It´s strange that no one so far has attempted to film the Sagas, as they seem superb movie material.
Revenge of the Barbarians/The Raven Flies (1984)
Director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson was an up and coming talent after his first two films Óðal feðranna and Okkar á milli. This is the film that made him big in Sweden and that he seems to have been repeating ever since with ever diminishing success.
In the Shadow of the Raven (1988)
Hrafn´s looming megalomania is slowly getting the better of him in this film, named after the director himself again (Hrafn means raven) although thankfully, he does not appear. The film quotes various Sagas, including the burning of Njáll, although it might have done better to stick to one of them. Still has its moments
The White Viking (1991)
The coming of Christianity to Scandinavia is terrific movie material. This, however, is not evident watching this film by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson (him again). When the movie was panned on release he excused himself by saying the TV series was better. When this appeared, it turned out to be worse. And much longer.
The Viking Sagas (1995)
The locals remain blissfully innocent of this travesty, apart from some members of cast and crew, but it was entirely filmed in Iceland and, until Beowulf and Grendel, is probably the most expensive movie filmed entirely in Iceland. Another “best of”, ripping off various Sagas and doing justice to none of them.
Hrafn takes another great story, the martyrdom of mad priest Jón Magnússon, an avid heretic burner, and somehow manages to make a terrible movie out of it. He has since not been entrusted with the funds to make more epics, concentrating instead on shoddy TV films, funded by the Icelandic film fund (?!)
Njáls Saga (2003)
Njáls Saga is a strange beast. A half hour short about hero Gunnar´s feud with two brothers, a fraction of the whole story. This is followed by interviews with various academics expressing their often enlightening views on the Saga. It´s all fairly entertaining if half finished, and is supposedly the first part of a 10 part series.
Now that Icelandic films are reaching a larger audience than ever before, the funding for full scale versions of the Sagas seems more likely to appear than ever before. If Beowulf and Grendel, even if not an Icelandic Saga, makes it big, we can expect more medieval tales of the old Norse coming our way. Baltasar Kormákur, currently filming A Little Trip to Heaven, has often spoken of his desire to film Njáls Saga, and an upcoming project for the producers of Beowulf and Grendel is a film about the life of Þórður Kakali, based on a real life character in the Icelandic Civil Wars of the 13th century.