From Iceland — The Impossible Feat

The Impossible Feat

Published September 21, 2012

The Impossible Feat

Director Baltasar Kormákur is to Icelandic film what Sigur Rós is to Icelandic music. After successfully making the Hollywood box-office hit ‘Contraband,’ starring Mark Wahlberg and Giovanni Ribisi, Baltasar has returned to Iceland with the docudrama ‘The Deep,’ the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, the lone survivor from the five man crew of the fishing boat Hellisey VE 503 that went down three nautical miles East of Heimaey in March of 1984. Guðlaugur spent five hours in the frigid sea (5°c) before reaching Heimaey island. He then walked barefoot across a lava field for three hours before finding help. Guðlaugur’s extraordinary feat is considered nearly impossible.

The film was previewed last night, and it has been met with great praise. It must be a relief for you that it has found such a positive reaction, given that this was not an easy subject to cover.

No, it was not an easy subject, and the conditions for making the film were not really easy either, as it turned out. But I took my time with it. I decided from the get go that I would not give into commercial pressure. I wanted to take all the time I needed. I was working on other projects in the meantime. Two-three weeks ago, I was shooting [the upcoming] ‘2 Guns’ in the New Mexico desert, and I was still using downtime to edit this movie. I made some substantial changes towards the end, and I think the distance and the time I spent away from the film gave me a better perspective of the story. I felt it was very important to make the film with a certain humbleness towards the subject and I am very pleased that this feeling seems to come across to the audience. I did not want to dramatise the story, or create an antagonist, some bad guy for the main character to go up against. The nature is the antagonist. The enemy he must overcome.

You have said the film is also a reflection on the economic turbulence Iceland has been through.

I see it as reflection on who we are, essentially. Where do we come from? What is the fabric we are made of? I wanted to return to the basics. American heroes wear capes, Icelandic heroes wear sea gear. That is why this is such a powerful story; the narrative drive stands so close the Sagas. Someone performs an inexplicable human feat, does not really want to talk about it and downplays the whole thing. This is so close the national character and I believe it is what makes the story fascinating. It comes from within us. This is really a story of a nation.

Films and theatre are not toys; they are serious art forms. This is the first time in Icelandic film history that someone deals with a tragedy at sea. This is the biggest scar we bear as a nation. Everyone knows someone who has lost someone at sea in Iceland. This is something that stands so close to us. And we have never dealt with this. It is as if we just consider this the cost of doing business.

This is your second film that deals with life in a small fishing village. The first one (‘The Sea,’ 2002) was a reflection on a time that might be described as the beginning of an era that eventually led the Icelandic economy into a tailspin.

That is an interesting analogy. Whatever people want to say about that film, it was a warning of things to come. The film was based on a play that was written in 1993, and it was a warning of what would happen when we made the fishing quota individually transferable. We turned fish that had not yet been caught into a transferable asset. You can’t base a transaction on a greater bubble than uncaught fish in the sea. Eventually, the market value of the uncaught fish became higher than the market value of the actual fish. This created enormous wealth for some people, and all this wealth, that was really based on nothing, had to be put to some use, and that was the foundation of the bubble that eventually burst in 2008. We can point fingers at people and events along the way, but this is the system that created the soil for the crash. But now, I am trying to approach this from a completely different direction. I am not saying that people should not be held responsible for their actions, but I don’t believe that we can recover as society by shouting and pointing fingers. We will only recover when we move on.

What happened in Iceland is that we went from being a very simple society to a very modern society in only a few years. When I was a kid growing up in Kópavogur, I could never have dreamed of the success that I have enjoyed, making movies in Hollywood with someone like Denzel Washington. It simply did not seem possible. Björk was really the first Icelander to break the all boundaries and show that we could make it on the world stage. When we started to enjoy all this success, we became a little megalomaniac. And when the economy crumbled, we lost all our footing. We started to see ourselves through the eyes of foreigners, and based our self-image on how they reflected on us. As if that was something that mattered when we had completely lost everything. When you shit yourself, you clean up, and take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror.

You have to go through a process of self analysis; you can’t overcome a crisis by inspecting what everyone else thinks of you. It is not important. You have to find yourself, and build from there. I am not saying that a film can do that, in and of itself, but I want it to be a part of that process. That is why I wanted to tell a story that can bring us together and reflects these values.

Do you think people will view these two films together as a commentary on this era as we move on?

I think it would probably be very interesting. I think it would be interesting to analyse what I was saying then, and what I am saying now, and how I have developed as a filmmaker during this time. I have changed since then. I was lot tougher back then. I think I have more for people today. I have more empathy. I hope that comes across. I am very proud of ‘The Sea’ and what I was trying to accomplish when I made it. Some people thought the film was making little of life in small towns, which is not at all what I had in mind. It was movie about people. I like to use a small town as a microcosm for society as a whole. This current movie is not just a movie about the Westman Islands, it is a movie about Iceland. A small town can be a great stage to examine a larger society.

Three of your recent films (‘The Deep’, ‘The Sea’ and ‘White Night Wedding’) are based on plays. Your background is in stage acting, do you specifically look towards your background in theatre for stories?

No I don’t really pursue it; these stories have just found me. Plays often have a stronger gallery of characters than movie scripts, but I have also made films based on novels and written my own scripts. In this case it had more to do with the way I approach the story. Although it is based on a play, we did a lot of original research on this project and based the script as much on the events that transpired as on the play. There are certain scenes that come directly from the play, but other scenes are recreations of documented events, television interviews and so forth. I tried to stay true to the story, to the extent that it was possible.

We should talk about the role of (main actor) Ólafur Darri in this film. He gives an incredible performance.

Yes, I could not have given the part to anyone else. He is a big actor, both figuratively and literally, and he was just right for the part. He went through hell making this movie, and he knew that he would have to when he took the part. But it becomes rather ridiculous to talk about hardship when you are dealing with such an extraordinary feat. Even if you spend three weeks filming out at sea, and you are wet and cold the whole time, it is just laughable in comparison.

Could you have made this movie in Hollywood, using union actors?

I think that would have been very difficult. I don’t think we could even have gotten insurance for the production, the way we did it here, and what I had to do myself on the set, shooting scenes while swimming in the ocean a mile off shore to get the right angle for the shot, and taking shore in the cliffs in the surf like we did. You can’t really do that in a Hollywood production. This was a big and complex production. There are underwater scenes, we had to shoot in a sinking boat, and shoot way out in the ocean and there is a volcanic eruption. The budget would probably have been 30–40 million dollars if I were making this movie in Hollywood. And I don’t think I would have gotten many actors to sign up for what we had to go through. This was very trying for Ólafur Darri at times, and there were moments when he felt like throwing in the towel, but that was never an option.

He must be proud of his role in the movie?

He is, and he has said as much to me. There came a point when he completely broke down and did not want to go on. It was a very difficult moment to diffuse, because when you have pushed someone as far as they can go, and you keep on pushing, you are responsible for everything that happens after that. We talked then and I told him to think about the premiere, how satisfied he would be knowing that we took this all the way, and did not skip anything. He gave me a look, but then he kept going. He mentioned this to me after the premiere last night, how good that felt, knowing that we never compromised.

The only way to do the film properly was to give it everything. I could not bear the thought of cheating. We sank the boat and filmed inside while it was sinking. And we swam through the surf and into the cliffs to film the footage when he reached land. I didn’t have the budget to create that in CGI, and I don’t think the film would have resonated like it does if we had done that. I looked at the option of shooting certain scenes in a tank, using a green screen, the way ‘Titanic’ was shot, but it would have been impossible to make it look authentic, and I don’t think it would have passed muster with an Icelandic audience if it didn’t. So I decided we would just take the equipment and film it in the sea.

We even had to swim with the cameras from the boat to where we shot the scene because there was no place to dock the boat. We had the search and rescue team standing by on the boat, and when we had set up, and it was time to shoot, the guy from the search and rescue team did not want to let us do it, naturally. He simply said it wouldn’t be possible to take land in the cliffs in these waves. I thought to myself, we can’t lose a whole day of shooting. We have all this equipment, and everything is set up and we don’t have the option to do it again. So, I told him I was going to do it anyway, and then I dove in. The waves threw me into the cliffs and out again, but I made it on the second try, and that was the shot we used in the film. At least I didn’t put anyone in a situation that I was not willing to take on myself. Let’s put it like that.

What are you like as a director? Are you an actor’s director?

I might not be the best person to answer that question, but I think that if you asked actors that I’ve worked with, they might describe me as such. My background is in acting, so I understand actors very well, and I understand what they need from me. Actors need to work from a premise. If the premise is not there, the smallest thing becomes very difficult.  But I am also very preoccupied with the frame and the visual aspect. My father is a painter and my mother is a sculptor, and I come from a very visual environment, so the breakdown and the visual part of the shot is very important to me. It is not something that I want to leave it to the cinematographer.

Is the disaster genre something that has gotten a grip on you? I hear you are preparing to make a film about the 1996 Everest disaster [which claimed eight lives]? 

Well, that is a script that has been bouncing around for a long time. Stephen Daldry was assigned to it, and then David Fincher was going to do it. And now it has ended up with me and the ball is rolling. I am going to meet with an actor next month, who has the star power to get a movie like this into production if he’s willing take on the part. If it happens, I want to shoot it here in Iceland on Vatnajökull. You can’t really shoot on Everest, so the glacier will mostly have to stand in for Everest.

Some directors would probably rather shoot on the beaches of Brazil, but if someone offers me Everest, I can’t say no. Being from Iceland, I enjoy grappling with the elements. I spend my summer vacations riding horses up in the highlands, which is probably the most difficult thing you can do for a summer vacation, riding horses for 12–14 hours. I can’t describe what it does to you. I am never as physically tired as when I return, but at the same time, I never feel as rested. You reconnect with yourself. Just man against nature. Maybe I am just that primitive.
But I don’t really think about making films in terms of genres. I just choose to tell the stories that appeal to me at that time. I don’t want to limit myself or make the same movie over and over again.

There is a certain difference between the movies that you have made here in Iceland and the films you are directing in Hollywood. Your Icelandic productions are a lot more serious. This is a far more serious subject matter than say, ‘Contraband.’

Yes, but I am very proud of ‘Contraband,’ especially because it opened many doors for me. It is a thriller based on an established formula that you try to put your flavour on. But just the fact that it did so well at the box office gave me an opportunity to do other things. And ‘2 Guns,’ although it is a very different film, and a lot more commercial. I will probably leave more of a mark on it, myself. It will be a lot more stylised and we are experimenting with a different form of narrative, and we’ll see how that works. Then comes ‘Everest,’ which is a very big movie, but still closer to the films I have been making here in Iceland. You just have to pay your dues, and hopefully I am moving in a direction where I can select from a range of projects that I really want do.

If ‘2 Guns’ does well, how established will you be as a director in Hollywood?

I don’t really want to make any proclamation as to what I will be. But, if you can deliver a big project like this one on budget and on time, and the movie does good, you are likely to be in a very good place. There are different categories of directors, and the A-list always get their first picks of scripts that they want to do, and obviously this is where everybody wants to be. But just by wrapping up shooting on ‘2 Guns,’ I establish more credibility and move up a niche in the pecking order.

One of my old acting coaches gave me good advice: “don’t think about the final destination—but love the journey.” That is something I take to heart.

Baltasar Kormákur BIO:

Baltasar Kormákur (1966) is an Icelandic actor, theatre and film director, and film producer. He has directed films like 101 Reykjavík, The Sea and Jar City, and won the Crystal Globe award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2007 for Jar City, based on a novel by the same name by author Arnaldur Indriðason. Baltasar Kormákur also made the films A Little Trip to Heaven (Julia Stiles, Forest Whitaker), and the box-hit Contraband (Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi), and his film 2 Guns (Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington) is scheduled for release in 2013. The Deep is his latest movie.

Filmography (as Director)
101 Reykjavík (2000)
The Sea (2002)
A Little Trip to Heaven (2005)
Jar City (2006)
White Night Wedding (2008)
Inhale (2009)
Contraband (2012)
The Deep (2012)

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