In filming Beowulf and Grendel, the director had to deal with a series of hurricane force gales, a shrinking budget, currency fluctuations, and the most imposing text in the history of the English language. He has no regrets whatsoever.
/// As the name indicates, you are an Icelander. When did you leave?
– I was born in Reykjavík and left Iceland when I was six.
/// Obviously you returned a few times. Your film demonstrates a lot of familiarity with the Icelandic landscape, especially the Suðurland.
– All of my family is still in Iceland, except my mother and my aunt live here in Canada. That landscape I know pretty well because after I graduated university I worked on a fish boat for a winter off of Þorlákshöfn. I’ve always had a strong sort of spiritual feeling about Southern Iceland.
/// And you do justice to the area. Yours is the first film I’ve seen that properly documents that area.
– The landscape and the elements are characters in the film, I think. They’re so powerful. Stellan Skarsgård described it like playing every scene with an unwritten character. It creates a sort of spontaneity in the performance. Nothing goes according to plan.
/// Which brings us to an important aspect of your film. Your misfortune with the weather, which was almost comical. It has even become the subject of a documentary, Wrath of the Gods.
– The filming was supposed to begin in the summer, but the financing didn’t close. It kept delaying the start of the film. We ended up starting the film in September and that pushed us into December, right into the heart of the beast. I’m told it was the worst autumn in 60 years. We had all those hurricanes in the Atlantic and they all worked their way down. (Laughing.)
/// But you can still laugh about it?
– Honestly, I think it made for a better film. Although it was very difficult, I’ve got nothing but good memories about it. We’d come off the mountain every day with an incredible sense of accomplishment. Most film crews would have cut and run.
The truth is no matter how tough it was it was never as tough as working on a fish boat.
/// Working on a fish boat may be hard, yes. One thing that most people in the world find more difficult, though, is Beowulf itself. You’re talking about the point of no return for English majors worldwide, who decide, when they get to Beowulf that literature just isn’t worth the trouble. How much fear was there in taking on the most iconic text in the English language?
– (Laughing.) You’re right. Beowulf and Finnegan’s Wake are the end points for casual study. I have to say that we were a little naïve at the outset. It didn’t occur to me that there would be such passion and feeling about the source material.
Our intention right from the start was that we have respect for the source, but we were not doing a literal adaptation. Our intention was to do a riff on it. Beowulf is the root of the hero myth in our culture. And we wanted to look at the hero myth through modern eyes. While the story sticks to the bones of the poem this is quite a subversive take on the poem.
/// Which, really, becomes the English major’s wet dream. Getting to apply modern theory to the old text.
– I’d like to think that the film works for people who’ve never read Beowulf. But to get at the deeper understanding, that does require a deeper understanding, because it’s revisionist. John Gardner’s book, Grendel, works on a similar level, and that was a huge influence.
/// Those who see the movie and are familiar with Icelandic history will see a few huge departures. You’ve really made this into an Icelandic Beowulf. I saw a lot of draw from the Icelandic folktales and stories dealing with the outcast hero.
– The inspiration for me, really, in designing our look for Grendel, is that statue near the university, Útlaginn (the outlaw). You’re the first person that’s picked up on that.
/// I think there are a lot of things that are very specific for those familiar with Iceland. Your use of St. Brendan, who, according to some sources, landed in Iceland, is particularly specific, I think.
– On a clear day when we were shooting, you could see Papey. Where Irish monks once landed. The idea was to give a nod to the poem as written, and that’s why we introduced the Brendan character, who was loosely modelled on Brendan the Navigator.
You’re talking about a period when the influence of Christianity is just starting to be felt.
You know Stellan, King Hrothgar, his conversion was very Icelandic and sensible. He doesn’t give up his Thor’s hammer. The same way Icelanders took to Christianity. If it will avoid a war, we’ll do it, but you can do whatever you want at home.
Icelanders are very pragmatic. You have to be in that environment. Pragmatic and fatalistic. It gets back to trying to understand who these people are who live on this landscape, where you have to be so incredibly tough and driven to survive, but at the same time you have to realise that you have no control over the forces surrounding you. Which is kind of how I felt when I was shooting the movie.
/// In your use of landscape, were you influenced by Icelandic movies?
– No, with the exception of the fact that it gave me confidence that the Icelandic horse would look cool. The references were more John Ford and Kurosawa, the wide screen and the placement of character in landscape, was more what we were trying to achieve. Maybe with a little bit of Friðrik’s (Þór Friðriksson) droll humour. Everybody in North America has been pointing out that connection with landscape. If you’re building a period piece in North America, you’re lucky to get 10 degrees to shoot without interference. In the southland, you can shoot 95 degrees, the landscape is as it was 1,000 years ago. Which is remarkable. What you get in Iceland is that it’s one of the very places on earth where you can have an unmediated experience. It’s not directed by literature or media. I know that the trend in Icelandic art is to move away from the nature, but North Americans haven’t had their fill yet.
/// You are an Icelander, and you chose to do a story that took place in the same age as the sagas, essentially, but used an old English text. Would it have been more imposing to do a saga?
– I looked at the sagas, and I explored that to some length before deciding on Beowulf. The problem for me was that whenever you do one of those sagas in English, you lose the character. Whereas Beowulf lives with integrity in English. That was why I went there. For me, the idea of making a film on this scale, in Icelandic, there was no possibility of raising the funding. Because Beowulf is one of the most mediated bits of literature in the world, because it was passed down for hundreds of years orally, it becomes the cornerstone of English literature. You’ve got all your Westerns based on this. You’ve got so many variations of the tale told so many ways. The DNA is so potent. I thought it allowed us to take liberties that I would. I’m not sure the world would have been ready for a subversive revisionist take on Njáls Saga. Even if you don’t know Beowulf, you know the myth that underlies it. Even if you don’t know it, you get the subversive take on the hero that we’re going after.
/// I think when I had to teach Beowulf, I brought in Jaws and Jaws 3. It influences some major points of Western culture very obviously.
– It’s a seminal work.
/// But we should point out, you did keep the bones of the story. In fact, I’m guessing this is the closest thing we’ll ever see to a literal interpretation of Beowulf on the screen.
– Just because it’s subversive, there’s a lot of respect for the source. There’s not a single spoken word that’s not Norse-root English; there are no Latin words. Even words like cunt can be traced back to 1200, and it’s a Norse root word. So there was a fidelity to the source.
/// Well, I’d say you were loyal to the source, but Iceland is the star. This watches like as much of a work about the love of Iceland as anything I’ve seen.
– Being born in Iceland and having gone back there, I feel very strongly about it. Seeing it play in Iceland has a lot of meaning for me. You never see this on film.
The farmers don’t overlook this. In Kerlingardalur, where we shot most of this, the farmer there said he’d been out every single day in this valley, and it’s never the same. It’s still alive in the process of being formed.