From Iceland — There is no Such Thing as a Safe Bet in Filmmaking

There is no Such Thing as a Safe Bet in Filmmaking

Published December 1, 2006

There is no Such Thing as a Safe Bet in Filmmaking

Arnaldur Indriðason, Iceland’s best-selling contemporary author; Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Iceland’s most successful and popular actor; and Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland’s most successful director. With the three of you being behind the movie (Mýrin), this must have been as safe a bet as you could hope for in the movie industry?
When I bought the movie rights to the book back in 2000, Arnaldur Indriðason was not a very well-known author. Betting on me is what my company is about. To call a movie a safe bet… I mean, this is what I do for a living. There is nothing safe in this industry. There has never been a successful Icelandic crime film before. It has never worked. Plus, many people doubted that Ingvar E Sigurðsson was the right man for the leading role. It would probably have been a safer bet to get someone older to portray the main character, someone who was a little more like the character in the book. So, I think within what you are calling a safe bet, we were taking risks on all these fronts, except perhaps that I was directing, but that was obvious since I am making the movie. I also think that the adaptation of the story to the screen was not a very safe bet. The narration of the adaptation is very different from the narration of the book in many ways. So I don’t think we approached it in a very safe manner.
You mentioned that Icelandic crime films have never been successful. This is however not really a crime film. It is the story of a father who is trying to improve his relationship with his daughter who has a drug problem.
Yes, that is true, this is not a hardcore thriller, this is a dramatic thriller, much like Mystic River. It is not the action or the chase that drives these movies; it is the inner tension, the tension in the characters’ relationships, and events that advance the story. That is the emphasis I wanted to place on the movie. I did not want to make it into a thriller that the storyline could not have supported.
That might be the difference between this movie and other attempts at Icelandic crime movies.
Yes. I am not saying that one approach is better than the other, I am just saying that you don’t see any dramatic thrillers in Icelandic movies, so making a dramatic thriller here was no safe bet. Like I said, it happened when I took the bet in 2000 when the book came out and I bought the movie rights to it. Perhaps I have a nose for this since Arnaldur then became a very popular author. But then again, it can also be very dangerous to turn such a popular book into a movie. It can so easily turn on you.
What made you decide to buy the rights to the book?
I thought it was the first Icelandic crime novel where the story was realistic and everything added up and it had social references that appealed to me. That is why I decided to make it into a movie.
There is a sort of Scandinavian tradition for dramatic crime thrillers, both books and movies, did you try to work within this tradition?
No, I do not really know this tradition. I do not read a lot of Nordic crime literature. I was mostly trying to move as far away from the TV film genre as possible. I tried to approach it more from the language of the cinema, by opening it up, giving space to the landscape, allowing the pace to slowly gather steam, using a double timeline, the mystery is a little complex and so on. This is something you cannot really do in TV because the audience is not nearly as patient as the cinema audience.
You have said before that you would like to get closer to your Catalonian roots in your filmmaking. Is this something you are still aiming for?
I think it would be interesting to do something with my Catalonian roots. I have often thought about it. I still have not found the right angle. It is hard to go into a different country to make a film in another language. It is hard enough to make a film in Icelandic. Foreign language films are difficult, and to go from one language to another one within that genre is very difficult, so you have to find the right angle. Foreign language films are mostly financed through public funds and it can be difficult to get financing from them. Just like it would probably not be easy for a Serbian filmmaker to get funding from the Icelandic Film Fund.
Do you speak Spanish?
Well… I used to, but I am probably more than a little rusty. I directed once in Spain. I put on a theatre production of the musical Hair in Barcelona; it was actually done in Catalonian.
Ah yes, the theatre. You were a very successful stage performer and director before moving on to films. What made you decide to make the switch from a relatively secure career in the theatre and go into filmmaking?
Maybe that was just it, I did not want to feel to secure. I had been in a few films as an actor and I wanted to try it myself to see if I could handle this medium. That is when I made 101 Reykjavík. After that, filmmaking rather took over. The movie went all around the world, and I can simply say that no Icelandic movie has ever been screened in as many countries. So, in a way the success of 101 Reykjavík dragged me into this field. But recently I have been going back into the theatre, although I am doing it on different terms.
You are pretty well-established as a filmmaker now and your production company is doing well; do you find that it is easier to take chances with a project now?
Yes, I think the next movie project I am doing will be very different from what I am doing now. I will probably be taking a big chance with that one. It is more of an experimental project and I cannot really rely on the audience’s acceptance with that so a successful film, like Mýrin, gives me an opportunity to take more chances with a film like that. You obviously cannot make many movies with a bankrupt production company and maybe this thought has been lacking here, that companies actually have to turn a profit like every other company.
What is the next project for you?
In January, I’ll start working on a project that is a combination of a theatre production and a movie where I intend to take a play by Anton Chekhov called Ivanov and turn it into a movie, while producing it on stage simultaneously with the same cast. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s plays. I like the humanity in his plays; they are stories of people and their aloneness. This is a funny comedy. I do not want to make a silly comedy; I am not interested in slapstick. I like humour that is based on the human element in us, strange situations or something like that. I have no interest in making a Jim Carrey movie.
Do you look at a successful film like Mýrin as a way to bankroll more experimental projects like this one?
It is very clear that most Icelandic movies are not a financial success. People are always running into financial troubles with their movies. When I made 101 Reykjavík, I put everything I had on the line. And even if it was a successful movie, it did not make me a lot of money because it was poorly financed. I have made five or six films and out of those, only The Sea and Mýrin have been a financial success. Like I said earlier, when I chose the book, it was just a book I liked, it wasn’t even very popular at the time, so I couldn’t really think about it in those terms then, although it looks different today, with the attendance it has gotten. We have seen sequels to successful Icelandic movies flop badly, nothing is given in this industry. Take the script for Mýrin for example; I was working on the script for years, without finding a way to make it work. But now, afterwards, it looks like it was a really natural and easy adaptation, but it never looked like that when I was sitting alone at my desk, pulling my hair and thinking how the hell I could make this work. But of course, when you have success it is good to be able to build on that, but one thing is clear, my goal is not to film the next book in the series, and then the next book. That is not the point, even if I might do that at some point in time.
Do you own the movie rights to the other books in the series?
No, I have not bought the rights to the other books. That is just something to think about later. It is not the next project on my list. If that were my only goal, you know, to make money, I would do something else than make movies or work in theatre.
You have decided to screen the movie with English subtitles now, why?
Well, 70,000 people have seen the movie in the last month. It is the biggest movie of the year, and it looks like it will be the biggest Icelandic movie of all time. I just think it would be good to be able to offer all these immigrants the opportunity to see the movie as well. Imagine if 70,000 people, an active third of the nation, has already seen the movie and are talking about it, then it is difficult to be a foreigner and to be shut out of this discussion. This is a part of connecting to the society and taking part in what is happening. My father is a Spanish immigrant as well, so I think it is very good to be able to do this.

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