It doesn’t sound like you’ve been sleeping a lot…
You’re always juggling ten projects at a time in this business, as it’s hard to determine which will come to fruition when you’re dependant on outside factors, like money. The last two years have been kind of insane for me because a lot of the projects I’d been working on became possible at the same time.
Like with Börn and Foreldrar, we started work on those in 2005, so a long time passed in between when we shot them and when they premiered. We gave ourselves plenty of time for postproduction, editing and the like. Since the project was extremely low budget, eliminating the need for investors who needed returns on their money, we could take the time we wanted to make those movies. It’s a little backward – the smaller the budget for a film, the more time and freedom you have to work on it. There’s no outside pressure.
I went without salary, pretty much, for the two years it took to complete the films. We decided to produce them using a different system than what’s usually done, so the actors and I founded a company, a co-op, really. We decided to make these movies communally, and not in the egomaniac- dictator style that film-makers often employ, where the director is all-powerful.
We wanted to make films that mattered too, and were the product of more people than just a director or screenwriter. So the actors also served as screenwriters and producers, and everybody had a say about everything.
There are of course certain problems with going without pay for so long. That’s maybe the reason why I worked so much after we finished shooting – in two and a half years I made two fulllength movies, 20 episodes of Stelpurnar [sketch comedy show ‘The Girls’] and 12 episodes of Næturvaktin [the TV sensation that Icelanders as a whole fell in love with last fall]. That’s a lot of directing in two years, and I used pretty much the same crew through all of those projects.
You’ve been a filmmaker for nearly a decade now, and there seems to be a certain aesthetic thread running through your work…
My first flick, Fíaskó, was released in 2000. So that’s a little under eight years I’ve been making movies for a living. When I think about it, Fíaskó isn’t that far removed from Næturvaktin… both projects are realist and, at the core, human drama straight out of Icelandic reality, but with a sort of tragicomic undertone. I’ve always considered Næturvaktin as drama, when we started work on the project the idea was that the dramatic aspects of the show would surpass the comedic ones. A realistic show, focused on people and human tragedy in all its forms. It isn’t sitcom humour, we focus on uncomfortable scenarios and the humour springs from character flaws rather than jokes or punch lines.
The humour represented in your works seems to revolve a lot around drama and tragedy. Were there times when you envisioned Börn and Foreldrar as comedies, rather than the tragedies they wound up being?
Yes, there’s an incredibly thin line between drama and comedy, and it’s evident that a lot of the best comedies of all time could have easily been turned into dramas, with a few simple nuances. I don’t think anything can be really funny unless it has drama at its core. All the best comedy stuff is based on tragedies, and the best comics employ it mercilessly. Peter Sellers, among others; his roles usually depict human tragedy. Inspector Closeau is a really tragic character, for instance, rather dim-witted, unfortunate – a tragic individual. And I find treading that fine line satisfying and fun – it is the same path that life treads.
Did you have a hard time financing your first project?
No. Actually it was incredibly easy. At the time I made Fíaskó, a lot of money was going around in Europe and all these funds were very open for Iceland and Icelanders. Fíaskó was financed in an incredibly short amount of time, and actually is the most expensive project I’ve worked on.
I think Icelandic film directors have it pretty easy compared to many of their colleagues overseas. We live in a community where doing stuff – not just films, but all creative projects – is incredibly easy. For instance, I think you won’t find as many bands operating anywhere in the world; releasing a record and gaining exposure, getting people to help, is certainly simpler than in neighbouring countries. This is a luxury derived from the miniscule size of our society and there is a certain unity at work, too. It’s easy to get people to participate in whatever project and you are not bound by endless rules and regulations. While making a film abroad, you’ll have to acquire various permits and the like if you want to shoot a scene outdoors. Over here, you can just take your video camera for a walk, and everybody you encounter will be ready and willing to help.
This isn’t the case in most places I know of, so I think Icelandic directors that complain about the lack of opportunity… I laugh at those complains. If they don’t go through with their ideas, it’s their own fault; it’s just so much laziness. With the situation as it is over here for filmmaking, or any kind of art, there’s nothing stopping you but yourself, and if you don’t get that 100 million you think you need to make your movie you just need to rethink your strategy and go a different way.
The Grapevine has been getting enquiries as to whether there are any plans underway to release a Næturvaktin DVD with foreign language subtitles. You seem the obvious person to ask…
I thought it was really sad that the original DVD release of the series wasn’t subtitled. It was awful really, because, you know, somewhere I heard that between 10 and 15.000 non-fluent Icelandic speakers were living in the country. These are people that want to live here and presumably wish to learn the language and participate in our culture. And a huge part of that is being able to observe and understand whatever’s popular on TV at a given time, seeing Icelandic movies, etc. Subtitled materials help them learn the language, and get a grip on the culture. It is a key for tuning in on the zeitgeist, understanding the culture and getting a grip on the humour. All art reflects a certain atmosphere within the community and culture from whence it springs, and it is important that it should be readily available to anyone who’s interested.
You seem to have an active interest in immigrant issues, as was evident in your handling of the 2007 Áramótaskaup show [the Áramótaskaup is a cultural institution in Iceland that runs on National TV every New Year’s eve before the fireworks display. It is watched by something like 95% of the population and aims to make light of some of the preceding year’s issues].
Yeah, I think that Icelanders have a lot of pent up racism and we… somehow it’s not acceptable to talk about anything that concerns immigrants or immigration. If a discourse starts, it’s somehow killed off immediately. The truth is that we are in no way ready to take in immigrants, as we are doing absolutely nothing for them. They come over here and basically carry our society – if they’d just up and leave, all of them, then Iceland would collapse completely. And we don’t appreciate that at all. Instead, we let greedy bastards get away with renting groups of immigrants ridiculously small apartments at sky-high prices, never pausing a moment to think of their rights. We need to accept and celebrate the fact that we are living in a multicultural society, and try to better our community accordingly.
And the final scene of Áramótaskaupið was a kind of jab at the country, playing a music video of Ísland er land þitt [“Iceland is your country”], where every sentence starts with “Iceland is…”, as performed by a group of immigrants in a fish processing plant, where most people would like to keep them doing the jobs we aren’t interested in. Honestly, nothing angers me more than any kind of nationalism or racism. People like to hold on to their status quo, keeping a balance is a big part of the human instinct, but it’s simply not possible, and it’s also very dangerous.