From Iceland — Doubling The Thrills

Doubling The Thrills
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Supplied film stills

With two films on the horizon, director Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen is set to make a splash in cinemas

During my research prior to the interview, I was slightly confused about the genre of Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen’s upcoming film. Is it a crime drama? Is it horror? It wasn’t until later that I found out about Erlingur’s plan to release not just one, but two movies this autumn. Although the primary focus of our ensuring conversation was the film with the earlier premiere date, I can assure you that there’s more to anticipate.

Spooky passions

I meet Erlingur on an unusually sunny day in Reykjavík – the neighborhood coffee shop is bustling with tourists, so we take a walk to the nearby sculpture park. Erlingur has spent the past decade splitting his time between the USA and Iceland, but during COVID, he made the not-so-unusual decision – at least among Icelandic filmmakers – to return home. 

“There’s not a lot of horror either in books or movies in Iceland. Being a horror kid, I’m always very excited when anybody dips their toes into that.”

A self-proclaimed “movie kid” with a profound passion for horror films, Erlingur confesses, “I grew up watching a lot of movies. Instead of playing sports, I was inside watching TV.” In his teenage years, he would make short movies with his VHS camera. “As I got older, it became more serious. At a certain point, I realised that maybe there’s a career here.” A decade later, Erlingur, now an alumnus of Columbia University, has written and directed a number of short movies, as well as features such as Child Eater and Rift (Rökkur). Autumn 2023 will be particularly busy for Erlingur as he prepares to premiere his next two features.

The double feature creature

How come two of Erlingur’s films – Kuldi (Cold) and The Piper – are coming out one after another, with Kuldi premiering on September 1 and The Piper slated for a bit later in the autumn?

“The weird thing about COVID was that from 2020 until now, it’s been the busiest time in my career,” Erlingur admits. While The Piper was shot back in 2021, post-production delays have seen its release date slide. “It’s a coincidence that Kuldi started filming the year after The Piper, but they’re coming out at the same time,” he says. “I thought The Piper would probably come out last year.”

Even though we met to talk about Kuldi, I’m curious to hear about The Piper. “It’s my version of a mainstream horror movie,” Erlingur explains. “It’s basically an American movie even though it wasn’t shot in America, and most of the actors are from the UK, but it’s set in America.” 

The storyline revolves around a flautist working for a symphony orchestra who accepts an opportunity to complete her late mentor’s concerto. “In the process of writing the third part of this concerto, she starts to realise that there’s something inside the melody itself that is dangerous,” says Erlingur. 

Haunting layers

Circling back to Kuldi, Erlingur explains it’s based on an eponymous crime novel by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (published in English as The Undesired). “I wouldn’t call it a crime drama,” he elaborates. “It’s more of a psychological thriller with some horror elements.”

Kuldi was one of Yrsa’s initial forays into incorporating horror elements in her books. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of horror either in books or movies in Iceland,” says Erlingur. “Being a horror kid, I’m always very excited when anybody dips their toes into that.” He admits he was thrilled when approached to work on the film. 

Kuldi poster

“The book is really good – it’s very twisty and turny with a lot of fun surprises. Once I finished reading it, I was like, ‘I would love to make this into a movie.’ Like a lot of Yrsa’s stories, Kuldi has two narratives that kind of come together,” Erlingur explains. There’s a modern-day part that centres around a man named Óðinn, who is investigating deaths that occurred decades ago in a home for juvenile delinquents. “He’s also dealing with the aftermath of his ex-wife’s suicide, and his teenage daughter, who used to live with his wife, now lives with him,” he continues. “He’s trying to deal with all this new pressure in his life.” 

Photo by Art Bicnick

The second part unveils what actually happened at the institution through the eyes of a young maid. “She feels she’s always being watched, and she feels like maybe the place is haunted,” he says.

Even though the story is fictional, “it kind of touches on things that definitely did happen,” admits Erlingur. “Iceland and a lot of other countries have these bad histories with juvenile homes where, decades later, people come forward and talk about all the abuse and violence that happened to them as kids. This home in the movie and in the book is fictional, but it’s definitely inspired by those things,” he says.

Storytelling integrity

The film is a collaborative effort between Iceland and Belgium, boasting a predominantly Belgian camera crew but an entirely Icelandic cast, including notable names such as Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir.

“Condensing everything in a way that still makes sense and felt true to the book was probably the biggest challenge.”

Erlingur draws a parallel between the novel and a labyrinth, characterising it as a multifaceted tale with numerous characters. “When you take a novel like that, you always have to cut something out; otherwise it’s going to be a 10-hour movie,” he says. “Condensing everything in a way that still makes sense and felt true to the book was probably the biggest challenge.” Another, according to Erlingur, was shooting the film in two periods, summer and winter. “In the end, that was great. I really liked doing it that way. There were a lot of headaches logistics-wise, but the shooting, pre-production, and filming went smooth.”

Stills from Kuldi

“I tried my best to write and visualise the film, in the same way that I felt when I read the book,” Erlingur says. “Obviously, the book is the blueprint, but as any director, or writer, I’m influenced by a number of things. You always want to bring something of you into the film,” he reflects on his motivation for taking on Kuldi, “It deals with the themes of people versus the system, people versus these institutions like the juvenile homes. And then the other thing that I’m always drawn to is how reliable is the narrator? Do we believe that what they’re seeing is true?”

The director assures that captivating plot twists are in store for both devoted book readers and avid film lovers. “Hopefully, people who are fans of the book can watch the film and still be surprised because there are some changes. And the other way around, if people like the movie and want to check out the book, I think they’ll still find the book very engaging. The twists will still be surprising because some of them in the book are not quite the same as we have them in the film,” Erlingur concludes.

Kuldi premieres September 1 in all major cinemas in Iceland. Keep an eye out for the release announcement of The Piper.

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