Grímur Hákonarson talks to Videology about Icelandic filmmaking, selling his film in Hollywood, and the art of sheep casting.
Grímur Hákonarson is feeling pretty good these days. The Icelandic filmmaker has been making movies since the 2002 documentary Varði Goes Europe and made his feature debut in 2010 with Summerland. But with Rams he has hit the big time on the world stage and is now well on the way to becoming one of Europe’s most important film voices. Rams is a wonderfully funny and poignant film about two estranged brothers coming together in a time of crisis. And sheep. Lots of sheep. It’s a crowd-pleaser and sure to keep the spotlight on Nordic cinema which is right now going through a great phase of international exposure thanks to filmmakers like Roy Andersson, Tobias Lindholm and Ruben Östlund.
Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last May where it won the Un Certain Regard Award, Rams has been charming audiences at film festivals around the world and has kept winning prizes at festivals as diverse as Denver, Zurich and even Transylvania! Grímur spoke to Videology from the Palm Springs Film Festival in advance of the film’s release in America, discussing the Cannes experience, the Icelandic film industry, and what it’s like to go to a sheep casting. Yes, a sheep casting.
I was hoping we could start by you giving us an idea of Icelandic cinema. Is it hard to get movies made there and what’s it like to make movies there?
You know, if you think about the size of Iceland’s population, which is 320,000 people, there’s still a lot of culture. We have all these most important institutes like film funds, national theater and symphony orchestra. There’s a lot of bands coming from Iceland, too, so there’s a really active scene. The problem is that because it’s not a big country there’s not so much money in the film business. I think it’s actually [like that] for the whole art scene; artists who want to really live from their art, they really need to find money somewhere else. They need to get grants from Europe and Scandinavia. Iceland movies are usually co-produced films, so we get money from Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Are Icelandic audiences more predisposed to American cinema there?
Yeah, I can tell you there is a big division. There was this article about the box office from last year and I think Rams was number 14 and all the other films were Hollywood films.
That sounds familiar.
Rams was the biggest commercial success of the Icelandic films, but there it was number 14.
How many Icelandic films typically get made each year?
Well, last year there were many low-budget films made by young people, because today people can make a movie for little money. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. But the films that are financed by institutions – like Rams – there are maybe five a year. It’s not like in some European countries like France who really like to watch their own national films and other foreign language films, but in Iceland this is a real problem. But now the government is getting positive about putting more money into the film industry because of the success of Icelandic movies like Rams and [Dagur Kári’s] Virgin Mountain and [Rúnar Rúnarsson’s] Sparrows.
What was it about this world that you want to make a movie about it – was it one you knew already?
I have roots in the countryside. I spent a lot of time as a kid at my Grandfather’s farm and my parents are both raised on a farm, so I know this world of sheep farming quite well. Personally, I wanted to tell a story about these two stubborn farmers – it’s based on a true story, a true story of two brothers who didn’t speak for 40 years. I thought that was maybe a little bit typical for Icelanders somehow, having this ridiculous conflict. And I wanted to make a film about how people always have a need for each other when there is a crisis or some threat or danger that comes up. People always find they need contact, they need to communicate.
I was wondering if you yourself have a brother and if the brotherly conflict was at all autobiographical?
No. Well, I have a brother, but this is totally fiction. My films aren’t usually about myself or my life, I try to keep my own life away. I just think about ideas and subjects and themes. I’m a political person so when I pick my stories I want to have something to say and have my film have a message. But I always want to entertain. I try to combine a serious story with a comic story.
What would you say is the political message of this film?
It’s about the importance of human relationships in difficult times. That all human beings have the need for others in a crisis. You can refer to the economic crisis or to war, but if even the most stubborn of sheep farmers who haven’t spoke for 40 years can settle their conflicts then others can maybe do that, too.
You said you grew up on a sheep farm, and in Rams the environment is such an important part of the film, both story and visuals. I was wondering about where you shot it and did it prove difficult considering how isolated it was?
Yeah, it was, you know. It’s shot in a valley called Bardardalur. The farms where we shot the film are the most isolated farms in the valley, so especially in the winter it was… you know in this area in winter the roads don’t work for a long time, people get stuck for weeks, so it was quite tough shooting there. And also because all the crew had to stay there for a long time. People didn’t go home for weeks.
And how long was filming?
It was months and months. That was a bit tough. And the snow storm scene… I had never filmed a scene like that before. I’ve been more used to independent, small projects, so filming this snow storm with all of these people was quite difficult.
The casting on Rams looks like it required some very specific criteria. What was that process like?
I tried to combine professional actors with amateurs.
Oh, I didn’t notice that at all.
Yeah, some of the people from the community [in the film] are real farmers and people from that area where we shot the film. I tried to make it authentic because actors sometimes tend to look too pretty. I chose the main actors because they are supposed to be very different and the main actors are very different physically and mentally. They were like black and white. They are famous in Iceland. Nobody knows them outside of Iceland, but these guys have been doing films and theater for all of their lives.
What was it like screening at Cannes and winning the Un Certain Regard from Isabella Rossellini?
That was a nice experience, of course, and very unexpected. Nobody expected us to win that prize and not even us. I must say, of course, it stands out if I look back now to all the festivals, when Isabella Rossellini announced that we won. Also because it was the first time we showed the film. We just finished it before Cannes. So it was a big moment.
What sort of help does that give you and the film? Were you suddenly besieged by international distributors and festivals after winning that prize?
No, that had already happened, actually. We sold the film to 40 countries before we won the prize. But, it has helped the film to get recognized and get attention. Sadly, it didn’t get into the shortlist for the Oscars.
I thought it was such a natural for a nomination.
I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t care anymore.
Was that a process, going around selling the film in Hollywood?
I think, I mean… I dunno, I don’t really want to talk about it, actually. Basically, a lot of people think it’s very strange. There are some films there [on the nine-wide Oscar finalist list] that shouldn’t be there, let’s just say. I just hope the good films that are there will get nominated and not some films that got there because they had a good publicist. That’s my comment.
[Since conducting this interview, fellow Nordic film A War from Denmark was nominated for the Oscar alongside movies from Colombia, France, Hungary and Jordan.]
You said you grew up in this sort of area, but did you have any experience with the scrapie disease that is the catalyst for all the drama in your film?
Yeah, it happened to my aunt and her husband just a few years ago before I wrote the script. They had scrapie and they had to kill [their sheep]. I remember what a big shock it was for the whole family and especially the farmers who are big sheep lovers. He had had those sheep for 40 years and it was like a big emotional shock for him. I had first-hand experience of the psychological shock.
Was that the inspiration for the film?
Yeah. When I’m writing I put a lot of elements together. There is like this sheep passion, there is the family conflict, and then there is this disease – an epidemic – that comes into the lives of these sheep farmers and destroys everything. The disease is the catalyst for the film. Disease is what makes things evolve.
Lastly, they say never to work with animals – is that something you found to be true on the set of Rams? What was it like wrangling all of those animals?
I had some nightmares before shooting all these sheep scenes [laughs]. I had talked to some directors who were warning me about that and some people who read the script said I was going to have a lot of problems with the animals, but we were really lucky. It turned out to be much easier and that was because we did some sheep casting! We really focused on trying to find the right sheep for the film and we found these special sheep from a farm in the valley that were super calm and used to being around human beings. That was extremely important when you’re shooting a film with a lot of equipment, a lot of noise, a lot of people, that the animals are not shy. That they are calm.
I can’t let you leave without asking about sheep casting.
Yeah, it was fun! Me and the producer, we had a local farmer with us and he just drove us to several farms and we took a look at the rams. He’s an expert on sheep farming and he told us if they were good sheep and if the sheep were looking beautiful. And we also checked out how they would react if we tried to reach for them and then we took some video and pictures. We went to something like six farms and we were just casting, looking at the pictures and then we decided to use these ones. It was almost like casting actors. We took it quite seriously.
Videology is hosting a free sneak preview of Rams on January 25th.