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“I Wanted Them To See Trapped As Nothing But Icelandic.” – An interview with Baltasar Kormákur

Cinema Scandinavia: You wrote, directed and starred in The Oath. How did you find the balance between these three roles?

Baltasar Kormákur: This isn’t the first film I’ve had so many roles, but the last film in which I did that was Reykjavik-Rotterdam. I really didn’t like the experience and didn’t want to go through that again. I was asked throughout my career whether I’d do it again, and I never thought I would. However, I felt the need to reconnect with myself as an actor. When this project came about it felt like the perfect project to act in because I had to control it.

The character is close to me in many ways, and the perspective of the movie is shown through the perspective of my characters. So to act that part and direct it made me feel very much in sync. And then I got to do it surrounded by so many great people. Producing and working on the script is something I always do with other projects I have going on, but I have good people working alongside me as well. It’s a team sport, even if I’m in the centre of it. I also really enjoy directing the actors, and being in scenes with them made me feel closer, and at least what they said after that, they… it actually helped them, it was great for them and they didn’t have any problems being directed by someone who as acting alongside them.

 CS: So you preferred acting and directing more so this time around?

BK: Oh, absolutely. I really enjoyed it. That doesn’t mean I’ll do it again! When you make your first film all you want to do is make lots of films. And when you’ve been making films for 15-20 years you realise it’s a journey. It stops being about which film you’re doing and rather the overall journey: you as a person, developing yourself, and living your life through telling stories on films. That gives you a reason for why you choose certain projects. For example, I was offered everything in Hollywood: 250 million dollar films, two Fast and Furious films, everything. Instead, I chose to go home and tell a story for a budget that’s less than it would be in Hollywood. And there’s a reason I chose to do this – I’m now a father of five and while I used to try force I now use love and it works much better. It’s also about dealing with your devils, and I was very violent as a young man. It just made sense to return home. People always ask me ‘You can do whatever you want in Hollywood, why do you go to Iceland?’ and that’s because it means more to me. It gives the journey I’m going through more of a meaning.

CS: Moving onto the Icelandic film industry, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Icelandic film incentives bringing US productions into the region. Do you have any particular opinion on the rebate?

BK: It’s brilliant. We get a lot of incentives in the Icelandic film industry, and bringing US productions into Iceland gives people more of an opportunity to work. There is more work to be had, so having more productions shooting in Iceland means young people get training and more people get to work.

More importantly, I believe it gives Iceland versatility. That is often needed in a small country because it can be very much the same thing. I love Icelandic films, but we have made films about every animal in Iceland and there just has to be some versatility. We can’t always make films about sheep and horses, you know?

CS: Every now and again is okay!

BK: Of course, but we need some versatility. We need to be making horror films, comedies, arthouse, everything. That’s why I put my energy into creating a television series that I’m very proud of. It’s the first time we’ve had a television series that has travelled the world, and all of these actors, who are my friends, are suddenly recognised in London and have people coming up to them. When I heard that I was like wow! I knew it’d be possible, and they’re acting in Icelandic, so it’s crazy.

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CS: And with Trapped, did you hope to join the wave of ‘Nordic Noir’ titles out there? 

BK: Before any of that I did a film called Jar City in 2006, and that was kind of the beginning for Nordic Noir films going around. It was out before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it was able to travel around the world. At the time I was thinking about making a television series about the character, but the author of the book was not ready to sell it to television. He only wanted to make films out of it. So before the ‘Nordic Noir’ trend started, I was trying to think of an idea for the television series. Then the series like The Bridge and The Killing were starting to pop up, and they were screening in England, the United States, Australia and really proved that people will watch subtitled television shows. So I knew Iceland had to do it. But to get the quality and the success of these shows I had to be very distinctive and I wanted it to have people saying “Oh, that Icelandic show, what is it called?” rather than “is that show Danish or Swedish?”.

I came up with the idea to use the weather as the main obstacle in the story, and then, of course, added a lot of elements, but the weather was very Icelandic. I think, looking at it now, no one sees Trapped as anything but Icelandic.

We are now working on season two and the elements will also be very Icelandic, but in a different way. The elements we are focusing on in season two are the politics of Iceland and the 2008 financial collapse will be a big part of this. The greed that came from that period of time.

So with Trapped I saw there was potential that we could show it around the world. This has never happened in Iceland. Trapped has more viewings outside of Iceland than of all of Iceland’s TV from 1966 to today put together!

CS: It’s become so huge around the world…

BK: It just went like boom! It was even shown in Australia!

CS: And your leading man, Ólafur, has become a hit around the world.

BK: For me, he was absolutely essential. I wanted him to be like a mountain, one of the mountains. I had to fight some of the supporters of the show because they were afraid it was too different. Usually in a series like this you’d have a more handsome lead. But I’ve done a few films with him, including 101 Reykjavik, The Deep and White Night Wedding. So he’s been in every other Icelandic film I’ve made. I just thought he was perfect for this role. I had to convince people ‘don’t worry, everyone will fall in love with him’…

 CS: And it seems they have…

BK: They have, and he’s wonderful in the show. He’s very charismatic, has a beautiful soul and is just a great actor. So for me, it was never about anyone else. I had the idea from the beginning that he would be the one to do it.

CS: And one of the new shows you’ve just released is The Mayor. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

BK: It’s just starting to pick up, these comedies take time for others to understand. He’s [Jon Gnarr] just a very interesting character. He’s a comedian who became the mayor of Reykjavik, and now he’s acting in a role as a mayor that goes back to his comedy roots. It’s like he’s gone full circle. I support the series, but don’t have a major role on it. As a producer, it’s not my place to step on set and tell others what to do. If some producer had stepped on the set of Seinfeld and said ‘no, no, no! this is not funny. This is funny’ – I don’t think everything is funny and I’m certainly not going to get in the way of his humour.

CS: Lastly, what do you believe is the biggest challenge facing Icelandic cinema?

BK: Icelandic cinema is growing fast and we need to keep our identity. We have to be more versatile and do different things. I think the more versatile we are, the better Icelandic cinema will grow. It’s okay to become something different, it doesn’t have to stay the same, but you can’t lose your identity.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.