“A Film Should Be a Journey Where You Don’t Know the End”: An Interview With the Director of UNDER THE TREE, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

When I first saw Under the Tree back in November, I fell in love. It was funny, it was well-made, and I had no clue where the story it was going. My favourite stories are ones that twist genre conventions and are hard to predict, so I just loved Under the Tree. After naming it my favourite Nordic film of 2017, I was itching to get to meet the director, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. Luckily, while in Gothenburg, we got the chance to sit down and chat about dark, dry Icelandic humour, the Icelandic wave and how Hafsteinn found his story.

Under the Tree has been doing very well at festivals since it premiered in Venice. How has the experience been for you?

It’s been crazy since the premiere; I’ve been going to a festival every week. We were also the entry for the Oscars in Iceland, so that required some additional travel. I’ve been all over the world since the film premiered.

It must feel good to be back in the Nordic region then!

I always like coming back to the Nordic countries because I feel like they understand the dry humour of the film more. People in other parts of the world connect to the film on a different level, so whenever I go to a festival it feels like a learning experience to watch the film and see it in a different context. I watch the film with different audience and always try to guess if it’ll be funny with them.

A lot of writers often say comedy is the hardest genre to work with…

Yeah, I think so.  For me, it’s part of my sensibility and it comes very naturally to me so I’ve always worked with it. However, I can definitely understand why others would say that.

Was comedy what inspired you to work in film?

Actually, when I was a teenager I was obsessed with skateboarding, so I’d make home-made skateboard videos with my friends. The videos taught me a lot about how to work with the camera and then edit movies. As I grew older, I became more interested in the medium. However, there wasn’t a proper film school in Iceland, so I studied comparative literature because in that course they had a few classes on film. After that course, I decided that I wanted to go to a proper film school at then see what came of it.

Did you travel to Denmark to study, like so many Icelanders do?

I had spent a lot of time in Denmark, but for my studies I wanted to try and do something different. Everyone went to Denmark to study, so I decided to go to New York, despite never having been to the States before. A friend of mine recommended two films schools, so I applied to both and got into one, Columbia. I went there and had some really good four years.

After your studies, did you want to try and succeed in the United States or did you come back to Iceland?

Independent cinema is very difficult in the States. I had thought about the possibility of making a film in the United States but felt like I’d spend years getting coffee for other people before I got any real chance of making a film, so I came back to Iceland. My stories tend to take place in Iceland and in the Icelandic language because that’s my language and is what comes naturally to me. I came back just as Iceland was experiencing the financial crisis, so it was hard to get financing. I made a couple short films but then within three years of returning home was directing my first feature, something I felt like I would never be able to do in the United States. I want to make some films in Iceland and then explore the possibility of going back, because everything changes once you’ve had experience making some films.

Your timing works because you’re now included in this new Icelandic wave that’s coming from the region!

There’s a new generation of film-makers in Iceland. They have been educated at some of the world’s best film schools and then return to Iceland to make movies there. Icelandic cinema is very young; the film fund was founded in 1978, the year I was born. I think that I am one of the first generations that was raised watching Icelandic films and that has affected us. Also, since Icelandic cinema is so new there are so many stories to be told and a lot to catch up. The other Nordic countries have a much older history and tradition.

The story for Under the Tree is one of these stories that needs telling! Where did the idea come from?

There are a lot of famous cases in Iceland where there are conflicts that resolve around trees. My theory is that there are not a lot of trees in Iceland, so those lucky enough to own a tree become very attached to them. Also, our summer is very short. The sun doesn’t come out that often, so we take every opportunity to enjoy the sun. The cases that come from this are very brutal; they go to court and pets disappear and there’s so much nastiness. What got me so excited about the material is that these are perfectly normal people who are not known for violence or aggression but once their home is at stake and once someone is trying to tell you how your home should be that really strikes a nerve and brings out the worst in people and that was what I wanted to explore.

How did you want to approach the story?

I had a co-writer and he did the first draft of the script. We then agreed on where the story should go and I took over from there. I wanted to approach the film like a thriller, which is probably not obvious when you read the script but it was something that interested me from very early on as it tells a lot about the characters. I enjoyed working with the actors a lot and we spent a long time preparing and rehearsing to get them invested.

Did the actors improvise some lines, or did it remain close to the script?

It was quite restricted as it wasn’t improvised. The actors, of course, have ideas and they become more invested in the story if I listen to their ideas and implement them. I see directing as getting everybody on the same page and having us all working towards making the same film. The actors are the most important because they are the connection to the audience; they are the meat in the story.

What do you believe is the main theme in the story?

I feel like the main theme is living in a community. Living in a community is always a compromise, whether it’s the people next door or the people under the same roof.

The ending is quite shocking and hard to predict. Why did you feel it had to take that turn?

A film should be a journey where you don’t know the end. I found that to be important. I wanted to bring the audience to a place they wouldn’t suspect. When the audience starts watching Under the Tree, they have no idea where it is taking them, and the ending is kind of like a shock. I personally like it when I go into a film and I feel like I’m on a journey with no idea how it is going to end.

What’s next for you?

We have a television series that’s going into development, we are about to get some financing. I’m also currently working on a film script, it’s a few years in the making and I want to finish it now.

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.