An interview with Laufey Gudjonsdottir

The Icelandic Film Centre’s Director speaks exclusively to Cinema Scandinavia.

Founded in 2003, the Icelandic Film Centre is an autonomous public body that provides financial support for domestic film-making and  promotes Icelandic films at home and abroad. Since it’s inception Laufey Gudjonsdottir  has been the Icelandic Film Centre’s Director.

‘There was the Icelandic Film Fund before,’ she explains. ‘That was established in 1979 at a very small scale and then it grew. In 2003 there was the new law and regulation that took over from the previous so it was kind of re-established.’

Since its beginnings in 1906 the Icelandic film industry has had notable successes at home and abroad.  The average Icelander visits the cinema more frequently than any other European nation and will happily pay a premium to view domestic films.  In the ever competitive international market Icelandic films have frequently struggled to secure widespread distribution despite receiving acclaim at festivals.

AL: In 1991 Children of Nature became the first, and to date only, Icelandic film to be nominated for an Oscar. Signaling that the nation’s industry was enjoying a creative rebirth that would lead to a run of remarkable films (Jar City, Children, Noi the Albino, Life in a Fishbowl) the nomination drew the world-at-larges attention to a film-making tradition that had previously been largely ignored.

LG: I think that’s when the films came onto the international map. There had been some like the film by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, When the Raven Flies. It did really well in Sweden and was shown at the Berlinale. A big success in Sweden. There were some other films as well. The Oscar nomination was really what put it all on the map.

AL: Aside from the forthcoming series Trapped the only Icelandic show to air on UK screens is The Night Shift. How hard has it been to get the UK to take notice of Icelandic films and TV series?

LG: We have not had that many films in the UK. Now I’m talking about the major festivals like London or Edinburgh. I suppose UK has been relatively closed for subtitled film in general. That concerns Icelandic films as well as any other. My sense is that UK is opening up a bit more.

The Swedish series Wallander that was remade in the UK with Kenneth Branagh,  I think that was the big change. In the  years since it was made I think the UK has opened up. We’ve had Forbrydelsen, The Bridge and other Nordic series have broken the walls.

AL: DVD sales are in decline as people turn to online providers for content. Manufacturing costs may no longer be an obstacle. Might this be an opportunity to make Icelandic films available in the UK via a streaming service?

LG: I think so. Eventually. Maybe I’m a bit of a optimist.  Obviously it’s a new system of distribution and that affects the financial possibilities so the value chain has changed dramatically. We know how the distribution is already today and will be more or less but we don’t know how to meet financially with the new model. It’s not paying enough to meet the costs of making new quality films or TV series. That’s the big battle we are, not only in Iceland but internationally we are fighting that. We already have good examples like Spotify with major bands or musicians selling a lot and still they get little in their pockets. That’s what we also see in films. Now when a windows closes there are fewer financial opportunities.

AL: Once a film or series has been made available on an online platform the worry is that someone will crack whatever copy protections are in place and post the content to an illegal fileshare network. Making films available for an English speaking audience involves the added expense of generating subtitles. If a film leaks to a torrent site the loss of revenue may jeopardise future productions.

LG: That’s why it’s so important to have it accessible on legal platforms. Most people understand that they have to pay for it. Making it easily accessible is vital. I think also with this new technologies and platforms it expands the world. For niche films like Icelandic films are generally, or any European art house, the niche gets bigger. We can easily reach Bangladesh or Australia. Everywhere. That’s really a great benefit. You can find your soul-mates in an easier or more accessible way. Making your films and TV drama easily accessible is quite an important thing. I think that’s what we will probably be doing in the near future, to try and move track, to be able to have some kind of guide, if you want to see a film from this Iceland here’s where can you find it.

The film centre does not deal with the public directly. We deal with distributors and producers and festival people. We will be probably be trying to get as much as we can in a streaming format. As soon as we have a digitised version of the older films then we will add them to it as well and then we will share the access. It will be one station in a way. I hope.

AL: The first Icelandic film dates back to 1906. Films from that era were made with nitrate stock and must be kept in a temperature controlled environment to prevent spontaneous combustion. An important part of the nation’s cultural identity could be lost forever if these celluloid fragments are not preserved.

LG: That’s what we are all concerned about. We are working on it and finding ways to restore them. We have separate archives for preserving but our goal is to make it accessible.

AL: What is the centre’s budget for For the funding of future film productions?

LG: For the funding we have about four million Euros a year. It was cut down and we are hoping with the national economy recovering we will get some of it back.

AL: With only four million to invest does that mean Icelandic Film Centre can only support a limited number of films?

LG: Very small number of films and each film not enough. It’s been a bit of struggle. For the possibility of a sustainable film environment we need three fully produced films per year to keep the people with the experience and know-how on board. Then again we also have to make these minimum three projects in a way they can be financially possible. That’s really the struggle we are in right now are we supporting each project with too little and then it’s a question of whether we increase for each and then we have fewer films. It’s a little like the wall can fall and we don’t know in which direction so it doesn’t matter from which side you to try to support it.

AL: How does the Icelandic Film Centre determine which projects it will finance? What is the X-Factor that gets transforms a submission into a financed production?

LG: There are far more applications than we can ever meet for happy results for the applicants. It’s the script, it’s the overall production set-up, how do we evaluate that it will end up as a successful film, what are the pros and cons, what are the weakness and strengths and so on. We only  finance partially each project so you need other people to believe in it as well.

Sometimes it helps when we give the first letter of intent for the producer to go around and try to find co-financers and co-producers. You can never be sure whether you’ve got it right or not. We hope we are picking the right ones.

AL: The Icelandic Film Centre is demonstrably committed to ensuring the artistic element is paramount in decisions regarding  the commissioning of projects. A film that is successful internationally could subsidise the domestic industry.

LG: Yes and that’s how we are thinking most of the time because the financing has to come from some other sources. It’s always important to have a good positive CV of Icelandic for the international scene. We also try to be the reliable source of information or whatever is needed for  financiers and producers abroad who maybe seek our advice or they have to believe in our letter of intent, how reliable that is. We have to keep all the channels open. We try our best.

AL: In recent years Iceland has become a hub for major international productions. Batman Begins, Die Another Day, Fortitude, Game of Thrones, Noah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Thor: The Dark World are among the projects to take advantage of Iceland’s stunning landscapes.   

Visiting film productions can apply for reimbursement of 20% of the costs incurred while filming in the country.  As Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area, films and TV series shot in the country usually receive European Content Status which means that they won’t be affected by quotas.

With several incentives in place filming in Iceland is an attractive prospective for filmmakers. Shot in the country filmmakers can shoot in Iceland. From the Icelandic Film Centre’s perspective has this benefited the local economy and film-making culture? Are people getting access to training and employment opportunities?

LG: Absolutely. I think because Iceland obviously is a small country and there are limited resources we can’t act like a big society because we are very small. There’s never been higher level film education. Film and media literacy is very limited in school.

How film-making was built up here in the eighties was because there were some Icelanders who had been studying films abroad and they brought contacts with them to Iceland. Also a little bit of money came, in some cases from Sweden and Germany. I think that’s how it started Even the model of co-production environment as we know it today in Europe it was not only about the money, it was also about the talent pool.

Later in the eighties and nineties the co-production model developed in such a way that Icelandic filmmakers really benefited from it and I think it’s really amazing how much artistic control they’ve had on the projects even though they’ve had  so much financial support from abroad.

The people, the filmmakers have built up their infrastructure as a film environment and were used to listening and reasoning with the international community. Based on that it’s been hugely successful in attracting foreign productions because what they find here is not only the nature and the landscape and the accessibility to glaciers or rivers or deserts or whatever but also the infrastructure of the filmmakers that has been built. Even though it’s small it’s very solid.

AL: Alongside it’s creative rebirth, the Icelandic film industry has been given a welcome shot in the arm by the number of international productions. How much of that rejuvenation is down to the work Icelandic Film Centre does? Was the centre actively promoting the country  as a location?

LG: No we don’t. We do at the international markets but there is also an Icelandic agency, Promote Iceland, that emphasises introducing Iceland as a location. Of course we are at the major markets and we also do it and Icelandic filmmakers do it themselves. They are very good ambassadors. I think in terms of as you were asking earlier especially for the technical crew the major foreign productions have been very good because we don’t have formal education at a high level but in a way that has been way to train and get yourself in higher positions. You train, learn, update yourself and get inspired.

AL: At present Icelandic universities don’t offer courses in film-making. Those who want to enter the industry have to study abroad or gain experience on local productions. Icelandic cinema has a distinct quality, it uses western modes of storytelling within a local context. Because the country doesn’t have a formal university programme are filmmakers finding a cinematic voice that might otherwise have been quashed if they were exposed to theory?

LG: I don’t know. I think you can always debate about this. There are always pros and cons for film school. Is it training time or  is it infiltration time? You can always debate about that.

Prominent director Frederikson did not have a formal education. He was running a film club and he claims that he saw so many films that he got it. It’s probably a mix. I think the mix might be good. I think also that the storytelling tradition you may be referring to that. Icelanders have a certain way of telling a story that we’ve had through history. This oral way of storytelling. The Icelandic sagas are definitely different from most other literature. Maybe we still have this directness or sharpness or short wording. I don’t know.

AL: What’s been the proudest achievement of your time at Icelandic Film Centre?

LG: To be honest I don’t think of it that way. We’re just here to create the framework and try to maintain it. Sometimes we’re a bit like the window to the outer world in a way. People have directors and producers here with very limited resources. They have the maybe the capacity of making a film every fourth year. Our duty is to try and maintain all the channels open so they can step in and be updated on where to go, what to look for, and so on. The filmmakers are so great. I think they are great storytellers. It’s amazing how much quality they make with so limited resources.

We are hoping we will get a little bit more money in order to build up a more sustainability. We have to convince the authorities about that. I also think we have a lot of duties to do with heritage. We have to try and get that modernised and preserved in a digital way. We have to get more women on board. We have to hopefully enrich the film culture more because it all supports each other. It would also be good to have a talent development program so that even if you are not ready for your big budget, even though it’s a low budget, feature film you could try out the ideas or make a small budget film. Even experienced filmmakers could have access to a smaller pool where they could try out some crazy ideas and find out if they work or not.’

It’s not really the film centre’s duties but I think it would be very nice to have more media and film literacy. I think that’s important. Sadly it’s not been on the agenda here but I think that is so important for the future generations.’

Lot of things to do. We would also like to promote the films on the Internet. To get them accessible by the general public wherever they are.’