Icelandic cinema has without a doubt gone through a revolution in the last few years. In 2015 Icelandic film won over 103 international awards, with Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams winning the Un Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival plus another twenty two awards, Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows winning the the Golden Shell for Best Film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and another nine awards, plus Dagur Kári’s Virgin Mountain winning the Nordic Council Film Prize and another   thirteen awards.

Iceland is not only strong for its local productions, but also international films being driven to Iceland. For these international productions, they are widely favoured by the industry. Film in Iceland provides information for international filmmakers on the services readily available, and happily brags about the high production values and amazing surroundings that Iceland has to offer. It comes as little surprise, then, that films seeking a unique and icy landscape have been shot in the region – including Furious 8, Captain America: Civil War, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Noah, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Interstellar and Game of Thrones.

The Icelandic film industry recognises the interest in shooting in Iceland, and in June they announced that their incentive scheme was getting a boost. Now there is a reimbursement scheme that sees 25% of the costs incurred in the production of films and television programmes in Iceland. These production costs incurred in Iceland are deductible from the revenues of enterprises pursuant to the provisions of the Act on Income. These reimbursements are only given when more than 80% of the total production cost is incurred in Iceland and the reimbursement does not cover commercials or music videos.

Local productions are able to make use of this reimbursement scheme, though it doesn’t seem to be marketed towards them. Film in Iceland is designed to cater to international productions, and it seems the industry is more interested in pulling in big budget international productions. Last year when Cinema Scandinavia spoke to Icelandic film directors, the general consensus was that local productions received very little funding.

However, with that has come the high quality and unique storytelling of Icelandic film. As Grímur Hákonarson said:

We don’t have a lot of money and we can’t make big movies – we can’t expensive sci-fi or costume dramas. The budget doesn’t allow us to make big movies. There are rather small films coming from Iceland. Human realistic stories, like Rams. Maybe that’s a reason why Icelandic films are being so successful. We are not pretending to be something we’re not. The idea with Rams is that it’s two characters and it’s shot in one location and one place and it’s practical. It’s cheap to do it like that. Icelanders are good storytellers.

International productions

As Icelandic film continues to find its feet locally, many Icelandic companies are making use of the big budget productions looking to film in the region. Truenorth is one such company. Truenorth have been around for thirteen years, and during most of that time they have assisted in some of the biggest productions in the world – including Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Interstellar, Thor: The Dark World, Transformers, Noah, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Now they are turning their attention to being at the forefront of producing – both local and international films. Truenorth released their first locally produced film, In Front of Others, at the Göteborg Film Festival in February, and among other projects they have been attached to the US film Keflavik, which will be entirely shot in Iceland.

We spoke to producer Kristinn Thordarson as well as Keflavik’s producer Michael Kehoe about what makes Iceland such a popular place for films.

Cinema Scandinavia: Can you tell us about Truenorth?

Kristin Thordarson: Truenorth was founded as a production service company thirteen years ago.  Since then, we have established ourselves as the biggest production service company in Scandinavia.  I joined the company three years ago to develop and produce our own films and TV productions.  Since then, we have produced one film, In Front of Others, co-produced the Danish film The Shamer’s Daughter and will shoot another film later this year, Mihkel, which is based on true story that took place in Iceland over ten years ago and involved illegal import of drugs to Iceland.  The director is Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon.  Both feature films are Icelandic and in Icelandic language although Mihkel has Russian and English dialogue as well.  So we are continuing doing Icelandic films in Icelandic, we simply wanted to broaden our slate of films and access bigger markets since the Icelandic Film Centre has limited financial abilities to fund and support our Icelandic films.  We are simply looking for great projects and don’t mind the language.  However, because of our extensive contacts around the world, we often get English speaking projects to look at.

CS: How did Truenorth and Keflavik come to find one another?

Michael Kehoe: I’ve been friends with Tommy Harper for twenty something years and when we got together we started developing some projects. Now he has moved on, and he just produced Star Wars and he’s also running Bad Robot. He has always wanted to help me and get things off the ground and he introduced me to Kristinn.

KT: Tommy Harper and I have known each other for almost a decade. Michael had recently written the script Keflavik and we immediately liked the idea. After reading the script, we committed to producing with them.

MK: Fortunately for me, they took Keflavik to the Cannes Film Festival along with some other projects. They didn’t think it would get too much attention but it turns out it was the only one that got attention. Luckily for me!

CS: Can you tell us about Keflavik?

KT: The entire story takes place in Iceland, on the abandoned NATO base next to Keflavik. It is an incredibly well-written sci-fi script about alien signals being picked up all over the world. When the location is pinpointed, scientists discover that the signal comes from the abandoned base. An international team is sent to Iceland to investigate. On top of being a great script, the production is very contained, both in terms of cast as well as locations. The entire film will be shot in Iceland.

MK: Keflavik is an old war base that was used by the Americans since World War II, and it shut down in 2008. In 2011 WikiLeaks occurred and everyone was kicked out as far as intelligence agencies. In our story there is a signal – you know the group ‘The Search of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence? There was also a movie called Contact with Jodie Foster. They discover a signal, and they find it is coming from Keflavik. Believe it or not but my father, who has passed away, was stationed at Keflavik in the early fifties. There’s a whole story about that but it could be another movie I’ll get to at another time. When I tell you that – you wouldn’t believe what happened! It’s more of a dramatic movie than anything else. My father was stationed there and I always wondered what was going on and what it was like.

CS: Why choose Iceland? What makes the region so special?

MK: One thing that impresses me about the films coming out of Iceland is the stories and the acting. They’ve really hit the mark on that. But I’ve always seen that the look of them are cold. That’s what everything thinks about Iceland – it’s freezing. But Truenorth didn’t do that with In Front of Others. They enriched the colour and that’s the way it should be. I think that was probably a good appeal for the market to see that a film in Iceland could be rich in colour and comedy.

KT: There are three reasons that Iceland is chosen as a location for films. We have great locations and they are very diverse so filmmakers get a lot to choose from, we have an A list crew who have been working on many of the biggest Hollywood films in recent years, and we have the 25% tax rebate from next January. On top of that, Iceland is a small country so the access to these locations are easy, solid infrastructure and good roads.

CS: What does the increase to a 25% rebate mean for film in Iceland?

KT: It means that we are very competitive against other countries in Europe which will no doubt increase foreign productions in Iceland. But this also helps finance the local productions because Icelandic producers benefit as well from the rebate. The Icelandic Film Centre funding has been cut down twice after the financial collapse in 2008. Since then, filmmakers have been lobbying for correction and currency the Minister for Culture has proposals from filmmakers to increase funding to the centre. Our hopes are that these proposals take effect this year since our contract with the Ministry elapsed at the end of last year. Funding Icelandic films has always been a challenge and calls for creative thinking. I think Icelandic film-makers adapt very fast to new challenges and it is quite amazing what has been accomplished in recent years. Just last year, Icelandic films received over 100 awards from film festivals all over the world. And, the other reason we are looking outside of Iceland and doing English speaking films is the fact that there is limited financial support from the Icelandic fund.

CS: How Icelandic would you say this film is?

MK: My goal is to get an international cast. I don’t want people to look at it and go ‘oh, that’s an American film’. Although I’m an American director, what I want to do is bring the Icelandic film community to the forefront of Hollywood and get them the attention they need. There’s so much talent coming out of Iceland and I’d love for it to be labelled as an Icelandic film.

I really want to help Truenorth because they’ve always been supporting the physical production on other films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Star Trek, Star Wars, but lets give them their own big events. I think this movie could really do that for them. Also for the area as well. I don’t think they’d had an English speaking film that they’ve released. This is what they started getting into and this is one of them so I hope I can make this happen.

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.