Writer-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz talk about their movie being one of the few U.S. indies to film in the northern European country that’s served as a setting for “Noah,” “Jupiter Ascending” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Noah, Transformers 4, Jupiter Ascending, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the upcoming Interstellar were all filmed at least partly in Iceland as the northern European country has become a hot filming destination in recent years.
In 2013 alone, there were seven U.S. movies shot in the country, in addition to HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is partly filmed there.
But while many studio productions have taken advantage of the country’s 20 percent production reimbursement and varied, often otherworldly landscapes, few U.S. indies have made the trek.
The elderly vacation comedy Land Ho!, which premiered at Sundance and hits theaters Friday, was the only U.S. indie to film in Iceland in 2013, based on data from the Icelandic Film Centre, and one of the few independent titles to shoot in the country in recent years, Iceland’s film commissioner Einar Tomasson tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Still, it was a personal trip — not Iceland’s industry popularity — that first gave co-writer-director Martha Stephens the idea to film there.
“I was about to take a vacation to Iceland and was reading up on the different places I wanted to visit and I started to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to shoot a film here?’ because it’s so beautiful and I’m a sucker for pretty landscapes,” Stephens tells THR.
She then thought that bringing regular collaborator Earl Lynn Nelson, who appeared in Stephens’ last two films, to Iceland might be a good recipe for a comedy. Co-writer-director Aaron Katz was quickly convinced to come onboard after hearing those two ideas.
“Everything else came out of that, and we figured out how we’d actually make that into something that was a movie,” Katz says.
Stephens’ trip to Iceland also served as a location-scouting expedition, and it helped that the movie involves Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn playing two tourists visiting Iceland.
“Most movies that shoot there are either government-financed Icelandic movies or Hollywood films where they’re using Iceland to be another planet or something otherworldly,” Katz notes. “So we really wanted to have Iceland be Iceland through the eyes of the characters as tourists and, a way, us, as filmmakers.”
Stephens adds, in terms of where they decided to film, “The one thing we wanted was to make sure this movie felt sort of natural, and I’m sure we could have shot in some…even more beautiful places than what I’d looked at, but we wanted to stay true to what two guys, these guys, would do if they were traveling in Iceland.”
In the film, Nelson and Eenhoorn play seventyish ex-brothers-in-law with opposite personalities who take an unplanned, scenic trip around Iceland, opening up about their lives as they visit natural wonders like the Golden Circle, geysers, black-sand beaches and the glacial lagoon, all places Stephens wanted to shoot.
“Unlike some of the places in the states, all of the tourist traps in Iceland are tourist traps but they’re amazing, regardless of the fact that they’re tourist traps,” Stephens says, adding of the glacial lagoon, “when the ice breaks off from the glaciers and the air gets trapped in them, it creates the craziest blue hues I’ve ever seen.”
Like all of the projects that filmed in Iceland in 2013, Land Ho! received a reimbursement based on the money spent on the production.
Stephens and Katz said the incentive was particularly helpful from a budgetary standpoint.
“Iceland is a very expensive country to shoot in, just everyday expenses from gas to food, transportation, lodging are all more expensive because it’s a purely remote island and everything has to be brought in,” Katz said, explaining that these daily expenses increased the costs of shooting.
An additional complication involved the fact that Interstellar was also filming in Iceland, sometimes making it tough for the indie filmmakers to get the equipment they needed, Stephens and Katz say.
At one point, one of their crew members had to bring a zoom lens from Florida.
“That zoom lens that we wanted just didn’t exist in the country anymore because Interstellar had it,” Katz recalls.
They also stayed at the same hotel as the Interstellar team, when both productions were in the Highlands.
But Stephens explains that the hotel was more like a hostel and the B unit of Interstellar was staying in the nicer rooms down the hall.
“I think those guys thought we were jokers,” Stephens says.
Tomasson says Iceland’s popularity for film productions is due to the incentive, experienced crew members, close proximity to the U.S. and being able to access diverse landscapes in a short period of time without having to travel too far.
He also says that while producers are increasingly becoming aware of new locations, there’s a lot of the country that hasn’t been captured on screen yet.
“Only a fraction of Iceland has actually been used in all of those films, so there’s plenty more to benefit,” Tomasson says.