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Heartstone: Our interview with the director and producer

The new Icelandic film causing waves at international film festivals, Heartstone, is the first feature film from director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson. Set in a remote fishing village in Iceland, teenage boys Thor and Christian experience a turbulent summer as one tries to win the heart of a girl while the other discovers new feelings toward his best friend. When summer ends and the harsh nature of Iceland takes back its rights, it’s time to leave the playground and face adulthood.

Cinema Scandinavia spoke to Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson and producer Anton Máni Svansson about Heartstone.

Cinema Scandinavia: How did this story come into development?

Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson: Many years ago when I was in art school I was searching for a story to write, and then I had a dream about my childhood friend who passed away when we were teenagers. It was a very symbolic and beautiful dream and it made me want to look into that period of my life, which Heartstone is inspired from.

Anton Máni Svansson: When me and Guðmundur started collaborating on a low budget short film, a long time ago, he presented me with the 1st draft of Heartstone. I was hugely impressed by this amazing 1st draft and from that point onwards the goal was to get this story made, and to be able to do it properly. So we ended up putting all our energy into two more short films with a coming-of-age theme, to prove to financiers that we were ready to make Heartstone come alive. That plan worked beautifully and we were so fortunate as to have our short film Whale Valley premiere in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. After that, everything started rolling and Guðmundur was able to focus on developing his story into a shooting script with support from national film funds as well as the Cannes Cinéfondation Residency.

It seems you went for a very realistic portrayal of homosexuality in youth. What sort of research did you do? Is it based on any case studies?

GAG: I was unsure of how to approach this as I’m not gay myself, but at the same time I think the borders of sexuality and their perceived differences are really much finer and less separate then we think. We all have many layers within us, and I decided to trust my own intuition and that I would be able to portray Kristján’s character truthfully. Then as the script was about to be finished I got anxious about it again and started asking myself: “What if I’m actually doing this the wrong way?” I started talking a lot with my friends who are gay, and somewhat to my surprise they all had stories that were completely and extremely different from each other. That reassured me that there was no one ‘right way’ to portray the discovery of one’s sexuality.

Do you believe the issues that are raised in this film are an Icelandic (or rural) problem, or do you feel this film has global reach?

GAG: I believe the story will connect with people from all around the world. It’s a very human story and the issues that the characters are dealing with are things people of all backgrounds can identify with. The main theme of the film is self-acceptance and being allowed to be who you are – this applies to the two boys at the center of the story but also to all of the supporting characters, for example Thor’s mother who just wants to have her own private life, but can’t do so because of her kids and the community.

AMS: I definitely feel the issues in this film are global and believe that Heartstone can touch the hearts of people from all across the world. Everyone has to go through some insecurities while making the transition from being a kid to a young adult and becoming comfortable in his or her own skin. At the same time I think some issues that are raised in this film are even more visible and severe in smaller communities of any kind, so I feel that setting strengthens this drama even more.

The film is based in a rural community. Why was that scenario chosen over the big city (Reykjavik)? Was this to enclose the drama or is it a real problem in Iceland?

GAG: The story is inspired from a period when I myself lived in a small town. But it is definitely true that the setting does deeply enhance the conflicts experienced by the characters. Of course not all small towns are the same, some are more open-minded and some are very closed. But often it can be hard to be different in a small town. You don’t want to be the one people are whispering about and judging.

  When I was a kid and someone’s secret came out, there was no place for that person to escape to, so often they would simply move away.

AMS: From my point of view this story always fit much better in a rural community because its original inspiration comes out of one. I feel that it can often be more difficult for smaller communities to celebrate diversity, maybe partly because they have more time to gossip about each strange or unfortunate event, since there isn’t that much going on each day. Whereas in the big city, mishaps are forgotten earlier, it’s easier to find a group of people that you relate to and more likely that’s it’s beneficial for a person to stand out in a crowd. But it always depends on the place, in some small towns people are open and stand together and are very supportive of each other, often more than in the city. Furthermore, I feel we are very fortunate with how little prejudice we have in Iceland today, and that overall, we really embrace diversity.

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Working with children about such complex themes wouldn’t be easy. How did you approach it and how much did the boys understand about the issues?

GAG: The two leading boys are both very mature individuals and from the beginning I made sure that they understood and realized the emotional landscape of their characters and how it related to what they were going through in each moment. I also made sure they felt comfortable and understood that it was my responsibility to get the right performance out of them – the only thing they had to do was to be positive and try. There was nothing they could do wrong except not trying.

The film is incredibly well cast. How did you find these young actors?

GAG: We had over one thousand kids show up for an open casting. And I found more kids with great potential then I could use for the film.

After narrowing it down to the group we felt was most connected to one another, we had an almost ten-month rehearsal period to teach them how to act and help them find the right mind-set and attitude for the shoot.

AMS: I believe our extensive casting and rehearsal period really made a huge difference both in finding the best combination of strong individuals to fit each role, and to help them prepare themselves and connect to each other. For this we worked with experienced casting directors and a great acting coach who worked with us through the entire shoot as well.

Furthermore, I feel that we have a huge talent pool on our small island and that the youth today are not as camera shy as the younger generation was a few years ago, perhaps because of the smart-phone revolution.

Whale Valley also dealt with two young boys growing up in rural Iceland. Is this an important theme to you and what makes it important?

GAG: For me the emotional bonds between brothers, friends, family and the bond between man and nature are indeed important themes. When I was growing up in Iceland it was a society driven by a certain idea of masculinity, and as a young boy I felt like I should not express my emotions or show weakness. That led me to often seek out and escape into nature, to find a mirror for my true inner feelings.

Heartstone has been doing remarkably well at festivals, not only because of the quality of the film but also the message it conveys. What has the response been like both in terms of the film itself and the message?

GAG: I am extremely happy. It is a great feeling when you make a film and people are able to connect to the story and see and feel what we hoped to convey. I’m also discovering new things with the audience. When making the film I’m so entirely focused on following my intuition that many times I don’t know why I make a decision, and I don’t question it while it’s happening, because it feels right.

AMS: The response has been fantastic. I always felt confident that Heartstone has a strong, positive and important message – but it has been so great to feel it sincerely come across and hear people laughing and crying in the cinema and talking about the need for more films like this. We are very honored by our festival selections and the belief people from all over have had in this project.

While Heartstone has been praised for its treatment of homosexuality, it seems more like a film about the acceptance of youth as well as the perils of growing up. Did you have any particular theme in mind when you wanted to make this film?

GAG: I would say the theme of the film is self-acceptance, which is something the main and supporting characters all have in common. “How do I see myself, and how do others see me?” But at the same time the core of the film is the friendship and love the main characters have for each other. I tried to keep my focus mainly on that.

This is not the only Icelandic film in the last twelve months to show how hard it can be to grow up in rural Iceland (for example Runar Runarsson’s Sparrows). While the two films are completely different, it seems like it’s not easy to grow up in rural Iceland. Is this a true problem in the country? Why/why not?

GAG:  I think in many small places, in Iceland or abroad, it can be difficult to go through the transformation that takes you from being a kid to a teenager. In a small place like this, as a kid you have all the freedom in the world but as a teenager – you can feel the world becoming unbearably small.

Filming in Iceland does come with its challenges, particularly in funding as well as some of the remote landscapes. Did you face any difficulties filming this in Iceland and if so what were they?

GAG: The Icelandic crew is great, very professional and flexible, and always ready to make things work out. I would say that the hardest thing was finding affordable travel and accommodation in the spring and summer, as we can’t compete with the booming tourism industry. Our budgets were nearly forcing us to shoot in the area around the capital. And an Icelandic film isn’t something you can make a stable living on, so you have to have some other things up your sleeve to make things work, such as teaching.

AMS: We were incredibly fortunate in getting support from national funds in both Iceland and Denmark, and then to have Eurimages on top of that. We could never have done this film properly without all of their support.

Once the financing was in place, one of our main difficulties with shooting Heartstone in Iceland was connected to the fact that our main shooting location was a ten hour drive away from Reykjavík, or one hour flight plus one hour drive. This of course added a lot of extra costs and made us less flexible. The great thing about this though was that the crew and cast became one happy family living together in this small town for many weeks, and we started blending in with the wonderful townspeople who made our lives so much easier through their constant support. So that stacks up pretty well against the cons and the challenges, plus I believe we had the blessing of the elves in Borgarfjörður Eystri (laughs)

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There is a current wave of Icelandic cinema abroad, with the small country continuously releasing good films. What do you believe makes Icelandic cinema unique from the rest of the world?

GAG: I’m not sure what makes it unique but I know that because our home market is too small to make money-oriented commercial films for, Icelandic directors are mostly making films as artists.

AMS: I don’t think it is really so different, though I do believe that generally speaking Icelandic artists find a certain inspiration in the beautiful and brutal nature, the constantly changing weather and the huge contrasts we have between our dark winters and short summers. But most importantly I feel that Icelandic people are really hard workers and have a bit of a unique, small island belief that we can achieve whatever we set our minds to. So when a group of hard working people with that kind of mindset comes together, we are able to start a wave towards something amazing.

Do you have any projects in the works?

GAG: I am currently in the great period of exploring and writing my next film.

AMS: Our company Join Motion Pictures is co-producing Icelandic writer/director Hlynur Pálmason first feature film Vinterbrodre in collaboration with the Danish production company Masterplan Pictures. It’s an odyssey about two brothers set in a working class environment during a cold winter. We follow the brothers, their routines, habits, rituals and a violent feud that erupts between them and another family.

We are extremely excited for its release in 2017 and post-production is now in full swing. Furthermore, we also have a few feature films in development that we can’t wait to get financed.

Film details

Heartstone / Hjartasteinn / Directed & written by by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson / Produced by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, Jesper Morthorst, Lise Orheim Stender & Anton Máni Svansson for Join Motion Pictures & SF Studios / Starring Baldur Einarsson, Blær Hinriksson. Søren Malling & Gunnar Jónsson

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.