Reykjavik: Interview with Asgrimur Sverrisson

Ásgrímur Sverrisson is an Icelandic cinema visionary. After making several award-winning short films as a teenager, he studied film directing at the UK’s national Film and Television School.

From 1995 to 2008 Sverrisson was the founding director of Land & synir, a magazine and website for the Icelandic film-making scene. He was also the founding manager of the Edda awards, the film and television awards in Iceland, and was also a member of the board of the Icelandic Film and Television Academy from 2003-2008. In 2010 Sverrisson was one of the founding members of Bio Paradis, Reykjavik’s first art-house cinema. He is now the editor of the film industry website Klapptre and teaches film history at the Icelandic Film School.

Ásgrímur Sverrisson has now directed a feature film titled Reykjavik. The film tells the story of Hringur and Elsa, who are about to buy their dream home in downtown Reykjavik. However, the video store Hringur owns faces foreclosure. As this crisis threatens to separate the pair, Hringur tries to resolve things before it is too late.

We sat down with Ásgrímur to talk about his new film.

Cinema Scandinavia: Can you tell us about the story of Reykjavik?

Ásgrímur Sverrisson: It’s a relationship drama. What I wanted to do is describe how it feels like when the earth is sinking beneath your feet – our protagonist doesn’t know what has hit him in terms of his relationship with his wife. This is a story of him finding out what happened and what he did to cause this.

CS: And where did you get that idea from?

ÁS: Initially from my own divorce – that was a long time ago. I remember this moment when I was somehow able to look at what was going on in an objective way like a wasn’t a part of it. I thought that was a really interesting premise for a movie, and I felt that a lot of people could relate to this kind of situation.

That said, the film isn’t really autobiographical. It’s just that when you make a film you have to put elements of yourself into it, as well as some fictional aspects. Movies aren’t real life. So I took some inspiration from my story as well as the lives of people around me and then mashed it all together.

CS: Is that why the film is named after the city?

ÁS: Well the initial idea was to give the film the name of the main character, but then I found it was better to give it a larger scope. It’s not about the place, it’s about a state of mind.

CS: Would Reykjavik be the iconography of this state of mind?

ÁS: Yeah – life in Reykjavík can be very bittersweet!

CS: The film really makes use of classical movies. Did you want to put your love of film into this film?

ÁS: Yes, I decided to do that but initially my idea was to not really deal with what the main character does for a living. I wanted to focus on his relationship with his wife and best friend. Through the writing process, I changed my mind and make his job also his passion. And I decided to use what I know best, which is the cinema. If I was into sports, he would be crazy about football. This really affected the style of the film as well because what I wanted with these film references was also describe his inner state of mind – he sees the world through cinema. This is why he quotes films he loves and lives by and also talks about what cinema is about; it encompasses everything in his mind. Many of those films are also the films that I like, so in that way, it’s also quite personal.

CS: Most of the films he references are love stories. Are you critiquing love?

ÁS: Not at all, I’m not really analysing those films or making a certain comment about them. It is more about him being very romantic about cinema. I think the romantic aspect of the film is much more in his very romanticised world view he has through the prism of cinema history than in the relationship with his wife , other people or anything else for that matter. How he romanticises the cinema and makes it the meaning of his life. But this is not about so much about the cinema itself, it’s about the passion or obsession that has consumed him.

CS: Where did you find the actors?

ÁS: The lead actor, Atli Rafn, is very well known in the theatre, but he has not done many films. He has done several supporting roles but this is his first lead. He is a very good actor and I was lucky to get him. Nanna is also a very good actress and she has done a lot of film and theatre. She has been on this project for many years.

CS: When did you start working on this project?

ÁS: More than ten years ago!

CS: And how has the process been?

ÁS: Quite difficult, actually. It took a long time to get it all together and in the end, we had to do it for very little money. The beauty is I got very good actors to do it and I got this great cameraman – Néstor Calvo – who went to film school with me and has shot films all over the world. It was really helpful to have such an experienced guy working on the film. I also have to mention the great composer Sunna Gunnlaugs. I was very lucky to get her to write this fantastic jazz score for the movie.

CS: You’ve had a lot of influence on Icelandic cinema. What does Icelandic film mean to you?

ÁS: I’m not sure if I’ve had a lot of influence, but I’ve certainly been following Icelandic cinema since I was a kid, commenting and reporting on it. I was there when it started around 1980 and have been following it passionately since then. I have always dreamt that there could be a film industry in Iceland. I have always wanted to contribute as much as possible towards building the Icelandic film scene.

CS: Icelandic cinema has had a huge twelve months with Rams, Virgin Mountain and Sparrows to name a few.

ÁS: Yes it’s been great, and I know this is the result of a very long journey. There are a lot of talented people who have been working very hard and gradually we are making more and more films and there is more talent coming aboard. We have very limited financial resources so we have to be very inventive and resourceful. This skill we’ve needed to rely on in order to survive and grow as an industry.

It was bound to happen, this kind of blossoming. I hope that we can maintain it for years to come. Icelandic films have done quite well on the international scene for well over a decade now, but usually, it is like one film a year that does well at festivals, but last year we had three. That is amazing considering we only make a maximum of eight to ten films a year.

CS: And what do you think are the biggest challenges facing Icelandic cinema in the coming years?

ÁS: The lack of money is a big challenge as usual. What I also think, and this is more of a general description of where the film is going, is that personal or auteur films are being squeezed as genre films and event films are being pushed harder to the forefront. It seems that the films heading for the cinemas will be more and more big event films aimed at a large audience, and more personal film-making will go into television or be distributed through video on demand. I’m not sure that’s a very good development, even though what is happening now in TV is in many ways great. It’s very important to continue to support personal films because that’s where cinema innovates and renews itself. Not to mention watching films at home even if you have a big flat screen, is not comparable to watching the big screen

CS: You teach film and now you’ve directed. Do you have a preference?

ÁS: Well, I’ve been a filmmaker since a was a teenager but I’ve also since then written a lot about the cinema. – I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been a critic. I teach film history at the film school. I regard all of this as kind of the same thing, but my preference is in creating films and TV.

CS: Reykjavik came out in March in Iceland. How is it doing domestically?

ÁS: It has had very good reviews, but attendance could be better. Its complicated. There is generally a high cinema attendance in Iceland and Icelandic people are very interested in Icelandic film. But usually . few films do very very well, and the rest gets quite a little. This is a similar trend as in the other Nordic countries.

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.

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