“Shorts Are About Experimentation”: An Interview With Icelandic Film-Maker Eva Sigurdardottir

This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia and will be free for 48 hours before being locked for subscribers only. 

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This year’s edition of the Göteborg Film Festival has shown some thought-provoking and visually exciting Nordic shorts. Cinema Scandinavia sat down with Icelandic film-maker Eva Sigurdardottir, the founder of Askja Films, who is behind the films Cut (director, writer and producer) and Salvation (producer). Eva is an experienced short film director and producer and has been nominated for a BAFTA for the short film Good Night (2012).

 

Let’s talk first about the film you’ve directed and produced. How did you get the idea for Cut?

I’ve been fascinated about the teenage experience for a long time – probably because it was a very complicated time of my own life. But the modern teenage experience is very different, and the Internet plays a huge part in this change. Both my current film Cut and my first short Rainbow Party explored these themes.

Cut is set in the world of fitness modelling and competing, which is a world I have been wanting to tell a story in for a long time. It’s so dynamic and visual! But the core theme of the film is about body image and slut shaming, which teenage girls have to deal with on a daily basis.

I’ve never imagined that fitness competitions can be such a popular thing in Iceland…

Fitness competitions are HUGE in Iceland! Iceland is famous for having won the World’s Strongest Man a number of times as well as we have been crowned Miss World, and it is famous for its beautiful women. And so my theory is that fitness modelling is somehow the marriage of these two trends: strength and beauty.

Through friends and colleagues who have competed, I got a chance to learn more about this world, and there are also some great documentaries on the subject. What I find interesting is just how dedicated and hard-working the competitors are – it’s a real obsession for some. Every calorie is controlled and all their time goes into working out at the gym. I don’t have that willpower myself, so it just blows my mind.

Cut / Photo by Luke Varley

How did you find your actors?

That was tricky because we needed our actresses to be in a certain physical shape. We worked with a casting agent in the UK and we did what we call street casting. We did look at experienced actresses as well, but because the main character had to be quite young and be in amazing physical shape, we anticipated that this would be a difficult search. We advertised on Instagram and other social media sites, and reached out to girls we found interesting. They had to go through a three-round casting process online, and the girls that reached the final round we brought down to London for a face-to-face casting session.

Kennedy Atkins, who plays the main character, has actually never acted or competed in fitness before, but she’s very athletic because she is a boxer. She brought something special to the character and was really committed to the project. She had five weeks to train to get into shape, and she was also rehearsing the role with me at the same time. In the case of Megan Prescott, who plays the antagonist, we were extremely lucky to find a trained actress who had actually competition experience. Kennedy and Megan worked really well together and it was nice that one of them had a lot of experience and the other one didn’t.

Street casting can be very challenging, but when you find the right actors it makes it all so worth it. In our case our actresses didn’t just do a stellar job on screen, but they also won the actual competition for real!

Do you prefer working with actors or non-actors?

To a certain extent, I’m more comfortable with non-actors, but I’m also challenged by them. However, sometimes you do want an experienced actor because there is a complexity to the performance, which an amateur would not be able to pull off. They also bring you so much an amateur wouldn’t naturally do. When doing street casting, you’re actually looking for someone who is that character, and you also have to adjust the script to them. In my case, I was looking for that final five per cent of inspiration for the character to give her even more personality. It worked out really well with Kennedy.

Cut received financial support from both Iceland and the UK. How easy was it to get all the funds being an Icelandic film-maker making an English-speaking short film?

I had directed one short film before this one, and, ironically, the film I made in Icelandic got largely funded from the UK, and the other made in English from Iceland. You do what you can and just take what they give you. I guess I’m Icelandic first because of my passport and my background, but I have lived in the UK for a long time. Some people definitely said, “Why don’t you make the film in Icelandic, it would do better at festivals?” However, I wanted to make a film in English because I needed to show this was my language, that’s where I have stories to tell. Also, England really suited the story.

We funded the film through a number of ways. As I’ve produced 12 short films, I have my ways now, and we were in a really good position, which is not always a case in terms of short films. I think people wanted to support us for different reasons: because of our previous work and reputation, the topic, and some were excited that we were a very strong female team (director, cinematographer, producers, writers, actors). The latter was definitely a selling point for us.

As you’ve said, the film deals with issues that are extremely relevant in today’s society. Are you planning to use the film in schools for educational purposes?

I’m very open to it, but schools might find the film a little challenging. I think people are scared because this is not a happy-go-lucky story with a message, but quite a hard-hitting one. But I do enjoy showing my films to the intended audience – teenagers. Every time they see my work, a great debate and discussion starts, and you can tell that young people really want to discuss these topics.

Rainbow Party / Photo by Kari Sverriss

You’ve not only directed but also produced Cut. What is it like to produce your own films?

You should never produce your own films if you can avoid it, as your directing will suffer. But I absolutely still love producing the work of other directors. It is really important to realise that the director and the producer are two different people and they work together collaboratively. People don’t understand how valuable a good producer really is to the project. For Cut, I’ve paired up with a fantastic producer called Alexandra Blue from Bluebird Productions who is based in the UK. I’m still credited as a producer, because I raised a lot of the financing, but, when it came to the shoot, I completely stepped away from producing. I just trusted her, because she knew exactly what she was doing and we were completely on the same page.

What do you like about short films?

I absolutely love the short film format, as you can tell a daring and controversial story without the pressure of box office success. The great thing about shorts is that it doesn’t matter whether they cost a lot or not; what matters is the story. People can make shorts in all kinds of ways, and the audience will forgive imperfect production values as long as the story and the performances are strong. Shorts are about experimentation, really.

You mentioned you’d produced many short films, for instance, the Icelandic short film Salvation also screened at the Göteborg Film Festival. Is it easier to get them funded compared to documentaries or feature-length fiction films?

It is notoriously difficult to fund short films, and so feature-length films or documentaries often seem easier to finance. It’s possible to fund short films, especially if you have a good script, but the money is never enough, so you always end up asking your friends for favours. I’m lucky that I’m from a country where there is strong support from the Icelandic Film Centre. In the UK it is also possible to get public funding, but the competition is fierce as there are so many talented film-makers fighting for the same pot of money. But with that being said, London has a great community of film-makers, and people really help each other out. It’s easy to find people to come on board if you have a good producer and a good script.

Rainbow Party / Photo by Madeleine Sims-Fewer

How did the collaboration with the team working on Salvation go?

The team behind Salvation is a lovely group; the director, Thora Hilmarsdottir, is one of my really good friends and she is mega talented, particularly visually. She’s got a really unique style and way of playing with the image, but she is also paired with a writer called Snjolaug Ludviksdottir. It’s really the two of them who create the story and its world, and I’m lucky to be part of this trio. They also work really closely with cinematographer Thor Eliasson and costume designer Júlíanna Lára Steingrímsdóttir.

It was a really nice collaboration to walk into, because they already had chemistry from previous work. They did not have a producer before, but I think they realised they needed one. When I work with a director or a writer, I always look for something unique, and they really have that.

We also paired up with some co-producers including the Göteborg based Cinenic Film (Annika Hellström and Erika Malmgren), who secured funding from the Swedish Film Institute. We also had support from the Icelandic Film Centre and collaborated with Icelandic producers Thora Karitas Arnadottir, Kristin Olafsdottir and Anna Sæunn Olafsdottir. It’s one long list of strong female producers.

The film is about a very religious family. I’m wondering whether religion is a sensitive topic in Iceland or not.

It’s not really a sensitive topic. Iceland is very atheist country, and most of those in the Church of Iceland don’t seem to be very active. Actually, if you’re very religious, that is the weird thing. That was one of the things that attracted me to Salvation, as it tells the story of a very religious woman and her family. I come from a small religion myself, so when they brought me the script and the idea I really connected with it. Thora and Snjolaug really did their research and went to some church meetings and spoke to some experts of certain religions. But ultimately the film is fiction inspired by real life.

What are the plans for the films now? Do shorts have a life outside the festival circuit?

ES: Both Cut and Salvation are festival films, and are in the early stages of their festival run. We’ve only had really positive responses so far, but this is really just the beginning; we’re excited to see who wants to screen the films next, and at what festival. Obviously, they are very different films and so they belong to different film festivals: one of them is very Scandinavian with genre elements, the other one is a teenage drama set in England. We hope that both films will get screenings on television eventually, and we keep our fingers crossed that Salvation will win the Edda Award for Best Short film at the Icelandic Academy Awards, where it is nominated.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.