Survival Tales: The Films of Baltasar Kormákur

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‘How do you prove a miracle?’ The doctor didn’t know how to answer. Sitting in front of him was Gulli: a humble Icelandic fisherman who became a national icon after swimming for six hours in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean when his ship capsized. In 2012 Baltasar Kormákur brought his story to the big screen in The Deep. Seven years later, the film-maker returns to turbulent waters, this time in the Pacific, to direct Adrift: a shipwreck made in Hollywood that consolidates him as a narrator of the struggle between man and nature.

Since the 1920’s rural melodramas nature has never been just a background for Nordic cinema. At that time, the lack of permanent studio facilities led to the subsequent outdoor shooting. As University of Copenhagen’s associated professor Casper Tybjerg explains, the stunning Nordic landscapes “gave the film’s realism and seemed to reflect and amplify the characters and their states of mind”.

Iceland was not oblivious to this trend. “Nature has remained the defining character of many Icelandic films”, points out Björn Ægir Nordfjord in Adapting Literary Nation to Film. It was mostly portrayed as a ‘positive element’. Just “occasionally, it may show itself to be dangerous”, details the historian Tytti Soila in Nordic National Cinema.

The New Wave Films and saga adaptations brought on change. They projected an alternative vision “to the more glamourised landscape evocations of earlier periods”, says Pietari Kääpä in his book Ecology and Contemporary Nordic Cinemas. This new tendency coincided with the popularity that movies based on actual events gained in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a moment when Kormákur emerged as one of the most outstanding voices of Icelandic film-making.   

After making his debut as a director with 101 Reykjavík and taking on the thriller genre with Mýrin, it would be in the 2010’s decade when the conflict between man and nature would become more prominent in his filmography. “I’m kind of wild for the dangers of nature. That’s always been a part of me”, he admitted in an interview with Wired magazine. Hurricanes, shipwrecks and avalanches have since then been the driving force behind many of his films.

Adrift, defined as ‘Gravity on the high seas’ and whose production will start next fall, constitutes his return to Hollywood in a co-production between RVK Studios and STX Films, reaffirming himself as the film-maker who best depicts real survival stories.   

The script has been adapted by Aaron and Jordan Kandell – writers of the latest Disney animation success Moana – from Tami Oldham’s real story. In September 1983 the 23-year-old girl and her fiancé Richard Sharp were on an idyllic and romantic boat trip from Tahiti to San Diego. In spite of being expert sailors, they found themselves in the middle of Raymond’s Category four hurricane and in waves nearly fifty feet tall.

Baltasar Kormákur faces this new project from the experience of a survivor: a female heroine that will be played by Shailene Woodley, Divergent’s saga star. “It’s a harrowing, extraordinary and inspiring story of love and survival against all odds”, STX Films chairman Adam Fogelson described to Variety. After being knocked unconscious, Tami awoke finding her boat in ruins and her fiancé missing. Masts, navigational instruments and the radio system were broken, but she managed to start a 41-day and 1,500-mile journey to the nearest Hawaiian port.

To Fogelson, the Icelandic director is “the perfect film-maker to bring Tami’s amazing open waters adventure to the big screen”. In fact, some critics have highlighted the similarities between this new project and Kormákur’s survival tale’s debut, The Deep. In a way, Adrift closes the circle of his anonymous brave souls.

Gudlaugur (Gulli) Fridthórsson’s story that occurred in 1984 was very similar to Tami’s. How did a 23-year-old fisherman survive a ship capsizing, swimming through five-degrees waters to reach the coast? What made him the only one to survive? When Gulli was admitted to the hospital his body temperature was below 34ºC, yet he showed almost no symptoms of hypothermia.

In a country so linked to the fishing industry, his deed became a real myth. Gulli represented hope in the face of the dozens of fishermen who disappeared every year in the Atlantic waters. Actually, the question of what constitutes a miracle runs throughout the entire film. “Our true heroes wear fishing gear and raincoats”, remarked the film-maker to The Huffington Post.

The Deep also established one of Kormákur’s survival tales’ principles: his characters test not only their physical but also their emotional strength. Back ashore, Gulli became a strange being: a reborn, a revenant who should not be there. If his sense of guilt was not enough, Dr. William R. Keatinge convinced him to travel to the United Kingdom to undergo various experiments at the London Hospital Medical College to demonstrate his extraordinary resistance to cold.

His figure was in the antipodes of the hero prototype. New Scientist magazine defined him as a ‘giant’ of 125 kilos. After the conclusion of the study, he came to be known as the ‘human seal’. His body’s fat had been precisely what saved him from dying in the sea as he did not lose corporal heat as fast as the rest of his mates. Exposed to freezing temperatures in a laboratory pool, Gulli’s body temperature was still normal after 75 minutes of immersion. No one else had been able to resist more than 30.

With the determination of not to deceive his compatriots – “80% of all Icelanders live by the sea, they know what the ocean looks like”, Kormákur recalls, he shot in the harsh sea instead of filming in water tanks. He was always the first to swim and ensure that every location was safe.

His verism went even further with Everest (2015), his most international “man versus nature” to date. Kormákur took both the cast and crew – including Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin- to the Everest base camp to film in the hardest conditions. The production’s second unit was shooting almost at the peak. The temperature both there and in the Dolomites, where they also shot, was -30ºC. The hair inside Gyllenhaal’s nose was really icy, it was not made up, the film-maker confessed.

The story portrayed in the film went beyond the natural disaster. As Kääpä explains, in the last decades Nordic cinema started an ‘ecocritical approach’ to nature and natural resources. To Kormákur, Iceland was not just a region “open to the mercies of natural forces”. In The Sea he exposed the problems regarding the industrialisation of the sea and the fish processing factories. Speculative real state and land commercialisation also appeared as the contemporary Icelandic background for the criminal investigation in the successful TV series Trapped.

Everest presents a critical insight into the boom of Mount Everest’s expeditions business in the mid-1990s. Here, the direct conflict between man and nature was not accidental but voluntary. An election plagued with doubts reflected in the characters dialogue: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747”. “It hurts. It’s dangerous. Why do we do it?”, asks the journalist Jon Krakauer. His diary Into the Thin Air and Beck Weather’s biography Left for Dead: My Journey Home inspired the Icelandic director to adapt the fateful events that occurred on May 10th 1996. Again, a true story that distinguished the film from previous cinematographic attempts like The Summit or Vertical Limit.

Between the training and the mortal storm that took the life of twelve people, the film shows the nonsense carried out by the companies that organized the expeditions to the Everest. Among them are those of Rob Hall and Scot Fischer, exposed in the film. Agglomerations in the mountain, the coexistence between skilled and experimented climbers with clients who were only there because they could pay the 8,000 metres ascent and even queues to cross the hills as if it was a fairground ride. “Nature is not a theme park”, warned Kormákur.

GG70P1 Mountainscape and glaciers at Lake Alftavatn on Iceland’s Laugavegur trail.

Katla, The Volcanic Dystopia

From Krakatoa, East of Java (1969) to Pompeii (2014), disaster films have always been drawn to volcanic eruptions. However, none of these movies were set in Iceland despite having almost 150 volcanoes and being one of the countries with the most volcanic activity in the world.

During the last Berlin Film Festival, Kormákur pitched a new project to potential partners. Katla, which will be a dystopian TV series set in Reykjavík in a near future where Katla’s volcano has been erupting for two years causing all kinds of strange events: from mutations to epidemics.

The Icelandic film-maker will direct at least the pilot episode of the series, which he will also produce through RVK Studios, and that is planned to begin its shooting in the fall. Katla is considered one of the most dreadful volcanoes in the country. Located under the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, it has erupted twenty times since Iceland was settled over a thousand years ago. The last big eruption occurred 99 years ago and it lasted 24 days. •

CategoriesFeatures Issue 19