Matthew Lee chats with Rams writer-director Grímur Hákonarson…
The winner of last years Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival, Rams continues its success with an abundance of critical praise from across the globe. It tells the story of brothers Gummi and Kiddi, who haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years, slowly reconcile to prevent the culling of their sheep. The full four star review can be read here. Matthew Lee sat down with Icelandic filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson to discuss the film’s success, his influences, and where the story originated from.
Matthew Lee: So congratulations on winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at last year’s Cannes film festival, and the subsequent critical acclaim from across the globe. How has it been received in Iceland?
Grímur Hákonarson: We actually had the premiere straight after Cannes at the valley where we shot the film. It’s been really popular in Iceland so far. This film works both in Iceland and across the world.
ML: From watching the film, it looks and feels very cold, and the rural landscape feels, for lack of a better word, isolative. What was production like shooting on location?
GH: Yeah, I shot in the valley in north of Iceland. They have harsh winters where people get stuck there for weeks. It can be a bit difficult, at times socially, when you have a group of people who can’t go home in the evening, and have to stay there for weeks. We were shooting in the winter with the snow. We just had the snow storm, and sometimes you’re filming in minus fifteen degrees; it was pretty tough and not easy. It was also made for only around one million Euros. So I felt like I was running around and pretty stressed all the time. It doesn’t look like that though.
ML: No, it looks very quiet and calm, yet the actors looked like they went through a lot, too. What was it like directing them under such conditions?
GH: We had a good preparation. We took them there before we started to film. I let them stay on the farm, on location, and got them used to sheep herding. There was also a lot of silence in the film. And [the brothers] are kind of stage actors. They’re used to dialogue scenes, so I had to prepare them to act with their faces and their eyes. Also, it’s a low-key sort of performance and acting, so it took a while to get them off the stage and to get into characters.
ML: So what made you choose this kind of story?
GH: My family come from the countryside in the south of Iceland. When I was a kid I would stay at my grandfather’s home, so I know a lot about sheep farming. I also know the mentality of these people, and I know some characters who are [like the brothers] a bit stubborn: live alone, but sort of harmless. But the main story is based on a true story of two brothers who didn’t talk for forty years. I never met them – they died when I was about ten years old – but I found the story interesting. It tells a lot about the national character of Iceland and of the people; we’re an island, we’re very independent a bit stubborn. But, it’s also a common and universal story about family conflicts, which may explain why people have liked it.
ML: Yeah, it has indeed been well received globally, and one of the recurring praises has been the film’s mixture of very dry, almost absurdist, humour with the dramatic story of the two brothers reconciling. When you were writing the script, how did you maintain a balance between the two?
GH: I’ve been working on that cocktail all my life. It’s something I like to do. I like to tell serious edgy stories with some kind of message. But I also like to have some humour. Like my first feature, the balance was not right; it was too unbalanced. So I spent a lot of time working in the script, you have to think you can’t be too funny or too dramatic. The film comes from something natural. It’s not dialogue driven humour, but mainly in the silence. The basic set up of the two brothers opens up for a lot of opportunity for funny moments and situations. They’re dependent on each other, kind of cooperate, but they don’t speak and so they use a dog to deliver messages.
ML: I also read somewhere that you credit the sheep as actors. Is that correct? And, if so, whose idea was that?
GH: Yeah, it was the producer’s idea. I mean, they’ve got names, and are also actors. They play a very important and big role in the film, and audiences can sympathise with them. It was quite an experience to work with the sheep, also. I had never done it before, and before shooting I had nightmares about all these complicated scenes. But we always made it work. We had some very good, super-calm sheep that stayed on the farm and were used to being around people.
ML: And the same level of preparation with the actors as well, no doubt. How involved were the actors with the sheep?
GH: The main actor Sigurður Sigurjónsson had experience working on a farm as a teenager. Both the [lead] actors now live in the city, so I took them to the countryside to stay on the farm and to speak to the farmers about scrapie and the culling, to get into character. I think I spent more time on that than actually rehearsing the scenes.
ML: So were there certain improvised scenes or moments from this preparation?
GH: No-no. You always use some kind of improvisation that comes from these rehearsals; I allow the actors to change the sentences, but it’s all written. I was not worried about the dialogue because they work in theatre. I spent more energy making sure they looked, from the first minute, like believable farmers. I think in many movies, like in Hollywood, you always see some famous actor in costumes and in the situations but you don’t believe the characters. In this I try to make my characters look very authentic, by mixing professional actors with local farmers for the small roles.
ML: You mentioned earlier it was largely based on a true story. What other inspirations helped construct your screenplay?
GH: One of my favourite books is a famous Icelandic book called Independent People by Halldor Laxness. It’s this story of a stubborn sheep farmer who wants to be an independent farmer, he doesn’t want help from the people, and sacrifices himself for the sheep. Also filmmakers like Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki, Norway’s Bent Hamer, and The Coen Brothers. But, almost everything that happens in Rams is based on something that has happened before, like the fighting, or trying to save the sheep from the slaughter. Even the tractor scene where the brother lifts him and dumps him in front of the hospital – also happened. I spend a lot of time in the countryside, talking to the people and gain influence from them. I just put it together, and spin it out onto the paper. It took me three years to do this script, went through different versions and drafts.
ML: You’ve had documentary and fictional filmmaking experience in the past. And, after the success of Rams, will you remain in fiction, or shall there be a return to documentary?
GH: I’m actually finishing a documentary I started before Rams. It’s called Little Moscow, and it’s about a little fishing village in Iceland. Of course, now, my main focus is more on fictional features. I’m getting a lot of opportunities, and plenty of doors opening for me. I’m not going to quit making documentaries, but for now I’m going to focus on making fictional features. But I would like to do both. I get inspired when I’m making a documentary. When I’m directing my fiction I try to think the actors are real people, and I think I have a good sense of what’s right. I’m quite a perfectionist; I never quit until it is right.
ML: And as a perfectionist, were there particular scenes that were difficult to shoot?
GH: The last scene of the film was particularly challenging. It was a risky ending, and could have flopped, so we filmed that multiple times. There was also the fighting scene between the brothers, and when you have particularly old actors fighting, perhaps not in the best physical condition, can be tricky. The snowstorm scene: I’ve never filmed an action scene before, and this was like an action movie. The winter scenes were complicated to setup. We were also filming the snowstorm at night, so it was difficult to light. We always managed to get it right. Due to the small budget and small crew, we had to do everything real fast.
ML: Finally when people go see Rams what do you want audiences to walk away with?
GH: It’s a story of reconciliation. Human relationships are important in difficult times, from threats, and in the end people need each other. We can refer to terrorist attacks or the economic crisis, something that brings people together. Rams kind of brings human unity. Even the most stubborn farmers, they can make peace and get together during hard times. The story could happen in any part of the world. People seem to have similar experiences, but what’s made this idea radical is that they’re living alone, yet so close to each other. The brothers are from an older generation where people keep their emotions to themselves. People today will go and look for help, but this conflict between the two brothers could’ve been solved very easily. And conflicts like this can become trickier as time goes on, and in my film they need an external factor to start to communicate. So, it’s about reconciliation and the importance of communication.
Many thanks to Grímur Hákonarson for taking the time for this interview.