From Cannes to the Westfjords, and Back: Chatting With Grímur Hákonarson, director of Rams

I first met Grímur Hákonarson in 2012 at Skjaldborg, a documentary festival in the Westfjords. I was reporting on the festival for this very publication and he was on his way to winning the main prize for ‘The Pure Heart’, a documentary about an Icelandic country priest fighting the authorities. It was made for next to no money and shot with a tiny crew—in most cases just Grímur himself.

Now, three years later, we’re sitting at a downtown café to chat about his film ‘Hrútar’ (“Rams”), which tells the story of two brothers who work as sheep farmers. Despite living next door to each other, they don’t speak, only communicating through notes the sheep dog carries between the farms—and things only get worse when a fatal disease threatens their sheep.

Grímur has just returned from the Cannes film festival, where ‘Hrútar’ won the main award in the Un Certain Regard section, the biggest prize an Icelandic director has ever received. “It’s a circus,” he says of his experience at the festival. “It’s really two worlds—you get the filmmakers mixing with intellectuals, people who just want to talk films and ideas, and then you have the jet setters.”

Some, of course, belong to both of these worlds, such as Hollywood royalty Isabella Rosselini, who was head of the Un Certain Regard jury. “I chatted with her,” Grímur says, “she’s really interested in sheep, and I hear that she’s done some shorts about the sex life of animals. She really liked the film—and they all did, it was a unanimous decision. But it was great meeting her—‘Blue Velvet’ is my favourite film. She’s a very charming lady.”

From the ‘Summerland’ to ‘Little Moscow’

But how did it all begin? “When the Super VHS cameras came along in my teens I started shooting short films with my friends and really enjoyed myself behind the camera. In my late teens, Rúnar Rúnarsson and I made ‘Toilet Culture’—it won some awards in Denmark and in retrospect it was the first ‘real’ short I did,” Grímur recalls.

“That was twenty years ago and I’ve been in this business ever since—and it was never really a conscious decision. But I’ve had periods of doubt—about this being too hard, impossible to make a living from. It’s been a constant struggle; for a while during the boom years I just lived in the cheap cities of Europe and got by on overdraft.”

After that, he would make two documentaries and continue making shorts before going to FAMU, the Czech film school, where he eventually made ‘Slavek the Shit’, which got him to Cannes for the first time. He followed that with ‘Wrestling’, which was even more successful. Icelandic film producers were increasingly viewing shorts as a breeding ground for new talent—and the superstars of Icelandic shorts were Grímur and his old co-director of ‘Toilet Culture’, Rúnar Rúnarsson, who has also won a truckload of awards for his short films.

The enormous success of his shorts made his first feature film a bit like making the difficult sophomore album. That film, ‘Summerland’, would have been deemed a successful debut in most cases, but was considered a failure given the high expectations for Grímur. Following that film, he took time off from features to do two very successful documentaries: ‘The Pure Heart’ and ‘The Laxá Farmers’, which he seemed to enjoy greatly. He raved about documentary filmmaking when I met him between those two films and gave me the impression that he wouldn’t be returning to feature films anytime soon.

“When the Super VHS cameras came along in my teens I started shooting short films with my friends and really enjoyed myself behind the camera. In my late teens, Rúnar Rúnarsson and I made ‘Toilet Culture’– it won some awards in Denmark and in retrospect it was the first ‘real’ short I did.”

“I was actually already working on the screenplay for ‘Rams’ at that time,” he tells me when I bring this up. “But ‘Summerland’ hadn’t been a success so I was far from certain that I would ever find the money to film it. However, ‘The Pure Heart’ was a crucial film for me. I remade myself through it. I did it all by myself for no money and sort of found myself again—I found a new beginning.”

The success of ‘Rams’ will not spell the end to his documentary career. “I’m already working on one in Neskaupsstaður. It’s called ‘Little Moscow’ and it’s about the socialism in Neskaupsstaður [historically one of the more red towns in Iceland] and the new tunnel there–it’s a film I want to make slowly, over a long period of time,” he tells me.

“I work independently and have to have many projects in development just to survive. But I also just sometimes get sick of being in front of the computer all day—then it’s great to just go out with the camera and film stuff. I couldn’t do that if I only did features—the time between shooting them can be years so I prefer to work on documentaries in the meantime. And to be perfectly honest I enjoy making documentaries more. Feature films are far more stressful—there was a moment during the filming of ‘Rams’ when I hadn’t slept for five days and I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. You’re in charge of a big crew whereas with documentaries you have a tiny crew, sometimes just you and the subject.”

However, finding funding for documentary filmmaking can be limiting. “To get funding from the Icelandic Film Fund, you first have to write a script,” he says. “That can be very great for some documentaries, but if you’re trying to catch the moment, if you find something great, say, someone who wants to blow up parliament tomorrow and is willing to let you film it – then you just have to jump on it, and there is no time to write a screenplay to raise funds when that happens.”

Farmers revolt

The documentary that Grímur made before ‘Rams’, ‘The Laxá Farmers’, was actually about farmers blowing up a dam, which happened many years ago.

‘Rams’ is certainly an aesthetically and thematically logical continuation of that. “They both deal with a farmer’s revolution—farmers against the system,” he explains. “I draw a lot on the characters who blew up the dam, the Hofstaðir brothers—although unlike the brothers in ‘Rams’, they were really good friends. But yeah, I’ve made documentaries about farmers and done my research on Icelandic farms—I worked on a farm as a kid and watched my grandfather clip his toenails with those giant scissors. I’ve also known some of those bachelor farmers, men who get left behind in the countryside—when the women leave, the men wither away.”

He’s also familiar with scrapie, the disease that kills the sheep in the film. “It happened to farmers related to me—I remember the shock, the sorrow. It’s a story that has never been properly told really, neither in films nor literature, yet it’s a big part of the history of Icelandic farms,” he says. “This has happened frequently, again and again in some places. But it’s not discussed much.”

Brother rivalry

The rivalry between the two brothers is certainly intense—and also very comical, as they’re approaching retirement age, yet still fight like ten-year-olds. We don’t really know why they are fighting, although there are hints. In fact, one of the film’s main strengths is how subtly suggestive it is of the reasons behind the conflict—the audience comes out with a number of theories about it.

“Our distributor in France told us he hadn’t talked to his brother for five years—I told him to give his brother ‘Rams’ for Christmas!” Grímur says. “Today you could usually solve a situation like this—the modern man goes to a therapist, seeks help—but they’re not of that generation. They don’t want anything like that and so they are stuck in a vicious cycle.”

While there are many actors in ‘Rams’, the screen is dominated by actors Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theódór Júlíusson—whom the director calls Siggi and Teddi. In their roles as brothers they don’t talk much, so the film really becomes about their faces, shrouded by wild beards that make them look a bit like the rams they keep. “It was a big challenge for Siggi to act so much with his face—Icelandic films are usually more dialogue-driven,” he says.

“Here he’s playing an introvert who lives alone. You have to reflect the feelings in the eyes—it’s something we studied a lot together. We had a lot of time—they had read the script a year and a half before filming. I gave them a book about sheep farming in Iceland for Christmas and we did a lot of research. We met a farmer who had dealt with scrapie, they learned to deal with the rams and there were three days in which they learned to drive the tractor. We made a back story and when we filmed they were simply in character.”

Sigurður is a famous actor in Iceland—but despite a handful of dramatic roles he’s been typecast a bit after starring in one of Iceland’s most famous sketch shows. “I liked the idea of Siggi as this sort of introvert—a little strange maybe,” he says, “and Teddi as the macho one—much rougher and bigger. I was actually determined to get him after watching him play the lead in ‘Volcano’,” he adds, referring to the debut feature of Grímur’s old colleague Rúnar Rúnarsson.

During the premiere, Grímur convinced the audience to take part in one big bleating, echoing his other lead actors—the sheep. “They were like method actors—you just said ‘action’ and they were in character,” he says. “I had been warned about working with animals and was a bit worried about the big sheep scenes. The sheep at the place we worked on were too grumpy towards humans—so we got sheep from a different farm, Halldórsstaðir á Bárðadal, and they were really friendly—they almost walked to you and they usually needed fewer takes than the human actors.”

They still had a rebellious streak in them. “Once we were herding a hundred sheep and they revolted and ran all over the place. It took a while to get them back, but we managed.” Those rams are now running all over the world—with the film’s rights having been sold to more than 30 countries and counting, and its time on the festival circuit  just starting. “It doesn’t really get serious until the fall though,” Grímur says. “We’ll probably only go to a couple festivals this summer, which is good, as I really want to find a quiet place in the country to work on some stuff.”

With years of struggle at least temporarily behind him, the future is still uncertain. “If it comes up I’d rather go to Europe than to America,” he says when I ask him if he’ll go abroad to make a film. “I don’t think I could make my kind of films in America. Still, you never know. America, of course, is not just Hollywood. There has even been talk of remaking ‘Rams’ in different countries, but I can’t quite picture it—I guess they would have to change the species… camels maybe?”

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on June 7th 2015.

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