Rams is a 2015 Icelandic drama film directed by Grímur Hákonarson. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize and is Iceland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.
Rams is currently screening in LA as part of AVI FEST World Cinema Programme.
The following interview with director Grímur Hákonarson was part of a round table discussion at Cannes Film Festival 2015.
Knight: A few words about you as a filmmaker.
Hakonarson: I consider myself a Scandinavian filmmaker. I relate to directors like Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismäki and Bent Hamer.
Your film brings to mind the Hungarian canine thriller “White God” that was last year’s winner. How difficult was it to work with animals, in this case sheep?
Hakonarson: Sheep are special animals, especially in Iceland where they kept us alive for thousands of years. It was important to find the right sheep that looked good in the picture and were also mentally-stable and relaxed, not afraid of cameras…And I think we picked the right ones, we found them on a farm whose owner, a woman, is very close to her sheep, she talks to them. We had this really complicated snowstorm scene, 40 people shouting, very loud, a lot of noise, and the sheep were supposed to walk through the whole thing. I was really afraid, it was just one take but they did it perfectly.
What inspired this story and how closely linked are you to the world of the story?
Hakonarson: My grandparents and my parents grew up on a farm and when I was a kid I grew up on a farm too so I’m familiar with this environment. I know a lot of farmers, I made some documentaries about farmers. I live in Reykjavik but I still spend a lot of time in the countryside.
There are many stories of brothers who don’t speak to each other but share the same land. Many Icelanders are independent, they don’t trust things that come from abroad without being necessarily racist. So I think these characters reflect a little bit that part of Iceland and the older generations …
Was it difficult to make the transition from documentaries to feature films?
Hakonarson: When I’m making a documentary I have a small crew, me and a DOP usually. Rams is a low-budget film if you compare it to other independent films in Europe but compared to documentaries it’s a big crew, you have to communicate with a lot of people, more pressure. Everything costs money, if you don’t make the day you lose money.
How did the writing process go and how did you manage to balance so well the drama with the undercurrents of humour?
Hakonarson: All my short films are dramas in essence but there’s always this dry or black humour. It comes naturally to me, even when I try to write a drama script it becomes funny somehow naturally. It’s in my character I think, I have a sense of humour and that shows in my films. But sometimes it’s a fine balance because you can’t be too funny. I was really careful when making the film because I made that mistake before, to make a film that people didn’t know what it was, they didn’t know what they were watching. Should they laugh or should they cry?
But that’s a great thing!
Hakonarson: Yes I think it’s a good thing too. I like films that have some humour. But I like to tell a serious story with a strong dramatic line, humanistic stories. And if you also manage to make people laugh, it’s great!
You constructed a very interesting, very “Icelandic”story based on a story device that is quite frequently used in Hollywood cinema: the idea of two opponents or enemies that are brought together by a common goal. Are you aware of this screenwriting device?
No, I’m not so conscious about these techniques or devices screenwriters use.
You’re not reading those screenwriting books…
No, definitely not. I mean you go to film school and you learn all the rules, you read these books, you probably internalise them. But a story is a story, it’s always the same build-up, it comes naturally. I’m conscious about that when I’m making a film, but if nothing happens in a film in the first 15 minutes it’s not good. To make a film about a guy reading a newspaper for an hour is not going to be good!
What was your approach to character in this film?
Hakonarson: Gummi is the main character and the story is told from his point of view. But you can’t say that Kiddi is a supporting actor, he’s a main character as well in a way. It’s just that the audience only gets to know him more at the end. So I see Gummi as the main character and Kiddi as a second main character.
You’re very laconic in your storytelling, you don’t go into the characters’ back story too much…
Hakonarson: No. Although I did write a back-story for the characters. But in the film there’s just a hint, in one scene they talk about the land. That’s what started the conflict but the important thing is that they are very different, one brother is alcoholic, mentally-unstable and the other one is a perfectionist. The editing process was the most difficult part I think. We had only two months so we’d probably qualify for a world record in editing. We did the editing in a small village in Eastern Iceland, working 10-12 hours a day.
How about the location, where in Iceland did you shoot the film?
Hakonarson: Location was not one of the most practical because it’s far away from Reykjavik, it’s in North Iceland. But I chose it because of the farms, they were perfectly located in a nice landscape, very isolated from civilisation, very close to the mountains and the sheep farming community. We rented a guesthouse that’s only open in the summer and we made it our base. There are only 50 people living in that community and many of them were hired as assistants. Someone took care of the dogs, another one of the sheep, someone else was like a strung man. Some of the farmers even acted in the film, the guy with the white beard, he’s an amateur actor. So we tried to get the community involved in the film. And it was also important for me to do that in order to make the film more authentic, to use real people who are farmers.
Is it true that the farming communities are slowly dying in Iceland?
Yes, sheep farming is in a bit of crisis today, the communities that lived off it used to be much bigger, in the 80s there was 3 times more sheep in Iceland. So characters like the ones in my film are slowly disappearing. And you hear all sorts of stories, there is a farmer in Iceland who is trying to get permission to be buried with his sheep on his land, he’s trying to get some lawyers to help him with that.
That’s another film, right there! What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I grew up in Reykjavik and I started out as an actor, when I was a kid I was acting at the National Theatre. Then the VHS revolution came in 1992, I bought a camera and started to make films, I was 14 when I made my first short film. Then I stopped and went to study philosophy for 1 year.
What made you abandon film and take up philosophy?
I was afraid that filmmaking would be too difficult as a career, that i won’t be able to make a living from that. Not that you can make a living from philosophy! But there’s a lot of competition in film and I was a bit scared of going into it.
Did you find philosophy useful as a filmmaker?
Not at all, I found out that it wasn’t my thing, I’m trying to avoid all that BS! Sometimes you watch films about “real people” made in a realistic vein and you get the impression from the dialogue that the filmmaker has read a lot of books! I try to avoid that.
Could you name some films that really impressed you?
Kitchen Stories by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian film. The Straight Story by David Lynch. Also Nói the Albino, an Icelandic film by Dagur Kári. When someone asks me what is my favourite film or director, I never give the same answer. My film is different from Nói the Albino though, this one was thought as a comedy for Iceland, it didn’t travel a lot, it went to a few festivals but it was very well-received in Iceland. This film is more like my short films, but the film I wanted to make was a more personal film.
What are your future plans? Do you see yourself like Kormákur, going to America or Europe and making international productions or would you rather make films at home?
I don’t see myself making films abroad at the moment, maybe in Europe or Denmark. I’d prefer to make films in Iceland, even with little money. Sometimes you have to wait for a long time to get funding. And that would be the main reason for going to make films abroad, economic factors.