Fridrik Thor Fridriksson "Devil's Island"
By Maya Churi
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s “Devil’s Island” based on a book by Einar
Karason — his second film to be released in the U.S. (the first was
“Cold Fever“) — tells the story of a 1950’s community of outcasts
living in barracks left behind by American forces after World War II.
The film follows one family and the two brothers who take separate paths
in their efforts to leave the Camp behind. Baddi, the oldest, visits
his newly married mother in America and comes back a hero, sporting a
new American car, an Elvis hairstyle, and a restless attitude towards
his family and neighbors. The younger, more reclusive brother stays
behind and becomes a pilot. While living along the margins of society,
the brothers are surrounded by an eclectic group of oddballs, including
a fortune teller, an opera-singing boy and a couple of cheaters to
boot. Says director Fridriksson: “With this film I hope to reveal a
hidden world that few people knew existed in Iceland.”
indieWIRE caught up with Fridriksson at New York’s Paramount hotel where
the husky Icelandic auteur spoke succinctly about his newest film,
making documentaries, America’s cultural influence, and the state of
Iceland’s film industry.
indieWIRE: Why did you want to make Einar Karason’s book into a movie?
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson: It was a gentleman’s agreement. Ten years
back, when I was making my first manuscript for “White Whales” and he
was writing his novel, the one this film is based on, I asked him for
help and he said “yes, if you make the novel I am writing into a film
one day.” It took us ten years to find the money for this film.
iW: When you first started making films, why did you start with documentaries?
Fridriksson: I thought it would be best for me because I never went to a
film school and I have this theory that if you can’t catch an atmosphere
in a documentary, then you can’t create a scene in a feature. I learned
a lot from making documentary film.
iW: What was the transition into fiction like? Was it difficult?
Fridriksson: No. Most of my films have some kind of a true story element
— it didn’t change so much for me.
iW: How about working with actors?
Fridriksson: It’s been quite easy.
iW: Tell me a little bit about Camp Thule, where the film is based. Does everyone in Iceland know about it?
Fridriksson: There were camps all over Reykjavik because there were
something like 120 thousand soldiers occupying Iceland during the second
World War. When I was growing up most of the barracks were wiped out
because the governments thought the barracks were a sample of the
occupation and because we were a new nation that had just got it’s
iW: Are there anymore camps left?
Fridriksson: No. I had to build it. There was nothing I could use.
There is one left but outside of Reykjavik so it didn’t work for the
story I was going to tell.
iW: The barracks were pretty nice on the inside.
Fridriksson: Yes, but they were ice cold in the winter. We heard a lot
of horror stories.
iW: There were a lot of underlying references to American influence in
Iceland. Tell me about that?
Fridriksson: Well, it happened all over the world. If it was Japanese
people it would be the same situation. All over the world people know
about it. But I think the Americans, so far they are very surprised to
see this film. They don’t know how much cultural influence came from
them, because they never paid attention. When I speak at Q&A’s I’ve met
many who are very surprised. American people are not aware of how
powerful this American culture is. But probably in Iceland, because we
have a really strong culture, it didn’t really harm us like with
others. I think it is opposite because if you are hating something that
is harmful to your culture, you start to fight for you own culture.
It’s like if you meet a Czechoslovakian filmmaker:, when their culture
was threatened by Russian culture, then they always wanted to speak out
and tell all kinds of great stories, make great films, but after they
were allowed to say what they really wanted to say, then the films are
not so important.
iW: When watching your film it seemed that the havoc that Baddi reeked on his family was reminiscent of the havoc reeked on Iceland by the American military?
Fridriksson: I’m not for this politics, but people are reading all kinds
of stories out of my films and that’s okay with me. I’m just trying to
create a feeling among the audience but not trying to make any
statements. . . then I would consider myself a propaganda filmmaker.
iW: What makes this film universal and not characteristic to Iceland?
Fridriksson: I think everybody can understand these people because they
can identify with them and feel sorry for them. Also, it’s kind of a
gallery of characters. I was trying to build this up as a mosaic
picture. Small things that make a whole picture.
iW: I read that Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers” was one of your
influences for this film.
Fridriksson: It was the only film I showed to my DP. I was explaining
what kind of atmosphere I wanted to have in the film but I was not
trying to use anything from that film. I think this film could also
have been shot in black and white, it could of worked very well. I’m
fond of the old fashioned filmmakers that have this old way of telling a
story, like John Ford or Nicholas Ray because they are so close to the
Icelandic saga, the old literature.
iW: Tell me about the film community in Iceland?
Fridriksson: It’s better now, because the government has decided to give
back 12% of money spent in Iceland, so that is similar to what they have
in Ireland to attract people to shoot there. I think many companies will
come to Iceland in the future to shoot there. We have all kinds of
locations, it’s perfect…landscapes for a Western. Also the government
has made a deal with the local film community now, we only have one
million dollars to give out to all the films but it’s slowly going up to
five million dollars; we’re raising money slowly to the year 2001. I
think that will mean that instead of supporting the films with 20% of
the budget it will be close to 40% of the budget and that’s very good
for me because I’m producing seven films this year. So in the future —
because of this 12% thing — you will see more English speaking films
coming from Iceland.
iW: Are you excited about the American release of this film?
Fridriksson: We will be happy if it does similar things that “Cold
Fever” did, but the fact that this is a subtitled film. . . . Still I am
very optimistic. So far I’ve had a warm reception from the audience.