“Open to the Unexpected”: Dagur Kári & Tómas Lemarquis Talk About “Nói”
by Andrea Meyer
“Nói” (formerly “Nói Albinói”) is the kind of quirky entertainment you expect to come from Iceland. The first feature from 30-year-old Dagur Kári follows the foibles of a bored troublemaker who dreams of escaping from the icy small town he calls home. Combining off-beat, dry humor with a splash of the supernatural, the film makes the viewer wonder if we’re in the realm of Iceland as it really is today — and then come to the conclusion: Probably not.
Kári is an extremely soft-spoken 30-year-old with a bearded baby face and strong convictions. His 26-year-old star, Tómas Lemarquis, looks exactly like he does in the film: pale, bald, and striking. It’s hard to distinguish him from the character, until he mentions that he lives in Paris and is also pursuing a career in the visual arts there. Lemarquis doesn’t speak much, suggesting that he might be as taciturn as the idiosyncratic high school boy he plays. Or maybe he’s a bit fuzzy this morning, since he stayed out until 6 in the morning following the film’s New York premiere the night before.
Andrea Meyer speaks with writer/director, Kári, and actor, Lemarquis, about the Scandinavian movie boom, going with the flow, and finding inspiration in “The Simpsons.” Palm Pictures opens the film tomorrow.
indieWIRE: What was the original spark that led to the film?
Dagur Kári: I invented the character of Nói when I was about 17, not knowing what to do with it exactly. I just collected material through the years. For awhile I thought I’d do a comic book, but then I decided to go to film school, and by the time I finished film school, I realized that I had enough material on this character to make a feature film. And since I really wanted to make my first film in Iceland and I wanted to get this character off my chest, I made the film.
iW: Is Nói a genius or just a bored kid?
Kári: I think most importantly he’s totally different from everybody, and that originates from the time he was a comic book figure. He always had a very graphic appearance for me. He has some special intelligence that isn’t appreciated.
iW: There are a lot of literary figures like that. Were you inspired by any of them?
Kári: Sure, I find it interesting to work from a cliché and try to make it different and interesting and original, so that was sort of an undercurrent, this “rebel without a cause” feeling, but I tried to make it fresh, which was challenging.
iW: Was he always an albino?
Kári: It’s more a metaphor of someone who stands out from everyone else, like a white raven.
iW: When did Tómas get involved?
Kári: A few years back there was an Icelandic film made of five episodes by five new directors, and Tomas was in another episode, not mine. That was the first time I saw him acting and he was really good. I was relieved, because I was very concerned that I could not find an actor. For me, he was the only one in Iceland that could do it.
iW: What was it like working together?
Lemarquis: Terrible, horrible! [They laugh]
iW: Did the character evolve as Tómas played him?
Kári: I think so. We incorporated a bit of Tómas’ personality, because he’s always making things and he lived in a similar place as the hole underground, and Tómas made some of the props and decorated his own room in the film.
iW: Is the script autobiographical?
Kári: It’s as autobiographical as “Indiana Jones” or something. It’s completely fictional.
iW: Do you think there’s a particularly Icelandic form of filmmaking?
Kári: No, not at all. Iceland is such a small country and we only produce about four or five films a year and there are such different personalities that I don’t think there will ever be a wave. That’s what’s nice about Icelandic film. It’s so young and there’s no history, no tradition to lean up against. Everything is still being done for the first time. There’s a lot of raw energy to it. I don’t think that any Icelandic filmmaker feels like he belongs to Icelandic filmmaking, because nobody really knows what it is.
iW: Do you consider yourself a comic filmmaker?
Kári: I think so. I always start with the humor. I find it interesting to try to marry it to tragedy. It’s interesting if the same film can be humorous and tragic. The films I enjoy watching are totally silly comedies like “Dumb and Dumber” and then very arty films, so I thought it would be interesting to combine them.
Lemarquis: But it was never like, “Okay, ‘Now we’re going to be funny so act funny. Here’s a big joke.'” The situation was funny, but the acting was quite serious.
Kári: Usually the script is much more funny than the film turns out to be, in my case. The script is almost like a comic book but when you start making it, for some reason the film gets very serious.
Lemarquis: But then there are things that turn out to be funny that you didn’t expect.
Kári: That’s what filmmaking is, a sort of uncontrolled process. I think it’s very important to be open to the unexpected and at the same time, of course, maintain your vision, be open to the all the things you didn’t think of yourself that can make the film better.
Lemarquis: The process was very creative when we were shooting. Dagur wrote the script and was making the film, but on location he was always looking at a place and saying, “Why not shoot this, or this?” He was very attentive to what was happening.
Kári: Also in terms of dialogue, we had a lot more in the script, but we slowly found out that it was not in his character to formulate things, so he ended up being much more silent. In the script you always say so much more than is needed, because images can say so much. The classic example is in a script, it says, “Now he’s walking through the door and stops,” but in the film you just cut to that he’s in the room.
iW: You wrote the music, too.
Kári: I have a band called Slowblow and we wrote everything together. I think it’s extremely difficult to put music in a film. It’s almost always too much. It’s one of the most difficult things to find the right balance. What we tried to do was to make the music warm in contrast with the cold winter in the scenery in the film. The music was inspired by Hawaiian music and hillbilly music. It’s supposed to be a part of the dream world, of this other world that Noi is dreaming.
iW: Was it really cold when you were shooting?
Lemarquis: It was minus twenty degrees. Noi is almost wearing no clothes.
Kári: That’s typical for Iceland that everyone’s underdressed. The first day that the sun’s out, everyone wears shorts and T-shirts. People are not outside so much. They stay inside very hot houses.
Lemarquis: People in Iceland are complete chickens in the cold. You think, “Oh, you must not be cold because you’re from Iceland,” but we’re never in the cold.
iW: Noi is always outside in the cold.
Kári: He is always out in the cold also in relation to other people.
Lemarquis: The weather reflects his character. The fjord makes it so claustrophobic and there’s the danger of the mountain always hanging over the town.
iW: Which brings us to the crazy surprise ending. I found it hopeful and comical.
Kári: Most importantly, the ending is open. It is up to the audience to piece it together. The experiment was to try to make a happy ending and a tragic ending at the same time. It’s interesting when I talk to people. Some people take it as a comedy and some take it as a tragedy, and some people hate the ending, others love it. Some find it hopeful and some are provoked by how hopeless it is. It’s open to interpretation.
iW: You don’t live in Iceland, yet your film feels very Icelandic. It’s all about cold and isolation.
Kári: It was very important for me to make my first film in Iceland to establish that I come from Iceland. Like now I’m doing a film in Denmark, but I don’t want people to think of me as a Danish filmmaker. But it’s not supposed to be a realistic film about Iceland. I have never lived in a small town in Iceland. And these towns are all related to the sea and the fishing industry, but you don’t even see the harbor in the film. So, the intention was to create this isolated universe that only belongs to this film. And what I like about using a small town is there’s only one policeman, one school, one taxi, a little bit like Springfield in “The Simpsons.” It has the same qualities.
iW: Are you a fan?
Kári: I used to be a huge fan. “The Simpsons” taught me a lot about filmmaking. It imitates film, but it’s drawn, so everything is super clear. Often they make fun of a classic film like “2001” or “Citizen Kane,” so you become super aware of what the original film was trying to do. For me it was like film school.
iW: Do you think it’s a good period for Scandinavian film?
Kári: When I moved to Denmark it was the most hopeless filmmaking country in the world and in the course of four or five years it became the trendsetter for all of Europe and a big part of the world with Dogme. And Sweden for many years, they called it the Bergman crisis and now they have Lukas Moodysson. I think the filmmaking industry is blooming in Scandinavia.
iW: Is it difficult to get films funded there?
Kári: It’s always hell to raise the money for a film no matter what. We’re of course extremely privileged because we have the Danish Film Fund, the Icelandic Film Fund. There’s very little private investment. It’s still difficult to get a grant. They have to approve a project. There are lots of people applying.
iW: Tómas, this is only your second film. What do you do besides acting?
Lemarquis: I just finished the school of visual art, so I’m both acting and doing that, not painting but doing some drawings and trying to put them into animation and videos and installations.
iW: What was it like working with Tómas?
Kári: It was really good. Whenever Tómas was not in front of the camera he was always helping the other departments, helping the gaffers and the art department. So, he was always working. To begin with, I was worried that he would lose his concentration, but he explained to me that this was his way of keeping the concentration. I’ve never seen an actor do that, but he definitely was always ready.