Iceland's shortlisted Oscar entry "The Deep" (spring 2013) is based on the true story of the sole survivor of a downed fishing boat. Baltasar Kormakur is a member of a growing band of truly international filmmakers who make films at home as well as Hollywood. Producer-star Mark Wahlberg starred in "Contraband," Kormakur's remake of his own "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," took a shine to the rugged Iceland actor-director, and went on to make another film with him, the upcoming $80-million actioner "Two Guns," co-starring Denzel Washington. Wahlberg is also producing an HBO pilot with him, "The Missionary."
In a year that brought us "Life of Pi" and "The Impossible," it's striking that Kormakur opted to shoot his survival tale on real water. He and his cameraman bobbed in the Atlantic waves off Iceland in order to make believable the plight of his lonely swimmer, talking to birds and himself for hours on the dark open sea. Kormakur couldn't find anything that mimicked the actual character of the waves and the undertow. He says that Icelanders, especially, would have picked out green-screen tanks and CG water in an instant. He shot for two months in summer, but with winter exteriors, editing and post production, the film took two years to complete.
In our conversation below, along with ex-Universal co-chairman and executive producer David Linde of Lava Bear Films, Kormakur tells how he did his own stunts and literally went down with the ship.
Before the Icelandic premiere, the filmmaker screened "The Deep" for the relatives of the fishermen who died in the boat – only his protagonist survived. He was relieved and gratified when the surviving family members said that the movie was cathartic and gave them closure. The story is well-known in Iceland, where the film became a huge hit.
In the works: Kormakur has optioned Haldor Laxness' Nobel prize-winning book "Independent People," which is beloved by Icelanders. He's based at Universal for the moment, and is developing an authentic Viking seafaring adventure.
Anne Thompson: Balthasar, you started as an actor in the theater and then you got into films. How many feature films have you made in Iceland?
Balthasar Kormakur: This is my fifth Icelandic film in the Icelandic language.
AT: Was “Contraband” your first English-language film?
BK: “Contraband” was my first studio film; I had done two smaller English-language films, one in Iceland called “A Little Trip to Heaven” and another independent film called “Inhale.”
AT: This is based on a true story set in 1984. Were you a teenager when this happened?
BK: Yes, I was 18 years-old and it had a great impact on me. First of all, there are shipwrecks every year in my country. The history of Iceland is filled with terrible accidents and people losing men to sea. And we've never been able to tackle this on a film. First of all, it's really hard to make a film where everyone drowns. Well, they did in "Titanic," but then you have to make up a love story and there aren't many love stories on Icelandic finishing boats. [Laughs]
So that's not going to get anyone into the cinema. But this [survival] is almost like a miracle, and gave people hope. But at the same time that it is a miracle that someone survives an accident, they can tell you what were the conditions, so it reflects on how dangerous this job is.
I also want to take this a little bit back, because my country in 2008, collapsed. All three banks in Iceland went bankrupt, so it was a shipwreck for the whole nation. It went sideways. After that, it was like how can I deal with that on film? I did not want to go and make a film about a greedy banker who goes bankrupt. I wasn't interested; I wanted to tell a story that would be a metaphor of the nation and also try to connect something that I thought we had lost. We had lost our own identity, our image of ourselves. It started with megalomania, everyone thought they were financial geniuses and bought themselves a private jet and then after the downfall it was minority complex: then we thought the crisis of the world was Iceland's fault.
AT: The doc "Inside Job" started with the fall of Iceland, the most dramatic fall of any of the countries.
BK: Then starting, mirroring yourself in people's opinion of you, and thinking what does the world think of us? We have a terrible image out there now and I thought it was wrong, you can't do that in that circumstances. In a state of shock, when you lose everything, you actually have to look at who you are and yourself and find it out and not be worried about whatever people think of you. By telling a story that is so fundamentally Icelandic about something so basic and a hero that doesn't want to be a hero maybe it brings us back a little self-esteem.
AT: You've worked with your star Ólafur Darri Ólafssonon on several films.
BK: I've worked with him on several films and also in theater; he's a fantastic theater actor. He's big. He has a big voice. He's like Gerard Depardieu in Iceland now. People actually are starting to see beyond his physical appearance and he can play a lot.
AT: The movie was a big hit in Iceland yeah?
BK: Yes, it was a very risky project, telling people that you're going to make a film about a man swimming in the ocean for six hours are not necessarily going to get the teenagers running to the cinema. But is the box office hit of the country. It's going to be in the top five if not the top of this year. That tells me that they want to see something that they can relate to.
AT: You actually did something they did not do in “Life of Pi,” “Titanic,” or “The Impossible” – you filmed these people and yourself in this incredibly cold water. How could you do this?
BK: Because the other way was impossible, let's put it that way, because I don't have hundreds of millions of dollars to put visual effects. Anyone who's worked in that field knows that the hardest achievement is to create water. It’s one of the most difficult things to create. And I have $3 million and that is a high budget in my country.
So another part of it is 80% of my country lives by the sea, watches the North Atlantic every day. And, with all due respect, “Titanic” looks like it's sinking in a pond. It is the truth; the sea is not moving. And there are limitations of course, I could not have shot that movie in the North Atlantic ocean, I'm not saying that. But I wanted to be as authentic and real as possible, so we just swam for a month.
AT: So how did you do it? You created a camera rig?
BK: What did was I had no idea what I was doing, basically. [Laughs] And there is a reason why people don't do this, why they do this in a tank. So I decided to put the actor in as much waves and ocean as possible and got a rig a working platform, but it was almost impossible to keep him in the frame. He was bobbing in and out and he was swimming and then he was too close or too far or gone by and I need to have him have the monologue with the bird and all that and after trying this for a while, I thought we are going to have to figure this out. So I asked for a rope and tied it around the leg of actor and got a big monitor on a rig and I just jumped into the ocean and backstroke and held him in frame, watching him on the monitor trying to keep in the frame and he just kept on swimming and we had this wonderful human dolly.
AT: So you did it in the summer then.
BK: Yeah, we had to shoot it in summer, but the ocean looks pretty much the same, it's pretty cold in the summer always it's around 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. I don't know how to translate that but it's probably colder than any water gets around here.
AT: So you had a wetsuit on, but he had to look…
BK: We managed to put something on under his costume in some of the scenes of course, because he wouldn't be able to do this no way but we had to cut it open so he could see it. It's a tricky thing because you're basically shooting a film that's supposed to be extremely cold but it doesn't get cold so how are you going to show cold, also it's very important that all the scenes on the island were very cold, we had to do them in the winter, atmosphere in the island that would give us the stormy feeling because the ocean is pretty much the same in winter as in summer.
AT: So you're also arguing that your folks in Iceland would have recognized CG, they would have recognized that it wasn't real?
BK: Yes, and waves in most of those if you do them digitally, because the waves you can make in a tank, like in your bathtub but it's not the undercurrent or the feeling of the ocean. The ocean has a powerful nature, it has incredible power. When we actually bought a ship that we could sink, a 90-foot boat, the one that went down… And I was in the boat because we don't have any stunt people in Iceland. [laughs] And I went down with the boat and I realized my limitations as a stunt man. When the water came in the power of this is immense, but I also loved this because I felt that the experience a little bit of what this man went through and I understood how impossible this situation was, even trying to climb on top of the keel it's almost impossible, you can't really get on the keel.
AT: There are also some scenes where he is swimming against the rocks that are rather horrible to watch that looked dangerous…
BK: Yes it was, that's another thing, you just had to do it. I had this rule I give myself and it's not to ask my actor to do anything I wouldn't do myself, so I went through it and swam up to the cliff first and checked it out a bit and then got back to land and said: "Okay, it's safe, bring the actor!"
AK: How did the actor handle this? This must have been very frightening and trying and taxing for him?
BK: Well it was made clear to him from the beginninghe was going to do this or I was going to get someone else. There was no negotiation, this was the way we were going to do it and he would do it or not and he was up for it. Of course, after three days in the cliff and the waves thrown against him, he was about to give up. He had this moment where he was basically broken down and said, ‘I can't do it more.’ And you know directors, there is nothing more sacred to them than getting their sequence [laughter]. I said, ‘Please, I need that final run of it,’ and he went in, got his tears off, and went in but I realized also at that point that he was my responsibility, he was asked to do something he didn't want to do. But fortunately, it was okay. He's good. Yeah he got a little scratch on his knees but that's basically it.
AT: David, how did you find out about this filmmaker and this film?
David Linde: I was fishing in Iceland, on a trip for the first time. I have several close friends from Iceland, and I am close friends with Balthazar's agent who was there and he introduced me to Balthazar and said would you like to be involved and I said 'yes.' I had seen his first movie, but first I had to go back and see all his movies quickly and read the script. I always get involved with things that are very personal as this was.
AT: Is it true that you pick one foreign language film a year to champion, such as Zhang Yimou’s "Flowers of War?"
DL: I went back to independent production three years ago after my work with Universal Studios for about three years. After leaving, I deduced that I wanted to keep my contact with international production. I was involved with "Biutiful" three years ago as the executive producer and then I produced Zhang Yimou’s film last year.
AT: Baltasar seems to be an example of a certain growing trend where we have a lot of foreign filmmakers coming into this country. Almost like the world is flat; a kind of global intercourse now between countries and more movement because of the way that films are financed overseas.
DL: Even if you look at the movies that are coming out through the end of this year in America and you look a lot of what are perceive as big Hollywood movies, quite a few of them are directed by non-Americans. It was important for Baltasar to be authentic but also for the audience, who wouldn't have gone to see the movie if they believed it was shot in a tank.
People who are going to see the movie in movie theaters are demanding more ever more authenticity. They demand their stories be cinematic and that stories be authentic because there are so many more alternative ways of consuming entertainment or going out to dinner or doing anything.
It’s both in terms of what we want to see in movies theaters and what our expectations are, and the lives that we lead. You have a lot of people approaching film and filmed entertainment from a different perspective where they are taking a look at a story whether it's "Contraband" or Baltasar’s next movie, and they are bringing something to it that we don't see as Americans. We see something a little bit different because their own life experience and their own artistic experience differs from outs and intrinsically. Filmgoers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, believe it or not, despite the fact that they see tons of tent-pole movies, and they demand that increase in sophistication because they are spending a lot of money for it.
AT: What's your take on this whole idea that maybe it's the boomer generation of adults that is driving the box office, and you can't count on the young kids to be the main demo for movies, that studios are actually chasing this other demo now?
DL : I think that's a good thing. In this country, the studios would argue they are chasing people around the world. And the reality is people from overseas, trust me, with a few exceptions, don't want Americans to tell them what to think or to see, right? And they can smell it a mile away. And the studios have recognized that adults really, really enjoy movies and given the opportunity to see stories that reflect experiences they are interested in, will in fact go. Whereas kids these days are a little bit harder to predict.
BK: But what is wonderful about this place, here they make films for the world, therefore it is good to have a couple of people from different places working here because the films go all over the world and a lot of revenue is made from abroad, sometimes more than domestic. That's a healthy mix that the world talent hopefully comes together and you're able to go from there.
DL: This town was built on filmmakers from abroad, right? Because it was a small town and cinema was bigger in places like London and Berlin than it was in Hollywood, especially in the 20s and 30s, whether it's Billy Wilder or whatever director you want to choose from Europe, there was this period of time where Hollywood exploded on the world stage on the backs of largely European filmmakers for a very good reason, which was the sophistication and the entertainment value of the film world and the height of that was really based overseas. It feels a little bit like that's switching now and it's difficult to imagine Baltasar's movie being made here. I love movies that have their heart in an authentic place.
AT: One of the advantages that a foreign filmmaker has is that they can make movies in their own country with a lot more leeway and they can also come here and work on a global stage. And you're doing this. You've just done "Two Guns" – is this a $90-million movie?
BK: Well, it depends how you look at it… it's $55 million net, I’m not seeing all that money anyways, it’s probably $80 plus.
AT: Tell me what your relationship is with Mark Wahlberg and how you came to be partnered with him?
BK: I produced and played the lead in a movie called "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" a few years back and I have been acting for a while then because I had just been directing writing and producing, but I decided to send to my agents at William Morris Endeavor and Ari Emanuel is the head of that and he saw the movie for some reason, things work in mysterious ways over there, and he wanted it for Wahlberg and he put us to together and we had a fantastic experience and now I'm doing another film, "Two Guns," with him and Denzel. And I’m also doing a pilot for HBO that he is producing.
AT: "The Missionary."
BK: And Wahlberg is that kind of a guy, sometimes I don't think people really realize what a producer he is and how clever he is. Yes, he has succeeded in a lot of fields, he was a famous musician, and then he was a famous model, then he was a famous actor and now he is a businessman and a producer, so he's clever. And also very loyal, people do well for him and he does well for them. For example he hosted a party for this movie. And it's valuable in this town to have the support of someone like him.
AT: So you're working on a Viking project too.
BK: Yes I am, I want to film the Viking world in an authentic way, as much as possible but I want to do it on a Hollywood budget, because it's very hard to capture our world like that and create our world like that without a real budget. I think the first white western-born child in American is Iceland, Lief Erikson, he had a child in America.
AT: That would seem to me like something that Hollywood would want to do. It seems commercial to me.
DL: Vikings sell…it's intrinsically a very entertaining story.
AT: They're expensive. Where are you with that?
BK: I have a script and David has actually read it and a couple companies have been brought in so, it's actually gained a lot of interest here.
AT: Would you do it with an English-language cast?
BK: Well the lead actor is Irish, he's a slave that is brought to Iceland so we could do it in Gallic, but the thing is, it's a very interesting dialogue. Because yes, Mel Gibson has done this with languages that are dead, but then again it's really hard to call him on it. But if you do it with Icelandic, what Icelandic are you going to use? The Icelandic from before anyone knows how it was, that's the problem is we don't know how the language was. The stories of the Vikings were written in 1300, the oldest literature available but the stories happened in 900, 1000 and the language has probably changed immensely. And if we did it like that in Iceland, no one would come. People can't stand it when we do old Icelandic.
AT: You might as well do it in English.
BK: "Gladiator," which was a great film in many ways, was an Australian playing a Spaniard.
AT: There is kind of a universal language now, where European English goes for anything.
BK: What I really want to do is show the world what that language is for me… Often, I'll fight with my fellow Icelanders because I think that language should be allowed to develop like it developed from whatever it was to what it is now. People sometimes want to hold back and I understand that, but language is the basis for communication. I just want to communicate the story and it's more important for me to get it to people than it's in Icelandic. The world has to be authentic to me, that is more important.
DL: You also have to keep in account that it was an incredible culture at the time, that these Vikings were heading out in every direction from this little tiny country, they were going to Norway, they were going to America, they were going to England and Ireland, and Russia and everywhere else. So what language are you doing to do it in? You don't really have a choice.
BK: Speaking of Russia, I was in the Kremlin, they invited me for one of my films, they took me to one of their sacred places. There were old, old paintings of Vikings in Russia. So what really made the Vikings so powerful and mean as well their harsh habits, they were incredible with their ships, they could attack inland, they could sail up rivers they were faster than any other boats. Just knowing that, because I’ve studied those boats, tells us that the culture was actually much higher than they have been shown. And nobody had two horns on their helmet! Wagner came up with that and made us look like idiots, how are you going to run around with two horns? That's not going to help with any battle [laughs].
AT: When I went to Russia last summer and I brought up 'Dr. Zhivago,' they laughed, they think it's the worst movie ever made, totally inauthentic.
Audience question:: The main guy [ie the film this movie was based on], did he suffer any physical injuries while in the water?
BK: The real guy… that was never clear because he didn't want to participate in more tests. He doesn't have any children but he's been married for a long time with stepchildren. I think mentally, he never got over it, to be honest. And I think his survivor guilt has always stayed with him and he has a very hard time dealing with that.
Audience question: Does he have all his fingers, all his toes?
BK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He says that the worst part of it was walking over lava, that cut up his feet so badly. That's probably the reason he could only stay one and a half hour in the tank, which is also based in reality… this is almost inhumane as well because his legs were hurting so much. But he went back to sea and he's been working ever since.
Audience question: Did he marry the girl he was thinking about in the window?
BK: The private lives are more fictionalized than the facts of the story. It was something I wanted to have in the story, but it wasn't about that in the end. It wasn't. I had an option of having them coming together but that was a little bit bourgeois in a way that it was about getting the girl and wrapping it up, so I didn't want to do that. There's always a girl in the window though.
Audience member: You mentioned after a lot of shipwrecks in Iceland and the water is always cold, I saw, to explain about the lifeboat, I think I may have seen a life-raft later in the movie, but I don't think I saw any lifejackets on board and if they were, they seemed to be inaccessible.
BK: Well at this time, the reason why Richard accepted to participate in those tests, he wanted to improve the life of these guys. They said if they had changed the boats, they already had boats that were open automatically, you know, they didn't want to pay for it, they didn't have it, it would have saved some lives in this case. But the boat was rusted, it was stuck and so they tried to go down an opening and they couldn't it had never been used, they couldn't even look at it, you know.
That's why I use the scene with the new guy on the boat, but I didn't want to discuss it as a documentary about what they didn't have, but there were also other things. Every twelve hours, they had to announce themselves where they were. What's the point of that, if you can't live for five minutes in the ocean?
So now it's automatic, so if the signal misses, a helicopter goes out. You still lose people to the ocean. Just last year, there was a big shipwreck. But in the story the guy on duty was asleep, but nobody really knows this and this wasn't really the point of blaming one person. These are stories. You can go and make it other generalization, but it's not about that it wasn't, about who's fault was it that the boat went down. It's always somebody's fault, it has been through the ages.
AT: But there has always been this fascination with what would you do if you were in that situation? That's one of the great, enduring attraction of these survival stories. Did you look at other survival stories or were you inspired by other stories, like "Touching the Void," which for whatever reason really hit me hard.
BK: Yes that was a great film. I watched many of them, "127 Hours," you know a lot of these stories. What interests me a lot about this film was first of all the whole idea that he was talking to a bird. He wasn't trying to… That might be one of the main reasons.
AT: … That he survived.
BK: That he kept this sanity. Hypothermia is… You know what happens on Everest? People start taking off their clothes, because the brain is telling you it's too warm, because actually it's freezing. And that's why it loses so quickly. The body can take more than the brain. I studied everything I could get my hands on.
AT: Did you see "Life of Pi"?
BK: Yes I saw it. I think it's a wonderful film. But that's an adventure. And therefore the CGI was perfect for that film. I was like "Wow. Dammit. He's good.” But that's an adventure. That's what I think Hollywood is so good at, is making adventures. And I love especially the magic realism of that, but that's a very different, this is not about magic realism, this is about real life shipwreck. And I would be laughed out of my country if I tried to have waves all around him and fish flying and all of that.
Audience question: According to the film, it confounded the doctors despite his physical size how he could have swam that distance. You show what I would call sensory imagining of the main character. He is thinking about his younger family. I'm wondering, because the mind is a very powerful thing. We know that in accidents the adrenaline rush, a parent will lift a car to save a child. I'm wondering, his thoughts and the sensory imagining, do you think that might have helped him survive the cold?
BK: Absolutely. I read from an interview that he was thinking about some ten, twenty dollars that he owed somebody that his mother would have to pay for and he was making of fun of it after, like that's ridiculous, whatever it was. It wasn't necessarily the big, all about going through this life. But he did say this, that he went through this volcano, the memory, this obviously happened when he was eleven years old and everyone had to evacuate the island. And what I love about that part is that, it's the only time volcanoes actually have taken a village down, usually it happened in the highlands and we are not affected by them, but this time it took half of the village out by lava and the rest was under ash. That is the lava that he has to walk bare-footed over like Jesus Christ when he comes back to the island. And I love that the island has done everything to throw the people off it and they're still on it. They will not give up, they are as hard built as the island itself.