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Springboard: How ‘Sparrows’ Filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson Used His Festival Experiences to Make a Winning Feature

Springboard: How 'Sparrows' Filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson Used His Festival Experiences to Make a Winning Feature

READ MORE: ‘Rams’ and ‘Missing People’ Win Top Honors at 23rd Hamptons International Film Festival

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

Even though “Sparrows” is only the
second feature from Icelandic writer-director Rúnar Rúnarsson, it is the
continuation of an incredible run of work, including the shorts “The Last Farm,” which received an Academy Award nomination, as well as the short “2 Birds,” which premiered in the Cannes Film Festival short competition. All in all, Rúnarsson has collected over 100 international prizes, including the award
for the Best Picture at the San Sebastian Film Festival and recent wins at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival (including Best Screenplay and the jury prize for Best Fiction). 

But Rúnarsson’s beginnings were far
from glamorous. His first short was a collaboration with Grímur Hákonarson (winner
of this year’s Un Certain Regard for “Rams”) that the pair made when they were
16 years old when their high school closed down because of a teacher’s strike.
The short, entitled “Toilet Culture,” consisted of a single camera set-up,
straight up from a toilet bowl. “Toilet Culture” ended up getting
selected for the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival. The two aspiring filmmakers got
an acceptance letter in the mail, which also asked for their preferences
regarding flights, hotels and dinners. Of course they selected only the best on
offer, only to be surprised by the invoice they got in the mail ten days later.
But with support from both the Icelandic Film Centre and the festival itself
(both of which found the whole thing hilarious) the pair was able to travel to
Bergen, sleeping on the festival director’s couch.

Since then, Rúnarsson has made
shorts, documentaries, the feature “Volcano” and now “Sparrows,” which follows
Ari, a young man who is forced to live with his alcoholic father in a small
fishing village when his mother decides to move from Iceland. There he meets
his childhood crush and makes some new friends, but the town’s oppressive
atmosphere, along with the rampant alcoholism, makes it clear that this
coming-of-age story will have to address some dark truths.

“Sparrows” is sure to travel from
festival to festival for the next year or so, as Rúnarsson is an extremely
routined festival filmmaker. Hear more about his experiences on the festival
circuit and his working methods below:  

After winning
an award for my first short, “Toilet Culture,” we decided to make an ambitious sci-fi short with latex masked aliens.
It took us years to finish and no one was interested in seeing it once
we were finished, least of us ourselves. It was great to have gone through that
kind of victory which bloated my ego only to crap out afterwards, when I was
just 16.  

I dropped out
of high school to work on film productions.
I started off in the lighting department and later moved to the
continuity department. Being a “continuity girl” is one of the best experiences
you can have on set. You see everything the director is doing, you have to
carefully monitor the lighting and work alongside all the set’s key functions.
You get the chance to learn from the smart things they do, and learn to avoid
their mistakes. 

I first applied
to the National Film School of Denmark in 2003, and got extremely frustrated
when I didn’t get admittance.
But in the end I think it did me good, since I was able to practice my
writing, develop my workflow and find out how I function as a writer.

I’m almost
always working, but I had to get over getting a guilty conscience over the fact
that I don’t sit down and put something down on paper daily.
I’m always thinking and developing my
ideas. I take notes and think. Once I sit down, I work quickly and deliver a very
detailed first draft. It takes an insane amount of preparation even if it might
look like I’m not doing much of anything. I admire people who can write from
nine to five and then drop it, but it’s just not how I function.

“The Last Farm” came about during that period. The Icelandic Film Centre had just established a
fund for shorts and documentaries, and we were one of the first projects
funded.
It ended up being the short that
got me into the school. We premiered in 2004 at the Edinburgh Film Festival and
I ended up being able to travel with the film from festival to festival for a
year before starting school, collecting over 20 international awards.

It was a great experience to travel with the film. I got to know both other filmmakers and festival
programmers, which really expanded my network. I met some of the programmers or
artistic directors when they were programming the shorts sections, sometimes in
a small festival.

People don’t
always realize that your first steps as a filmmaker might coincide with the
first steps for a programmer who has their sights on bigger festivals.
You might not have expectations going to
a small festival in a strange country, but it was often in those places where I
developed a relationship or friendship that’s paying off today.

We were lucky
enough to get an Oscar nomination for “The Last Farm.” I ended up getting calls
from agents in Hollywood.
A lot of
people were telling me to drop out of school and use this currency to fund a
feature. But I wasn’t ready, and felt that I had overachieved quite a bit. I
had made a number of no-budget films before that, but this was the first time I
was working with a real budget, and I felt that I had perhaps gotten too far. 

I was lucky to
find great people at film school. Both my cinematographer and editor have been
with me since school.
We were able
to collaborate on films that were not a part of the program, like my next short, “2
Birds.” I shot it during the summer holidays and then spent my nights and
weekends editing. It got into the Short Competition at the Cannes Film
Festival, and ended up getting a great festival run, ending up with something
around seventy international awards.

My final
project for the Film School of Denmark, “Anna,” ended up being about 37
minutes, which a terrible running time from a market perspective, but it was an
important step for me to work within that time span.
It was more challenging to jump from 15
minutes to 30 minutes than to jump up to a feature.

After those
three films, I was suddenly standing there with over 100 awards at international
festivals.
That wasn’t
just positive for me, but also my editor and cinematographer. They also
traveled with these films and left film school with job offers.

Even if we did
insanely well with our shorts, there’s always a wall in place when you’re
planning your first feature.
The system can’t help but to think, “You’ve only done shorts, you don’t
know what you’re doing.” But luckily I was coming out of the film school in
Denmark, which is a country that really takes care of its young talent.

For my first
feature, “Volcano,” we got money from a program called New Danish Screen, which
is intended for young filmmakers
. It’s meant for smaller budget films, but we were in a sense lucky to
be able to shoot in Iceland that was, at the time, basically bankrupt. That made
the Danish low budget quite a high budget within Iceland, almost tripling our
budget.

I was well
prepared after having had extensive festival experience with my shorts.
At that time I had figured out most of
the written and unwritten rules of the festival world — premiering at this
festival excludes you from that one — and so on. But of course you can’t ever
know anything.

There’s one
real truth I feel like no one ever tells you: You have to learn who you are.
The same applies to filmmakers who want to
make dramas, comedies or action movies. To get the system and the financiers to
want to work with you, you have to know who you are and what you want to express.
If you want them to take a risk on your work you have to be able to express
what makes your vision different. That’s when you stick out. If people see that
you’re work is honest they’re also more forgiving towards its flaws. 

The interview
has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

READ MORE: Is an Icelandic Film a Good Investment?

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